Orthodox America

  A Moscow Émigré Priest Speaks Out - Fr. Vladimir Shibayev

A brief biography based on an interview published in "Russkaya Misl," April 28, 1988, and on private conversations.

     Born in Moscow in 1948, Fr. Vladimir grew up in a pious, church-going family. When he was 18 the irreverent, unseemly behavior of a priest performing a baptism turned him away from the Church, and for several year s be neither attended church services nor spoke to a priest. In time, as he put it, he learned to "differentiate between a priest and God, and between a church building and the Church." 

     He became a member of a parish on the outskirts of Moscow, and eventually his spiritual father blessed him to apply to the theological seminary at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra in Zagorsk. To his surprise he was accepted. The Moscow Patriarchate did not usually accept students who had completed some other degree (it had better control over less-educated students), and Fr, Vladimir had already graduated from the Leningrad Academy of Arts, with a degree in the theory and history of art. He worked as a restorer, specializing in icons, and helped restore the church of the Sts. Mary and Martha community founded by the New Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth. But at this time both the Soviet government ministry in charge of religious affairs and the Moscow Patriarchate Department of External Affairs began to feel a need for better educated clergymen who would be able to deal with foreigners, and Fr. Vladimir was among several university graduates accepted to the seminary.

     Up until this time Fr. Vladimir's life had centered around his spiritual father' s small, closely-knit parish, and he was not at all prepared for the realities of Soviet church life that he encountered at the seminary. He saw the seminary's administration working directly with the KGB to choose potential candidates for the episcopacy, whose loyalty to the authorities and cooperation with the KGB could be insured. A communist "subbotnik" (day of 'building socialism") was held for the students on Holy and Great Saturday. Fr. Vladimir was a witness to the blasphemy and sacrilege that took place in the Lavra's church while Hollywood, with the assistance of seminarians and monks of the Lavra, was filming scenes for "Peter the Great." Two priests even served as consultants so that the sacraments would be staged "correctly."

      Fr. Vladimir began to understand that "loyalty" was turning to servitude and enslavement, and decided that he, at any rate, would go to a parish as far as possible from Moscow. Distant village parishes, where there is no money, are of little interest to the authorities. He was ordained nine years ago, before completing seminary, and was assigned as a second priest of a parish on the outskirts of Moscow. There, however, he soon drew the attention of the Soviet authorities by attracting too many people, especially among the younger generations. After a talk with the KGB, the rector called Fr. Vladimir over to the altar one day and said, "Hare we are at the altar, and here are three conditions: no more sermons on contemporary issues, no more visits from young people, and thirdly, don't ever, anywhere, mention the New Martyrs, those who suffered after 1917; not a word about them..."

            Fr. Vladimir chose not to obey, and two months later was transferred to a parish 100 kilometers outside Moscow. His bishop, Metropolitan Iuvenal, called him in for a talk and said, "Batiushka, tell your spiritual children not to visit you." "But how can I, Vladika," replied Fr. Vladimir. "They'll come anyway." "Well, then you have disobedient spiritual children if they'll come without your blessing. Be a bit smarter, wiser." Fr. Vladlmir chose to ignore this warning as well, but somehow managed to carry on for two more years. Suddenly, on Holy Week, Metropolitan Juvenal transferred him to a parish still farther away, to Podolsk, as a fifth priest. By the Metropolitan' s actions and conversation it became obvious that he was acting on the instructions of the KGB. Soon after this Fr. Vladimir became gravely ill, and asked to be retired, He subsequently became a priest of the Catacomb Church, and while still in Moscow was accepted under the omophorion of Archbishop Anthony of Geneva.

       In 1984 Fr. Vladimir's apartment was searched twice, because of his involvement with the samizdat religious anthology "Nadezhda", The KGB was gathering evidence to arrest him, but when Gorbachev took office the authorities instead "suggested" that he request permission to emigrate. For two years his matushka's parents refused to grant the necessary permission for their daughter to leave the Soviet Union, and because Fr. Vladimir refused to cease his activities, arrest and imprisonment seemed inevitable. But suddenly, in April of 1987, the authorities announced that the Shibayev family would be allowed to leave without "papers", i.e.. without any invitations or visas from abroad. Matushka Tatiana made a pilgrimage to the St. John of Rila convent in Petersburg, where the relics of St. John of Kronstadt, founder of the convent are believed to still be located. She read an akathist there beside the former monastery building (it is now rather derelict and is used by some institute) and turned to go, when she suddenly saw the word "visa" scratched out on one of the windows. At the same time a feeling of inner peace came to her; all this time she had been torn inside at the thought of leaving, and she took this as a sign of the Saint's assistance. Indeed, in November, on the feast of the icon of the Mother of God "Quick to Hear," Matushka's mother finally gave permission for her to emigrate, and on January 2, the feast of St. John of Kronstadt (n.s.), the Shibayevs received official permission to leave the USSR.

