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Novo Diveevo: Lest We Forget
 Jan 18, 2009

To say that Novo Diveevo is a Russian point of interest in New York is really to say nothing at all. In the United States, Novo Diveevo holds a status no less important than that of Sainte-Geneviиve-des-Bois in France. It is the oldest Russian Orthodox necropolis in America. A number of Russian families, including members of the Romanov family, are laid to rest here.

It is November in New York. Friends have brought me on a trip to Novo Diveevo, an Orthodox convent located some 40 miles from Manhattan. The road, which runs parallel to the Hudson, is extremely picturesque. Pushkin’s “forests dressed in scarlet and gold” certainly characterize this region as well.

At first glance the convent looks like a pioneer camp in the forest: the footpaths get lost in the foliage, the buildings are modest – as if they are made of panels – although all the amenities are naturally available. There are no high stone walls or great cathedrals that mark the monasteries and convents in Russia. Novo Diveevo is a very informal shrine, and this is something for which it is loved.

We arrived near the end of the Sunday service. The church is already empty, and the parishioners are standing on the street in groups talking. Elderly people over 70, young children, middle-aged people who look like successful managers, and young girls who look like they should be in advertising. There were unusual bits of Russian: young people with accents and the older generation speaking a Russian that no longer exists in Russia.

We squeeze into a small bookstore – are there no beautiful albums, or perhaps monographs? For five dollars, we are given two booklets on the history of the monastery.

After turning the corner, the boundless cemetery begins. The first monument along the way is to General Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Army.

In America, Vlasov was never viewed as simply a traitor. General Denikin spent the last years of his life in the United States, and in 1945, he wrote a letter to General Eisenhower with a request not to extradite members of the Russian Liberation Army, as they would certainly have faced death at the hands of Stalin. The military chaplain Alexander Kiselev, who spent more than 40 years in the United States (1949-1991), closely communicated with Vlasov during the war and was even rumored to be his confessor. (Earlier, in Riga in the 1930s, Father Alexander was the spiritual mentor of young Alexy II.) In Novo Diveevo an obelisk to Vlasov stands, which envoys from Russia have always found shocking.

At the end of the central walkway there is a monument to the Russian cadets. Next to the monument is the grave of Alexei Jordan (1923-2002), father of Boris Jordan, a prominent Russian businessman. Quite unexpectedly, a distant life comes out to meet contemporary Russian realities.

Novo Diveevo is one of the world’s main cadet memorials. Descendants of the first wave of Russian immigrants, to which Alexei Jordan belonged, studied in the cadet corps in the former Yugoslavia in the late 1930s. Although fate later scattered them across different countries, they continued to keep in touch, support one another, organize congresses and publish a magazine. In the 1990s, the Jordans revived the cadet movement in Russia, where today more than 20,000 young people are training as cadets.

Next year, Novo Diveevo will celebrate its 60th anniversary. The fourth generation of Russians living in the United States comes to pay its respects. They come to bow to the holy artifacts, including, for example, the only portrait of St. Seraphim of Sarov painted while he was alive, the miracle-working image of the Vladimir Mother of God from the Optina Hermitage, and a cross from the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. But perhaps the main draw of Novo Diveevo is the monument to the remarkable people who founded the convent.

No farewell to Rus

A Farewell to Rus was how Soviet artist Pavel Korin wanted to name a monumental painting that was to portray the faithful and the clergy, all of whom were alien to the Soviet reality of the 1930s. The picture remains incomplete, partly because Korin himself was a man of faith and “the people of yesterday” in his sketches looked like heroes who had certainly not bid their farewell. Father Adrian and Bishop Roklandsky, founder of Novo Diveevo, were such heroes.

The source to draw upon with respect to the convent and founder is poetry, more precisely, blank verse that was written by Prince Dmitry Myshetsky in 1971. In a touchingly sentimental manner, the poet narrates the trials endured by Father Adrian (1893-1978).

First encountered by Russian readers 20 years ago, Myshetsky’s memoirs unlikely had the intended effect. But today, having had the experience of living under different political systems (the Soviet Union, Russia of the 1990s and today), we can appreciate the persistence with which people adhered to their beliefs despite external circumstances.

... Bishop Roklandsky, whose secular name was Adrian Rymarenko, was born in the Poltava Region. He studied engineering for three years at the Petrograd Polytechnic Institute, but having come under the influence of Dostoevsky’s ideas, he turned to the Church. His confessor was one of the last great elders of the Optina Hermitage, the hieromonch Nekatary. In 1921, Adrian Rymarenko was ordained a priest. He was assigned to a parish in the town of Romni in the Poltava Region.

