“There Was Something Otherworldly in the Primates of the Russian Diaspora”
Stories about the seven First Hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia
Interview with Liudmila Selinsky
When the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia recently elected its seven Primate, His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas (Olhovsky), it occurred to me that there is a person in the Russian Diaspora who surely knew all seven First Hierarchs. That would be the late 103-year-old parishioner of St Seraphim Church in Sea Cliff, NY, Rostislav Polchaninoff. He was born in Novocherkassk in 1919, and left Russia with his family in November 1920 with General Wrangel’s White Army, where his father served as an officer. As a small child in the welcoming party of Baron Wrangel, when he arrived in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, the general lifted him high over his head. He went on to work in the renowned Pskov Orthodox Mission, and Russian Scouts knew him by the name “Slava.”
Naturally, I asked Rostislav Vladimirovich to grant an interview, but a few days later, his daughter, Liudmila Selinsky, responded. It turned out that “RVP,” as his friends called him and he called himself, caught Covid, which turned into pneumonia. Liudmila Rostislavovna agreed to interview him and report back to me.
Even as he bravely battled illness, Rostislav Vladimirovich shared his recollections of the First Hierarchs of the Russian Church Abroad and his long-time friendship with Metropolitan Laurus (Skurla).
— Liudmila Rostislavovna, your father was alive during the reign of the first head of ROCOR, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky). What memories does he have of him?
— He was very young during the time of Vladyka Anthony and so did not meet with him in person. Of course, he always had a profound respect for a hierarch of such stature.
Vladyka Anthony initiated the important tradition in the Russian diaspora, in which my father was to play an active role and which he described in his memoirs. Rostislav Vladimirovich was in Sarajevo in 1937, where Viktor Mikhailovich Baidalakov, a Russian political and military activist, officer of the White Army during the Civil War in the south of Russia, told him about it. In 1927, Metropolitan Anthony decided that November 7 of every year would be known as the Day of Intransigence. The Russian diaspora was not ready to take up this idea of their Primate. Still, an organization known as the National Union of the New Generation set for itself the goal of manifesting his proposal.
Viktor Mikhailovich told my father how important this was: on one hand, we needed to unite our thoughtful emigration, and we needed to remind them of their duty before Russia and the Russian people. Then, in 1937, Baidalakov organized the marking of the Day of Intransigence in the Cadet Corps Hall in Sarajevo, inviting the Russian General Military Union and other Russian organizations to participate, including the 18-year-old Rostislav Polchaninoff.
Since then, the Days of Intransigence were commemorated annually in the Russian diaspora, and the Primate and other hierarchs would attend the events. Scouts from St George Pathfinders would present scenes called “The Tragedy of Russia.”
When our family arrived in New York in 1951, I remember that my father was invited at the last minute to speak at the event called “The Day of Sorrow and Intransigence.” Metropolitan Anastassy (Gribanovsky), other bishops and clergy sat in the front row of a huge auditorium, and a large sword wrapped in barbed wire hung overhead. My father spoke about the tragedy of Russia and the continuing battle for its emancipation. I especially remember his final words: “Vladyka, thank you!” He was grateful to Vladyka Anastassy and the clergymen for their blessing and attendance at the event, after which he received a standing ovation. The newspaper Rossiya, published in New York City, wrote the following:
“The large audience, profoundly stunned by the 33-year tragedy of Russia, reverentially watched the presentations of images of the sorrowful Russian Golgotha, noble tears running down their cheeks, at the same time grieving for their Russia, humiliated and desecrated by the Red barbarians, and on the other hand, weeping with unbounded love for their Russian Nation and the millennial historical Russia.”
— You already mentioned Metropolitan Anastassy. Tell us, was your father able to establish contact with him?
— He said that from his discussions with Vladyka Anastassy, he felt that this was a man of another epoch. His visage, his speech, as with other Primates, of course, exuded something otherworldly.
In his memoirs, my father would reveal that there was a Russian parish in Sarajevo, and that Metropolitan Anastassy’s visit there in 1938 with the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign" was a great event. He arrived from Belgrade in the evening, and the Parish Rector, Archpriest Alexei Kryzhko, instructed the 19-year-old Rostislav Polchaninoff, as a Scout director, to gather a group of scouts and young people to greet him.
