On June 23, 2010, the feast day of St John of Tobolsk (Maximovitch), Svetlana Vladimirovna Medvedeva, wife of President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, visited the Cathedral of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow” in San Francisco, CA. This visit bore special meaning in the context of the schism that was resolved three years earlier with the reestablishment of unity within the Russian Orthodox Church. The Editors of Pravoslavie i mir [Orthodoxy and the World] received a great many letters following the publication of a photo-report on the visit of Svetlana Medvedeva, asking for more details on the visit. The Senior Priest of the Cathedral, Protopriest Peter Perekrestov, agreed to answer questions on the event.
-Fr Peter, tell us how you prepared to receive such an important guest.
As usual, there were many concerns, especially with regard to maintaining proper protocol and security. This was the first visit to our church of the wife of a head of state, and it was a great honor to welcome such an important visitor. Svetalana Vladimirovna was invited to many places in San Francisco, but she decided to visit only a few, including our Cathedral. The main reason is that of all the churches of San Francisco, she decided on ours because she wished to venerate the relics of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco the Miracle-worker. Whenever Svetlana Vladimirovna travels abroad, she always visits the local Orthodox churches, no matter whether they are large or small, splendid or renowned.
The fact that the President’s wife would definitely visit our church became known to us for certain only five days before her arrival. They told us that she was humble, she loves simplicity and prefers there to be not very many people. For this reason, and also for reasons of security, we did not broadcast information on her visit. Archbishop Kyrill only told the Cathedral clergymen, his Vicar and other members of the administration: the warden, choir director and senior sister.
- How did you greet the First Lady?
Svetlana Vladimirovna was greeted at the entrance by two girls wearing Russian costumes and bearing flowers. We do not have any experience in greeting lofty guests, and we also did not have the material resources to arrange a magnificent reception. But we greeted our visitor with love, honor and respect, and gave her the dearest thing we have—our hearts. In her person, we received the entire people of Russia in the Fatherland.
Entering the Cathedral, Svetlana Vladimirovna crossed herself and approached the icon of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow,” to the icons of the heavenly protectors of her husband and Son—St Dimitry of Rostov and Holy Prophet Ilya--and then to other honored icons. The feast day icon on that day was of St John of Tobolsk, the ancestor and heavenly protector of St John of Shanghai. The moleben to St John of Shanghai and San Francisco the Miracle-worker began at his crypt. During the moleben, prayers were raised for the Russian Sovereignty, for President Dmitry, Svetlana and their relatives and the hierarchy and faithful flock of the Russian Church.
At the end of the service, Svetlana Vladimirovna approached the crypt of St John with flowers. Seeing the uncorrupt relics of St John for the first time, she seemed to me to stay motionless for several moments, then placed the flowers on the crypt, and, making the customary prostrations, kissed the relics.
- At such visits, there always seem to be some slip-ups or incidents—were there any?
- When the time came to read the Gospel, I became troubled; when such private molebens are performed, the Gospel is placed on the head of the one requesting it. What would we do with the wife of the President, for she had a beautiful hairdo, which we could have ruined, and also, would the security services be alarmed? I quietly asked her. She said that of course, the Gospel can be placed on her head.
- We saw in the photo-report that gifts of icons were exchanged. Whom did these icons depict?
Archbishop Kyrill blessed Svetlana Vladimirovna with the icon of St John. In response, the First Lady gave the Cathedral parish an icon of SS Peter and Fevronia, the patron saints of the family, love and devotion. The official “Day of Family, Love and Devotion” was established in 2008 by Svetlana Vladimirovna and has now become a holiday throughout Russia. Handing this icon to Archbishop Kyrill, the honored guest said that her husband, Dmitry Anatolievich, could not accompany her but asked to extend his greeting and this icon—this was a gift from him and from her.
Vladyka Kyrill then blessed everyone in attendance with this icon. At first, another gift was to be given to our church by the President’s wife (they had asked us about it), but this gift turned out to be proper and even providential. We did not have an icon of these saints at our Cathedral, and also, the city of San Francisco has a great number of people with an “anti-family” mindset. So those of us who live here are in great need of prayers and the intercession of SS Peter and Fevronia.
- What happened then?
Then the Cathedral Rector, Archbishop Kyrill, introduced his clergymen and Cathedral officials to the high guest, and asked me to give her a brief history of the parish and show her our important holy items. Knowing that Svetlana Vladimirovna’s family was from the city of Kronstadt, I first led her to view the belt of St John of Kronstadt. The left wing of our Cathedral is dedicated to that saint and is historically the first altar devoted to the saint, first canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 1964. I did not even bother to ask if the First Lady wished to venerate it, and immediately opened the reliquary containing the belt of the All-Russian saint. Removing the belt, I brought it to her forehead, and she bowed.
