Russian speech is heard on Shepherd Street (or “Pastor Street,” if you will), coming from the third generation of Russian scouts, who are playing volleyball across the street from a church. Playing at some distance from their teachers, this younger generation switched to English from time to time. At the church, under a tent, is a group of younger kids, who repeated the words of “Our Father” uttered by one of the girls. I stood at one side and marveled at the mosaic shining in the sunlight, the tile-work of the church rising to the sky… Then slowly, through the Indian-summer fog of sunny orange bushes and rich colors, I ascended the steep staircase. St John the Baptist Cathedral in America’s capital was built in the Muscovite-Yaroslavl style of the 17th century, like a carved statuette sitting in the palm of one’s hand. There are only a handful of such churches in Orthodox America. Parish churches dedicated to the Beheading of Righteous John the Forerunner, they say, number only some 25 throughout the Orthodox world.
How is it that a church devoted to such a sad event came to be in this intellectual, refined city of Washington?
The founding of this church was tied to an important event in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the Russian diaspora. In 1949, Archbishop John (Maximovich) came to the American capital from the distant island of Tubabao, with the aim of interceding for his flock, which was forced to flee communist China and found refuge in that small Pacific island. Five thousand Russians were all that the Philippine government agreed to take in, putting them on an island that was hit by typhoons every year. St John remained with his flock for three years, as the Russians lived in jungle camps, serving in a tent chapel, walking about the entire island in prayer every day. And over the entire period, not one storm hit the island! In 1949, the holy man came to the American capital to plead with US senators to change their immigration quota. As a result, legislation was passed which allowed these 5,000 Russians to come to America as permanent residents. While in Washington, St John founded the first parish of the Russian Church Abroad in the city. He set down two conditions: that on that very day they would perform all-night vigil in his apartment and Liturgy the next day and dedicated the community to that day’s feast: the Beheading of St John the Forerunner.
This was the only parish founded by St John of Shanghai in the United States. Inside the church, on the left side of the ambo, is an image of the saint, depicting the Capitol building in which Vladyka John pleaded on behalf of his flock, along with other miraculous events connected to his life. In 1983, the parish rector, Protopriest Victor Potapov, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, went to St George of Koziba Monastery in the Judean desert. The monastery has a large part of the skull of St John the Baptist. Learning where the pilgrims were from, the abbot gave his blessing for a part of the relic to be given to the parish, now one of 850 other relics in the cathedral.
Fr Victor has served at the cathedral for 37 years. In the Church Abroad, most priests are forced to also hold “civil” jobs as they minister to their flock, since most parishes cannot provide full sustenance to their priests. Fr Victor took a job at Voice of America radio station after he became convinced that St John the Baptist Cathedral needed a second priest. His family had made its way to the American continent from the German camp of Manchenhof, where Fr Victor was born in 1948. His father, an officer in Vlasov’s liberation army, had to change his name, so they became the Potapovs.
“Papa and the other soldiers of Vlasov were taken prisoner,” said Fr Victor. “After the war they were repatriated to the Soviet. The next day after the betrayal, they were going to execute him. But that night he had a dream. A voice told him ‘run, run!’ And so he fled the interim camp. After 30 day of wandering through the forests and towns of Germany, he made his way to a DP [displaced-persons] camp, where he met my mother, whose family had been deported to Germany as forced laborers, and they married. Protopriest Mitrofan Znosko-Borovsky married them in the barracks chapel; he was later to become a bishop of ROCOR.
“In 1951, we came to New York. My grandfather, searching for work, headed to Cleveland, and soon brought the rest of the family there. Papa became a builder, and built 3-4 houses a year, which supported us. In fact, he also built our St Sergius Cathedral in Cleveland.
“I Was Forced to Go to Church Under Threat of the Rod.”
“I grew up during the Cold War and very much wanted to assimilate to the American way of life,” continued Fr Victor. “Americans did not discern between Russians and Soviets. We tried to explain that Russians were the first victims of the godless communist regime, but all Russians were immediately deemed to be communists. This was very unpleasant, and I tried to quickly ‘melt in the American pot.’
