XENIA IN BAKU

JUNE, 2001

Greetings from Baku:

   Hope all is well with everyone. As usual the past month has been very busy for us. The Patriarch of Moscow visited Baku for the first time in the over 1000-year history of the Russian Orthodox Church; we moved into new accommodations; and the Azerbaijan Oil & Gas Exhibition with its usual amount of preparation and receptions occurred. We also found some time to be together as a family.

   The visit of the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II, was the high point of the month and probably the year. Of course this had to occur on the same weekend that we were moving. Anyway, we knew that the first service the Patriarch would be serving would be Saturday evening Vespers. At this point we were now staying in a suite at the Hyatt Hotel while all of our belongings were being moved. Following an entire day of telling movers where we wanted everything placed, we hurried back to our suite at the Hyatt and got ready for vespers. As our driver got closer to the Cathedral we noticed more and more police until we hit a road block and could not go any further, so we walked the last block to the Cathedral. The crowds at Pascha were nothing compared to what we found at the Cathedral that day. We went to the front doors but there was no possible way for us to get inside. In fact the courtyards were just jammed with people. So Nia suggested we walk around back. It was just as bad back there. However, while we were back there, we ran into Hiermonk Alexy. He told us to come with him. He led us into a side door of the Cathedral, and walked us across the front of the Cathedral, right in front of the iconostasis, and found us a place to stand. We were now positioned right in front of the iconostasis, on the right side in front of the icon of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. From here we could see everything happening in the altar as well as look down onto the congregation into a Cathedral that was absolutely packed. The Saturday evening services were Vespers followed by Matins.

   For the most part it was nice to be standing up front. We could look down on the congregation, we did not have to worry about being pushed and shoved. Hieromonk Alexy got Xenia a chair to sit on, and we and Xenia were all able to see everything going on. I have to wonder what everyone else thought as we were led to our "special" place. I was also able to get some good photographs - they will be sent later. The Cathedral was also crowded with the local television people and other media. There was also a large contingent of bodyguards including the security staff from the Russian Embassy, the Patriarch's own security staff as well as individuals from the Azerbaijan security apparatus. Hieromonk Alexy later came over and gave me my invitation to the luncheon with the Patriarch that would be held on Sunday.

   Everything pretty well went as planned until the part of Matins when the anointing occurs. This is performed in the middle of the Cathedral. First the Patriarch anointed all the clergy and handed them icons of his visit. Then it was the congregation's turn and that is when it started to turn ugly. There is no such thing in the country as queuing - push and shove because I want mine now. Security stood all around the Patriarch and the clergy stood in two rows to form a center aisle from the Patriarch to the front of the Cathedral. However, the pushing and shoving from the people caused that to be a futile effort. I looked down into that madness and basically thought there was no way we were going to go down into that mob to receiving anointing. As we stood and watched, Hieromonk Alexander comes out of the altar and asks whether we had been anointed. I said no and he said to follow him. Thank goodness he is a big man. He pushed his way, with us in tow, all the way down to the Patriarch and all three of us were anointed and given commemorative icons. Members of the clergy then slowly escorted us back to the front of the Cathedral. The Patriarch continued anointing until the very end of Matins when he returned to the altar. The poor priest that was left to finish the anointing with no bodyguards was almost trampled. Following the end of Matins, we escaped through the same side doors that we entered through and waited there in the courtyard. The Patriarch exited through the same doors and went into the buildings behind the Cathedral. Again some good pictures.

   The next day, Sunday, was to be the consecration of the Church of the Myrrh-bearing Women. This was the second consecration service that we would be attending in a month. Just last month we had attended the consecration of St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas. As I mentioned in last month's installment, the Church of the Myrrh-bearing Women was desecrated by the Soviets and was now in the process of being restored to its previous glory. Also, I had mentioned in last month's installment that I was at this church the previous week for the blessing and raising of the crosses onto the cupolas. The biggest surprise when we arrived this Sunday was how much work had been done in the church just in the past week. Much of the renovation work is being funded by LUKOIL - the Russian Oil Company. It is ironic that here we have a Russian oil company funding the renovation of a church meanwhile it might have been the fathers and grandfathers of the present executives of the oil company that were probably involved in the persecution of the church many years ago.

   We arrived at the church at 7:15 am for the 8:00 am start because of the potential crowds that were anticipated. While waiting for the start of the services, there was a momentary panic when it was realized that there were not enough flowers in the church. A woman comes running up to me saying, "Bishop Alexander says you have a car and driver. We need to go buy flowers!" So off we went to buy flowers. Luckily in this country you can buy cut flowers at any time of the day and night. We went to the flower shop, she got the flowers that were needed, and as she left the shop, pointed at me and told the proprietor, "He will pay for them!" It was not that much and the crisis was averted.

