Memories of Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov) of the “Great Russian Exodus”
In October 1920, when the final battle with the godless communists in the South of Russia was over, General Wrangel left Crimea with a majority of the Russian people found there to the utter unknown. Up to 250 cruisers, destroyers, submarines, common ships, barges, tugboats and other vessels left the shores of Crimea.
Everyone who desired to leave were able to. It was the most moving tableau to see the residents of Sevastopol flocking to the port to bid us farewell. Priests performed moleben services, everyone sank to their knees—we were making our farewell to our Homeland. But the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign" was with us, and since then it has become the Guide of the Russian diaspora.
Several hundred thousand people left Crimea. I was then still a young boy and lived in Feodosia, where my mother sent me three months before the evacuation to enroll in the cadet academy established by General Wrangel. Suddenly we were boarded onto a ship and we set out into the sea. I already knew geography by then and understood that we were following the Turkish coast, and hoped in my youthful naivete that we would turn right, towards Sevastopol, and I would then go home to my mother. But as I watched, the ship passed the port of Sevastopol without turning right, but turned gently towards the south. I understood then that we were fleeing Russia. Those moments were horrifying: people wept, and the people in the port were still on their knees.
And so we bade goodbye to our Homeland. Some thirty bishops left with us, uncounted clergymen, almost the entire White Army. By the way, the army left without baggage, as though on a military campaign, with their rifles. It was painful to see Cossacks weeping as they left their horses on shore, abandoned.
We arrived in Constantinople with this massive armada of ships. At the time, the city was occupied by foreign soldiers. They were shocked when they saw all these Russian ships, as though on a raid, though the ships all flew colors indicating that they contained ill people and that there was no food or water. No one knew what to do with us. The smallest children were taken off the ships and bathed, since many of us suffered from lice.
At first not one nation welcomed us Russian refugees. The Serbs then took us in, who had themselves suffered a great calamity: the German Army had just looted the Serbian land. But still, by the command of their King Peter, then King Alexander, Serbia was the first to take us in. The second was Germany—our former enemy, and then England, France and other countries. Some immediately departed for South America.
So we were scattered everywhere, absolutely destitute, because the evacuation happened suddenly, once Sivash Bay (in Crimea), which was usually a salt-water body, unexpectedly froze, and the Red Army was able to cross it on foot. Before this, the White Guard was easily able to defend Crimea, since there was a narrow isthmus surrounded on both sides by water. Thus we were able to hold off for a long while and prevent the Reds from taking Crimea.
Finally, we spread out throughout the world. There is no country, no city where there are no Russians, or at least their dry bones. Over these 70 years, we preserved the Orthodox Church in all her purity, we kept the Russian tradition. We are sinners, we suffer from our own passions, sadly, we have great and small sins, but we never once betrayed Christ, we never betrayed the Church of Christ. No one can accuse us of that, this is the face of our society.
The flower of Russian society went into the emigration, a great many princes, titled aristocrats, nobles, officers, simple Russian peasants and soldiers. And these people were unable to find work abroad in their own professions, though many spoke other languages fluently. Generals were relegated to sweeping streets… but to them goes the glory and honor, to our Forebears, for they reared us children properly. Their children then went on to become doctors, engineers, lawyers. Though we fled our Fatherland in utter poverty, now there is no nation, no capital, where our Russian Orthodox churches haven’t been erected. We built them as though from dust.
At first we prayed in barracks, in caves, in rented rooms, old garages, wherever we could find a quite spot. Gradually we left these slums and began to build our own churches. This is the honor of the White Russian Emigration: she emerged poor, but rose up again. Among us are many scholars, we have very few criminals among us—this is all shown in official statistics. Our church-going Russian emigration lives honorably, we are respected even by our enemies. We are not much loved, because we do not give in to compromise, we don’t join suspicious organizations. We carry the yoke of Christ. If Russophobia even reared its ugly head in Russia, that is, hatred for the Orthodox Christian and national Russian self-identity, then moreover does it exist here. What is Russophobia? It is really Christophobia. Our Russian people very profoundly adopted Christianity, our entire culture is immersed in Orthodoxy. Look at our native proverbs, there are entire collections which could be called “the gospel of the people.”
The old emigration certainly has many faults, but we never betrayed the Truth. This is our banner. And so when people from Russia today come here, we receive them joyfully, we see in them our own Russian people, though there are some scoundrels among them. But we try to help all new immigrants to the best of our ability, for we remember our own calamity 70 years ago.
And you recent emigres who came here for various reasons, hold high the honor of the Russian Orthodox diaspora. Be together with us in all things, be honest, become missionaries. Wherever you may work, for instance, by your behavior you will be like missionaries. If you are believing, proper people, you will be respected. At first they may laugh that you make the sign of the cross before a meal, they may even in the end drive you away, but you will still be respected. They should sense in you a person to be trusted, relied upon, who fears God and nothing else. Such a person will be trusted always, people such as this are few and far between, these are exceptional people. You yourselves be among them. You will not do anything remarkable, you will simply live your faith, in honor; such people are rare in the world. This is my final wish for you.
Also I would like to say: commune of the Holy Gifts often, because only God, if He lives in your heart, has the power to help you. And for Him to be with you, you must come to the Church and to the Mysteries. The Church of Christ shall never be defeated, and if you are aboard the Ship of the unstoppable Church, you yourselves will never be defeated. Be kind to all people, and even tender, do not condemn anyone, but preserve your faith and do not concede anything to anyone. Better to die than to betray the Truth, that is, Christ. Here is my brief legacy for you, and I ask that you both think this way, and live this way.
From a recorded conversation with Metropolitan Vitaly held at Lesna Convent in France in 1996.