“I was forced to go to church under threat of the rod, because we had to accompany my grandmother to church, which was in a bad neighborhood. Once when I was 14, I went to church with my grandmother; there were almost no other parishioners in church that day. Fr Michael Smirnov was serving, and in one instant, by Divine mercy, it occurred to me that everything around me had profound meaning. From then on I began to immerse myself in Orthodox Christianity. Fr Michael invited me to become an altar boy, he taught me to read Church Slavonic. I was a rascal as an adolescent, but thanks to Church reading I was able to overcome this fault.
“In the 1960’s I began to travel to the monastery in Jordanville. They had a wonderful program then: ‘summer boys.’ There were young novices there at the time, in the morning we would attend church, serve in the altar, whoever could would sing on the kliros. We were taught the Law of God, we talked to the monks who had come there from various monasteries of Russia and passed on wonderful monastic traditions to us.
“After I graduated, I enrolled in Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY, and studied together with our present First Hierarch, Metropolitan Hilarion, who was then just Igor Kapral. For the first few months we lived in the same dorm room. The future Vladyka was a good student, he loved to read the Lives of Saints, and often read about how martyrs suffered aloud, with tears in his eyes.”
“I Met my Matushka at the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord.”
“It was the summer of 1970. I went to Jerusalem with a group of pilgrims headed by Bishop Laurus, the future metropolitan, and before that I had gone to Mt Athos and even considered taking the monastic path. In Jerusalem, one woman pilgrim who was dismayed at my thoughts of monasticism said that she noticed a perfect girl for me, Masha Tchertkoff from Paris, the daughter of Protopriest Sergei Tchertkoff, who served as a protodeacon under Bishop John (Maximovich) for ten years, when he was the Archbishop of Brussels and Western Europe. Masha was on a pilgrimage of Russian Orthodox youth from Paris.
“Once we went with Archbishop Nikon (Rklitsky) to attend the feast-day celebrations of St Panteleimon Church in Hartford, CT. On the way we drove by the town of Stratford. Vladyka said that they were in need of a priest for the new Church of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. I told Vladyka that I was prepared to take on that assignment. On September 1, 1974, Metropolitan Philaret ordained me to the priesthood, and I was assigned to that parish. It was small, and we lived on the church grounds. It provided good experience in the priesthood, but the parish could not support me. I needed to find other work, and I was able to find a job at Bedford Publications in New York City.
“How I Helped Immigrants.”
“The publishing firm existed on government subsidies, printing and distributing Russian-language literature which was banned in the USSR: George Orwell’s 1984, the works of Solzhenitsyn, samizdat manuscripts and political literature, and found ways of delivering it to theSoviet Union. I was hired to conduct interviews with recent immigrants. These were the standard type: ‘What radio stations did you listen to, what kind of literature interests you?’… I helped the newly-arrived immigrants find a place to live, rented moving vans, helped them in their daily needs.
“During these interviews it turned out that religion played an important role in their lives. Many of them had listened to BBC broadcasts of Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), Fr Vladimir Rodzianko (later Bishop Vasily), Bishop John (Shakhovskoy) and Fr Alexander Schmemann; they desperately desired to own a Bible, and philosophical and religious literature. Then I suggested to my superiors to send religious publications to the USSR. They received the idea well, and I was charged with buying books and sending packages. I would buy the works of Bulgakov, Frank, Berdyaev, Solzhenitsyn, material published by Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, and found sailors, professors, delegates who came for ecumenical meetings, who enthusiastically took these publications home.
My commute from Connecticut to New York lasted for three years. It would take three hours; on the way I would read, perfect my Russian, conversed with interesting people. It was fascinating work, but then a recession hit. My bosses decided that as a priest who receives pay from my church, I could be laid off. But I could no longer imagine my life separated from Russia, and began sending my resume to large firms which had any kinds of relationship with Russia, offering my services as a translator or consultant.”
