It is a long way from the capital of China, Beijing, to the main city of Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of the People's Republic of China, Urumqi, - beginning point of the well-known Great Silk Road running during ancient times from China to the countries of the Central Asia and further to the West. Xinjiang - this word translates into Russian as "new border" - one of the most multi-ethnic regions of China. Today the official statistics of the People's Republic of China speaks of an estimated 30% of the Uyghur population among 13 million inhabitants of Xinjiang. In the north within the limits of the Chinese Altai there live Altai people, in the east, bordering with Mongolia - Mongols, in the west - Kazakhs, Tadjiks, Uzbeks.
Two hours after two flights above northern China and MNR (Russian acronym for Mongolia) the plane again crosses the air border of the People's Republic of China, but already in vicinity of Xinjiang. From a window the huge sandy desert is visible. In the winter its sand is frequently mixed with snow. In January there are frequent 30 degree frosts with winds. In the summer - 40 degree heat. Always dry. After three hours of flight from Beijing the Chinese Altai is seen from the plane. The way from Beijing up to Urumqi is almost 3 thousand kilometers-it takes about 4 hours. The train overcomes boundless open plains of China in a direction from East to West for three and a half days.
The capital of Xinjiang - Urumqi - is a city of two-million which, like all of China, is being constructed today with improbable speed. Huge office buildings of companies and hotels, modern multilevel highways with convenient approaches - all of this reminds us very little of former Xinjiang, which one could see about five years ago. In the past there were almost no machines and modern roads, there were also no skyscrapers. During the years of reform in China all Xinjiang has been built up by mosques. From minarets of Urumqi five times a day muezzins glorify Allah. Buddhist monasteries are constructed or restored, also the closeness of Tibet takes its toll.
And only on one of the small streets of Urumqi, in Uyghur quarter, almost in the city center, it is unexpectedly possible to notice an Orthodox cross on a dome of a temple - now this temple visually testifies to history of Orthodoxy in Xinjiang.
The history of the Orthodox Church in Xinjiang coincides with the history of the beginning of Russian colonization, the start of which was set by Treaty of Ghulja of 1851 between Russia and China, which established constant business relations between Russia and Xinjiang. In Ghulja (present-day Yining) and Chuguchak (present-day Tacheng) Russian consulates and representations of Russian firms have been created. The first Russian consuls in Xinjiang became members of the 12th Spiritual Mission - E. I. Zaharov (in Ghulja) and A. A.Tatarinov (in Chuguchak)
The history of Russian presence in Xinjiang can be divided into four stages: I) from occurrence here of Russians and till 1920, II) since 1920, time of arrival of White Guard armies in Xinjiang, displaced from Russian territory, III) since 1932 when those dissatisfied with Soviet collectivization fled to Xinjiang and IV) since 1954 and till the present day - with the Russian immigration from Xinjiang to Australia and Russia.
Orthodoxy has arrived here together with the beginning of Russian colonization. There are basis to think, that living at the end of the last century in Ghulja Chinese-Catholics also had their origin from Russian (Albazinian Cossacks, captivated in 1685 and taken to Beijing. Their stay in Beijing also has begun the history of the Russian Spiritual Mission in China). In 1850 in Tomsk Russian merchant Porfiry Glebovich Ufimtsev informed the abbot of Guslitsky monastery of the Moscow diocese Hegumen Parfeny that during repeated trading trips in Ghulja he got acquainted there with the Chinese Christians, who informed him that they are by origin - Russian, by faith - Orthodox. They asserted, that they are descendants of captives from Albazin. As they said, for impudence toward the imperial government, 50 Russian families have been banished from Beijing to remote Ghulja. Having coming closer with the only Christians in Ghulja - Catholics - the descendants of Albazins began to attend Catholic Mass, adopting also the Latin rite, but have kept the memory of the faith of their fathers.