    Fr. Vladimir, Matushka Tatiana and their two sons, Denis and Mitya, arrived in Zurich on January 2l. They applied for and were granted political asylum in France, and Archbishop Antony has as signed Fr. Vladimir to serve at the Lesna Convent, outside Paris. St. John of Kronstadt blessed the founding of this monastery, and the community has always looked to him as their special protector, so Matushka Tatiana's prayers at his tomb were indeed answered: he led the Shibayevs to "his" monastery in the West.

    Besides serving at the monastery, Fr. Vladimir travels often to speak about the persecution of the Church in Russia and about the true state of affairs within the Moscow Patriarchate. On May 2 he spoke at the White House, at the invitation of President Reagan, at a seminar on religion in the Soviet Union held in preparation for talks with Gorbachev. Fr. Vladimir hopes to help those still imprisoned for their faith, as well as the large flock that he had to leave behind. His testimony, that of a priest familiar with both the workings of the Moscow Patriarchate and with the life of the Catacomb Church, is especially valuable in these confusing times of 'glasnost' and 'perestroika'. May God help him to be a confessor of Orthodoxy in the West, as he was in Russia.

A Lesna Nun

In the following excerpts from the interview granted "Russkaya Misl " Fr. Vladimir discusses the contemporary situation of the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union. 

Are there any bishops who make...concessions out of conviction that this is the way to preserve the Church for the future? 

            By compromising they preserve the house of worship in its present state, i.e., the external aspect, the rituals, which are always a consequence of the Church, just as are culture, moral principles, laws. All this is the fruit, the result of the Church. Thus, they preserve the external aspect-everything that shines, glitters and sings, which impresses and, of course, helps; it helps one to pray, to come closer to God. This external side contributes to man's understanding of God, helps us to come to Him, to pray to Him. So, they preserve this external side; but at the same time they destroy what is most important: they actually destroy the truth about God, they destroy Christ and His commandments, i.e., the very essence of the Church.

    I know people who spent some 20 years in imprisonment and who did not ascribe too much importance to these externals, but who preserved Christ within themselves and remained faithful to Him. These are people who are truly with Christ. The cynicism of the Moscow clergy however, is so great that one feels like asking if they believe in God. They frequently behave as if they do not...

    I realize how much Russian people living abroad would like to hear that everything is all right now, that monasteries are being given back to the Church, that everything is coming to life. And I am afraid of causing pain to anyone wishing to hear from me something more joyful and consoling.

    However, we are not left without consolation. There is the Church, there are genuine Orthodox people there. There is the Church "against which the gates of hell shall not prevail." But externally this is hardly visible. Everything that shines and sings is usually under the full control of the Soviet authorities, particularly in central cities with large populations. Every church warden is a protege of the KGB or of a regional executive committee; he is simply a Soviet representative discharging certain functions. The entire country is in need of being catechized anew; there is nowhere for people to obtain knowledge of religion. It is sad that there seems to exist a gulf between believers and their priest, not to mention their bishop. This is just what the authorities were trying to achieve when they introduced, in 1961 (and confirmed in 1971) an organization of the Church where both priests and bishops would be removed from the affairs of the Church and would not participate in parish life, in the life of the diocese.      /.../


Have some changes taken place since Gorbachev came to power?

     I think the changes are tactical and not only regarding the State's attitude to the Church. it is a temporary pause in the terror tactics. Gorbachev needs this pause. However, the most important thing is that all measures which are undertaken, allegedly for the benefit of the Church, are, on the contrary, directed towards tightening the screws.


Would you care to explain this?

     For instance, passports are no longer checked at baptism. However, a birth certificate with the names of parents is still required, and is copied behind the counter. What matters is that all this information is passed on to the Executive Committee's office, as before. If the parents are communists, komsomol members, teachers, or belong to a profession which enables them to influence others, they will be made accountable. If the parents are ordinary people, workers, employees, the Executive Committee will forward the relevant information to their employer who will then try to get rid of them; he does not need them and the troubles they may cause. They are the first ones in line to be sacked; they are not welcome as students either. All this must change.

     When the decision was made to open the Danilov Monastery and to start raising funds we were told: "A spiritual center! The heart of Moscow--a monastery! It's a miracle!" Money began pouring in, bagfuls of money. People went around collecting it. When most of the project was completed, an announcement was made: this is to be the Administrative Center of the Moscow Patriarchate.

