Priest Georges Machtalere: “We Christians Must Make the World a Better Place”
It is not every day that one has the chance to communicate with the grandson of a White Guard and the son of a Russian princess. But I was fortunate, within the context of my “geographical” cycle of interviews. My conversation below - on the White Army and ancestral traditions, the difficult life in emigration after the “Russian Exodus” and the consolation of Luxembourg, priest’s wives and teenage problems, attitudes towards the former USSR and friendship with Catholics, the difficulties facing parishes in the West and the need for self-improvement - was with the Rector of the church in Luxembourg in honor of Apostles Peter and Paul, of the Diocese of Great Britain and Western Europe of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia: the Doctor of Chemistry and Patent Specialist Priest George Machtalere.
– Father George, if I’m not mistaken, you are a third-generation descendant of White emigrees. And perhaps, considering this heritage, it would be somewhat strange to ask a question about your churching (by custom, our conversations with priests from different regions within the framework of our “geographical” cycle of interviews, we begin with this question). But still - tell us about your spiritual development, and about your family.
– Yes, it is … I was born in 1959 in Argentina. I am the grandson of Boris Machtalere, second lieutenant of the White Volunteer Army. He served with General Kornilov. Boris Nikolaevich was born in 1902 in Kiev. He graduated from high school in 1919 with a ‘gold medal’ and immediately volunteered for the White Army, to fight against the Bolsheviks.
– This is significant: an excellent student understood well what was happening, and made the right choice.
– Yes, and, as you understand, he joined the White Army, seeing what was happening in his homeland, especially after the Brest-Litovsk accord, when the Germans ended up in Kiev. He zealously wished for Russia a different fate. In 1920, he was evacuated with the fragments of General Wrangel’s army to Gallipoli, and a year later with his regiment found himself in Bulgaria. There he graduated from the Sergievsky Artillery School with the rank of second lieutenant and moved to France in 1923, where he worked as a taxi driver. There he met his future wife; they had a son, my father Vladimir, and a daughter, my aunt Ksenia. And in 1947 they left for Argentina. I will tell you about this in more detail.
I was born in Buenos Aires, in the family of Vladimir Machtalere and Princess Elena Gagarina. The Gagarin family had a tradition: to call all male children born in a generation Gregory or George, and to orientate them in their training either towards mineralogy or fine arts. Among the most famous representatives of this dynasty are three generations of scientists who have collected a rare collection of minerals, amounting to some 3,000 items.
– I must say, that is a serious collection.
– And Gregory Gagarin was vice-president of the Art Academy of St Petersburg, and it was he who painted the walls and vaults of the Transfiguration Church in Baden-Baden. So, while my grandfather was a taxi driver, from 1923 to 1947, as I said, he met my grandmother, Tatyana Vladimirovna Rogova, from a Russian family living in Riga. My great-grandfather from my grandmother’s side was a railway engineer during the Russian Civil War. His family, fortunately, did not suffer, although they were severely oppressed. My grandmother left in the late 1920s for Paris, met my grandfather, they got married in the Church of Gallipoli, first my aunt, Ksenia Borisovna Machtalere (now Pervyshina), was born, and in July 1937 my father was born in Paris.
So, my father arrived with his family in Argentina, graduated from the university, and met my mother. Mother’s grandfather, Prince Gregory Georgievich Gagarin, ended up in Serbia with his family after the “Russian Exodus”, which received many emigrants. Serbia allowed scientists, engineers, physicists, and all specialists to work in their specialty - unlike, by contrast, in France, where people came from Russia after graduating from universities and, unfortunately, could not work in their specialty, because their diplomas were not recognized in the West. There are cases, for example, when princes and professors became taxi drivers.
– Did the Serbs recognize Russian education?
