In Soviet times in Russia, Prince Alexander Nevsky was more often spoke of as a commander and diplomat, relegating his spiritual life to the margins. And few people in that era were aware that, when Alexander Nevsky, on his return journey from the Golden Horde, felt that he was about to leave this life, he received the Great Schema in a monastery in the Volga town of Gorodets. But if he had not reposed so quickly, he would have become the Schemamonk Alexis, rather than the Great Prince Alexander Nevsky. As the saint’s vita attests, when at the funeral Metropolitan Cyril drew near to the coffin to place the prayer of absolution in the deceased’s hand, the prince’s hand stretched out, as though alive, to grasp it. After the Metropolitan informed the people of what he had witnessed, many began to call on Prince Alexander in their prayers, and in 1547 he was glorified as a saint. In 1724, during the reign of Peter I, who regarded him with great reverence, the saint’s relics were translated from Vladimir to St. Petersburg, to which end the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra was built.
This year, 2021 – the 800th anniversary of the saint’s birth – was declared The Year of Alexander Nevsky in Russia, in honor of a saint whom His Holiness, Patriarch Kyrill called "an example of how power and holiness are united in an individual."
According to the [Russian-language] Catalogue of Orthodox Architecture, there are 1,324 churches in the world dedicated to the Right-Believing Prince Alexander Nevsky; outside of Russia, they can be found in Serbia, Slovakia, Wuhan in China, Belarus, Georgia, and Bulgaria, which testifies to the fact that St. Alexander Nevsky was properly honored as the "Name of Russia." In the U.S., there are three churches dedicated to St. Alexander. All three are in the eastern part of the country: in the Russian Church Abroad – St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Howell, NJ, and St. Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church in Richmond, Maine; in the Orthodox Church in America – St. Alexander Nevsky Diocesan Cathedral in Pittsburgh, PA.
On Sunday, September 12, when the Orthodox Church celebrates the Translation of the Relics of St. Alexander Nevsky, celebrations in honor of the saint were held in the Howell cathedral, gathering together clergy and faithful from several states. One guest at the event was Bishop Theoctist (Igumnov) of Pereslavl & Uglich.
St. Alexander Nevsky has been a part of Bishop Theoctist’s life from the very moment he came to the Church. He began his path to God as a caretaker and subdeacon in St. Alexander Nevsky Church in Izhevsk (Udmurtia), where he was also ordained a deacon; among others, he also served in St. Alexander Nevsky Church while in the military, and was elevated to archimandrite in St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg. Finally, he was appointed ruling bishop of the Diocese of Pereslavl-Zalessky.
Additionally, as His Grace recalled here in America, in the center of New York City, his paternal grandfather, Nicholas Mironovich, was born in the St. Alexander Nevsky Region of Ryazan Oblast.
– All of my paternal ancestors were from the village of Burminka in the St. Alexander Nevsky Region of Ryazan Oblast. There are still many individuals with the same surname in that village, perhaps relatives. But my forebears were not clergy; the surname is connected to land ownership. They were monastic serfs and, as a result, belonged to the abbot, the igumen, of the monastery.
– Your Grace, throughout the centuries, the Russian people have turned to the icon of the holy prince, finding in him support and hope. How do you sense, in your own heart, the presence of St. Alexander Nevsky?
– It is hard for me to forget him, or to imagine my life in the Church without the Holy Right-Believing Prince Alexander Nevsky. He is as present in my life as the air. Pereslavl is the center of our diocese. It was here in 1221 that Alexander Yaroslavich was born, and here he was baptized in Transfiguration Cathedral, which stands to this day.
Why he took me under his guardianship I do not know, but it goes without saying that I constantly feel his support. Important for me at present is his knowledge how to swim against the current, how to avoid the mainstream, to keep one’s eye on the goal and to understand one’s priorities and, no matter what, to move toward these goals. This is important, because we are at present being subjected to powerful pressure from all sides. And I pray to the Right-Believing Prince that I not be alone, that I might fear nothing. Doubts occur, but the Holy Prince Alexander Nevsky implants hope in me and defends me.