Hegumen Parfeny has stated this information in the letter to Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow. Metropolitan Filaret, having inquired about Hegumen Parfeny, has sent his letter to the Ober-public prosecutor of the Synod, the count Protasov. The Ober-public prosecutor has reported about the letter to Emperor Nicholas I, and the Tsar gave the letter to the State council, where it has been decided to annex to Russia Semirechensk region - adjoining to the Chinese steppes, and in Ghulja and Chuguchak - to open Russian consulates and churches in them. In 1871 Russia has annexed to her territory a significant part of the Western Turkestan. Political and military circumstances of Turkestan area induced Russian government to annex the Ghulja kingdom. It, however, has not been attached to Russia permanently, but has passed soon under the protection of China.
At that time, the Russian population of Ghulja totaled 2,000 person. Russians were part of the parish of Ghulja's only Orthodox temple. The first church was temporary. She was situated in one of the Chinese buildings. In January 1872, she has been consecrated in the name of Holy Prophet Elias. According to the position of the church administration, the temple at that time was considered a part of the Tomsk diocese. Tomsk's Right Reverend Bishop Platon has sent a Hieromonk to Ghulja, and then began constant divine services.
With increase in number of Russians in Ghulja the old temple became too small. Therefore, it has been decided to erect a new stone temple. It was started in the summer of 1875 and consecrated on March 17, 1877 with the blessing of Archpriest of Turkestan under jurisdiction of which this parish found itself.
The temple has been consecrated by local Archpriest M. Putintsev in the name of Holy Prophet Elias. In the Ghulja temple, copies of many venerated Russian icons were gathered, because at the request of the priest-in-charge many bishops, deputies of monasteries and priests-in-charge of cathedrals have sent to Ghulja the icons blessed on the sacred relics of God's well pleasing saints or wonder-working icons as blessing to the new temple. Donations were given by Alexandre-Nevsky, Trinity-Sergiev and Pochaev monasteries, Vaalam and Solovezky monasteries, the Kursk Korennaja monastery, Nilov deserts, the Novgorod Sofia cathedral, the Pafnutev-Bohr monastery, Iosifo-Volotsky, Makarevsky, Spaso-Borodinsky and other monasteries. In total about 45 icons were donated.
Under what circumstances and in what forms then the church life proceeded in Ghulja, now for the lack of sources it is impossible to tell. In Brockhaus and Efron's encyclopedic dictionary in the article "Ghulja" there is an indication of existence of the Russian church. Whether it was a temple where constantly they were conducting services, or only the building where divine service was celebrated by the visiting clergy, there is no evidence. Orthodox population of Xinjiang was made up exclusively of Russians: employees of the Russian consulates and security military units which were attached to them, employees of Russian firms, private businessmen.
Except for Ghulja and Chuguchak, Russian also have appeared in Urumqi where the consulate was open. From metric books of Urumqi church it is evident, that in 1905 Father Nicholas served there appointed, probably, from Beijing. He has served not even completely one year in 1905. Where they had divine services and why Father Nicholas did not serve for long - it is unknown. In Chuguchak for fulfillments of divine services and other services (treb) the priests came from the Russian settlements located near the Russian-Chinese border. By 1915 at the Russian consulate in Ghulja there was already a church where Hieromonk Seraphim has been appointed. By the initiative of consul Dyakov the church has been arranged also at the consulate in Urumqi, but the permanent priest had not been appointed there. Divine service was celebrated by Hieromonk Seraphim visiting from Ghulja.
Till 1920 Russians in Xinjiang were not numerous, changes in their life were a rarity. In 1920 in Xinjiang entered White Guard sections of atamans B.V. Annenkov and A.I. Dutov. In their structure there were also clerics: Archimandrite Jonah (Pokrovsky), holding a post of the senior priest of Dutov section, and priests Feodosy Soloshenko and Grigory Shtokalko serving in different sections. Originally white sections kept their military organization and the priests were in position serving with military units. Archimandrite Jonah and Father G. Shtokalko served in Suiding where ataman A.I. Dutov with his staff was settled, Father Feodosy Soloshenko was stationed with his section.
After the death of ataman A. I. Dutov in February 1921, the military organization has quickly broken up. Archimandrite Jonah with other senior ranks army members has left for Beijing (among them was also the future chief of 20th Mission, - white officer Leonid Svyatin) where he (Archimandrite Jonah) has entered to work in the Russian Spiritual Mission. In 1922 he has been consecrated to the rank of bishop in position of vicar of archbishop of Beijing and appointed to Manzhouli where he has died in 1925, having left of himself a memory as a zealous archpriest, big philanthropist and the public statesman.
