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Schools of the Russian Diaspora
Protopriest Yaroslav Belikov

Introduction

Over the past 90 years, a multitude of the most diverse types of Russian organizations—schools, military academies, veterans' associations, chess clubs, drama circles, athletic institutes, youth organizations with the most varied objectives, and many others—appeared and later disappeared. At present there are only a handful of them left. The single link that binds those organizations of the Russian diaspora which still survive and are flourishing is the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Parish Schools

It is possible to analyze the successes and failures of each organization individually; however, to the observant eye it is obvious that a Russian person who abandons the Church no longer has any interest in the Russian language and Russian culture, and quickly becomes a citizen of the world, remaining Russian in name only.

It is quite natural that in parishes of the diaspora, from their very inception, schools were organized, usually called "Russian schools,” to distinguish them from local schools (be they American, French, Argentinian, etc). Classes were held, and are still held, as a rule, on Saturdays, since on Sundays children attend the divine services with their parents.

In our report, we are compelled to pass over the pre-War period—the glorious years of the emigration, when in several cities of the diaspora there were whole faculties of teachers from various imperial schools. Thus, in Yugoslavia, China and France there appeared not only high schools, but even institutions of higher learning and cadet academies.

To understand the favorable conditions under which the Russian schools were formed, one must understand how Russians lived in the emigration. The emigres had to fight for their very survival. Even as late as the 1970’s, almost no Russian degrees, be they imperial or Soviet, were accepted anywhere in the West. In the West, highly-qualified Russian professionals had to earn their daily bread by working as unskilled laborers. Many worked two or even three jobs to make ends meet. These difficulties were compounded by the Russophobia of the local populace, who viewed Russians with suspicion, as Soviet spies and Communist agitators. These were further complicated by their foreign language, their ignorance of local customs, and an unaccustomed climate.

Time off from work was devoted to social activity. Moreover, even priests, with rare exceptions, held secular jobs; yet on the evenings of weekdays, as well as on their days off, they dedicated their time to parish matters, performed the divine services and services of need, weddings and funerals, taught in schools, visited the sick, held conversations… In the beginning, the Russian emigres settled in poor neighborhoods, first acquiring property on which to build their churches. To this day, in many cities of the diaspora, such house-churches still exist.

The parish schools were literally built from the ground up, thanks entirely to the enthusiasm of the pastors, parents and teachers. There were no buildings for schools; there were no textbooks; often there were no qualified teachers; and, of course, there were also no financial supporters. There were the children and their parents. Everything had to be accomplished with the available (more often than not, the unavailable) funds. Classes were held in the priests' apartments, in the churches, or in private homes. Texts were typed out by hand with multiple copies made with carbon paper; sometimes these materials were handwritten. The foundation of the curriculum was the catechism and the Russian language. In time, these subjects were augmented with Russian History, the Georgraphy of Russia, Russian Culture, Singing (church hymns and folk songs), folk dancing, handicrafts, and other such subjects that aided the process of instilling a Russian spirit in a child. At first, all pedagogical and administrative work was done gratis.

By the 1960’s, thanks to tireless labor for the common good, churches began to be built. These were small, but nevertheless recognizable as Russian Orthodox churches. As an adjunct to such a church there was built, if possible, a parish hall, with rooms for classes. On weekday evenings, groups representing various trends and interests would gather there; and on Sundays refreshments were offered—dumplings and tea for a set price. On the monies thus realized the parish existed: loans were paid off, a church was built for God, new textbooks were printed. These meals offered after the Divine Liturgy are even now used with great success, since many parishioners live far from the church and far from one another, and such luncheons provide the opportunity to share in fellowship in an informal atmosphere, to learn the news about what is happening in the Russian colony and in each other's personal lives. Here one finds not only familiarity and fellowship among the parishioners, but the very cohesion of the parish community.

