“The Best Time of My Ministry” – On the History of the Pskov Mission (1941-1944)
Aug 5, 2009
The Pskov lands are often called the “western outpost” of Russian Orthodoxy. The neighboring Baltic countries, the majority of whose population professes either Catholicism or Protestantism, for centuries was a “missionary service territory” for the Russian Orthodox Church. And in the last century, during the Great Patriotic War, Pskov residents (according to many historians – not by accident) for a few years became one of the strongholds of Orthodox revival, which had virtually been defeated in the Soviet Union by that time. This revival concerns the Pskov mission that existed from 1941-1944.
In Soviet times, the activities of the Orthodox Mission in the Liberated Regions of Russia (this is the full name) was one of the blind spots in the national historiography. Now researchers have a large amount of factual material, largely thanks to the publication of “prohibited” earlier works by émigré historians and the missionaries’ memoirs.
Assessments of the activity and role of the Pskov mission, as in previous years, greatly differ from depending on the ideological beliefs of the authors. Thus, “Soviet patriots,” like Soviet historians previously, treat the mission’s establishment as one of the policies of the German authorities to establish a “new order” in the occupied territories. In this view, the work of its participants is seen as overt collaboration. On the contrary, in the understanding of anti-Soviet scholars and for many émigré historians, the Pskov mission was one example of an attempt at self-organization in the occupied territories, the establishment of a normal life “with neither the Nazis nor the Communists.” Accordingly, in the opinion of these researchers, the mission’s organization was something that happened “from the bottom up,” i.e., coming from “the people” who were seeking to return to the bosom of the church. They were the ones who supported this, with the German authorities reluctantly agreeing. Of course, speaking of the “unprecedented surge of religious life in the occupied territories,” both secular and church historians, as well as many who have written memoirs, are engaging in wishful thinking. After all, they point out that by the beginning of the mission there was an entire generation of people in the Soviet Union who had never been in a temple. The only priests they saw were from caricatures in the anti-religious propaganda. Completely overcoming the effects of a long atheistic upbringing was something that was obviously not possible.
By the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, “legal” religious life in the Pskov region (and not only) had almost entirely ceased. The last churches were closed in 1940, and there was not a single priest to conduct the liturgies. In 1940, as we know, the three Baltic republics were incorporated into the Soviet Union, which led to an increase in the formal flock of the Russian Orthodox Church. On February 24, 1941 an exarchate (special metropolitan region) was established in the Latvian and Estonian dioceses. Metropolitan Sergiy of Vilnius and Lithuania was confirmed as its exarch.
During the summer of 1941, Exarch Sergiy was arrested by German authorities, although he was soon released. The short-term imprisonment and release of Sergiy was largely the cause of disputes about who had initiated the creation of the Pskov mission. What is important is that the Germans released the exarch from prison on condition that he form a new church under the auspices of the occupying authorities. Thus, in the opinion of individual scholars, the Germans demonstrated their intention to use the church as one of the pillars of the “new order” in the occupied territories. A creation of the mission was one of the first steps of the German administration for the implementation of such plans.
In fact, it was important for the Germans to ensure the loyalty of church hierarchs to the occupying administration and to “Greater Germany,” although they did not particularly interfere in the local life of the church. Individual cases of assistance in rehabilitating and renovating churches or in opening church schools was the private initiative of individual German commanders or officials. With regard to the Pskov mission, according to the participants’ memoirs, the initiator of its creation was Exarch Sergiy, who shortly after the occupation of Pskov by German troops and the surrounding area began to receive requests to send priests there. Sergiy sought permission from the German authorities, which after a very long delay gave its consent. Later Sergiy himself pointed out that the mission was temporary until the restoration of ties with the patriarch in Moscow, which had been suspended with the onset of hostilities. In other words, canonical unity with the Russian Orthodox Church was preserved, something the occupying authorities had to agree with.
Authorization to establish an Orthodox mission in the liberated regions of Russia was received in mid-August 1941 and on August 18, the first fourteen missionaries arrived in Pskov. The governing body of the mission was a directorate led by Father Boris Efimov (August – October 1941), Father Nikolai Kolibersky (October – November 1941) and Father Kirill Zaitsev, formerly the abbot of the Riga Cathedral (December 1941 – February 1944). The directorate was made up of two divisions, one for the development of Christian culture (led by Father Georgiy Benigsen) and one for everyday affairs, headed by Ivan Obodnevyi. The head of the Pskov mission reported directly Exarch Sergiy.
Among the mission’s activists were several graduates of the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris (including priests Vladimir Tolstoukhov and Alexei Ionov), as well as former members of the Russian Student Christian Movement (Father Georgiy Benigsen) and its branch in Latvia – the Russian Orthodox Student Unity, which had been formed in 1928. It was they who held many of the key positions in the mission’s leadership. The representatives from these organizations saw as one of their main tasks the deployment of activities in Russia, and in 1941, they got that opportunity. Alexei Ionov later wrote in his memoirs: “We have moved to our native borders, standing on our own legs, singing Easter hymns. We are filled with joy at everything that met us on our way: the sky, air, the scraggy trees, the yellowed autumn grass.”
