– Fr Michael, tell us a little bit about your family.
I was born in Yakishi, not far from China’s border with Russia, in Northern Manchuria. There was an Orthodox community in this town, tended to by Fr Antony Yakov. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, he was killed by Chinese Communists. One can honestly say that I was born upon church grounds. My parents worked in the church, even in the role of warden. It so happened, that my mother simply could not get to the hospital, and gave birth to me on the steps of the church. When I was a year old, my parents took my older brother and me to Australia. There was a fairly large Russian population there at the time, and an especially large group of people gathered at the Church of the Protection of the Most-Holy Mother of God in Cabramatta. True, in those years it was still under construction, and I remember how we would go to the old church—a tiny, tiny chapel. A wonderful priest, Batiushka Rostislav Gan, managed everything and guided everyone. He was much respected and much loved. He was a truly spiritual person. My first years of childhood were spent under his wise pastoral care. He also headed our Russian school, where we studied every Saturday. He was a strict guide. I remember his reaction to how poorly we learned the Creed, although we were only in second and third grade. He always demanded that we complete our homework assignments… But I am convinced that he correctly educated us foolish children, who were still unfirm in the Faith. At the same time, his strictness was also combined with his good mood and boldness of spirit. You know, his kind smile never vanished from his face. He taught me to read Church Slavonic and found a tutor for me, the future Abbess Barbara, who in the late 1980’s-1990’s headed the Mount of Olives Convent.
– The convent in the Holy Land?
– Yes, the Holy Land. At the end of her life, Matushka Barbara returned to Australia, to her home parish, where she ended her days serving the Lord and mankind.
– Can you share some of your recollections of Sunday School?
– We did not have the traditional Sunday school—we had a Russian school which met on Saturdays. The lessons in the Law of God led to the most interesting conversations with the priests. That is how we learned the basics of our Orthodox faith. Naturally, lessons were given in Russian. That actually led to a number of problems, for we did not hear our native tongue spoken outside of the school. Unfortunately, for many, Russian ceased to be their native language, since we were being raised in an English-speaking society. I must express my profound gratitude to my parents: they tried to speak only Russian with us; they helped us with our homework as much as they could, though they were not the most educated of people. My mother only finished two years of Russian school, and my father had no education at all. At the same time, my parents did a great deal to help our Russian school. My mother headed the Parents’ Association for several years. Even to this day, they are very active members of the Russian community in Sydney. Mama is the President of the Russo-Chinese Missionary Society, and my father helps me.
– What was the structure of Sydney’s Russian School, where you studied?
– Our school was run very well. It included 9 grades, the full course of study. All the needed subjects were taught: Russian language, history, literature and geography. The Law of God, of course, was the main subject.
– Who taught the Law of God?
– Fr Rostislav taught us the first few years, then Fr Michael Klebansky, later Hieromonk Alexis (Rosentool)—now he is an Archimandrite, Rector of Transfiguration Monastery. Lay teachers were also maginificent pedagogues and educators. I just remembered Irina Ivanovna Ryazaeva, Valentina Aleksandrovna Sidorova; they worked a great deal for our school. The lessons held dual content—there was always a strong moral and religious basis. That is, we were reared in the Orthodox spirit. We also went to public school, where they also taught the Law of God at first (now this is only taught in private schools). I would like to stress: our teachers were strict, but they were wonderful professionals: they were able to coax out of us interest in the subjects, they sparked deep, thoughtful understanding of the topics. Most of all this centered on Holy Scripture, especially the New Testament. I was engrossed with and eager about my schoolwork. Many lessons were taught as part of games. I often won prizes.
– How many Orthodox children went to public school then? Were there arguments over religion?
– There weren’t too many Orthodox students, but our school had Russians, Serbs, Greeks… Yet we did not hold to ourselves, but played with our classmates, who professed the widest variety of religions, and some were even atheists. We remain friends to this day. I’ve become related to some. Of course, in a government school, despite the fact that we had ideal teachers there, there were many temptations, but from my earliest childhood I chose my own path, and so many ideas which my classmates shared I had no problem rejecting. True, we lived in a foreign country, but we had a strong Russian community, and we would get together on days off, we were a close-knit group. Our best friends were Russian Orthodox kids. And if we didn’t exactly distance ourselves from the surrounding world, but we led our lived distinctly from the way our Australian friends and their families did. I participated in sports, I had other entirely common hobbies, but I did not become overcome by the spirit of this world, trying to live an Orthodox life. From childhood we were taught to fast, to celebrate the holidays. And they knew about us in school. As a rule, they respected how we lived our lives. Our local public school is proud that many of its graduates went on to become clergymen of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, for instance, Bishop Gabriel (Chemodakov), his brother Protopriest Nikita, my brother Protopriest Vladimir Boikov, Protopriest Gabriel Makarov, and others.