– Yes, and, to Serbia’s credit, it allowed Russians to study, continue to work and remain who they were. The professor remained a professor, an engineer an engineer, a writer a writer, and a priest a priest. My mother was born in Serbia. She was the daughter of the mineralogist Prince Gregory Georgievich Gagarin. When Tito came to power, they were forced to leave for Dresden. And after Dresden, my grandfather and grandmother - with children, my mother and her sister Marianne - left for Argentina. There my father met my mother. I was born in 1959, my brother in 1960, and my sister in 1966. My brother, Priest Alexander Machtalere, by the way, now serves in the Russian Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate near Paris. After his birth, we returned to France, where we lived from 1961 to 1965, for another 2 years; then again in Argentina, and in 1967 we finally settled in France. They lived with grandfather and grandmother in the south, then near Paris, in Meudon, where St John of Shanghai and Marina Tsvetaeva lived.
– My head is already spinning from the scale of movements and the cycle of events!
– I must say that my brother and I studied at an Argentine school, and only after, in France. The family mainly used Russian. But, answering the question about faith …
– Yes, it’s still very interesting, although, as I said, it is quite understandable.
We were raised in the faith. Grandfather and grandmother were believers. My grandmother came from a family of Old Believers.
– Ah, this is unexpected.
Though she belonged to the priestly group [of Old Believers]. As you know, there are quite a few Old Believers near Riga. Therefore, we were raised in faith. The White Emigration, after all, wherever it fled from the Bolsheviks, in each place the first thing they thought about was building a church. At first, services were performed in barracks, in garages. Conditions were difficult and modest. I must say that my membership in the youth organization “Vityazi” in Paris, which still exists today, helped me a lot. There we learned Russian history, poetry, the law of God. So yes, it is no surprise that since childhood we were brought up in the Orthodox faith.
My grandfather helped build the Buenos Aires temple. And I must say that the environment helped a great deal with our Orthodox upbringing. The late Archbishop Anthony (Bartoshevich), Father Alexander Trubnikov, Father Mikhail De Castelbajac (who was ordained a priest by St John of Shanghai), Father Mikhail Artemovich - these were real examples for us. My brother and I went to church, read and sang under the direction of the choir director, Konstantin Kirillovich Malinin. Our churching took place step by step. As you can imagine, under the conditions of the emigration, it was quite difficult for the third generation of Russians, since there was a strong assimilation. There were many mixed marriages. “Churchness” was lost. Understand, when I was twenty years old, with my grandfather alive, my grandfather was no longer in Russia. The Soviet Union was for us not Russian culture, but a political system - and it was hostile to us. This is how many emigrants thought. And so we were brought up by our priests in the Faith, we attended services, studied. I studied at the university through to my doctoral thesis. We tried to preserve what we loved and appreciated in Russian culture.
– Was it these pious examples - first of your family members, and then of the clergy - that prompted you to decide to become a priest?
– I did not make the decision to become a priest …
– How did it take place, then?
– It was simply that I was a deacon, serving in Geneva, and I found a job in 2008 in Luxembourg at the patent office; and I was then able to help the late Archpriest Sergius Poukh, who built the temple [in Luxembourg]. He served until his 85th birthday, and by decision of Archbishop Mikhail (Donskov), then the Ruling Bishop of the Geneva and Western European Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, I was proposed to become a priest. It was difficult to refuse in that situation … In summary, it will soon be ten years that I have been serving in the Church of the Holy Chiefs of the Apostles SS Peter and Paul.
– You preempted my question about how it came about that Luxembourg became your new home. It seems that it was first to fill a vacant work position, and only then to become a place of [Church] service.
– Yes, I found a job here. Even before 2008 I worked with patents, in addition to being a chemist by profession. I served in Geneva, and then everything worked out somehow - and here I am, in Luxembourg.
– Your first impression of the country… was there a culture shock? What was especially striking in terms of the mentality of local social norms and attitudes, and of general life in Luxembourg?
– Luxembourg is a very small country! It has a total of 600,000 residents. Many come from Germany, Belgium and France because the standard of living is quite high. The mentality … it is quite a pleasant country. It’s very peaceful here. In terms of social well-being, of the life of families with children, of study in schools, is a great place. Luxembourg has many forests and places to walk. The infrastructure is wonderful, I must admit it. Life is easy, everything is nearby. Luxembourgers are calm and pleasant people with whom you can converse with pleasure.
– In such a small country there are probably very few Orthodox. What jurisdictions are there in Luxembourg? Are there many of our compatriots here today?