Father G. Shtokalko has remained to serve in Suiding, Father F. Soloshenko left for Chuguchak where the Orthodox temple has been constructed. Hieromonk Seraphim in 1921 for unknown reasons has moved to work in Urumqi. In Ghulja, Priest Vasily Fedjushin from Russia has remained to serve. All churches in Xinjiang have become parishes. In Suiding remained, brought by Dutov section, venerated in Orenburg Tabynsk icon of the Mother of God.
In 1925 Priest Vasily Fedjushin has left for the USSR, his place was taken by Father G. Shtokalko, in Suiding began to serve Father F. Soloshenko, in Chuguchak at this time or a little bit later Priest Akimov started to serve. In 1930 there came Priest E. Timakov. Approximately by 1925 the picture of Russian settlement in Xinjiang was defined, it remained constant till the mid-1950s. The Russian Diaspora centered in Ghulja, then based on population went to Chuguchak with adjoining areas and then - Urumqi. Heading at that time the Beijing and Chinese diocese Archbishop Innokenty (Figurovsky) has died in Beijing with the rank of metropolitan in 1931. Church life of Xinjiang in the mid-1920s began to be stabilized due to his travails. Parishes have been incorporated in dioceses (Blagochinie), the chief of diocese has been appointed Hieromonk Seraphim, consecrated to the rank of father superior, he was also the priest-in-charge of the Urumqi parish. He undertook travel around his diocese, and sent reports to Beijing. The activity of Father Seraphim proceeded till 1931 when he left for Palestine, joining the Russian Spiritual Mission in Jerusalem. A new priest-in-charge has not been appointed, the unifying church center in Xinjiang ceased. Many have died; a part of the Russian population has left. In 1931 - the beginning of III stage of history of Russian life in Xinjiang. 1932 - 1933 years are connected with new inflow of the population due to dissatisfied with collectivization in Turkestan and Kazakhstan. Russian population of Xinjiang has sharply increased. Among those arrived there were clerics: Priest Paul Kochunovsky, Priest Michael Malyarovsky, Priest John Filonsky, Priest Dmitry Lyubov, and Priest Kudryavtsev. Ghulja, Chuguchak and Urumqi still remained the church centers; however parishes in other places began to appear. They started and were closed mainly because of departure of priests. In some places prayer houses were under construction, in others - the services were conducted in temporary premises. There was no order and regularity.
During the time of Dungan (Dong Gan in pinyin, referring to Muslim of Chinese descent) uprising of 1944-1945 priests served, at then created, in Xinjiang Russian military sections. To this period also relates the beginning of division of Ghulja parish, which proceeded then for many years. Between priests G. Shtokalko and P. Kochunovski friction have arisen. The reasons for them are difficult to establish now. In 1933 Father G. Shtokalko has died, he was replaced by Priest F. Soloshenko who arrived from Urumqi. Division within the parish has come to an end. Priest P. Kochunovsky appointed a small church, parishioners were united around him. In other places of Xinjiang, church life proceeded. In Urumqi served Priest D. Lyubov, who was later replaced by Priest I. Filonsky; Father D. Lyubov served in different places. Priest M. Malyarovsky served in Suiding, later he was located in Loucougou. In Chuguchak and its regions the priests Akimov and E. Timakov still stayed.