I must point out that even as we were all torn away from our Homeland, we awaited the emancipation of Russia from the yoke of Communist ideology. I won’t lie, now I view many questions which we debated feverishly then somewhat differently. But we were young and brash—we can’t be blamed for that. We viewed what was going on in the Soviet Union from a purely critical point of view, and were very skeptical about the so-called “Red Church,” since we had no opportunity to come to know the true state of things in Russia. Yes, this was a one-sided, faulty attitude, but it drew us together, we had one goal, to preserve our “Russianness” for future generations. We preserved it in order to give our children the Russian Orthodox faith, culture, daily life.
Time passed, and we grew up.
– What do you remember from that time?
– I want to point out again: we were all raised in the big Protection parish, and Fr Rostislav had a great influence on us. When I was 7 years old, Batiushka blessed me to serve in the altar, and I took my responsibilities seriously, with trembling. He taught me to love the temple of God, to love church reading and singing. He lay the cornerstone—and most important one—for my service in the future. When I was only 11 (in 1975), he died, and Fr Michael Klebansky was appointed to our parish. You know, I came home then and announced to my mother, who was ironing something at the time, that after Fr Michael died, I would be ready to take his place. That was a naive, simple child’s declaration. But it was then that I came to the final decision that I would serve the Church. And to this day I thank the Lord that this choice was supported by my teachers: Fr Michael, Fr Alexei, Fr Nikita, Fr Nikolai Gan… They were young, and we were right to see the hope of our Church in them. They accomplished a great deal in strengthening young parishioners in the faith. They did not spare themselves, meeting with us, organizing discussions and conferences. The fathers were very open, accessible, speaking in a language young people could understand, but their words and services were infused with restraint, strictness and genuine piety. These are my biggest impressions from the 1970’s and 80’s.
– We know that at that time, many young people chose a career in the Church. Why do you think that was?
– Indeed, in our time, there was a spike in interest in a spiritual education. A powerful boost was given by our young clergymen. They blessed us to enroll in the seminary. George Chemodakov (the future Bishop Gabriel) thus found himself in Jordanville, Gabriel Makarov, Alexei Gorodilov, Peter Sheko, Nikolai Rotenko and Mark Ericson. Later, George Lapardin came from the southern Australian city of Djeelong. Later, my brother Vladimir came, as did Daniel Metlenko, Theodor Semenov and others. There were many Australians in the seminary then; we kept somewhat to ourselves, we were proud that we were all from the same country, but most of all, we wanted to return to Australia. We supported each other and were pretty friendly. I enrolled in seminary right after graduating high school. Before that I decided to visit my homeland, Russia, which was then still the Soviet Union. I thought at the time that having an American visa (for Jordanville, where the monastery and seminary are located, are, of course, in the US), we thought that I wouldn’t be allowed into the USSR with such a visa. So from Australia I went to the Soviet Union and spent two months there. This was in 1983, when the country was under Yuri Andropov’s rule. I was given the fortunate opportunity to visit various holy sites, in a word, I made a real pilgrimage. I prayed in all the lavras except the one in Pochaev (I only recently visited that monastery). In Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra I met Hieromonk Evstafy, who later became Bishop of Chitinsk; he helped me a great deal. St Alexander Nevsky Lavra made a great impression on me, as did the holy sites of Kiev, Pskov and Novgorod. Having come to know Russia better, I fell in love with her forever. So then I went to seminary, did pretty well there, though I could have applied myself more.
– Weren’t you the best in your class?
– I received among the best grades, but most important for me was the interesting and busy seminary life. Of course, I admit that it was difficult to adjust to the new regimen.
– What were your obediences in seminary?
– We were assigned difficult tasks. At first I worked in the kitchen, helping Fr Prokopy: I had to get up at 4 am every day. Our classes lasted 4 hours a day, from 8-12, then lunch, then more obediences. Along with kitchen duty, I worked in the carpentry shop, where I learned to make icon frames, gravesite crosses and even coffins. I had the great desire to paint icons (I had already begun learning in Australia). In Jordanville, I became the student of Fr Andrei (Erastov), a talented iconographer. A short while later he showed my work to Fr Kyprian (the most renowned iconographer in the diaspora), and he blessed me to work regularly in the icon studio.
Vacations, including summertime, I spent in seminary, though I did return to Australia a couple of times. In the summer, we took care of the farm. It was big, there were many cows, endless fields. We would gather potatoes, cut hay. But we had recreations, too, fishing, for example. I often visited New York City, since my first spiritual father in seminary was there—Hieromonk Hilarion (now Metropolitan, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia). But soon after my arrival to the monastery, he was consecrated Bishop of Manhattan, but we did not lose touch, and we were very happy to visit him. He was very kind to us, and continues to be so to seminarians today. That is how our friendship of many years began.