At first, conditions did not permit the coordination of educational work throughout the entire diaspora: not only on the different continents, but often even in the same city different schools set their own curricula, and even wrote and published their own textbooks. It is understandable that some were better, others were weaker. Thus, in the early 1960’s, The Law of God for the Family and School, by Protopriest Seraphim Slobodskoi, first saw the light of day. It went through nine editions in the diaspora, and in the 1980’s was translated into English. Today, in Russia, this book has been reprinted in huge press runs, and has already appeared on the internet. Today, in many schools, this book is the only vehicle for catechetical instruction. At the same time, many schools have their own textbooks, corresponding to their own specific needs.

Today, the majority of parish school levy a small fee, for tuition and to cover expenses; and teachers often receive a very modest stipend for their labors, though many still work without compensation. Everyone knows that a school has never in any place been a profit-making enterprise. Fees for tuition have never covered and do not cover the expenses of the school, and for this reason parents' committees have functioned in parish school from their very inception. They organize various functions to raise funds, such as bazaars, balls, parties, concerts, meals, etc.

In fact, each large emigre parish organized a Saturday school. Although several of these schools have closed, even today, in areas such as New York, Sidney, Chicago, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, et al., where a comparatively large number of emigres live, there are parish schools in which between fifty and two hundred students study.

The Daily School

In many places the idea of founding daily schools arose. This entailed many organizational and financial difficulties, since it is essential to obtain not only government accreditation, but to amass a significant sum of money—hundreds of thousands of dollar a year—even for a small school. Such a project was realized at the Synod in New York (the six upper grades; it existed for more than thirty years), and in Buenos Aires (the seven lower grades; it existed for eight years). In the comparatively recent past, a daily school was begun at the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral, in San Francisco: the St John of Shanghai and San Francisco Lyceum, which has been in existence for fifteen years. In addition to the full curriculum of an American school (all twelve classes), catechism is taught in each class, the Orthodox calendar of feast days is observed, and appropriate food is served in the lunch-room on fast days.

One must not fail to mention several Russian daily schools founded over the past fifteen years, and which have full local accreditation, but are purely secular in character. In these schools maintain a more or less complete Russian curriculum, and their student bodies consist either of children born in Russia or the children of immigrants who arrived from Russia not long before. But although their graduates speak Russian well, they, being deprived of spirituality and a genuine love for Russia, will probably be quickly assimilated.

Assimilation

In addition to the difficulties connected with the financing and organization of schools, the most difficult thing has been the battle against the spirit of the surrounding milieu. It is entirely natural that the countries that receive immigrants be concerned that their immigrants integrate socially, economically and culturally into the country that has received them; in other words, that they assimilate. The first step in this trend is language.

The problem of the immigrants is the language barrier, which impedes not only social interaction, but employment as well. Finding himself in a foreign land, a man strives, on the one hand, to master the local language as quickly as possible; yet on the other hand, clings to his compatriots. It is understood that it is more difficult for an adult to learn a new language than for a child. At home, it is easier for parents to interact with their children in their native language. At the same time, dealing with their peers in the local language at school and on the streets, children assimilate that language, while at home conversation remains on a very restricted level: "Pass the salt." Very quickly, children begin to converse easily in the local language and also to converse with one another in it. Reading in Russian becomes difficult, since every other word has already become incomprehensible. This is how assimilation begins. The more time passes, the more difficult it becomes: in time children have difficulty conversing with their parents in Russian, whereas the parents have already mastered the local language sufficiently and are speaking with their children in the local language at home.

In families where there remains a deeply conscious understanding of their roots, their spiritual and cultural values, to their concern over the education of their children are added new difficulties that are manifest only in the conditions of the emigration, viz., how to transmit to their children the Russian language and their cultural heritage. This is indeed a titanic labor. The conflict is waged not only over the language of conversation: it is not only necessary to develop their language and vocabulary, it is necessary to familiarize them with the Russian spirit and cultural world, to form a social atmosphere for fellowship with other Russian Orthodox families. Here, nothing helps as much as a parish school. When classes are conducted in Russian, grammar strengthens conversational language, catechism opens the spiritual world, history and geography not only make Russia comprehensible and develop vocabulary, but instill love for the homeland of their ancestors. The entire school provides a social atmosphere in which children learn to interact with their Russian peers.

