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Holy Russia, Still Alive: Ancient Traditions Preserved in Rural Villages

"Here is Russia! It's really Russia — Holy Russia — in rags, and scarred, but really herself. "

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Editor's note: Laurence Guillon left her native France and moved to Russia. Then she moved north of Moscow to the rural town of Pereslavl-Zalessky. She keeps an online journal of her adventures at her blog, Chroniques de Pereslavl. In this article, she recounts her recent visit to the rural Russian village of Borisoglebsky.


I was invited yesterday morning to a Sunday liturgy at the monastery of Saints Boris and Gleb, in the village of Borisoglebsky. It's an hour from my home, not far from Rostov.

Borisoglebsky Monastery — in the village of Borisoglebsky, Russia

It was one of those mornings where I had trouble getting out the door. Just getting out of bed took me ten minutes. I found it impossible to move quickly. And then of course, at the moment when I intended to leave, I had trouble finding my keys and gloves, and the gate padlock was blocked by the frost. Then on the road towards Borisoglebsky, I accidentally took a wrong turn.

On the bright side, the drive turned out to be very pretty, and it was flooded with sunlight — a cold and pure provincial winter sun. 

The monastery is absolutely beautiful. The surrounding village is still quite intact, with pretty typical houses. Most of the buildings in the monastery date back to the 17th century and prior, an unmixed Russian architecture. It is a unique architecture, which has nothing to do with the idiotic repetition of Greco-Latin models, or with the universal glass-and-concrete on which so much money is sacrificed today.

Borisoglebsky Monastery Entrance

I was running so late that I was afraid of finding no one, but the monastic services are so long that I got a bonus of three quarters of an hour. I entered this church (from the time of Vasily III, father of Ivan the Terrible, early sixteenth century) and I fell into this new environment: everything was beautiful. There were remnants of  frescoes, with no details in bad taste. They were so old, dark, and battered, that they took on an air of mystery that was both tragic and peaceful. The iconostasis, of both light and dark wood, had been recovered from somewhere, and it was covered in disparate types of icons — but everything was so TRUE, sincere and simple.

Borisoglebsky Monastery — inside the monastery walls

Not only did this wonderful church remain noble and authentic, but the choir sang very old, unadorned songs, with natural voices, and not with an irksome, modern, pompous, academic affectation.

Above the Igumen (Abbot) in his gilded clothing, two banners could be seen — so worn, so maltreated, and yet in their heroic, rustic and simple appearance, they seemed more splendid than all the puffs and gilding that I have seen disfiguring so many other "restored" churches. Stunned, I turned to my host, Vasily Tomachinsky, and I told him:

"Here is Russia! It's really Russia — Holy Russia — in rags, and scarred, but really herself. "

After the service, I went to venerate the relics of the founders of the monastery, and those of St. Irenarch, whose famous five-day procession takes place every summer. When venerating him, it is customary to wear the same chains that St. Irenarch himself wore constantly — two iron crosses connected by enormous chains. Once I was lying prostrate with that, I thought I would never be able to get up again.

Fr. John — the Igumen — then told me that he wanted to give me a present. I followed him to his residence, and while waiting for him, I listened to Vasily Tomachinsky tell me the history of the monastery. I drank in all this grace — these grand arches, ancient bricks, varied domes adorned with unfading blossoms, and interweavings of light and simple shapes, so original — and the bells rang in the light.

Father John came back with a bag stuffed with books, and provided me with an early Christmas. There are two books about the monastery and the procession of St. Irenarch, a large book titled "Holy Russia, Keeping the Orthodox Faith", various pamphlets on the same theme, DVDs, and two infusion packets — willow picked up on the path of the cross procession, of course.

"You have not participated in the procession yet?" 

— No, Father, because I have a hard time walking . . . I wanted to come this summer, but then I pulled my back, so I went to Solovki instead. 