With the Pskov mission’s direct participation, archpriests were determined by area. In general, the mission included the Pskov Region, as well as parts of the Novgorod and Kalinin (Tver) Regions. The population covered was nearly 2 million people.
In the words of one of the mission’s participants, the revival of parish life in this territory, which constituted an “empty field in the religious respect,” began a few days before the arrival of the first missionaries in Pskov. On August 14, 1941, in Elina, near the town of Ostrov, a previously closed church was consecrated, after which the first liturgy in several years was held. It was given by Boris Efimov, who had been arrested by the NKVD in Latvia after the beginning of the war and moved to a prison in Ostrov, where he was eventually freed by German soldiers. Three days later, he served the first liturgy at the Trinity Cathedral in Pskov, which up until the war had housed a museum of atheism. In August 1941, a number of holy objects were transferred to the cathedral from the city museum, and the bells were returned to the bell tower.
In the wake of Trinity Cathedral the revival of other churches in Pskov followed, and by December 1943, there were eight churches active in the city. Throughout the territory under the mission’s control, by August 1942 (data up to a later date are not available) there were 221 functioning churches. Many of them were restored using donations from local residents.
There were only 84 priests who served the 221 churches in 1942. Later, in 1944, their numbers increased to 175. It is clear that in such circumstances, most of them had to work arduously. According to Alexei Ionov’s memoirs, on Sundays in Ostrov services began at 7 o'clock in the morning and lasted until 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Following the liturgy, between 500 and 800 individuals would make confession and take communion. “Eighty babies were baptized at the same time, ten burials were conducted at once, three to five couples were married at once.” Consecrations of new churches often required driving more than fifty kilometers from the city. Despite these and other difficulties, the missionaries worked with great enthusiasm. “The best time of my ministry was the time I spent in the Pskov mission...” Alexei Ionov later recalled.
The leaders of the mission sought the involvement of surviving priests from the area, as well as volunteer helpers from the laity. All of these measures only partially solved the problem, however. The only way out was to train priests in the mission itself. In the fall of 1942, Exarch Sergiy ordered Orthodox theological courses to be opened in Vilnius. Anyone over 17 years of age with a secondary or primary education could attend, and the first group was taken without entrance examinations. The next group was given examinations in general subjects. Professor Vasily Vinogradov was appointed rector of the courses.
The courses began in December 1942, with the first group consisting of thirty-eight individuals. Already in 1943, some of them who had a good general education and underwent an accelerated course of study were ordained. The majority, however, were unable to complete the training: a complete course was designed for two years, and consequently, the first full graduation was held in December 1944, but by that time the Soviet troops had liberated both Pskov and Vilnius. The mission itself lasted only until the spring of 1944.
Generally, the mission activists devoted special attention to work with children and youth leaders. Apart from the theological course in Vilnius, church schools were opened in several other cities. There were two such schools in Pskov. The first of these schools, which came from Estonia, was led by Father Konstantin Shakhovsky. According to reports, at the end of 1942 there were about eighty children enrolled. In addition, the teaching of divine law was organized in many “ordinary” schools.
In May 1943, the occupying authorities ordered that children age 12 years and over be considered eligible for mandatory employment. After that all church schools were closed, but the religious upbringing of the children continued “extracurricularly” – in the small circles arising in place of the abolished schools, as well as in children's shelters. According to surviving witnesses, classes lasted until the mission’s evacuation.
The magazine “Orthodox Christian” that was published by the mission was oriented toward a young readership. In 1942, five issues were published with print runs of 30,000 copies, and in 1943, fourteen issues were published, although the print run fell to 20,000 copies. The editorial office of “Orthodox Christian” was located in Riga, and because of this, there were great difficulties when it came to distribution. In addition, the magazine, as well as other printed materials, consistently had insufficient funds, despite assistance from the exarchate and donations from private individuals.
On February 18, 1944, after the first raid on Pskov by Soviet aircraft, the German authorities ordered the evacuation of the mission. The next day, Father Georgiy Benigsen left the city with a group of students. They were soon followed by other members of the mission to continue its activities in the Baltic states and in other European countries. After the war they found themselves in the position of being émigrés. The heads of the mission – Father Kirill Zaitsev, Father Kirill Shakhovsky and some other missionaries – remained in areas that were liberated by the Soviet army. Some of them were arrested and held for years in labor camps. At the same time, some of the missionaries who did not evacuate did not face any reprisals after the war and continued to serve in the Pskov Region. Some of the churches that had opened during the occupation continued to operate in the postwar years.
The latter circumstance has caused some modern scholars to argue that the revival of church life in the northwestern regions of Russia, which had begun with the work of the Pskov mission, continued to some degree in the postwar years. If one can talk about a revival at all, it is possible only because of the well-known changes in religious policy on the part of the state that took place during the war. The history of the Pskov mission should be seen as one page in the history of Russian Orthodoxy in the twentieth century, the circumstances of which were contradictory and dramatic – and not only for the Orthodox Church.
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