Metropolitan Vitaly (Oustinov):
Memories of Russia
I was born in 1910, in other words, I saw Imperial Russia for the first seven years of my life. I remember some details, but most of all I recall the spirit of the times. I cannot describe what remains in the depths of my soul. I only know that during Tsarist times, everything was calm and virtuous. Sometimes, going into the garden, I would hear the peal of church bells. It was such a sweet sound, almost as though the sky were descending onto earth, and I sensed a profound peace. This is more a heartfelt than mental memory.
We children of noble birth were forbidden to go out into the streets alone, where street kids ran around. We were not allowed to interact with these boys, since we were nobles. In Russia, this was a very sharp distinction, though no one took it as an insult. It was an unwritten rule. Of course, we were tempted—whatever is forbidden becomes forbidden fruit. Once I snuck out and saw an old woman walking with a little girl, probably going to early Liturgy. The girl and I kept waving to each other... It was a quiet and placid time.
My dearest recollection was when Tsar Nicholas II and His August Family visited Sevastopol. It was quite a celebration. Every house hung out a Russian flag, and there was a sense of excitement everywhere. I remember how the Empress and her daughters went from the cathedral to the local hospital. The stocking of the youngest, Anastasia, kept slipping, and she kept stopping to fix it. I was sitting on the shoulders of a soldier and shouted to her: “Your sock is slipping!” She looked at me, smiled and waved. Now she is one of the martyrs for our sins.
The Tsar himself was visiting naval ships with the Heir. While the Tsar met with his officers, the Tsarevich visited one ship after another. I kept hearing the sailors shout “hurrah” whever the boy went. The Tsar heard about this, and he instructed his son not to respond. Poor Alexei was heartbroken that he could not answer the sailors, almost to the point of tears.
I remember the shock when the Revolution began. Everything changed. The sky seemed different, and a mystical fear spread throughout the people. Inner peace was lost, everyone became irritable. They started singing new songs, which were so crude I cannot repeat them, everything was so disgusting, low and degrading. There was filth everywhere. I had a nanny with whom I often went to town. One day, my nanny and I went to the post office, and on the way we saw a Red Bolshevik procession singing “Rise, arise workers!” As they passed us, I grasped my nanny’s skirt and said in fear “Nanny, they are all so angry.” You could see it in their eyes, and in the way they walked. These weren’t just people, they were wicked people. A child senses this. You must always be very careful with children, since they understand much more than we think. They lose this sensitivity as they get older, but it is a very precious thing when they are young. My sister and I shared a “discernment of spirits.”
We often hosted military officers and their wives at our home. They would always try to put us to bed, but of course we were more interested in the guests and the food than going to sleep. We would give nicknames to the visitors, sometimes very accurate ones. There was one fat naval officer whom we named “bumchik.” We loved him very much, despite the fact that we are sure that he was the one who broke our armchair.
The Revolution was actually an uprising of Russian brutes. I remember that it became dangerous for a person with an educated appearance to go outside. Bands of Black Sea sailors roamed the streets, claiming to be “heroes of the revolution,” because it was sailors of the Black Sea Fleet who started the Revolution. Members of the noble, intelligent classes would don filthy caps and their oldest outfits. They did this so as not to appear educated. I remember my uncle borrowing our handyman’s dirty and torn cap and a patched jacket to risk going outside.
I was well educated; we had a matriarchal household: my grandmother, mother, her sister, Aunt Zhuka, our nanny, cook, maid and my sister. My grandmother was a general’s widow, married to Gendarme General Stopchansky, who had served in the Caucasus, where he learned all the local languages, and so was a very valuable asset. My grandmother had graduated from Smolny Institute, and fate brought her to the Caucasus, where she was sent to teach girls proper etiquette. That’s where she met and married General Stopchansky. They had many children who dispersed throughout Russia. When my grandfather died, he was placed in a double coffin and they waited for all the children to arrive for the funeral. Everybody loved my grandmother, and she was very well respected. She was the matron of the family. All her sons visited her once a year, bearing gifts which my sister and I eagerly awaited.
My grandmother graduated with an excellent knowledge of German (Smolny Institute only took girls of noble birth, and each of them graduated having to be fluent in at least one European language, English, French or German). Once, when the Germans occupied Sevastopol, our handyman asked her to talk the Germans who occupied our yard. She stood up straight and exclaimed “I do not speak with the enemies of my Emperor!” This showed that for her, the Tsar was still in her heart, despite the fact that he had already been executed by the Bolsheviks.
By this time, the war with Germany ended, but the German Army was still in Crimea. It was actually the Germans who saved us from the Bolsheviks, who decreed that on Bartholomew Eve, the entire educated and cultural class of Russians would be annihilated. They also ordered the execution of their children, who, they thought, would avenge their parents’ death when they grew up. We children were hidden away in sheds and basements. One morning we heard cannon fire, and a while later, to our great astonishment, soldiers on bicycles started passing our house. It turned out they were Germans who occupied Sevastopol, who had the Bolsheviks on the run. There was a German church next to our house, in which some 20 Russian officers were hidden by the priest.
I knew my hometown of Sevastopol well. We lived at 55 Chesmenskaya Street, one of the main streets in the city, from Grafsky Pier to Istorichesky Boulevard. They would bless the water on Grafsky Pier on the feast of the Epiphany, while naval ships shot blanks to draw attention to the ceremony. Istorichesky Boulevard was remarkable, boasting a famous painting of the Crimean Campaign. Next to it was a large concrete sculpture of a mushroom, so big that when it rained, people sought shelter under it.
After Christmas, the naval officers would organize pageants for their children. They were unforgettable. There were three large halls: in one were refreshments, pies and candies. The second had a theater where there were performances of Little Red Riding Hood. The third had an enormous Christmas tree. They had children’s games and a lottery. One side was for boys, the other for girls. Large shelves groaned under the weight of presents, and a string was connected to each of them, the ends of which were gathered in a pile in the middle. Every child could take the end of any string and get the present it was connected to. One of the prizes was a model ship, which I really wanted. Of course, I didn’t get it, but I did get a set of bowling pins in the form of 12 legendary Russian giants, and two bowling balls. My sister, who was sick as usual, I got a Negro girl doll.
All of this reflected the limitless breadth of Russia, but soon the terrifying clouds of Revolution came, and everything took a turn for the worse.
There was another interesting episode. Once my mother and her sister returned from town, where they went to buy pastries for tea. When my mother first left, she instructed our cook to light the samovar. When they came back, they casually threw a newspaper on the table. I remember my grandmother putting on her glasses and exclaiming: “This is the end of Russia!” On the front page, in bold letters, was the announcement that the Tsar had abdicated. As she said this, I felt a profound fear overcome my heart, and I hugged her. My grandmother, the widow of a Russian general, lived and breathed Russia, and of course she understood everything perfectly.
That was old Russia… what happened to it? Russia had men and women of lofty principles, it was impossible to break them. All they could do was kill them and be done with it. That was the genuine Russia, the communists murdered 60 million of the finest Russian people, and history will never forget it.