Even more important than the school for slowing the process of assimilation is the Russian Church. The Orthodox Faith is the basis of the Russian spirit, Russian culture. Without the Orthodox Church neither the Russian culture nor the Russian spirit would exist. It is precisely for this reason that all social organizations that function without the spiritual support of the Church have in fact long since ceased their activity, have vanished completely.

Your dutiful servant has taken the opportunity to travel to Buenos Aires, to visit the only non-parish Russian school that exists in the diaspora. Last year it marked its 60th anniversary and successfully continues to educate Russian patriots. The principal reason for its successful work has been the curriculum, which is based on the principles of the scout organization ORIUR, which this year is celebrating the centennial of the Russian scout movement. Although that organization is profoundly unchurchly, its entire curriculum is founded on the instillation of love for Russia and Orthodoxy.

At the same time as assimilation is proceeding within the diaspora, i.e., the loss of the Russian national consciousness, for many immigrants who do not have the time, means or energy it is more important to preserve the Orthodox Faith than the Russian language and Russian culture. In these families, if this is not a paradox, the Russian spirit is better maintained than in families that dedicate their efforts to non-churchly Russian social organizations.

Work with the Parents

The second serious problem which confronts Russian schools abroad is the parents. Roughly generalizing, the impression is created that the representatives of the first post-Revolutionary diaspora were insufficiently familiar with Orthodoxy. The second emigration consisted of those who grew up during the years of the most terrible offensive campaign of militant atheism. The third immigration was the era of people of Jewish nationality who were leaving the USSR. The fourth immigration consists of those who were born and grew up in the atheistic Soviet Union. It is not difficult to see that the common denominator of the Russian emigrations is a superficial adherence to the Orthodox Faith. However, for many of them the observance of rituals is obligatory: to have kulich blessed at Pascha, to take holy water at Theophany, to confess and receive Communion at least once a year (and no more); only the clergy and monastics need to fast; it is possible to pray at home, one need not go to church except for major feasts. It is difficult to teach catechism in school to children who are growing up with such ideas about Orthodoxy at home. Orthodoxy is not an abstract philosophical teaching, but a way of life. When a child hears one thing from the priest, while at home his life is quite different, the word falls on stony ground and fails to bear fruit. And the question arises: Do we have the right, under the standard of spiritual values, to incite a religious war between a child and his parents at home? For this reason, it is most essential to work with the entire family: personal conversations with parents, house visitations, the drawing of the whole family into the liturgical, spiritual and parish life.

As turns out, without a parish school it is impossible to avoid this.

From the point of view of religion, it is not only knowledge of Orthodoxy that is instilled in the parish school, but also the practicalities of Orthodox life: prayer, morality, feast days and fasting periods. Moreover, what is imparted is not mere knowledge: love for Russia is instilled as well. We are constantly your firm teachers: we do not require the children to know the dates of the feasts, when not to make full prostrations, how many miracles the Savior performed, or what one many eat on Tuesday of the fourth week of Great Lent; what we require is that children love God and His Church. We don't require that children know all the declensions and conjugations, when and in what valley Lermontov died, or in what year the Campaign on the Ice took place. We want children to love Russian literature, to love Russia. It is this that a parish school alone is able to give. Russian lessons at home are not sufficient to rear a child in the Russian spirit.

One should not pass over in silence the fact that, over the past decade quite a few secular Russian schools have been founded abroad, thanks to the new wave of immigrants. Yet Orthodoxy, the essence of Russia, is absent in them. These schools are a sandy field in which the depth of the Orthodox spirit is lacking; and though, by comparison, the level of the students' mastery of the Russian language may be higher, it is certainly not deeper.

