Русский | Chinese Messenger 2/1999
Alexander Kirillov
English Translation by Katherine Ilachinski

The Episode from a life of the
Russian Spiritual Mission in China

To the sacred memory of the reposed in the Lord of our Master and Father
His Eminence VICTOR, Archbishop
of China and Beijing, the Chief of Russian Spiritual
Mission in China the following lines are dedicated by
his spiritual son and hierodeacon.

In what aspect, Russian, church, historical, Christian, missionary — one is to consider the existence during 256 years of the Russian Spiritual Mission in China, we with full satisfaction and joy should recognize this fact undoubtedly, an outstanding historical event of huge significance not only for the Russian Orthodox Church, but also on a background of world Christianity.

The Beginning of the Russian Spiritual Mission in China, despite the opinion of some historians and writers, certainly, was started by 45 Russian Cossacks (some sources name figure of 25) who voluntary have transferred to the service in Beijing to the Chinese Emperor Kangxi after the siege, falling and full destruction by the Chinese and Manchus of small town of Albazin on the Amur river in 1685, more than 300 years ago. These Cossacks also have forcefully taken with them Maxim Leontiev - the priest from Albazin.

About history of Albazin and creation of other Russian places and settlements along the Amur River much was written in Russian press. It is paradoxical that these "predecessors" of the Russian Spiritual Mission have been moved not by feeling of patriotism or acquisition of new lands and their annexation and new citizens "under a high hand of Russian Tsar", but only by thirst of adventure and easy money there, where one heard there was a lot of gold and riches.

The official date of establishment of Russian Spiritual Mission in China was July 18, 1700 when Peter the Great has published a decree about it. The first Mission Chief of was Archimandrite Ilarion (Lezhajsky).

During its 25 years existence, the Russian Spiritual Mission in China has lifted to an unusual height the science of oriental studies and, especially, sinology. Some archimandrites - Chiefs of Mission have brought their contribution to the Chinese science not only as experts on Manchu and Chinese languages, but also in other branches of science, especially in astronomy and medicine.

The History of the Spiritual Mission is indissolubly connected with the name of its last Chief, Archbishop Victor of China and Beijing. There is no Russian living in China between 1921 and 1956 who would not have known personally or even heard about Archbishop Victor. Archbishop Victor, in the world Leonid Viktorovich Svyatin, was born in 1892 in Kuban in spiritual family. He finished the Kazan Theological seminary and Tifliss Military School. He participated as an officer in the First World War. In 1919 during civil war he with receding army of General Bakich went to the Chinese Turkestan, and from there, having passed Gobi desert on foot, to China. In 1921 he was tonsured a monk by the chief of the 18th Spiritual Mission-Metropolitan Innokenty in Beijing with the name of Victor. The modest cassock of the monk has hidden Lieutenant Leonid Svyatin. In 1923 Hieromonk Victor has been appointed the priest-in-charge of the Russian church in the city of Tianjin where at once he has won attachment and love for himself for his pastoral care of needy refugees. He established: the Russian grammar school, later transformed to a high school, the House of Mercy (a refuge for old people), hospital, a readily accessible soup kitchen. Tens of homeless refugees found shelter in his apartment which was long referred to as "Hotel Victor".

In 1928 Hieromonk Victor became archimandrite, and in Sremskih Karlovtsah was elevated to the rank of bishop and was appointed to the Shanghai faculty.

In the beginning of 1933 the Chief of 19th Spiritual Mission, Archbishop Simon reposed, and Bishop Victor became his replacement - the chief of 20th (and as it has appeared, the last) Russian Spiritual Mission in China with a title of Bishop of China and Beijing. In 1938 Bishop Victor has been elevated to the rank of archbishop, and in 1941 year has been awarded the right to wear a diamond cross on his head gear (klobuk).

I wish to share with readers one episode which happened in 1951 in the Russian Spiritual Mission in Beijing, which everyone will understand differently — people more believing as a miracle, less believing as a coincidence.

It happened between June and August of 1951. My parents and I lived at that time in Tianjin (2 hours by train from Beijing), and I spent summer vacations in the Russian Spiritual Mission. In the St Innokenty cross church altered from ancient Chinese idol worshiping space and adjoining to apartment of Archbishop Victor, there was a set of ancient icons brought from Russia within more than 250 years. One of them was an icon of Great Martyr George the Victorious, painted in the traditional manner, i.e. the image of the Great Martyr on a horse, spearing the snake, or as it is accepted to name, - a dragon. Interestingly also that walls of the church (formerly idol worshiping place) were made from carved wood and on them also in several places dragons have been cut out. All icons were so ancient and dark, that you could not recognize any face. Divine services in St Innokenty church went full daily circle, i.e. a liturgy, evening divine service and at 12 o'clock at night — All-Night Vigil. Services were conducted alternatively by different priests, usually newly ordained priests-Chinese (Albazin descendants). Divine services were mainly in Chinese language. During all services sang the chorus made of Chinese children, pupils of the Mission school. During week-days there were not many worshipers and consequently any new person attracted attention.