– In what church did you begin your pastoral service?
– First, as is customary, I got married. That was 1989. We were married by Archbishop Paul (Pavlov), and a month after our wedding my wife and I went to America. There, Vladyka Luaus, the future Metropolitan, ordained me to the deaconate. I was very happy that it was he who first ordained me, since he was for me a benevolent guide for me in seminary, and gave me many words of wisdom, including advice on being a priest. Vladyka Paul then ordained me to the priesthood. They were first going to appoint me to Newcastle, whose Orthodox community was growing rapidly. But they ultimately decided to leave me in Croydon, and I became the senior priest of the Archbishop’s Chapel. At the same time, I served in various places, and at one time I was Rector in Newcastle and Oakland. After the repose of Vladyka Paul, Metropolitan Vitaly blessed me to become the Secretary of the Diocese of Sydney, Australia and New Zealand. In addition, for about twenty years I have been Secretary of the Spiritual Court, and worked with charitable organizations and headed the candle factory.
As for our parish, life there was always calm and friendly. When I am forced to travel in my capacity as Diocesan Secretary, I miss the parish a great deal, and of course, I miss our Diocese’s holiest icon, the Akhtyrka Icon of the Most-Holy Mother of God. This miracle-working icon, which appeared in 1739 near the city of Akhtyrka in Kharkov guberniya in Russia, and by Divine Providence had gone to Brazil and New York, has now ended up in Sydney.
– Tell us, where else besides Australia have you served?
– I was fortunate to have conducted services in New Zealand and North and South America. As the Secretary of Vladyka Hilarion and as the Diocesan Secretary, I have visited many countries, including Russia several times. In connection with my obedience in property matters, I spent a good deal of time in Auckland. In general, I don’t enjoy doing administrative work, but someone has to. It isn’t easy combining secretarial and pastoral work… At one time, for personal reasons, I stepped away from office work. Over the course of several years I concentrated solely on the candle factory at Novoye Shamardino Monastery, where I worked alone from morning to evening. The monastery is outside of town, and the candle factory is on the territory of the men’s skete. Now, monastic life there is being reestablished by the efforts of Hieromonk Joachim, and they are building a new church. So I went there and worked alone in peace. It was at that skete that I had time to think, to concentrate on prayer.
– Do you keep in contact with church leaders in Russia?
– Yes, of course. For example, in 2003, during a pastoral conference I met Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), but our relationship then was only formal. Later, during the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the archpastoral consecration of Vladyka Laurus, we had a long conversation. Then we became friends. We talked about the seminary that he heads, and the possibility of students from abroad enrolling there.
– Returning to your seminary years, I would like to know what were the subjects of the papers you wrote?
– My written work was fairly easy. For instance, I translated a textbook on the history of the Church from Russian to English. You have to admit, that’s not difficult to do.
– What do you envision for the future of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia?
– I am certain that the Church Abroad has a great future, and that a new generation will come to replace the old parishioners, who lived conscientiously and did everything to preserve their faith, language and way of life in a foreign land. And these young people must think hard about how they will live, what they will do. I would very much like for the Church Abroad to become a beacon of light for those in the West of different faiths, and for atheists. Therefore our main challenge is to educate people, return them to the bosom of the Mother Church. In order to do that, we Orthodox clergymen and simple laypersons must serve as an example, we must unfailingly fulfill the laws of God and do nothing carelessly.
– Fr Michael, I would like to hear some words of guidance from you for the teachers and students of Sretensky Seminary.
– Seminarians are a special, unusual type of people, they strive to serve God. But there are many temptations in their path. Those who study in theological schools must be firm in their decisions, seriously consider their actions, weigh their words. They must understand that if they serve God, they must serve Him with all their hearts, with their souls. With this understanding, we can overcome all temptations. I also advise young people to study diligently, with full attention, and not to waste time. We must not dream about the future—it will come in time, we should not daydream about great accomplishments. We must begin with little steps. The Lord will grant to each in accordance with his possibilities. We must never be proud or flaunt our service. Vainglory and pride are the worst enemies of a clergyman. In addition, we must be respectful and grateful to our teachers, to the school, within whose walls young people not only gain broad knowledge, but invaluable spiritual experience. You know, often upon graduating from Holy Trinity Seminary, which remains the primary theological school for future clergymen of the Church Abroad, I would go back to Jordanville, visit with Vladyka Laurus, and reload my spiritual batteries, so to speak. And this always gave me great consolation, it was always so good to be there, everything is suffused with the spirit of Orthodoxy, for many old monks maintained it, who were able to preserve the traditions of Russian churchliness and piety. In recent years, many of them have departed to the Lord… I hope that the seminarians love their service in the same way, since they understood that their service to the Church is a labor of Grace in the harvest-fields of Christ.
Interviewed by Simeon Pervukhin
November 5, 2009