In 1934 the chief of the 20th Mission Archbishop Victor of Beijing and all China has decided to put in order the church life in Xinjiang. In addition to the general reforms which have been carried out by him in the Russian Spiritual Mission, it has been resolved to create in Xinjiang diocese (vicariate) with bishop staying in Urumqi, to this faculty it was decided to elevate the abbot of Kazan-Mother of God monastery in Harbin Archimandrite Yuvenaly (Kilina). On February 10, 1935 Archimandrite Yuvenaly has been consecrated to the rank of bishop with a title of Xinjiang; before his departure for a place of service he was in charge of a monastery. Complicated conditions owing to military actions of Japan have not given the opportunity to Bishop Yuvenaly to travel to Xinjiang. In 1936 he went to Beijing and till 1940 executed various assignments from the Mission. In 1940 he has returned to Harbin and has been appointed the second chief (vicar) of Harbin diocese with a title of Qiqihar; has again headed a male monastery. There he has served till year 1947; then he left for the USSR where he became the head of the Izhevsk Diocese. Internal political events of 1920-40s in China, national-liberation war against Japan did affect the activity of the Russian Spiritual Mission, having complicated or having weakened its communications with especially remote areas. Communication with Xinjiang was actually interrupted, in the diocese there was no uniting center - church life, thus, continued on in isolation. The construction of a permanent temple in Ghulja became the special event of this period in life of Russian Diaspora of Xinjiang. In 1925 the church from a premise at consulate has been transferred to a rented one.
Approximately during the years 1937-1938 is related the construction in Ghulja of the church built by donations of the Orthodox church population, which existed till the 1960s, where the icon of the Mother of God of Tabynsk has been transferred from Suiding. Ghulja by the end of the 1930s finally became the church center of Xinjiang.
Some changes in church life have taken place in 1946 after the death of the priest-in-charge of Ghulja parish priest F. Soloshenko. Parishioners have petitioned before the Moscow Patriarchate about appointment of a priest from USSR. Temporarily Priest D. Lyubov living in one of local settlements has been invited for service. In autumn Priest D. Mlodzyanovsky has arrived; he was appointed to the post of diocesan head of Orthodox churches of Xinjiang and to head the temple of Saint Nicholas in Ghulja. Because of the absence at this time of communications with Beijing he was under direct jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. Restored diocese of Xinjiang has consisted of the following parishes: in Ghulja, except for the big temple, was a small one, headed by Priest V. Kochunovski, in Chuguchak Fathers Akimov and E. Timakov served, in Urumqi - Priest I. Filonsky, in Loucougou - Priest M. Malyarovsky.
In all districts of Xinjiang the Orthodox population consisted of about 10 thousand persons. Priest D. Mlodzyanovsky has made big repair and reconstruction of the church and a parish house in Ghulja, the bell tower has been built. The big profitability of the church has allowed to lead a significant part of the works by church funds, the missing funds have been supplemented by donations.
In the beginning, church life was proceeding calmly in other parishes of Xinjiang, but during 1948-1949 the priest-in-charge of the temple in Loucougou Priest M. Malyarovsky and the priest-in-charge of the church in Urumqi Priest I. Filonskyhave died. No replacements for them have been found. The parish in Loucougou has been attached to Ghulja, the parish of Urumqi has remained vacant.
Liberation of Xinjiang by the People's Liberation Army of China has opened opportunities for restoration of interrupted communications between the Russian Spiritual Mission in Beijing and Orthodox parishes of Xinjiang. In Beijing at that time they did not know about appointment of Priest Mlodzyanovsky, and Archbishop Victor has assigned Priest Gennady Karasov who was serving in Beijing to the post of the priest-in-charge of the temple in Urumqi. Because of the lack of necessary information about state of affairs in Xinjiang, in Beijing they thought that Russian center of Xinjiang is Urumqi. Priest G. Karasov was entrusted to survey the position of the Orthodox church in Xinjiang. Having arrived in Urumqi in the spring of 1950, he has made the trip to Ghulja and Chuguchak in the summer. Inconsistency in actions of Beijing and Moscow has led to some misunderstanding: parish of Urumqi was under direct jurisdiction of Beijing. The service of Priest G. Karasov did not last long - at night from 9th to 10th of January, he perished, having burned during a fire in his apartment. The parish of Urumqi again became vacant.
In 1952 Priest D. Mlodzyanovsky has been recalled to the Soviet Union and Priest P. Kochunovsky took his place. The period of 1952 to 1954 was difficult in the life of Ghulja parish. Old conflicts have renewed, part of parishioners have opposed priest P. Kochunovsky. Both parties constantly complained to Beijing, began to write also to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Metropolitan Nicholas of Krutitsky has sent a letter to the Exarch of East Asia Archbishop Victor of Beijing and China with the request to appoint a candidate to serve in Xinjiang. In Beijing they did not have suitable candidates, and the attempt of the Exarch to contact the Harbin clergy, originally was not successful, because the correspondence of Bishop Victor with the Harbin clergy went on for two years, but nobody agreed to travel to Xinjiang.