Papa quickly summoned several dozen kids, who stood in uniform along the road from the railway station to Evropa Hotel, where Metropolitan Anastassy was to stay. He added that the Metropolitan drove by in a car, blessing all the kids standing by the road. He remembered this for the rest of his life. Afterwards, Papa gathered the scout directors to take all the kids home.
The next morning, Metropolitan Anastassy took the icon on a large procession from the hotel to the Russian church. It was not far, and Papa again lined the road with scouts, who would shout “Hail Russia” along the way. A hierarchical service was then celebrated, which was an historic event for the Russian colony in Sarajevo.
After the war, Papa had a brief meeting with Metropolitan Anastassy in Germany, in one of the displaced-persons camps. Vladyka visited during scout holidays and Mothers’ Day, and for Christmas pageants.
— I presume that your father also met with other Primates of ROCOR?
— Of course, he would meet with Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky), Metropolitan Vitaly (Oustinov) and Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral) in Russian parishes, but he did not have face-to-face meetings with them. There was, however, a meeting in 1988 at Holy Virgin Protection Church in Nyack, NY, where the Russian diaspora was celebrating the 1000-year anniversary of the Baptism of Rus. Papa was its main organizer, and I was the artistic director and script-writer. Metropolitan Vitaly had a discussion about how it was to be organized.
— I want to hear about your father’s friendship with Metropolitan Laurus, which lasted almost a half a century…
— They met in the 1960’s, when Vladyka was a mere monk, later the Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery. Papa was always interested in Carpathian Rus, and, having heard that Father Laurus hailed from the area, discussed it with him at length. That is how their friendship started.
In 2002, thanks to his friendship with Vladyka Laurus, my father was granted permission to videotape the Russian Cultural Foundation in Holy Trinity Monastery and interview Vladyka himself for the series “Russians Without Russia—the Russian Choice.” I was a consultant for the American part of the project. When it was published in 2003, it was greatly received in Russia.
When the 100th anniversary of the Tragedy of Russia was marked by a conference at the Synod of Bishops in New York, which was headed by Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan, current Primate of ROCOR, my father gave a talk about Metropolitan Laurus, Carpathian Russia and the meaning of the Russian diaspora, its various epochs and countries where it exists, the military-political emigration and the Russian nationalist minorities…
As an example from our family, my father spoke about the military-political emigration, what he had heard from his father, who served at the Supreme Headquarters of the Tsar, General Denikin and General Wrangel, who said: “If I have but one chance for victory, I cannot fail to take advantage of it.” He talked about the devotion of the Russian Army, prepared to fight to the death, about how they were forced to retreat and how they were welcomed in Yugoslavia… A question-and-answer period and discussions followed, people asked my father about the “Reds” and “Whites,” about the diaspora and about the “Ukraine question.” Some “old Russians” remembered the Days of Intransigence and the “Tragedy of Russia” presentations.
— Based on his acquaintance with former Primates of ROCOR, it seems obvious that your father knew the present First Hierarch well. I am sure that you yourself have stories about Vladyka Nicholas?
— We all know Vladyka Nicholas personally, and are close friends with the family of his late wife, Elizabeth Shohoff, from our days in the DP camps in Germany. Elizabeth’s grandfather was the renowned Bishop Mitrophan (born Mitrophan Konstantinovich Znosko-Borovsky). Fr Mitrophan baptized me in a DP camp. Since my early childhood I remember Fr Mitrophan, who soon departed to Morocco, as did many Russians from the DP camps, and from there to the United States.
My parents would tell me a lot about Fr Mitrophan, about his spirituality, heroism and patriotism, but I only got to know him well when I became a parishioner of St Seraphim Church in Sea Cliff, NY, where he was Rector. My parents taught in Russian school, and I would perform with other children, including Liza Shohoff, future with of Fr Nicholas. Our families were close friends, we went through a lot together. I had great respect for Fr Mitrophan, who later became a bishop, and who was my spiritual father.
Vladyka Nicholas, of course, was the cell-attendant of Metropolitan Laurus for many years. His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas, having had close ties to such eminent clergymen as Metropolitan Laurus, Metropolitan Hilarion and his relative Bishop Mitrophan, despite his young age, received a great deal of invaluable experience.