“How St John Helped Me.”
“I sent a letter to Voice of America radio station and offered my services. A few days later they invited me to New York for an interview. I went, and soon Nikita Valerianovich Moravsky called me; he was one of the people Vladyka John had rescued from Tubabao. He was the director of the Soviet Program of Voice of America, the number-one man there, having earlier worked as the cultural attache at the American Embassy in Moscow. When I began to work there, this remarkable person was preparing to retire. He summoned me and said ‘You’re hired.’ Nikita Valerianovich and I then became close friends; he joined out Committee for the Defense of Persecuted Orthodox Christians, and became a parishioner of our cathedral. A year ago or so I performed his funeral…
“After Voice of America made me an offer of employment, I went to see Metropolitan Philaret. He gave me his blessing to move to the Washington parish, where the rector for 27 years had been the Greek Archimandrite Nicholas (Pekatoros). Fr Nicholas had an interesting life. He was born in the end of the 19th century in Odessa to a family of Greek Russians. He was ordained to the priesthood under Patriarch Tikhon in 1922 and until 1929, served under Holy Hieromartyr Bishop Onuphry (Gagaliuk) in the Kherson-Odessa Diocese in Ukraine. In 1929, Fr Nicholas left for Greece, where he was soon tonsured to the monkhood. He served in the Church of the Most-Holy Trinity in Athens, attached to the Russian Embassy in Greece. In 1952, he moved to the USA and from 1953 to 1980, was the senior priest of the Washington cathedral.
“After I was hired by VOA, the question arose about what to do with the Stratford parish. I promised to the parishioners of Presentation Church that I would not leave until a replacement was found, and so every weekend I would travel from Washington DC to Stratford to serve vigil and Liturgy.”
To the US Capital.
“Four and a half hours by car separate the US capital from the ‘capital of the world,’ New York City, but the cities and their inhabitants are unbelievably different. Though Ilf and Petrov [early Soviet humorists—transl.] described Washington as ‘single-story America,’ both cities in my opinion are two different ‘non-Americas.’
“In October, the city is still in full bloom and there are no signs of autumn. Only the Japanese cherry tree is not blossoming—it is the symbol of the National Cherry-Blossom Festival. That happens in the springtime, when the whole city takes on a whitish-pink coloration, and its residents and visitors are enchanted with the Japanese blossoms.
“Pierre-Charles l’Enfant, who laid out the plan for the city of Washington DC in the late 18th century, included diagonal avenues which would be named for the states of the Union. These intersect with streets which bear the names of generals, admirals, famous people, while others are numbered or named by letters of the alphabet. Massachusetts Avenue was devoted to diplomats: this is where most European embassies are located.
“Washington, and especially its old town, Georgetown and Capitol Hill, preserved the buildings of the 19th century. There are no skyscrapers in the city: legislation prohibits any building rising above the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Broad avenues, severe, sharp-hewn and polished buildings also impart a sense of grandeur and scale.
Fr Victor and I made our way by car to the center of Washington DC. We immediately felt and succumbed to the beating of the social-political pulse of the American capital. Right before us, from one of the official buildings towards another streamed a column of handicapped demonstrators: the wheelchair-bound, blind, lame, accompanied by friends and assistance dogs, gradually, unhurriedly, moving towards the legislative branch of the US government. The next day, the nation was to be hit by a government crisis, when a conflict between the Democrats and Republicans sent Federal workers on an unplanned vacation. The free museums closed, disappointing thousands of tourists.
“The headquarters of Voice of America is right next to the capital’s museums, and my office windows looked out onto the Capitol Building,” explained Fr Victor, pointing at a corner office on the second floor of a building. “When I started working here in 1977, I promised myself that every day during my lunch break I would visit a museum and look at the exhibitions. But this was only a dream: all my free time was devoted to parish matters.”