In 1954 Archbishop Victor has requested Bishop Nikandr of Harbin to give him the necessary cleric for Xinjiang. Bishop Nikandr has proposed to send to Xinjiang Hieromonk Sofrony (Iogely), who was serving in Kazan-Mother of God monastery in Harbin. Having received his consent, Archbishop Victor has appointed Father Sofrony to be the priest-in-charge of Ghulja parish, and then to be the head of Xinjiang diocese. On June 6, 1954 Father Sofrony has been elevated to the rank of the father superior, and on June 9 he has left Harbin for the place of his service. On June 29 he has arrived in Urumqi where he stayed five days for conducting of divine and other services and to familiarize himself with the church life; on July 8 he has arrived in Ghulja. The arrival of Father Sofrony has coincided with the beginning of IVth stage in history of Russian population in Xinjiang, its mass departure to Australia and repatriation to the USSR.
In July of 1954 began departure to virgin lands, then gripping on rather small scale only the Ilysky district, also departure with visas has increased. The next year departure to virgin lands has captured all of Xinjiang, parishes in Urumqi and Chuguchak have become virtually deserted. Serving winter of 1954-1955 in Urumqi Father D. Lyubov has returned to Ghulja, where he lived as a non posted priest, priest-in-charge of Chuguchak church priest E.Timakov has left for virgin lands. Departure of Russian population proceeded, and summer of year 1956 in Xinjiang there was only Father Sofrony serving.
In 1957 the Synod of Russian Orthodox Church has made the decision to give
autonomy to the Chinese Orthodox Church. In Moscow Archimandrite Vasily (Shuang) of Dormition monastery in Beijing has been consecrated to the rank of bishop. He has headed the Beijing diocese and after approval of the Council of the Chinese Orthodox Church he should become its head with a title of Bishop of Beijing and all China. Xinjiang diocese has formally been subordinated to the Beijing diocese. However remoteness from Beijing and long-term submission directly to Moscow put the diocese in difficult position.
Besides Bishop Vasily himself experienced certain difficulties in administration of the diocese entrusted to him. Even news about his consecration in Xinjiang has been received not from Beijing, but from Moscow via the "Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate". The church life in Xinjiang has come to turmoil: a heavy financial position of Xinjiang parishes, applications of Abbot Sofrony to send him, because of state of his health, to Russia and his possible departure have signified the possible termination of Orthodox life in Xinjiang. Abbot Sofrony wrote the official report to Beijing with the request to send instead of him to Xinjiang Chinese priest. The answer said, that neither means, nor a candidate for the replacement of Father Sofrony were not found in Beijing. Archimandrite Vasily, the future bishop of Beijing, recommended to Father Sofrony to negotiate independently with local branches of religious affairs and with the Moscow Patriarchate on all questions of church life in Xinjiang. Later he did not answer letters from Father Sofrony. Probably, in Beijing they were not really familiar with church situation in Xinjiang and thought, that Father Sofrony will cope with arising questions himself.
As a result of negotiations of Father Sofrony with local officials, the government of Xinjiang-Uyghur Automous Region has agreed to render material aid, however a question of appointment of the new Chinese priest was considered as church related and funds for priest arrival were not promised, thus a question of the successor of father Sofrony was dropped. Government of Xinjiang considered possible closing of orthodox temples as undesirable event. During the days of carrying out of these negotiations which were taken place in Urumqi, Father Sofrony served in the Holy Spirit temple of this city which was situated in a former shop.
At the end of autumn of 1957 Father Sofrony's health has worsened, and he asked in the official report addressed to Metropolitan Nicholas (Yarushevich) of Krutitsky and Kolomensk for his removal from service in Xinjiang and permission to go to USSR. In response he was informed, that the Moscow Patriarchate is ready to accept him if Bishop Vasily (Shuang) will relieve him of his post as head of Xinjiang. In reply to the telegram from Father Sofrony Bishop Vasily has declared, that under the law he cannot interfere in church affairs of Xinjiang, but he does not object to the departure of Father Sofrony. This answer of Bishop Vasily became the basis for granting of the exit visa to USSR, which Father Sofrony has received in the Soviet Consulate in Ghulja.