   As Nia and Xenia waited inside, I went outside the church and waited for the Patriarch's arrival. At precisely 8:00 am for the first time in a very long time church bells again were heard in that neighborhood. As the bells were ringing, the limousines with police escort drove up to the church, the Patriarch emerged and entered the church. As I watched this happen I realized what a glorious moment it was. Here was a church, that had been totally desecrated, turned into a fort, its altar served as a bathroom and finally left to fall into total disrepair. And now here today it is returned to its former glory - the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch of Moscow comes to consecrate it. What crossed my mind at this moment was the prophecy of Ezekiel that is read at the end of Holy Saturday Matins (Ezekiel 37:1-14). Here were the bones, the walls of the church without any flesh and spirit lying dormant waiting for the resurrection. Flesh in the form of a roof, a floor, an iconostasis, and icons are caused to come onto the walls of the church. Today, spirit is again breathed into this church by its consecration and causes it to rise from the grave and live again. This was an experience to be remembered forever.

   The consecration service took about an hour and a half followed by the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy. At the service I counted the Patriarch, one Metropolitan, one Bishop, 22 priests, 6 deacons and after that I lost count. We stood in the far back next to the only bench available for sitting. However, we spent a good part of the service standing on the bench taking pictures and trying to see over the crowd. By the start of the Divine Liturgy the church was jammed packed. What was amazing was how people would come to the back and just force themselves onto the bench to stand and see. I was in constant fear that the bench would collapse under all the weight.

   The next big effort was communion. Somehow we had to get from the very back of the church to the very front. Easier said than done. So we very slowly moved up along the left side of the church. We finally got to a point where we could go no further. At this time the clergy was receiving communion. Hieromonk Alexy comes out of the altar for what appeared to be a look at the crowd. He sees us and comes down into the crowd and escorts us up to near the front of the church where we are told to wait. At this time, security had cleared a path from the altar to the side door of the church. After receiving communion, everyone would have to exit the church and come back in the rear doors. The deacon came out with the Chalice and the Patriarch recited the communion prayer. At this time there was a sudden rush of the mob, many of them holding small children above their heads to receive communion from the Patriarch. All I could see were the deacons yelling at the crowd while security was also trying to push people back. We looked at that scene and said no way. We quietly and easily received communion from Bishop Alexander who smiled at us and departed through the side door. We did not even try getting back into the church. We waited around outside and watched the Patriarch depart. When we finally did get back into church it was absolute pandemonium. They were giving out icons commemorating the Patriarch's visit and there was a near riot taking place. Since the icons were different from the ones that were distributed the previous night I decided to try and get one. I have never been pushed, elbowed or my feet trampled on like what happened there. Finally one of the cleaning ladies from the Cathedral who was trying to control the crowd sees me. She pushes through the crowd, gives me the icon, and I hurry up out of there as people are actually trying to grab the icon out of my hands.

   Following the Liturgy, I attended the luncheon for the Patriarch at the Hotel Europa. The attendees consisted of mostly the clergy, government officials, the Russian Ambassador and staff, heads of the Jewish, Catholic and Moslem faiths in Baku and representatives of other "Slavic" countries. I sat between the Charge d'Affairs of Bulgaria and Georgia. At the end of the meal several of us, myself included, were asked to come forward where we received the Patriarch's blessing as well as a commemorative medallion of his visit to Azerbaijan.

   While all this was going on, we were also in the process of moving. If you have ever moved you know what it is like. Xenia picked out her new room, which is much smaller, than the previous room she had. Of course she was the first to be unpacked with each toy taken out of the boxes were greeted with the exclamation: "I've been looking for that!" It took about a week to get the apartment functional. We are now on the second floor. It is a three-bedroom apartment but it is smaller than our previous accommodations. Also we lost that terrific view of the sun rising out of the Caspian every morning. Now the view consists of a brick wall or the "South Bronx!" When I sit in the kitchen I can now watch laundry flapping in the breeze, women beating rugs, and the man on the eighth floor of the building across from us beating his wife on the balcony. We can also see the front cupola of the Church of the Myrrh-bearing Women up on the hill. On the plus size we have three Olympic size swimming pools, two outside, one inside to choose from; tennis and basketball courts; a fantastic health club, and several very good restaurants right near by.

   The week following the Patriarch's visit was the Baku 2001 Oil & Gas Exhibition. All the oil companies and all the service companies related to the oil business show off all their wares. It ends up being a lot of time spent in the exhibition hall talking to people from the industry as well as individuals from the government. Along with this there are also all the parties and receptions. We had one to go to almost every night. Probably the best was the reception sponsored by the US and British Embassies. After presenting your official invitation you had to go through metal detectors before finally being allowed in. Once in you had to go through the receiving line where you are greeted by the respective Ambassadors and their staffs. The party itself was the usual small talk and cocktail party type foods punctuated by some speeches. We were certainly glad it was over by the end of the week. On Thursday both Nia and Xenia came to visit the exhibition floor.

   Thatís about it for now. Hope all is well with everyone. We saw our pictures on the Holy Cross homepage and will soon be sending more pictures. Until the next edition....

Nick, Nia, and Xenia

Email: worontso@alumni.umich.edu

 

Visit the Orthodox Church in America Homepage