– Three years ago, you were appointed ruling bishop of Pereslavl-Zalessky…
– Before that, I served as vicar bishop in the Diocese of Volgograd. Volgograd is also connected with the life of St. Alexander Nevsky. The khan’s headquarters were located not far from there, and that was where the right-believing prince traveled. Very recently, His Holiness, Patriarch Kyrill, consecrated a cathedral there in honor of St. Alexander Nevsky. Granted, I was not there long, but I took part in the life of the diocese, and I would like to hope that I contributed, even in some insignificant part, to the establishment of the new cathedral. At a minimum, I took part in the blessing of its bells.
– You traveled from Volgograd to the birthplace of Alexander Nevsky. What is the most important monument in the diocese relating to the saint today?
– Of course, this would be the one-of-a-kind white stone Holy Transfiguration Catehdral, built in the 12th century. This is one of the most ancient still extant churches in Russia today and is a state-preserved architectural monument. When the cathedral was being restored, several pieces of ancient Russian, pre-Tatar graffiti were discovered. We serve there several times a year.
The cathedral makes a powerful impression with its dimensions, austerity, and majesty. This is a vision of beauty that we have lost, unfortunately. It seems like we are building everything correctly today, but these structures lack the simplicity and majesty they once possessed.
The architecture of the other ancient structures in the diocese dates from the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Our St. Nicetas Monastery is the oldest, as far as I know, in the Russian Federation. This year it turned 1,011 years old.
When you live and serve in Pereslavl, you become accustomed to antiquity. This cathedral was built by Tsar Ivan Vasilievich, it was restored, and I reconsecrated it. The Tsar built it and I bless it, that is our working partnership. I kid, of course. The important thing is that, when you live in an atmosphere of antiquity, you not become accustomed to it and do not take everything around you for granted, because all of this is a miracle. And it is a miracle that we have the opportunity to pray in these churches. It is a miracle that I, a boy from Udmurtia, which the oldest building dates back only 200 years, now have the chance to serve in church sacred places, which are hard to imagine back where I come from.
– There is a Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in your diocese, as well. What celebrations were held there?
– Our St. Alexander Nevsky Church is diocesan, being part of the complex of Our Lady of Vladimir Cathedral, and was built in 1740. In 1929, the church was closed, and in 1998 began to function once more. We coordinated all of the celebrations of the jubilee year with the oblast administration, and the celebrations in our region were held on June 11-12. This included celebratory divine services, exhibitions, festivities, all with the participation of the Yaroslavl Oblast government. As a result, I was free to travel here for the celebrations in St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in New Jersey.
– What were your impressions of the feast in an American church?
– The very best and brightest. It is joyful to see so many Orthodox people. I know that many churches in New Jersey and Pennsylvania cancelled their services, so that the clergy and parishioners could come to the cathedral. One could also sense that this is a large, active parish with a large number of clergy and parishioners; and the parish itself is rather old by American standards – this year it marked the 85th anniversary of its founding. Informal interaction with the hierarchs and clergy was also warm and joyful.
Why do I stress the number of people? Because in Russia, our countrymen do not at all understand how many Orthodox, including Orthodox of the Russian tradition, there are in America. Many think that this is just a handful people but, in reality, there are great number of Orthodox Christians here. I even think – based on my own observations only, granted – that the quantity of people (not by percentage) in America who regularly take part in the Sacraments, confessing and communing, is comparable to that in Russia.
I was at a reception in Pennsylvania and was asked by a local American journalist what promise I saw for Orthodoxy in America. I answered him and, perhaps confusing him, said that according to our estimates, in 50 years all of America will be Orthodox. I was joking, of course, because I am not active in American missionary work and could not know any such thing, but to my amateur eye, it seems that the outlook for Orthodox missionary work in America is very promising. There is a good base here – people who grew up Protestant and know Holy Scripture respond well when they are exposed to historic Christian Tradition. They do not have any negative preconceptions against Orthodoxy. It gives me inspiration and joy that there is a continent where, despite its internal problems, there are very promising prospects for missionary work. The number of Americans who do not have any connection to Russia, but who attend Orthodox churches, and the number of Americans I saw [in church] in New Jersey supports my optimistic view of Orthodoxy in the U.S.