This is what happened with a certain Chinese who already and earlier, from time to time appeared in the church. In June of 1951 he began to come to evening divine service almost every day. Once upon termination of service he has approached Archbishop Victor, who prayed in the choir space, and has asked for the permission to talk to him. Archbishop has invited him to his apartment to a cup of tea and has invited me also, as the translator in spite of the fact that he knew the Chinese language very well. Later it appeared that the stranger Li himself spoke very well Russian, but conversation was conducted that evening in the Chinese language. He presented himself to the archbishop as the head of department of Christian Religious Affairs of the Beijing City Council and has declared to us, that all ancient icons by law belong to China and he asked the Archbishop to transfer them to the Museum of Religious Affairs which recently has opened in Beijing. Archbishop has refused. Two, three more meetings have followed.

Official Li threatened, and the archbishop had no other choice but to agree to return the icons. One evening, late enough not to attract special attention, a truck arrived and all ancient icons, and there was nearly 30 of them and all of big sizes, have been removed, put on the truck and taken away. To Mission inhabitants, to the Chinese clergy, etc. it has been explained that icons will be restored. Two persons knew the truth, other than Archbishop Victor and me, only: Mitred-archpriest in charge of operating affairs of Ekzarhat and the layman, the Secretary of Mission. Official Li continued to visit the church, but less often and after a while he absolutely disappeared. On walls other icons have been hung, of more modern design, taken from other churches of the Spiritual Mission.

After a month the archbishop has received an urgent message from Official Li. He has "asked" him to come to his apartment. I have acommpanied the archbishop also. We were received kindly enough and taken to a magnificent drawing room, where Li sat with black glasses. It happened that he has almost gone blind. (It happened suddenly!) Doctors could not establish the reasons for his sudden blindness. Li himself has attributed it to the icons which, as he said, have brought him misfortune and which, instead of a museum, were stored in a shed. Quite roughly he has told the archbishop, that we can take back the icons. The conversation was in Russian and then we have learned that the official Li spoke absolutely fluently Russian. It appeared that he studied in Moscow. After returning to Beiguan (the Chinese name of Mission), the archbishop ordered the Secretary of the Mission and me to transport the icons back to Mission, which was done the same evening.

After evening divine service and up to the All-Night Vigil in the locked church we were hanging icons at their former places. Archbishop himself has consecrated them. When they came with holy water to the icon of St.George the Victorious (Pobedonostsa), the archbishop has directed our attention, and we also have noticed it, that the face of the Great martyr has brightened, the whole icon became renewed and even the eye of the dragon sparkled. It was at night and it could have seemed to us, because in the church only candles and icon lamps were burning — there was no electricity in St Innokenty church - and reflection from them could be seen on the icon. But in the morning as soon as it has brightened, around 5 o'clock and long before the beginning of an early liturgy, we four have again gathered in a church: the face of the Saint was really bright; one could see well both a horse, and a dragon. Archbishop Victor who did not deny the miracles connected with renewal of icons, but was very cautious about it, trying to avoid any sensation around it, knowing, that in emigration there was a lot of exploitation of miracles, ordered to remove the icon and to carry it away to his premises. Then the archbishop has insisted that the three of us give him our word, that only when one of us remains alive, this phenomenon can be given publicity. Recently I have received the news that the last of the three witnesses has died. I was the last one left and consequently I have the right, executing the will of the archbishop to tell about it.

Official Li after a while has again appeared in church. His sight began to improve gradually, but to see hundred percent he could not any more. A month has passed. The icon in the archbishop's premises has again darkened; there was left only a bright face of the Great Martyr. I have soon left the Mission for Tianjin. Later I have learned that Li had been secretly baptized and became an exemplary Orthodox. This was told to me in farewell conversation, before our departure from China, by archbishop himself. The icon of the Great martyr has again being hung up on its former place in St Innokenty church.

Photo from
Boris Aleksandrov

In June of 1953 we left China, and in 1956 the Chinese Orthodox Church has received autonomy and the descendant of Albazins - Bishop Vasily (in the past long-term protodeacon of the Russian church in the city of Mukden - Ignaty Shuang) became its head. I could not learn anything more about destiny of the icon and of the official Li.

Following the formation of the Chinese Autonomous Church, the Russian Spiritual Mission in China became unnecessary. Archbishop Victor has been transferred to Russia where he has soon been elevated to the rank of metropolitan and has died from a heart illness, from which he suffered in China, in his native Kuban in 1966.

Writer of these lines, once very close to the late Metropolitan Victor, till now has carefully remembered him, as a kind and humble hierarch, a good monk, and mainly the merciful Christian who was ready to give his last shirt to needy.

We know also from our mutual friends, who between 1956 and 1966 have been in Russia as tourists and saw Metropolitan Victor, that he has never forgotten his Far East flock - Russian and Chinese and, despite the fine conditions with which church authority in Russia have arranged for him, constantly grieved about China, about the Russian Spiritual Mission in Beijing where the biggest part of his bright life has taken place.