Children Grow Up

Ideally, when both children and their families are fully involved in the parish Russian school, the child matures simultaneously in two worlds: the Russian world and the local world. These two worlds exist in parallel for the time being, until the children become (O the horror!) adolescents, and then young adults. In the process of this development the moment comes when the adolescent asks himself the question, "Who am I?" The answer inevitably follows: "I am not who my parents want me to be; I do not necessarily want to do what my parents want." In search of its own identity, the youth often drops out of church, despite tremendous pressure from parents and priest. At times, a young person does not even suspect to what degree he really is what his parents and school have instilled in him. But the self-definition of young people will depend to a considerable extent on how much their hearts have been imbued with what is Russian and Orthodox.

In the emigration, the formation of young people's own families is also fraught with particular difficulties. In general, in any given country, any given culture, it is no easy matter to form a loving, strong and amicable family. For the young immigrant, the Russian world seems very limited as to choices, and as a result our graduates sometimes marry non-Russian, heterodox persons.

As a rule, a mixed marriage is the most direct path to assimilation. Although there are fortunate exceptions, when the non-Russian spouse in a mixed marriage does not impede the Russian Orthodox formation of the children, and sometimes even actively participates in that task, to the shame of many ethnic Russians, one encounters children in certain mixed families who speak Russian rather better than those in purely Russian families.

However lamentable it is, young people, despite their upbringing, quite often abandon the church, Orthodoxy and all that is Russian. Still, in due time, many return. And the one ones that return are exclusively those who received an education in parish schools. Those whose parents did not provide them with the opportunity to attend the parish school rarely return after they have left the Church.

Yet the Orthodox Faith remains. In many churches of the diaspora the local language is used in the divine services; in certain parishes the local language has even fully supplanted Russian. It is very interesting that the local populace has for decades been reaching out to Orthodoxy, having become disenchanted with their own heresies. They are receiving baptism, often whole families of individuals. Some receive the monastic tonsure, some clerical ordination. For example, in the Western American Diocese at this time, more than half of the priests are of non-Russian descent. Several bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad are also not ethnic Russians.

Little by little, almost unnoticeably, the priority within the diaspora is shifting from Russia to Orthodoxy. And an interesting paradox appears: those organizations, schools and families that have placed Russia without Orthodoxy as the basis of their activity have vanished within a single generation; whereas those that have set Orthodoxy as their keystone have preserved love for Russia even when they have lost the Russian language.

Conclusion

If we examine the matter with care, we will see much in common between the life of the Russian emigration during the Soviet period and the contemporary life of Orthodox Christians in Russia.

Although Christians are no longer persecuted, still the Orthodox in Russia, as also throughout the world, are living in an unspiritual, materialistic world.

The Orthodox are beset by incomprehension on the part of the unbaptized, and by enmity on the part of the sectarians.

In the Orthodox family the parents face a truly gigantic task in the struggle against the influence of the ungodly media of mass information and the unspiritual, cosmopolitan milieu that surrounds them.

Many well-intentioned parents in Orthodox families know very little about our Faith.

Yes, and as throughout the world our children are becoming adolescents, are being inundated with hormones; and many are leaving the Church. And just as everywhere else, in Russia their return to the straight path depends to a great degree on what was instilled in them in childhood.

Is it not a vexing loss for the Church when a person raised in Orthodoxy enters into matrimony with someone who is an unbeliever? But how will it be if, having attended church regularly, he has learned to interact with believing peers?

The parish school, founded at the initiative of parents and priests, with almost no outside financial assistance, will come to the parents' aid in the task of rearing their children. The parish school not only raises children in an Orthodox spirit and fills in the gaps in an unspiritual, secular education in the areas of history and culture, but also forms a social atmosphere for Orthodox children and their families.

For this reason, just as in the Russian diaspora, the parish school is also essential in Russia. Only an education founded on Orthodoxy is able to produce Russian patriots.

May the Lord bless all of you who are laboring to form parish schools, and have undertaken the painstaking, unsung task of rearing the future social activists and citizens in the Russian Church and in Russia. 

Protopriest Yaroslav Belikov 
San Francisco