“At First I Was Only a Voice…”
“I was first hired by Voice of America as a translator of news. There was a radio and TV program led by Vladimir Matlin, a Jewish man, who broadcast under the name of Martin. Once during a meeting, Volodya said, to his credit: ‘Why am I running this show if we have a priest?’ So they gave me twenty minutes before the Jewish segment, then we made an agreement with Volodya that we would divide the broadcast in half. The question rose about how to present me, since it was unprecedented for a priest to lead a VOA program. First I did not identify myself. At first I was only a voice. Debate continued for a while. As we discussed how I should be introduced, I created a special program called ‘The Meaning and Structure of Christmas Services.’ This was a purely Orthodox Christian broadcast, with singing and Gospel readings. Suddenly, from Cavendish, VT, where Alexander Solzhenitsyn lived, the head of the Russian Department, Victor Adolfovich Frantsuzov, got a phone call; it was from Natalia Dmitrievna Solzhenitsyna, who said that Alexander Isaevich was impressed by this and other religious programming and wondered who was responsible for them. Management was flattered, and cool heads prevailed: Why be coy about this, it’s a priest—he is an authority! So six months after starting at VOA, I began to open my broadcasts with the words ‘At the microphone is Priest Victor Potapov.’ We begin our weekly broadcast of Voice of America’s Overview of Religious-Social Life.’ Then as I signed off, Volodya Matlin would begin his segment. I was later given more time, and I was given a new slot called ‘Religion in Our Lives.’ We separated from the Jewish segment, and my portion lasted 45 minutes and was aired five times a week. I also arranged for a weekly broadcast of Liturgy from St John the Baptist Cathedral, with a sermon, meanwhile, on a daily basis, after the political segment and news, an excerpt from Holy Scripture was read. In the 1990’s I began to record two weekly segments of ‘Religion in Our Lives’ which would air several times.”
“Voice of America’s broadcasts were often jammed. It was so painful; you put in so much work, your heart and soul… In 1984, I was sent to Russia for the first time. We had a program wherein all employees who had never been to the country they reported on had to travel there for 2-3 weeks, to get to know the situation, ‘breathe the air’… By then I had already worked at the station for seven years, I had name recognition, and I was given a diplomatic passport, for my protection. Just before my trip to Moscow, the periodical Trud published an article called ‘Mudslinger,’ in which Soviet citizens were warned not to meet with me.
“I took a receiver with me, and after settling in to Ukraina Hotel, tried to tune in to my own broadcast, to see how it sounds there. All I heard was a horrible noise! My friends consoled me, saying that local Russians attach antennas, put the receivers on window sills, on radiators, in a word, they made adjustments and listened. Later, when Gorbachev declared the policies of glasnost and perestroika, letters from all over Russia came pouring in. Many of them were addressed to me personally. Some I answered on the air, and I have kept all of them to this day for future scholars of Russian-American relations in the late twentieth century.
“Our parish set up a fund called ‘Spiritual Literature for Russia,’ and Voice of America would cover the cost of sending packages to our listeners. It was an exciting time!
“Thanks to VOA, I met many fascinating people. Three times I visited Solzhenitsyn in Vermont, I spoke to his wife Natalia on the phone all the time. The third time I visited Solzhenitsyn was with Vladimir Alexeevich Soloukhin in 1985. This conspiratorial visit was unforgettable, and deserves special attention. At that time I came to know the scholar Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev and many other remarkable individuals. Alexander Ginsburg, the human-rights champion, lived in our house six years after being released from prison camp.