In Ghulja on December 21, 1957 at the age of 81 Priest D. Lyubov has died. His burial has taken place on December 23rd. For two years - since August 1958 till August 1960 -Father Sofrony has been hospitalized 9 times. He postponed departure only for the reason that by 1960 in Xinjiang there still remained up to 500 Orthodox people.
In Chuguchak they continued to gather for prayers, to sing the hours. The temple was kept in good condition. In Urumqi, church life was considerably less active - without the priest people seldom gathered in the temple. Eventually the church property of Urumqi parish has been used as storage for the governmental warehouse.
The most venerated relic - miracle-working image of Mother of God of Tabynsk was kept on the left church choir loft in Ghulja. The icon almost a meter in height has been covered in a gilded silver riza. Half of the remaining Russians lived in Ghulja, and the others have been scattered in small groups in different areas. On September 1, 1960 Hieromonk Sofrony has left for USSR where he began to serve in the Trinity - St. Serge Monastery, and later - in Dormition of Pskov-Pechersky monastery. Many representatives of the Russian ethnic minority in Xinjiang have suffered in the days of the "Cultural Revolution" in the People's Republic of China, when, besides other, any kind of religious activity was persecuted. But the reason consist not only in religion, but also that Russian minority was considered as "the factor of political unreliability ", it means that in them they suspected potential spies of Moscow. And their belief was simply rejected. So, in the directory of national minorities of China, issued in 1978, it was said about Russians: " Before liberation they professed the Orthodox Faith, and after liberation more widespread was atheism ". For these reasons many Russian wanted to leave, and authorities practically did not interfere with their departure (basically to the USSR, Australia and Canada).
Eventually the remaining Russian population have intermarried with the Chinese and Uyghurs, however they have kept their Orthodoxy, in which the author himself is personally convinced. To this day the Cossack villages within the limits of the Chinese Altai have remained. Till now it is considered, that ethnic Russian population of Xinjiang totals up to 2,000 persons.
Descendants of Russians - already citizens of the People's Republic of China, but they have kept a more traditional Cossack way of life. After the easing of political climate in China from the beginning of the 1980s, the attitude of the state to Russian national minority again has changed. The faith within the framework of freedom of religion again is under protection of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China. On April 25, 1984 the main newspaper of the People's Republic of China "Renmin ribao" informed that the State Ethnic Affairs Commission has arranged for 600 Russians the official Pascha reception in Urumqi, and the government of Xinjiang in 1983 has officially recognized the right for Russians to celebrate the Nativity of Christ and Pascha. On these days they are authorized not to come to work. The church center of Xinjiang has moved to Urumqi. In 1991 under the petition of the Orthodox population of Urumqi, the government of XUAR has constructed in place of the destroyed temple a new one, named after St Nicholas. On it the tablet is installed with an inscription in three languages - Uyghur, Chinese and Russian "Orthodox Church of Urumqi".
If truth be told, this temple, has not been consecrated yet, as Orthodox priests did not appear in Xinjiang for almost 40 years. People, however, have not lost their faith still to this day, gathering on Sundays and holidays for communal prayers. Russians who left Xinjiang also kept the memory of their second motherland - in altar of the Urumqi temple on high place today it is possible to see an Altar Cross, given to the Urumqi believers from San Francisco. Someone from Russia also has given to this temple several paper icons made from church wall calendars. In Ghulja the stone temple also has been destroyed during the years of the "Cultural Revolution".
At that time also the icon of Mother of God of Tabynsk has disappeared. The remaining Orthodox in Ghulja gather in a room where very old icons and some prayer books are stored. Many believers because of absence of prayer books copy carefully prayers by hand, passing them to each other and carefully preserving them. Sometimes Russian visitors come to St Nicholas temple in Urumqi. Now they more often come to Urumqi on trading business from Novosibirsk, Barnaul and Moscow. Perhaps, the construction of a new church in Urumqi will become also the beginning and a new stage in history of Orthodoxy in Xinjiang.