– In 1928, there was already an Orthodox community here. So soon we will be celebrating our 100th anniversary. There is one Russian parish, there are communities of Romanians, Serbs and Greeks. There are about 5,000 Russian speakers here in Luxembourg, including visitors from Ukraine and Belarus. The largest community is among the Romanians.
– Tell us about the Russian Orthodox parish of the Apostles Peter and Paul. First, about the history of its foundation.
– Immediately upon arrival in Luxembourg, the Russian community founded a house church in Wiltz in 1927. Father George (Sokolov) became the priest, serving until his departure to Volyn in 1928. The house church, set up in one of the rooms of the factory canteen that was converted into a barracks for Russian workers, gathered together 175 former cadets and officers employed at the Wiltz tannery on weekends.
The next priest was Father Eugene, a former Colonel of Treshchin, ordained in Meudon (where we lived), near Paris, in 1929. From 1934, the house church moved to Mertert, where it existed until 1966. But over time Father Eugene could no longer serve (he died in 1966); and so priests (Father Dimitri Khvostov and Father Chedomir) arrived from Brussels, and the services continued - first in premises provided by the Protestants and then by the Catholics. Fathers Dimitri and Chedomir were replaced in 1974 by priest Sergius Poukh, thanks to whom the parish obtained its own church. Father Sergius initiated its construction and invested in it personal funds received from the sale of his house. The temple was consecrated on July 12, 1982 in honour of the Holy Chiefs of the Apostles Sts Peter and Paul. The frescoes were painted by Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov) of the Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, in the United States.
– Is the community large today? Does it consist of Russians, or are there representatives of other nationalities, including locals?
– Yes, we can say that our community is quite large. On major feast days, perhaps 300 people. For us this is a lot! I must say that Luxembourg is still a central place. They come from the south of Belgium, from the west of Germany, from France. And our temple is quite large.
The community consists mainly of Russians, but also of Georgians, Serbs, and native inhabitants of European countries who have converted to Orthodoxy. This is very interesting, and I myself have personally baptised several of these people.
– And what was the motivation for them in accepting Baptism?
– It happened thanks to Russian wives! Husbands became interested in Orthodoxy through their spouses, and then joined the Church. For example, we have one parishioner from Ukraine. Her husband is a Luxembourgian. He gradually came to faith through his spouse, and I myself baptized him. And now he actively participates in parish life.
– Could you please share some specifics of parish life: What language do you use for worship? Are there any peculiarities in the performance of the services? Perhaps there are local traditions of worship?
– Our church life is quite developed. I work part-time so that I can serve on the twelve Great Feasts and other significant feast days, during Holy Week and on other important days. There are many mixed families whose children, although they speak Russian, are sometimes interested in listening to litanies and parts of the service in different languages. At present we serve the Liturgy with the inclusion of prayers in French, Serbian, German, English and, of course, Church Slavonic. But this is not an obstacle. People are sympathetic to the fact that the service is performed in different languages. It must be remembered that St John of Shanghai, when he was the Ruling Bishop of the Western European Diocese, served in the local languages. He served in both French and Flemish … and this did not hinder him, because his goal as a saint was to spread Orthodoxy. Because it is important that people understand the language of worship.
– To what extent are the parishioners themselves involved in the life of the community? Do the concerns of the parish’s physical upkeep and financial issues lie entirely on the shoulders of the priest, or do deeply conscious parishioners actively share this burden? How “alive” can we call the parish council and parish assembly?
– As elsewhere in the Diaspora, there are people, especially sisters, who delve deeply into our parish life, but there are few of them. The temple is always clean, we are constantly engaged in the maintenance of the building and repairs. I would, of course, wish many more people to participate in this! But people are busy, they have their family lives, jobs. The temple is kept in proper condition by our efforts. Everyone does their bit and helps as much as possible. There are those who help financially, including rather large donations (but this is quite rare). People give as much as they can - thank God for that!
Our parish council is lively, and we solve parish issues together. But, of course, over the past two years, things have come to a halt somewhat due to the pandemic. The center of our life, however, is worship.
– As for educational, charitable and social projects - do you manage these realms also?