“My arrival at VOA coincided with the appointment of the virtuoso cellist Mstislav Rostropovich as the Musical Director of the National Symphony Orchestra. One of my parishioners, Nadezhda Efremova, was his personal secretary and asked my matushka to be Mstislav Leopoldovich’s interpreter, who was inviting French composers to visit him. Over the course of 17 years, while he worked in Washington, our families became very close, and Mstislav Leopoldovich became the godfather of our daughter Sonya, and my matushka and I became the godparents of his eldest grandson Ivan. While our church was under reconstruction, from 1978-1982, Slava, as we lovingly called the great Rostropovich, took an avid interest, as he loved all kinds of construction. He was happy that the US capital was going to be the home of a grand cathedral in the ancient Russian style, and helped build it. Every time Slava would visit Washington, he rushed to see our church to evaluate the construction process. He loved to climb up the scaffolding into the nave, and was impressed by the craft of our architect, Vladyka Daniel (Alexandrov), and found much in common with him not only in architecture but in music, literature and humor. Slava and his wife, Galina Pavlovna Vishnevskaya, the eminent opera singer who sacrificed her career helping Solzhenitsyn, gave our cathedral a gift of five bells. The largest bell has the names of seven great exiled Russian composers engraved on it.”
Under Republican President Ronal Reagan, Protopriest Victor served as his consultant on religious affairs in Russia. Soon after Fr Victor arrived in Washington, Fr Alexander Kiselev gave him the chairmanship of the Committee for the Defense of Persecuted Orthodox Christians, through which Fr Victor published the English-language quarterly The Orthodox Monitor, devoted to the plight of Christians in Eastern Europe and the USSR. He managed to do all this even while continuing as a parish priest and building the church, one of the most beautiful ones on the East Coast.
And what about the founders of the parish? We round the corner of Shepherd Street and head for the oldest cemetery in Washington. First it was for Protestants and Catholics. In the early 1960’s, St John the Bapist Parish acquired a large parcel for burying its dead, and ten years ago, a chapel was built, like a Faberge egg, consecrated by Metropolitan Laurus in honor of the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God of Montreal. The altar table is made of Jerusalem stone. Inside is a depiction of St John of Shanghai, the parish’s founder, and Jose Munoz, the murdered caretaker of the Myrrh-Streaming Iveron Icon of the Mother of God of Montreal, who is particularly revered by the Potapov family. They are still in possession of the personal effects of Brother Jose until a museum is established in his honor. On Ancestors’ Saturday, commemorative Liturgies and pannikhidas are served here, and the graves of reposed Orthodox Christians are visited.
Buried here is a benefactor of the parish, a highly-ranked officer in Vlasov’s army, Dmitry Alexandrovich Levitsky, who lived to a hundred. Ivan Nikolaevich Sivy is remembered not for his rank, but for his zealous service to God. The old Carpatho-Russian died right in church after Liturgy, before the commemorative table in front of the large Crucifixion. Konstantin Vasilievich Boldyrev is buried here, an active member of the National Labor Union (NTS). In the 1940’s, Boldyrev was the head of the DP camp where Fr Victor was born.
Arkady Shevchenko, former Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, buried here at the expense of the parish, was baptized, married and buried by Fr Victor.
The parish plans to erect a monument and bell in memory of the victims of communism next to the late Soviet dissident Mikhail Makarenko, who organized the first unofficial avant-garde art exhibit in the USSR.
The Russian section of the cemetery includes the grave of the renowned monarchist and journalist Yuri Konstantinovich Meyer. His daughter, Natalia Clarkson, was Fr Victor’s superior at VOA. The Russian Department there had some 120 employees.
The cemetery is also home to the remains of Tamara Stebletz and Olga Rabchevsky. Elena Yakobson, a parishioner, was a professor at George Washington University. Her voice was the first to be heard on the VOA broadcasts to the USSR. Givi Kobi, renowned among the Orthodox Christians of Washington for his generosity, former head of the Georgian Department of the VOA, lies here, too, with his wife Maria.
Elena Fortunatova-Cox, Editor-in-Chief of one of the first glossy magazines in the USSR, America, is here, too. Better known as Lyalya, she was for a long time the choir director and secretary of the parish council, and baked prosphoras. Her husband, Leonid Cox, learned Russian and Church Slavonic, and read in church with an expressive, southern accent.
“The kind souls of the founders of our parish’s benevolent fund, which is active to this day, served as remarkable examples of the Christian life,” said Fr Victor. “Our cemetery is home to many good Russians who in the 1950’s pooled their pennies, buying individual bricks to build our wonderful church.”