Pskov Orthodox Mission
The Pskov Orthodox Mission, officially termed the “Orthodox mission in the liberated regions of Russia”[note 1] was a pastoral-missionary institution for the revival of Orthodox Church life in North-Western Russia, covering the vast territory of the three dioceses of Leningrad, Pskov and Novgorod, as well as the territory of the three neighbouring Baltic republics, during their occupation by Nazi Germany between 1941-1944.[note 2]
It was initiated by Exarch Metropolitan Sergius (Voskresensky) of Vilnius and Lithuania, and existed with the permission of the commanding officers of Army Group ‘North’, while remaining in canonical submission to the Moscow Patriarchate.
During the Great Terror of 1937-1938 the clergy in north-western Russia, as elsewhere in the USSR, were almost completely liquidated. By the summer of 1941 there were no more than 10 churches active in the vast territory of the three dioceses of Leningrad (St Petersburg), Pskov and Novgorod (with the exception of the area of Leningrad itself and its suburbs, where there were more churches).
In 1940, the three neighbouring Baltic republics were incorporated into the Soviet Union, leading to an increase in the formal flock of the Russian Orthodox Church. Consequently, on February 24, 1941 an Exarchate (special metropolitan region) was established in the Latvian and Estonian dioceses, and Metropolitan Sergius (Voskresensky) of Vilnius and Lithuania was confirmed as its Exarch.
In the Baltic region, the Germans were quite happy to deal with the Moscow Patriarchate's Exarch, Metropolitan Sergius (Voskresensky), who showed his loyalty to them. Metropolitan Sergius immediatedly proceeded to bless the formation of an “Orthodox mission in the liberated regions of Russia”, otherwise known as the “Pskov Orthodox Mission”, whose official aim was the restoration of church life “destroyed by Soviet power”.
The Pskov Orthodox Mission functioned during the Great Patriotic War,[note 3] and was staffed mainly by members of the Eulogian jurisdiction, including within its jurisdiction parts of the Leningrad and Kalinin regions, as well as the Pskov and Novgorod regions, with a population of about two million people. Formal authorization to establish this Orthodox mission in the liberated regions of Russia was received from the German authorities in mid-August 1941.[note 4]
The governing body of the mission was a directorate led by Father Boris Efimov (August – October 1941), Father Nikolai Kolibersky (October – November 1941) and Father Kirill Zaitsev, formerly the abbot of the Riga Cathedral (December 1941 – February 1944). The directorate was made up of two divisions, one for the development of Christian culture (led by Father George Benigsen) and one for everyday affairs, headed by Ivan Obodnevyi. The head of the Pskov mission reported directly to Exarch Sergius.
At the core of the Pskov mission were Russian priests from the dioceses of Riga and Narva. On August 18, 1941 the first 14 missionaries arrived in Pskov, who were priests, among whom were graduates of the Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris (including priests Vladimir Tolstoukhov and Alexei Ionov), as well as former members of the Russian Student Christian Movement (Father George Benigsen) and its branch in Latvia – the Russian Orthodox Student Unity, which had been formed in 1928.
Father Alexei Ionov later wrote in his memoirs:
“We have moved to our native borders, standing on our own legs, singing Easter hymns. We are filled with joy at everything that met us on our way: the sky, air, the scraggy trees, the yellowed autumn grass.”
Life of the Mission
At the beginning the mission had only two open churches, one in Pskov and one in Gdov. But in November 1942, Metropolitan Sergius succeeded in opening a theological seminary in Vilnius led by Protopresbyter Basl Vinogradov.
In 1942 there were only 84 priests who served 221 churches. In such circumstances, most of them had to work arduously. According to Protopresbyter Alexei Ionov’s memoirs, on Sundays in Ostrov services began at 7 o'clock in the morning and lasted until 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Following the Liturgy, between 500 and 800 individuals would make Confession and take Communion. “Eighty babies were baptized at the same time, ten burials were conducted at once, three to five couples were married at once.” Consecrations of new churches often required driving more than fifty kilometers from the city. Despite these and other difficulties, the missionaries worked with great enthusiasm. “The best time of my ministry was the time I spent in the Pskov mission...” Alexei Ionov later recalled. In the newly opened Orthodox temples, the name of Metropolitan Alexei (Simansky) of Leningrad was commemorated during the worship services.
In the fall of 1942, Exarch Sergius ordered Orthodox theological courses to be opened in Vilnius. Anyone over 17 years of age with a secondary or primary education could attend, and the first group was taken without entrance examinations. The next group was given examinations in general subjects. Professor Vasily Vinogradov was appointed rector of the courses.
The magazine “Orthodox Christian” that was published by the mission was oriented toward a young readership. In 1942, five issues were published with print runs of 30,000 copies, and in 1943, fourteen issues were published, although the print run fell to 20,000 copies. The editorial office of “Orthodox Christian” was located in Riga, and because of this, there were great difficulties when it came to distribution. In addition, the magazine, as well as other printed materials, consistently had insufficient funds, despite assistance from the Exarchate and donations from private individuals.
A significant event in the church at that time was the transfer of the icon of Our Lady of Tikhvin to Pskov. The icon was rescued from a burning church in Tikhvin, with the participation of German soldiers and then taken away to Pskov and transferred to the Orthodox community there by the Germans.
The missionary priests paid particular attention to Soviet prisoners to war, and in a number of camps they succeeded in opening churches for the spiritual help of the prisoners, and collected donations and clothing for them.
