One of the most prominent hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, His Eminence Archbishop Michael (Donskoff) of Geneva and Western Europe, just turned 70. He talked to us about his life.
A Strange Meeting
I have always dreamed of going to Zotovskaya-na-Donu stanitsa [Cossack settlement]. My ancestors lived there, and I’d never been. My father would tell me all about the place, and his house. So when I finally made it there, I was able to find everything fairly easily, and found our house right away.
Then some remarkable things started happening. Some man was standing at the gate, looked at me seriously, and said “Aah, Michael has come to visit.” It turned out this was my relative. But how did he recognize me? I told no one of my impending visit, and had no contact with them at all. He invited me in, sat down at a table, and everything was explained.
This man had served in the army his entire life. From time to time he would be invited to a special department and asked if he had had any contact with me. They showed him photographs, so he recognized me right away. But he had no warm feelings for me, because I had only caused him serious problems.
So our meeting was not very friendly. He also had a suspicious view of the Church. But we sat there and spilled our hearts out to each other, and found common ground. By the time we left, we felt like relatives.
The Little Icon
In this stanitsa, in 1918, the Reds executed my grandfather, Semyon Platonovich Donskoff. My father was one of the youngest Cossacks who went with General Krasnov to fight for the Don against the Bolsheviks.
My father fled Russia with remnants of the army of General Wrangel. He came to Constantinople, and suffered hellish conditions on the island of Lemnos, where Russian soldiers were dying of cold and starvation. Then there were difficult travels throughout Turkey, Greece and other European cities. Finally, already with my mother, he made his way to Paris, where I was born during World War II.
Leaving Russia, my father took two things with him besides his uniform—a photo of my grandfather and a little icon of St Tikhon of Zadonsk. My grandfather had brought it from that town after the saint was glorified. On time, this brass icon saved my father’s life: a bullet hit the pocket which contained it.
I was amazed when my father one day gave me the icon, instead of giving it to one of my older brothers. For I never had a clue then that I would go on to become a priest. But my father for some reason gave it to me.
Baptism During a Bombing
Just before I was born, a bomb had hit the Paris church which my family attended. The building was completely destroyed. At the time, a Polish Orthodox bishop, Vladyka Matfei (Semashko) visited us. He asked my father where he would baptize his new-born son. My father replied: “When they rebuild the church.” Vladyka objected, saying that we could not wait 20 years to baptize me, and so he christened me right there in our home.
As I grew older, I was enrolled in a boarding school in Meudon, near Paris. Not far was the Church of the Resurrection of Christ—that church has a remarkable history. It was built by Russian emigres in the late 1920’s. They had little means at their disposal. One engineer prepared building materials from straw and cement. He called it “solomite.” The French couldn’t figure out what it was. The engineer cautioned them that the material would only hold up 5-6 years. But it survived until 1981, when a young boy leaned against the wall from the outside and fell right through the wall. Now there is a brick church which imitates the design of the original “solomite” church.
“This is Your Paques Russe?”
I served in the French military in the mid-1960’s. On Pascha I submitted a request for leave, though we had been warned that if the reasons for leave were invalid, there would be a reprimand. They said that valid reasons were the birth of a child or a dying mother.
I came to HQ, asked the sergeant for an application for leave. He laughed: “Are you suffering from sunstroke from today’s march? “
I gave him a sharp retort. We began arguing. The colonel emerged from his office and barked: “What’s the matter?” “I wish to go home for Pascha.” “You are Russian? This is your Paques russe?” (That’s what the French call Russian Easter.)
He told the sergeant to fetch an application and stamps, who obeyed with a bewildered look. The colonel then pointed to the sky: “I have my superiors, but also a Higher Superior. My conscience will not allow me to refuse your request.”
So I never once in my life missed a Paschal celebration.
When I first went to Russia, I was filled with indescribable joy at hearing Russian spoken on the street. A person who lives in Russia can’t understand this. There everyone is used to it; you go to church, you go outside, Russians everywhere.
Russian living abroad leave church into an utterly alien world. We usually made our Paschal kisses in the church, because after leaving it becomes difficult. It seemed that there is no other way. And suddenly you find yourself in a country where you can make Paschal kisses outside! What a joy!
About Vladyka Michael
Born in Paris in 1943 to the family of Vasily Donskoff, a Don Cossack. After tonsure into monasticism, headed dioceses in North America and Europe. In 2004, brought the relics of Holy Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna to Russia and over the course of seven months brought the relics to 71 dioceses from the western border to the Pacific Ocean.
An active proponent of reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate, participant in the celebrations of the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion in May, 2007. In December, 2008, granted Russian citizenship, and lives and serves in Geneva.