Russian Orthodox Community in America, Part I


The Russian Church is the particular Orthodox community that dates back over a thousands years to Saint Vladimir and his grandmother, Saint Olga. The Russian Church has been consistently expanding this community through a particular way that dates back to the Apostles. The Russian Church first came to the American continent in the late 1700s. Several monks, including the well-known St Herman of Alaska, began a mission to the native Indian population through what the Russians call sobornost. Sobornost is the word Russians use to describe the communal mystery of God’s people within His Church, as we see in the Acts of the Apostles. This is what St Herman came out here for…not to promote a type of “Russian” Orthodox ethnicity or special dialect and culture, but to promote Christ and his continuing mystical community.

Much like Americans, Russians are not widely known an ethnicity or race. Russians like to be known as a people, and historically known as an Orthodox people, an Orthodox community. We are the everyday embodiment of our Church. The late Russian theologian and philosopher Fr George Florovsky speaks of this concept very clearly:

“From the very beginning Christianity was not primarily a “doctrine”, but exactly a “community.” There was precisely a New Community…fellowship (koinonia) was the basic category of Christian existence. Primitive Christians felt themselves to be closely knit and bound together in a unity which radically transcended all human boundaries – of race, of culture, of social rank, and indeed the whole dimension of “this world.” They were the New Israel…The Church was not just a “gathered community,” or volunteer association, for religious purposes alone. She was and claimed to be a distinct and autonomous “society.”

The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky describes the Russian Orthodox community as such:

 “The overwhelming majority of Russian people are Orthodox and live the idea of Orthodoxy to the fullest, despite the fact that they do not understand this idea logically or scientifically. In essence our people have no other “idea” except this one, and everything proceeds from it. Our people desire this from the depths of their hearts and out of profound conviction…I am not speaking now about church buildings or the clergy, but about our Russian “socialism” (I use the word, which is the exact opposite of the Church, on order to explain my thinking, strange as it might seem), the aim and result of which is a Church that encompasses the entire nation and the entire world, and that is realized on earth to the extent this is possible. I am speaking about the tireless thirst that the Russian people have always had for a great, universal unity in Christ’s name that includes the entire nation and all their brethren. And if this unity has not been achieved, if the Church has not yet been united completely, that is, not only in prayer but in reality, the instinct for this Church and the tireless thirst for it, sometimes almost unconscious, are nevertheless undoubtedly present in the hearts of the many millions of Russians. It is not in communism or in mechanical forms that the socialism of the Russian people consists, for they believe that they will be ultimately be saves only by universal unity in Christ’s name…At this point it is possible to say the following: those who do not understand the Orthodoxy of our people and its final aims will never understand our people themselves.”

In pre-revolution times of the late 19th century, many national movements began this more distinct movement of Sobor’nost, the communal aspect of the Russian Orthodox Church. These Slavophiles (opposition to the western infiltrators) at that time went as far as promoting the more ancient name of their nation: “Rus”, which associated the nation with her roots with the founding St Vladimir of Kiev, who in all the Orthodox Church across the world is known as:

St Vladimir, Equal to the Apostles

In regards to St Vladimir’s theology, Fr, Dr. P.Y. Svetlov said, in the early 20th century:

 “The kingdom of God manifests itself and exists in the external order of reality, embracing not only the invisible inner life of the faithful, but all regions of earthly relations and conditions of earthly human existence. All human activity (culture) and institution (the state) are embraced…This transfiguration and inclusion of all the world in the creation of the kingdom of God is the final purpose toward which providence directs us in history.”

Russian Orthodoxy has historically been interested in leading the way in the American mission by this example of sobornost. It’s a complex task, no doubt. We are surrounded by a very Protestant philosophy here in America that separates the Church from society. The temptation is to conform to the Protestant-American model of getting as many people into Sunday service as possible so as to just grow the temple service: bodies and buildings. Orthodox tradition knows no such missional model. The Russian Church has always built through the mode of community, which involves the comunal relationship between the laity, clergy and very importantly, the monasteries. This is very hard to do when the indigenous community is pulled toward the consumeristic and political tendencies of American culture. The corporatized holidays and the news media pull very hard on the American conscience. The Russian Church is a counter movement to this particular type of culture. It is such not simply based on her distribution of patristic literature and Sunday liturgy, but on her experience as a steadfast community of believers throughout history. She is a community that has suffered…dearly. Orthodox communities that have such a history can be very valuable for the American culture, especially in this day and age where many Americans need the comfort and security of something that has roots, something real.