- Your cathedral contains many rare icons…
- Yes. Learning about the icons of our church, Svetlana Vladimirovna paid special attention to the icon of the Martyrs of China who died during the Boxer Rebellion, and also the icon of the Holy Myrrh-Bearing Women painted in Jerusalem: the left part of our church has mostly icons of holy women, since women traditionally stand on the left side of church. The President’s wife listened to everything very attentively and asked appropriate questions.
On the right side of the Cathedral, we approached the frame containing a large icon of the Holy Royal Passion-bearers. A small icon of the Mother of God “Grace-filled Heaven” which belonged to the Royal Family is inset within the icon, and also a medallion containing a portion of the wall of the Ipatiev House, which was sprinkled with the Royal martyric blood.
We set up a small table especially for Svetlana Vladimirovna’s visit upon which we placed a Gospel printed in the 17th century, during the reign of Mikhail Feodorovich, as well as a Bible found in the room of the Royal Family in the merchant Ipatiev’s house. Showing her these holy relics, I said “So over the course of 90 years we tried to preserve these holy things,” to which the First Lady replied “The main thing is not the things you preserved, but the Orthodox faith and traditions.”
I also told Svetlana Vladimirovna about how the 4th All-Diaspora Council was held at this church, at which on Thursday, May 11, 2006, the historic decision was made to do everything possible to restore unity to the Russian Church and to heal the wounds of division within the Russian Church.
I told her a little-known historical detail: late at night on May 10, 2006, that is, on the eve of the adoption of the resolution, one of the members of the Editing Committee, Protopriest Alexander Lebedeff, was working on the draft resolution in the hall underneath the Cathedral. He did not know what to write, since it seemed from a human point of view that there would be no unity of spirit achievable at the Council even on secondary questions. Fr Alexander shared his concern with us, and each of us expressed our thoughts on the resolution. This helped put together some concepts and finish the draft resolution. Then, one of those present proposed turning to St John for help. This was already one o’clock in the morning, and all of us—the clergymen and our matushkas—ascended to the Cathedral, placed the draft resolution on the relics of St John and performed a moleben to him. The following day, this resolution was accepted almost unanimously!
Having heard the story of this miracle, Svetlana Vladimirovna said that the Act of Canonical Communion has great significance not only for the Russian Orthodox Church, but for all Russia, for the entire people. She recalled her trepidation while attending the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion at Christ the Savior Cathedral in May 2007 and the joy that reigned not only in the church but throughout the entire nation.
I gave Svetlana Vladimirovna two prosphoras from the Divine Liturgy that morning, and she eagerly accepted them.
- Did the First Lady spend any time with the parishioners?
One priest had an urgent matter to discuss with Svetlana Vladimirovna. She attentively listened to him, then spoke with Vladyka Kyrill and the clergymen. Then, unexpectedly (for me personally), she turned and spoke a few words of greeting to everyone present. She thanked everyone for preserving the Russian spirit far from the Homeland and for the opportunity to pray at the relics of the greatest saint of the Russian Diaspora.
- How did the clergymen react to this visit?
The First Lady of Russia made the best of impressions on everyone. She conquered us with her simplicity, humility, nobility, openness and poise. At the beginning of her visit, we were somewhat nervous, but when the moleben to St John began, the atmosphere in the Cathedral became, I would say, almost familial. When I gave her a tour of the church, I didn’t see her face very much, being turned halfway around, and her face was partially veiled. But when that evening I looked at photographs of her visit, I saw that everyone, including Svetlana Vladimirovna, had genuine smiles and expressions of joy.
After her visit I had elevated and happy mood. This visit served to emphasize the unity of Russian Orthodox Christians in the Fatherland and abroad; we had the opportunity to get to know the spouse of the Head of the Russian State, and she came to know a part of Russia Abroad. Some 15-20 years ago this would have been undreamt of!
I won’t deny that I am proud that the President of Russia has such a wife. Now, after a personal meeting with her, I understand why His Holiness Patriarch Alexy held her in such high regard. St John (Maximovich) would say that “Russia will rise when she once again loves the faith and the confession of Orthodoxy, when she sees and comes to love Orthodox saints and confessors.” In the person of the spouse of the President of Russia, we sensed this love for Russia, for Orthodoxy, for holiness.
Protopriest Peter Perekrestov
Cathedral of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow” in San Francisco