It was certainly a very conscious choice of “occupation.” The young priest’s sermons “breathed with faith and were full of religious enthusiasm.” Father Adrian was married, and his wife Evgeniya shared his views fully. Together they had two sons.

The “external circumstances” in Russia had to do with the fact that in the second half of the 1920s an unprecedented antireligious bacchanalia unfolded. The church in Romni was closed, and Father Adrian moved to Kiev, although he was not allowed to serve. He resorted to celebrating the liturgy in private homes. “Rotting behind cabinet doors” was how he described his life in the Soviet Union. At one point he was hiding with a family of Protestants. In Kiev arrests were being made and searches were carried out at night. At night, Father Adrian would go outside and stand until morning.

In 1930, he found himself in prison. His congregation prayed day and night, which, according to legend, ended up saving him. Father Adrian was summoned for questioning by an investigator who was known to bring about the death of everyone who came before him. The investigator himself was arrested when it was Father Adrian’s turn.

The situation changed under German occupation. Churches were allowed to open in Kiev, and Father Adrian became the rector of the Pokrovsky convent. In 1945, he and his small congregation fled along with the Nazis. People followed the priest not only because they feared punishment for collaboration but also because they did not want to lose a mentor. Father Adrian’s son, Seraphim, was killed by the bombing in Berlin. In an attempt to flee the Red Army, the Orthodox community moved to Bavaria and surrendered to the Americans. It was a miracle that nobody discovered them. In 1947, they came to America.

“I remember you on the streets of New York,” wrote Dmitry Myshetsky in blank verse. “It was raining and we were thoroughly soaked. We didn’t have a car, and we were walking from one bank to another hoping to get a loan. We were practically laughed at. ‘An interest-free loan for the church?’”

The land in the town of Spring Valley was purchased from the Catholics. An ordinary parishioner with the last name of Maleev donated $15,000 from his own retirement savings to purchase the land. The remaining $15,000 was lent by a local bank. Tremendous effort and time were required to create a convent virtually from scratch. On top of this, a nursing home for elderly Russian emigrants was built.

In 1971, Father Adrian was consecrated as a bishop. In his later years, he was regarded as a significant authority figure. His contemporaries remembered him as “someone with a gift for understanding people.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn even came to visit him. Father Adrian was known not only in Orthodox circles, but in the greater New York community as well, especially after his successful rebuttal of plans by local businessmen to build an airfield on a section of the cemetery. His memory is alive and well at Novo Diveevo today.

Russian gravesites

The cemetery at Novo Diveevo is a forest of crosses made of stone and wood, both monumental and modest in design. The inscriptions on the tombstones form an educational guide, if not an entire novel. “Sister Sofia (Grokhovskaya): 1891-1980. Sister Susanna (Sofia Kutyrina): 1886-1975. Prince Vladimir Eristov-Checherin: 1881-1972. Arkady Chevdar, Officer in the Russian Imperial Army, Military Lawyer, Captain of the Yugoslav Army: 1893-1970. Agnia Mikheeva (maiden name Anisimova – related to Morozov boyars): 1899-1984. Leonid Mikheev, Colonel, Professor, Military Engineer, Pilot: 1883-1962.”

What is obvious here is that virtually all of the Russians who have died on American soil lived well into their eighties. While their lives were not exactly happy, they were undoubtedly considerably longer than they would have been had they remained in Russia.

It is surprising that not a single monograph has been published about the Novo Diveevo necropolis. A book has been written, but its authors cannot seem to find the money for a decent print-run of at least 50,000.

Alexandra Tolstaya, daughter of the great writer and founder of Tolstoy Foundation, Grand Princess Vera Konstantinovna, niece of the last Russian tsar, Alexander Rodzianko, a leader of the White movement, and Elena Vrangel, daughter of Baron Vrangel, are among those buried here. Elena Vrangel spent her final years living here at the convent. The rare visitors from Russia that she agreed to accept always noted the striking resemblance she bore to her father, whose portrait took up half of the wall in her small room.

... Life at Novo Diveevo flows slowly. At one time there were fifty nuns working here, but now there are only ten. Mother Irina, the superior, took her vows in China.

Before we left, we went to the oratory to see the portrait of St. Seraphim of Sarov. It is accessible to everyone. No security or alarms stand in the way. One can get very close and see how the painting has darkened, which creates a very strong impression. On the way back we enter the next room, very spacious, which is probably the refectory. There is a long table and around it – twenty chairs, Viennese, with curved backs and carved in a very old-fashioned manner. They have significant scuffing. Like the people, these chairs have gone through much in life before finding themselves in the middle of the autumn forest, full of silence and calm.

Lyudmila Lunina

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