I very much like the parishes that I visit in the U.S. Fr. Serafim Gan and I are friends, and I like St. Seraphim parish in Sea Cliff, where I served several times when I was still a priest. I also like Fr. Victor Boldewskul’s Holy Epiphany Church in Boston. These are living and active Christian parishes, as well as educational centers.
I also like parishes of the Orthodox Church in America; my friend serves at one of these, in Orlando. I like the educational publishing projects of St. Vladimir Seminary. Every time I visit the U.S., I try to stop there to buy books.
– Your Grace, introduce us to your diocese. What is life like there?
– We have many holy sites and relics, many ancient monuments, many saints. At the same time, our diocese is one of villages, and is relatively poor in a financial sense. We have roughly 170 priests serving a population of 100 thousand, but these are truly ascetical priests, who for the most part "serve Jesus and not their own belly" (cf. Romans 16:18). These are men who inspire me, whom I look up to. They do a wonderful job, and they teach me a great deal in terms of faith and morality. And the most important characteristic of our diocese is these marvelous, remarkable priests. Perhaps they might seem quite simple to some, perhaps some of them are lacking in education, but these are people with no ulterior motives, very sincere, in whom there is no guile.
Our monasteries are quite different from one another. It is mostly widows who labor in our convents; there are not many young nuns. Our male monasteries are less populous. This even gladdens me, though, because people need to assume a particular form in order enter a monastery. Let young people live, feel themselves out; after all, serious temptations begin alongside monastic life, the reality and power of which one who is not a monk cannot understand or even believe. One mut be prepared for this, because if you give in even a little bit in your prayers, you can in a moral sense be totally torn apart.
Our monastery are pilgrimage and tourist centers, and the monks and nuns have both the opportunity and desire to labor in this arena.
Our monasteries are also centers of social work, and everything significant that happens in the diocese is based in the monasteries. For me, the work of St. Theodore Stratelates Convent is very important: they are working on creating a St. Luke of Crimea Center. The holy hierarch spent nine years in Pereslavl-Zalessky, where he was the head doctor in the local hospital.
When I was appointed to Pereslavl, these buildings were abandoned. We coopted them and now are preparing to make renovations. We plan to open a palliative care center with 10-15 beds as an affiliate branch of Moscow’s N.A. Alexeev Psychiatric Hospital.
In Holy Trinity-St. Daniel Monastery, thanks to the abbot, material support is provided for a large number of people. We try to emphasize social and humanitarian aid, since this is the countryside, since our people are not well off, and some are even on the verge of poverty. We do not have any abundance, but we do have enough to share, and try not to neglect those in need.
– During your service in the diocese, you performed 32 diaconal and priestly ordinations. What qualities do you look for when you are ordaining someone?
– The most important thing is that the man be kind. I do not ordain mean people. There is so much negativity in the world right now, so much evil and aggression, and when a person comes to the Church, he has to be greeted by kind people. Maybe not perfect, but kind. I think that our world is in great need of kindness. There is a lot of strictness, but we are often short on kindness, human warmth, and understanding. I try to make sure our priests are the kind of people you would not want to run away from, but whom you would want to approach and talk to.
– Your Grace, how do you see your diocese’s future?
– I would like for the clergy, and for myself, to continue with good cheer their education and learning, writing academic papers; for us not to have any needy priests, especially those with many children; for us to have an established system of restoration and reconstruction of churches and architecturally monuments. For us, these are essentials.
– God help you, Your Grace, your clergy and faithful in the homeland of St. Alexander Nevsky!
Interview by Tatiana Veselkina
Photos from the author, and personal archive of Bishop Theoctist