“People are fearful” says Bishop of the Russian cathedral in Chiswick

Image above: Russian Orthodox cathedral in Chiswick; photograph Jennifer Griffiths

Exclusive interview with Bishop Irenei, London and Western Europe, of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Chiswick is astonishingly beautiful. From the outside it looks a little anomalous in a west London residential street. The distinctive onion dome, bright blue, with gold stars, stands out like a beacon. Open the door and you step into an interior dominated by the iconostasis, a wall of icons and religious paintings set in a classic gold background, which could be anywhere in the Slavic world, at any point during the past thousand years.

Standing out is the last thing they want to do at the moment. In an exclusive interview, Bishop Irenei, Bishop of London and Western Europe of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, told The Chiswick Calendar “there is a certain fearfulness” among the congregation, at being identified as Russian in present circumstances.

“Whenever you encounter a situation like the one we are in now people are afraid they will be branded with a certain brush because of their ethnic / cultural background.

“We have had no trouble here in Chiswick”, he was quick to point out. The cathedral was built about 20 years ago, the parish has been here for more than 300 years, and they have good relations with neighbours and local businesses, he said. But members of the congregation, who come from quite far afield to attend services, have reported their children being bullied at school for being Russian and Russian Orthodox churches in France have been vandalised, so they are wary.

Image above: Inside the Russian Orthodox cathedral; photograph Marianne Mahaffey

“It is affecting people”

Actually, although the church is Russian, the weekly services see people from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia attending, from Serbia, Belarus and Ukraine as well as Russia. About 20 percent of the 300 or so congregation who come regularly are ‘local’, meaning from the UK, the rest represent the diaspora of the whole Russian speaking world. The two biggest groups are Russian and Ukrainian, probably in roughly equal numbers.

How does that play out, with Russia bombing key Ukrainian cities and Russian soldiers killing Ukrainian civilians?

The Church is deliberately a-political, Bishop Irenei told me; it was a place of peace and calm where everyone is a brother and a sister, whatever their background. The Church is independent from the Church in Russia and has been since 1920. The intention and the reality for the past hundred years has been to provide a place where expats can find peace and calm and a common bond.

Nonetheless, members of the congregation have actual brothers and sisters in the war zone. That had to make the conversation over soup and biscuits after the service a little awkward, one might think, if not downright hostile?

“It is affecting people, so it has to be addressed” he admitted. “But this is a place to find peace. It is not my place to talk about political things.”

Had he led prayers for Ukraine in the service? Yes he had.

For both sides? The soldiers and civilians fleeing from them? “For all those who are suffering… We are always against bloodshed; against war in any sense.”

Image above: Russian Orthodox cathedral

“I feel my soul is deeply with Putin” a member of the congregation tells us

I went to the cathedral on spec on Sunday, with a friend. We were obviously not Russian, or eastern European of any sort, but there was no suspicion and there were no questions asked beyond: “Would you like some soup? Tea or coffee? Cake?”

The woman we happened to sit next to had no compunction about talking politics. She volunteered that she was Belorussian and pro-Putin.

“I’m on Putin’s side” she said. “I am not old enough to remember the Second World War but my mother told me about it. I know you had it bad here in England, but not as bad I think as Belarus. The Nazi soldiers came into our homes and killed babies in front of their mothers.”

Her point was that Belorussians hated fascists. She had watched Youtube videos of President Putin and Russia’s Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov justifying the war as a fight against fascism on the grounds the Ukrainian government was dominated by fascists. The Ukrainian national hero was Stepan Bandera, she said, a wartime fascist more hated than even the German Nazis. Putin and Lavrov had said the Ukrainian government were the ideological heirs of Bandera.

“The Ukrainians have been doing horrible things in Donetsk and Lugansk”, [the areas of Ukraine with large Russian populations which declared themselves independent in 2014, whose independence Putin recognised just before the invasion started].

“I feel my soul is deeply with Putin” she told us, but interestingly her son, who has spent most of his life in Britain, was against Putin and against the invasion.

“That’s because he is 32 and I am 58. He hasn’t had the same experience. I don’t remember the war but grew up with my mother’s memory of it.

“American news and European news have not paid attention to what’s been happening in the Donbas region, where many children have been killed.”

There is of course some justification in this. We have not largely paid attention to what has been going on there. There is a far-right Svoboda party, a radical, populist party which recruited skinheads and used Nazi symbols and was growing in popularity in the early 2000s. After the 2014 parliamentary elections the Yatsenyuk government included three Svoboda ministers.

The bit Putin and Lavrov appear to have omitted is that in the 2019 parliamentary elections, they failed to win enough votes to win a parliamentary seat via the national party list and ended up with just one constituency seat, a far cry from a government dominated by fascists.

Image above: the iconostasis; photograph Alex McMurdo

As we chatted to this woman, who preferred not to be named, she said there were Ukrainians who also thought Putin was right.

Bishop Irenei would not be drawn on the politics of the situation, beyond saying there was no single political view expressed by the congregation as a whole and it would be a ridiculous simplification to think that all Ukrainians take one view and all Russians another. There were lots of different views and the church was a place for people to find peace and calm before going back out to the realities of life where they would have to deal with politics and its consequences.

People were deep in conversation, catching up on their week as the children ran round, helping themselves to biscuits and generally oblivious to adult concerns. Bishop Irenei, originally from the United States himself, from Idaho, told us he and his priests based in Chiswick – Fr Yaroslav, a Ukrainian and Fr Vitaly, a Lithuanian – had been raising funds to support refugees which they were passing on to their sister church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. And they were praying fervently that the bloodshed would come to an end.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Chiswick sends aid to Ukrainian refugees

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