– There is a Sunday School, but there are some hurdles in its development because people are not always fully churched. It is difficult for parents to understand the importance of raising their children in the Church. But we treat these people with understanding, since they are mostly immigrants from the former USSR. And the school is developing despite the difficulties.
As for social service, we have quite a few funds for this. We help as much as we can to those who ask for help. With one parishioner, we had a project to create a center for the study of Orthodoxy and interact with different parishes from Russia. Unfortunately, this project faded a little due to Covid. It is difficult to find funds and premises. And this worries me a little. After all, we are trying to serve the glory of God, and in our world it becomes more and more difficult. People have other interests …
We also cooperate with the Russian Center in Luxembourg and take part in events held by the Embassy of the Russian Federation.
– Tell us about the brightest events in the life of the parish in recent years.
– Two years ago we celebrated the 90th anniversary of the parish, when the first Russian community appeared. This was the most significant event.
– Is it possible (and is it necessary) to interact with representatives of heterodox confessions and other religions?
– Certainly! Our temple was built forty years ago, and soon we will celebrate the anniversary of the event. We obtained the territory thanks to the Government, which provided us with a parcel of land, and we were able to build a temple. Of course, we participate in various social events. On the national holiday of Luxembourg, Catholics invite us and representatives of other confessions to the cathedral. This is very important because in Luxembourg it is essential to have contact with representatives of the local confession, that is, with Catholics. I must say that here Catholicism holds a very strong position. By the way, they helped and are helping us. We have good connections, we also try to maintain them and participate in cultural events in Luxembourg. Catholics help not only us, but also Romanians, Serbs and Greeks.
– How are relations with the State? You mentioned that the State provided land for the temple. Is there any support from the authorities, or, on the contrary, any obstacle to the activities of the community?
– Our relations are administrative. If we want to redo something in the church, we need to contact the administration and get permission. It should be said that we have good relations with them, and they understand us. They desire to be shown respect. And we must respect Luxembourg and their culture of administration. They watch this very closely.
– You said that you also work [in secular employment]. Why is it that you don’t you want (or can’t) leave your secular office and devote yourself entirely to the ministry? Do you think that a priest should work?
– Our communities in the West are not very rich. It is rare that parishes have the means to maintain a priest financially. I myself have worked all my life. And many priests work, although the parish is obliged to support its priest. I work part-time, and the Church also gives me something for my ministry.
Should a priest work? Well, it depends on the country and the circumstances. A wealthy parish can set a salary for a priest. But the standard of living and prices in Luxembourg are quite high. So we have to work.
– What serious spiritual questions from the parishioners do you, as a pastor, face in your ministry?
– The disease of our century is family relationships. There are very serious problems: the illness of a husband, wife or children; and divorce … Life may not work out. Poverty is also a serious issue. Some people come and think that this is paradise. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We are trying to help. But, alas, we cannot take over everything.
– What do you consider the challenge of the time for an Orthodox person? Perhaps specifically in Luxembourg.
– Teenagers, when they grow up, leave the Church. This is very sad for me. It is difficult for parents to force their children to attend the temple. When a child grows up, it’s interesting. During this time, he can ask serious questions, and parents can answer them. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. I am often confronted with these kinds of problems.
– What is the main lesson from your years of priestly ministry?
– Our parish is increasing, and our church building is turning out to be too small for the entire community. I rejoice! But, as we know, only 2-3% of our people visit the church. The rest do not want to become churched. This is the sad truth of life.
– In conclusion, I will ask our traditional question. What words from the Holy Scriptures or the Holy Fathers especially inspire and support you in difficult moments of life? Perhaps there is even a story connected with this?
– You know, in answer to this question, I would quote the words spoken by God to the Monk Silouan the Athonite: “Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.” This is a difficult thought for everyone. We, priests, desire the salvation of people, we wish people to come and take to church life. It is through spiritual life that we ??become better, and the world around us becomes better from this. Let us remember the Monk Seraphim of Sarov, who attracted people, and people came to him for spiritual grace, for answers to questions and for healings. And when we improve, the world improves. This is what I try to explain to those who come to the temple. We Christians must make the world a better place!
15/28 October, 2021
Translated from the interview originally published on Pravoslavie.ru.