"Let's see! Just go — people go there, at any age and in any state, even in a wheelchair! I knew a sportsman who had an accident and pulled his leg — when he drank water from the holy spring, he forgot his pain!"

— Ah, so ... I had thought about following the cross procession via bicycle, but my spiritual father told me that might not be very traditional . . .

"Come by bicycle, no problem, you have my blessing." 

I like the Igumen. He seems very good, full of both humor and tenderness. But I did not understand any of his sermon. He spoke softly, and was inaudible. When his parishioners point it out, he says they only need to clean their ears.

I then went with Vasily to visit Alexei. He lives in a blue isba with carved windows. (His daughter lives in Paris, and is married to a French journalist from Le Point.) We discussed issues regarding Patriarch Bartholomew, and French parishes. I also recounted the visit of Henry and Patricia, and their impressions. Vasily said,

"In reality, in spite of everything, there remains something of us — of our faith — and when I hear this kind of testimony, I tell myself that we still have something to contribute, a role to play . . . I am convinced of it. An eschatological role." 

Visiting with my host, Vasily Tomachinsky

Then we visited Ludmila Pavlovna, whom I had met this summer, and who already wanted to embark on the cross procession of St. Irenarch (which I will not miss next year). She is a smart and fine woman. She is one of those ladies who, with age, take on an air of old fairies, like the painter Elena Vassilieva. And she too went there with her gift: an old, rather damaged icon, which I would not dare not restore myself. But I will try to find someone who can.

Ludmila Pavlovna has an old Russian stove covered with ceramics. Each tile is decorated with a blue rhombus, but these diamonds being made freehand are all different, under their apparent unity, which gives them an extraordinary life.

After that, I met Elena, a Belgian who lives in town. She is a little lady with a cane, who looks like a nun. In fact she is Belgian by nationality, but her parents are Russian emigrants. 

She took me around her estate, an old monastery where some novices try to restore the ruins that remain. She takes this very seriously. The churches had been surrounded by a cemetery, of which only two gravestones remain. Years ago, some workers had started digging in the cemetery, in order to build a water tower. So when she came back from Belgium, she found cases of bones in front of her house. Together with the parishioners, she buried all these remains in a Christian way, and covered up the hole before the workers returned. She said,

"These houses here are built on bones, and many tombstones were used for the foundations."

She was particularly moved by this, grieving over how the village's ancestors had been treated like a pile of rubbish.

There were a lot of stars in the Borisoglebsky sky, when I decided to go back, and an orange crescent touched the forest, like on a painting of Vroubel, or an illustration of Bilibine. 

Today, I received a visit from Sacha Zhukovsky and his son Timocha, on their way to their dacha, 40 km from here. Sacha is a folklorist, and his wife is too. The children have grown up in this ethos. Raised strictly, in the orthodox religion, with traditional music and respect for the pater familias, Sacha's children are very endearing, balanced, and always friendly. 

Sacha told me that near the Borisoglebsky area, there was a village that was dying, around a dilapidated church. A rich man who had his roots there, commissioned the restoration of the church from a local entrepreneur. At the end of the restoration, he put another bundle of money on the table:

"Well, now, you need a priest for this church, go study at the seminary. . . . Who else would do it? You will do very well."

The entrepreneur became a priest. He began restoring houses in the village. They also started reviving the local agriculture, working with cattle and horses. Now they have a hippotherapy center and all kinds of craft activities. When someone wants to buy land or a home in this village, the local administration says: "Go see Father Vladimir, and you will buy if he lets you!" 

I had bought French coffee cakes, but Timocha did not dare to taste them. He was very eager to do so, but he seemed to see in this refined product of Western civilization something decidedly too much sought after, too sybaritic. "Take half, I'll eat the other," his father told him. The boy ate his half with delight. "So Timocha, do you like it anyway?" 

"It's ... it's indescribable! But precisely . . . it's too much! It's too much!" 

An ascetic! 


Source: Chroniques de Pereslavl (French)

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