The mission also took care of orphans. Through the efforts of the parishioners, an orphanage was established at the Church of St. Demetrius of Thessalonica in Pskov, for 137 boys and girls, aged 6 to 15 years. The priests also broadcast weekly radio lectures from Pskov, for the religious revival of the region.
Major complications with the occupation authorities began in the fall of 1943, when the Germans forced the Exarch not to recognize Sergius (Stragorodsky) as Patriarch, after he was canonically elected by the Bishops' Council in Moscow in September 1943. The occupation authorities insisted on holding a conference to draft a binding resolution against the Patriarch; however the Exarch did not even mention even the name of the Primate in the draft resolution, and did not discuss the separation of the Mission from the Moscow Patriarchate.
By 1944 there were 200 parishes and 175 priests.
End of the Mission
The mission itself lasted only until the spring of 1944. On February 18, 1944, after the first raid on Pskov by Soviet aircraft, the German authorities ordered the evacuation of the mission. The next day, Father George Benigsen left the city with a group of students. They were soon followed by other members of the mission to continue its activities in the Baltic states and in other European countries. After the war they found themselves in the position of being émigrés. The heads of the mission – Father Kirill Zaitsev, Father Kirill Shakhovsky and some other missionaries – remained in areas that were liberated by the Soviet army. Some of them were arrested and held for years in labor camps. At the same time, some of the missionaries who did not evacuate did not face any reprisals after the war and continued to serve in the Pskov Region.
Some of the churches that had opened during the occupation continued to operate in the postwar years.
On April 28, 1944, Exarch Metropolitan Sergius (Voskresensky) was assassinated as he was traveling on the road from Vilnius to Riga by car. The vehicle was fired upon while on the highway near Kovno (Kaunas), by people that were observed to be wearing German uniforms.
In Soviet times, the activities of the Orthodox Mission in the 'Liberated Regions of Russia' (this is the full name) was one of the blind spots in the national historiography. Now researchers have a large amount of factual material, largely thanks to the publication of “prohibited” earlier works by émigré historians and the missionaries’ memoirs.
Assessments of the activity and role of the Pskov mission, as in previous years, greatly differ from depending on the ideological beliefs of the authors.
Thus, “Soviet patriots,” like Soviet historians previously, treat the mission’s establishment as one of the policies of the German authorities to establish a “new order” in the occupied territories. In this view, the work of its participants is seen as overt collaboration.
On the contrary, in the understanding of anti-Soviet scholars and for many émigré historians, the Pskov mission was one example of an attempt at self-organization in the occupied territories, the establishment of a normal life “with neither the Nazis nor the Communists.” Accordingly, in the opinion of these researchers, the mission’s organization was something that happened “from the bottom up,” i.e., coming from “the people” who were seeking to return to the bosom of the church. They were the ones who supported this, with the German authorities reluctantly agreeing.
Of course, speaking of the “unprecedented surge of religious life in the occupied territories,” both secular and church historians, as well as many who have written memoirs, are engaging in wishful thinking. After all, they point out that by the beginning of the mission there was an entire generation of people in the Soviet Union who had never been in a temple. The only priests they saw were from caricatures in the anti-religious propaganda. Completely overcoming the effects of a long atheistic upbringing was something that was obviously not possible.
The history of the Pskov mission should be seen as one page in the history of Russian Orthodoxy in the twentieth century, the circumstances of which were contradictory and dramatic – and not only for the Orthodox Church.
- Metropolitan Sergius (Voskresensky) of Vilnius and Lithuania blessed the formation of an “Orthodox mission in the liberated regions of Russia”, otherwise known as the “Pskov Orthodox Mission”, whose official aim was the restoration of church life “destroyed by Soviet power”.
- Vladimir Moss. "The Pskov Mission and the Catacomb Church". In: NEW ZION IN BABYLON: The Orthodox Church in the Twentieth Century. 2010. 172 pp. (pp.15-19).
- The Pskov lands are often called the “western outpost” of Russian Orthodoxy. The neighboring Baltic countries, the majority of whose population professes either Catholicism or Protestantism, for centuries was a “missionary service territory” for the Russian Orthodox Church. And in the last century, during the Great Patriotic War, Pskov residents (according to many historians – not by accident) for a few years became one of the strongholds of Orthodox revival, which had virtually been defeated in the Soviet Union by that time. This revival was the object of the Pskov mission that existed from 1941-1944.
- Vasily Andreev. “The Best Time of My Ministry” – On the History of the Pskov Mission (1941-1944). RUSSKIY MIR FOUNDATION. Aug 5, 2009.
- The Eastern Front of World War II was a theatre of World War II between the European Axis powers and co-belligerent Finland, against the Soviet Union, Poland, and some other Allies which encompassed Northern, Southern and Eastern Europe from 22 June 1941 to 9 May 1945.
- Sergiy sought permission from the German authorities, which after a very long delay gave its consent. Later Sergiy himself pointed out that the mission was temporary until the restoration of ties with the patriarch in Moscow, which had been suspended with the onset of hostilities. In other words, canonical unity with the Russian Orthodox Church was preserved, something the occupying authorities had to agree with.
- Vladimir Moss. "The Pskov Mission and the Catacomb Church". In: NEW ZION IN BABYLON: The Orthodox Church in the Twentieth Century. 2010.
- (Russian) Псковская православная миссия. Russian Wikipedia.