Almost 20 years ago, in January 1990, while still a student at the Law Department of the Far East University in Vladivostok, I received a large package from New York with Orthodox literature. A letter was included, which I cite in part: “Dear in the Lord Mikhail Vladislavich: Orthodox Russians forced by fate to foreign lands have always felt themselves a part of their Homeland, and the Church Abroad, a part of the Russian Orthodox Church. For this reason we also worry for our country, we pray for her rebirth and for Divine blessings to the Russian people. We also ask for your prayers for us Russians in the diaspora, that temporary obstacles do not hinder us from forming a spiritual unified whole.” I cherished this letter for all these years. Its author was then-Bishop of Manhattan, and now First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Ruling Bishop of the Diocese of Australia and New Zealand. His letter was written in response to my request for Orthodox Christian literature, which was practically impossible to obtain in the Soviet Union in those years. Could I even have imagined in early 1990 that twenty years later, fate would bring me to Australia, that I would be given the opportunity to meet Vladyka Hilarion and personally thank him for his gift; that the first wave of Russian immigrants from China in the early 1950’s, most of whom ended up in Australia, after the dramatic events of the early 1990’s and the robust economic bonds being created between Russia and China, would be joined by tens of thousands of young Russians, including me, who choose China as their home, where we would apply our professional and creative efforts? But so it was. I came to Australia as President of the Russian Club of Shanghai, to participate in a conference of my compatriots in the Asian Pacific Countries. It was at this conference, in fact, held in Canberra, that I met Vladyka Hilarion. At the invitation of the First Hierarch, I met with him again a week later in Sydney at his residence, where this interview took place.
President of the Russian Club of Shanghai
Director of the Coordinating Council of Compatriots in China
Mikhail Drozdov: Esteemed Vladyka, our acquaintance from afar began 20 years ago. You cannot imagine the surprise and joy I felt at the time having received that package from New York. Tell us please, how was this work organized, to whom did you send Orthodox literature, how did letters from the USSR reach you?
Metropolitan Hilarion: As soon as perestroika began in Russia, we rejoiced at the opportunity to send spiritual literature to people who would write to us. At some point letters began arriving from all parts of the Soviet Union, and we were happy to send packages and answer questions and inquiries. As we sent edifying books, we would also write a separate letter to notify the recipients that a package was on its way. I have no statistics as to whether all these packages arrived. There were instances when they would be lost and never delivered. Our monasteries, including Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, and in Canada, as well as other organizations published religious literature specially for Russia over many decades, so we had plenty of such things to send. But postage was pretty costly, so we could not make large shipments. When letters would come to the Monastery or to the Synod of Bishops in New York, we tried to answer each one of them. I had been a bishop in New York since 1984. From that time, along with my assistants, I gathered and sent books to the USSR. That is when your letter reached me, through Fr Victor Potapov, who was broadcasting through Voice of America at the time. He would send me some of the letters he received, and we would respond by sending these books; it is remarkable that we can now meet after 20 years, and I was happy to hear that these books reached you.
Mikhail Drozdov: Yes, that was very important for me at the time. In those days, the Bible cost 120 rubles—that was one month’s salary. When I received your package, it was an amazing thing. You have to remember the situation in the USSR in 1989 in order to understand. It is only now that you can find a great deal of spiritual literature in any church, in any city, and even in regular book stores. The situation has certainly changed dramatically.
Metropolitan Hilarion: Yes, now we get books from over there. Now we do not have to apply the same efforts to publish here, since it is cheaper to print in Russia. For this reason, we now print literature in the local language—English, etc.
Mikhail Drozdov: A great event occurred recently: the restoration of communion between the Churches—the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. How was this reunification received in the emigration, were there those who did not accept it, and what difficulties arose as a result?
Metropolitan Hilarion: Most of the believers of ROCOR welcomed the unification, or rather, reunification, of the Russian Orthodox Church. But there were some problems in certain dioceses: in particular, in our Diocese of Australia and New Zealand, and in the Diocese of Eastern America, a few in Europe and especially in South America. On average this was a dozen clergymen from each ROCOR diocese who did not accept reunification. Here in the Australian Diocese, there were some seven clergymen, including deacons. They began to organize their own communities. They found new protectors from among unrecognized, non-canonical hierarchs and live their separate lives. This change was sudden for many people, many were unprepared to accept it. They live on with their prejudices, their suspicions that nothing in Russia has changed, that the older hierarchs remain collaborators with the secret police, etc. There were also doubts on dogmatic grounds—the membership of the Moscow Patriarchate in the World Council of Churches. This frightens many people, so we often speak out during meetings with bishops in Russia, pointing out that it would be desirable for them to withdraw from the WCC, or halt ecumenical activity therein, since this troubles many. But, thank God, the overwhelming majority of believers abroad has accepted this reunification calmly, and rejoices at our communion, which enriches us spiritually.
Mikhail Drozdov: What percentage would you assign to those who accepted reunification and those who continue to stand apart?
Metropolitan Hilarion: I would say that probably 5% do not accept it. That is, only a very small part.
Mikhail Drozdov: You have now been burdened with the task of being the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. What do you see your mission to be?