     When the time came for the altar in the Danilov Monastery to be consecrated, all of a sudden it turned out that the agreement between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Soviet government contained not a word about celebrating the Divine Liturgy in this monastery. As a result, the CRA forbade the consecration. The Patriarchate began writing petitions; permit us to consecrate the altar. Time was passing. The CRA declared: “We keep receiving heaps of letters: how is it possible that at a time when we have almost completed building communism, a monastery is opened in the heart of Moscow? For this reason we cannot allow you to consecrate the altar; you can go to the functioning church in the Donskoi Monastery, and celebrate your Liturgy there. Here will be your residence and the administrative center; no monastery." Finally, three years ago, on the Sunday of All Saints, the Council permitted a quiet consecration of the altar; but don't make it public, please!

    The Soviet government is, of course, in favor of the restoration of [monasteries]--for tourists. The restoration of those complexes is, however, simply beyond their means. For years they have been dreaming of establishing a "Beryozka" [1] in the former Solovki Monastery [2] and treating foreigners to vodka and expanding the local airport. I know about these plans for Solovki because I worked there as a restorer. The envisaged project is monstrous...


Fr. Vladimir, where do you see any hope? ...True, there is always hope in God. 

    Yes , hope in God . But also in those people who live in God despite everything. There are people who are honest before God. It's impossible to quote numbers or engage in statistics. A lot is hidden, unknown, and specific data are unavailable. But these people do exist; the Church exists, and there are groups of Orthodox believers which escape censorship. They live by their Orthodox faith, by truth. They understand very well just what the Soviet power is, and they assess it correctly. In my opinion, these people are our hope. One hardly sees them, they do not stand out, and one does not hear them very often.


Are there young people among them?

     Yes, there are many young people. It should be said that many of the younger generation, seeing what's going on around them, cannot reconcile themselves with staying in the Moscow Patriarchate. Many become Baptists. They do not join official Baptist communities, but rather the unregistered Baptists and Pentecostals. On the other hand, there is also the Catacomb Russian Orthodox Church.               /. · ./

    In Russia...there are many people who spent 20 or 30 years in concentration camps, who are still alive, and on no account do they agree to compromise. This entire category of people is beyond censorship; they do not submit to Soviet power. There are those who take out a Soviet passport, and those who wouldn't touch it, considering ,it to be "666", the sign of Satan. There are disagreements among them, some arguments, but they are mostly of an internal nature, pertaining to certain loc al characteristics of various communities .... They are being hunted, imprisoned, destroyed, These people reject not only Soviet passports, but often even certificates of release. There are many of them, including young people. It's not easy to make contact with them...


You mentioned that you had many contacts with non-Orthodox believers. Is intercourse of this sort possible in Moscow? 

    Of course, it is possible. When such intercourse is free and sincere, when people do not pursue any private objectives, it is truly amazing and wonderful. It differs from ecumenical contacts propagated by the Moscow Patriarchate on the official level .... I always remember such intercourse with great warmth, whether I was with Baptists, Pentecostals, Uniates or Lithuanian Catholics... We all had the same problem: everything was so difficult and complicated. Everyone's life has been made unbearable by atheism. Difficulties united us, regardless of the form of faith we had chosen .... Of course, some discussions may touch upon certain religious problems, but they are always dealt with in a friendly manner. There are no feelings of animosity, no discord, no arguments. Communication among Christians is always warm. 

On the basis of everything you've told us, one might think that the Soviet government's intentions regarding the Church and the very concept of religion, of faith in God, remain unchanged. 

    Their intention has always been to destroy. Simply to destroy. The methods may change. Acts of terror prevailed earlier; now the Church is being destroyed--all Churches are being destroyed--from within,


Fr. Vladimir, is there any opposition to this destruction of the Church from within?... Does such a movement exist, and is it growing...

    I think that this movement is growing and expanding. After all, this is not a social or an ideological process. At the beginning I personally had not thought of opposing. I did not understand what it was that I should oppose. And then God placed me in certain circumstances to which I had to react as a Christian. The question arises; what could Christ command me to do; what would He do Himself in those circumstances? One thing was clear tome: I must always act as a Christian. This is precisely what determines the mounting activity. I think that it is on the increase, but at the same time attacks upon the Church are increasing too. A Christian believer-whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant-must react to this situation. A Christian is obliged to react. It is my experience that everything begins with this challenge... 

(Translation courtesy of "Orthodox Action" in Australia)

               It should be noted that Fr. Vladimir's assessment of the Moscow Patriarchate represents the conservative end of a spectrum of views held by observers of Soviet State-Church relations. Concerning the Catacomb Church there appears to be even less consensus; some would deny its existence altogether.

[1] A store which sells goods for foreign currency only.

[2] In 1922 the Soviets turned this 16th c. monastery into a concentration camp where many Catacomb bishops perished in the '30's

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