Metropolitan Hilarion: My main duty as First Hierarch is to be senior hierarch in our Orthodox family scattered throughout the Western world. I am also obligated to convene meetings of the Synod of Bishops, at which bishops gather three times a year, as well as other representatives of various dioceses. I convoke the Council of Bishops, attended by all the bishops of the Church Abroad, to discuss fundamental questions in the life of the Church. So the role of Primate is to unite everyone and hold them together. Which bishops meet in Russia, or there are some other major Church events, the First Hierarch acts as representative of the Russian Church Abroad. The First Hierarch also has his own diocese. My diocese is the Eastern American Diocese, and also the Diocese of Australia and New Zealand. I hope that in the future I can find a vicar bishop to help me. Now I have no vicar, so the ongoing matters in this diocese are left to my care.
Mikhail Drozdov: Since the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church cannot operate now, and there is no possibility to ordain new priests in this complicated time for Chinese Orthodoxy, whose territory does China fall into, the Church Abroad’s or the Moscow Patriarchate’s?
Metropolitan Hilarion: After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Church of China ended up in under the jurisdiction of the Russian Church Abroad. When the territory of China was fully subjugated to the communists, the Church in China went under the omophoros of the Moscow Patriarchate. Subsequently, it was declared an autonomous Church. One trait of our Diocese of Australia and New Zealand is that we have many emigres from China. That is why our believers often strove to help Orthodox Christians who remained in China. Our clergymen, though they could not serve there themselves, still visited and supported believers in China, sending them crosses and spiritual literature whenever possible. We do not consider this our territory, but it is a territory of our joint care. When I met with His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, when he was still heading the Department of External Church Relations, we spoke about joining forces to work together for the good of Orthodox Christians in China and Asia as a whole.
Mikhail Drozdov: I know that you visited China several times. What were your impressions? Were you able to meet with Chinese and Russian Orthodox believers living there?
Metropolitan Hilarion: I was in China three times. I have the finest recollections of that country. During my first visit to China in 1997, we visited Harbin, Manzhouli and Shanghai. I met a few people in Harbin from the old Russian emigration—Mikhail Mikhailovich Myatov, Nina, Anastasia, and a few others. I was joined by some Russian Australians, formerly of Harbin.
It was touching to see how emotional they became when they saw the houses they grew up in. Some of those who came with me could not find their old homes, since the city had been much rebuilt over recent decades. A remarkable thing happened when we visited Manzhouli, in northern China, and found a single gravestone lying on the grounds of a destroyed cemetery. It turned out to be that of the grandmother of one of the pilgrims from Sydney accompanying me! It was so moving. In Manzhouli we found some old people who remembered the Russians who lived there before well, including Tanya Champen of Sydney, whom they remembered as a girl.
When we were in Manzhouli, we tried to find the burial place of St Jonah of Hankow; unfortunately, his relics were unearthed by someone and have unfortunately disappeared.
I always wore a cassock and cross while traveling in China. Many Chinese people approached me and said shen-fu, shen-fu (holy father), a few pointed fingers and said “Isu Hristo,” and a few even tried to cross themselves. In general, everyone treated me with respect. Many Chinese approached me and asked to be photographed together.
Mikhail Drozdov: Great changes have occurred in China since 1997. I think that if you come to Shanghai today, you wouldn’t recognize it. Not only has the city changed, but the people have, too. The Chinese are now more concerned about spiritual matters. When I first came to China, it seemed that their god was the “golden calf”: the yuan. Metropolitan Kirill, now His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, when visiting the Russian Club of Shanghai, noted that the human soul is by nature Christian. If people got the opportunity, and if the door to the church is open, many Chinese might come to Orthodox Christianity. For this reason, we can’t wait to see you in Shanghai. Your visit, if it takes place, will I think give a decisive push to the consolidation of our community, and the development of a positive dynamic with regard to Orthodoxy in China as a whole.
Metropolitan Hilarion: Thank you for the invitation. Many of my parishioners who came from China also often ask me: “When shall we go to China?” I think that next year a visit will be possible.
It is during my first visit to Shanghai in 1997 that I met Fr Michael Li, who now lives in Australia. I invited him to participate in our meeting today; let me introduce him. Fr Michael is a very good servant of the Church. He is 84 years old, but he can walk faster than we can. I recorded Fr Michael reading some prayers in Chinese—the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and others. Fr Michael is practically the only one who remembers how to sing certain prayers in Chinese. Thanks to Fr Michael, I can already say a few things in Chinese, for instance “da chzhou pkhin an!” (Peace be unto you!).
I want to show you a few photographs. They include not only Fr Michael but also someone well known to the Orthodox people of Shanghai, Fr Michael Wan. The photo is dated 1963.
Fr Michael Li: Yes, this photograph represents one of my last services there, maybe the very last one. It depicts a marriage ceremony of an Englishman with a Russian girl. The Englishman converted to Orthodoxy. According to my sources, he has died, but she is still alive.
Metropolitan Hilarion: The woman now lives in England. Not too long ago, our Protodeacon Christopher visited English, met with here and got this photograph.
Mikhail Drozdov: What recommendations can you make to those Russians who live in China today, and due to present circumstances cannot go to church. How are they to lead their spiritual lives?
Metropolitan Hilarion: Where there are no regular divine services or churches, each Orthodox Christian absolutely must pray at home, and lead a personal spiritual life: read morning and evening prayers, Holy Scripture, spiritually-edifying works. They must read the Lives of Saints for inspiration, and they must also pray for each other. That is, they must seek spiritual nourishment, so that the first chance they get to attend a divine service, they will be prepared to make confession and communion, so that they will not miss the opportunity to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. And so we pray for the Orthodox people of China, and throughout the world. Know that your brothers and sisters, the people who share your faith pray for you everywhere. Let us pray that the Lord opens the doors to the Orthodox Christians of China.
Mikhail Drozdov: Thank you very much!