REMEMBERING BISHOP BASIL RODZIANKO

by Archpriest Thomas Edwards

(Winter, 1999 - Spring, 2000)

   The better I got to know him the more I realized that Bishop Basil Rodzianko had one foot in our world with the other stepping into the Kingdom of God. On Friday September 17, 1999 Bishop Basil fell asleep in the Lord and in so doing was now standing with both feet in the heavenly kingdom. It is not without irony that Vladyka fell asleep the day before he was to receive his U.S. citizenship. His beloved wife, Matushka Mary, was called by God the day before she was to have received her British citizenship.

   In the last twelve years, this imposing man with a kind face, gleaming white beard and captivating British accent had profoundly touched NY-NJ Orthodox and non-Orthodox by his prayerful manner of serving, his words but most simply by his presence. With the blessing of Archbishop Peter, Vladyka had visited our area giving retreats, talks and wise counsel to many of his spiritual children. His first visit to our parish was a weekend retreat "On Living the Christian Life." On another occasion he gave a talk at the Bergen County Museum on "The Re-emergence of the Church in Russia." One of Bishop Basil's most memorable visits was on October 20, 1990 when he served in Christ the Saviour Church, Paramus for the celebration of the beautiful Akathist of Thanksgiving of Archpriest Gregory Petrov in which priests and faithful of our diocese participated. Following the service Bishop Basil remained for several hours listening to the prayer requests of the many faithful who approached him asking for his blessing. No matter how exhausted or ill he was Vladkyka always gave an attentive ear or wise counsel.

   Vladimir Rodzianko was born May 22, 1915 on a family estate in Ekaterinoslav in what is now Ukraine. His grandfather, Michael Rodzianko was president of the Imperial Duma during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. As a small child, Vladimir remembered being under his grandfather's dining room table listening to the grown-ups talking about what to do now that the Royal Family had been murdered. "Surely this will be over shortly," he heard the grown-ups saying, "...and we can then return to Russia. In the meantime we will go to our Orthodox brothers in Serbia..." pronounced grandfather Rodzianko. Bishop Basil some seventy years later recalled his grandfather, a clean shaven man, now disguised behind a long beard escaping with his family from Russia by train.

  As a youngster growing up in Serbia, he was motivated by two callings: the radio and the holy priesthood. As a young boy he often fall asleep at night listening to his crystal radio. In 1937 Vladimir Rodzianko received his theological degree from the University of Belgrade and then pursued post-graduate studies in theology at the University of London. Vladimir married Mary Kolubayev and in 1941 he was ordained to the holy priesthood. Fr. Vladimir served several parishes in northern Serbia. Times were difficult because of the war and the Nazi occupation of the Rodzianko's adopted homeland. Bishop Basil remarked in 1990 that "when the Nazis marched out one door the Communists marched in another." According to Bishop Basil, life was much more difficult under the Communists than the Nazis. Fr. Vladimir, who continued to preach against the ungodly, was arrested by the Communists and charged with the high crime of illegal religious propaganda. He was sentenced to eight years imprisonment at hard labor. Fr. Vladimir's imprisonment proved to be a great trial not only for him but also for his Matushka Mary and their two young sons, Vladimir and Michael. Entering prison, Fr. Vladimir's beard was shorn and his cassock and cross were ripped off.  "Now you're like all the other comrades!" When asked nearly half a century later about one of his worse memories of imprisonment, Vladyka stated without hesitation, "the fleas!" The fleas were so bad that he felt he was being eaten alive. Taking off his shirt to give to his matushka to take home to wash, there were so many holes from the fleas that the shirt looked like the night sky full of stars. His body was riddled with bites and his wife Mary’s heart was riddled with pain for her suffering husband.

  Fr. Vladimir was deprived of the right to serve the divine services. "Well not quite all," he added one evening over dinner at our house as we were discussing those difficult days. The Orthodox prisoners wanted to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany and so they did. Every day the prisoners were taken outside into a quadrangle for an exercise period. The exercise consisted of all prisoners marching around the four walls under the open sky in concentric circles. And so it was that on Epiphany Fr. Vladimir was able to bless water as is our Tradition. Even the non-Orthodox and non-believers did their part to assist in the "sanctification of the waters." As usual the guards were positioned along the walls of the quadrangle. In the outer circle nearest the guards marched the non-believers and the non-Orthodox Christians. Forming the inner circles were Fr. Vladimir and all the Orthodox marching so as not to be so easily observed by the guards. Since it snowed everyday there was no shortage of a water source. As instructed by Fr. Vladimir, the inner circle of Orthodox sang the troparion of the feast in muffled tones, "When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest…" While calling down "the blessing of Jordan upon these waters," he blessed the water in the form of snowflakes that fell on each and every prisoner as well as every guard without any being the wiser. And so it was that in that little comer of the world, the grace of the Holy Trinity became manifest in the lives of men and their captors and once again creation was renewed by the blessing of the waters.

  Through the efforts of the Archbishop of Canterbury and a change in Tito’s policies, Fr. Vladimir was released from prison and reunited with his matushka and two sons. The Rodzianko Family first went to France where they were the guests of Archbishop John Shahovskoy, later Archbishop of San Francisco and the person who Fr. Vladimir would later replace as bishop. From France the family went to England where they settled and raised their two sons. In London, Fr. Vladimir, in addition to being a priest, engaged in his second great passion when he was offered a position on the radio with the BBC. For over forty years he produced religious radio programs which were broadcast into the Soviet Union through the BBC, the Slavic Gospel Association, Radio Vatican and the Paris-based Voice of Orthodoxy following in the footsteps of Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory. He lectured widely on Orthodox spirituality, the role of prayer in the life of a Christian, the Holy Mother of God and numerous other topics. He was active in the Fellowship of SS. Alban and Sergius and became spiritual father to many individuals on both sides of the Atlantic as well as to those many thousands in Russia who only heard his voice.

  And then a double tragedy hit the Rodzianko family. His teenage grandson was killed in an assassination attempt intended for Fr. Vladimir who because of his religious broadcasts into the Soviet Union had long been a target of the KGB.  Secondly, Fr. Vladimir's beloved wife Mary fell asleep in the Lord in 1978.

   In 1979 Fr. Vladimir took monastic vows in England, taking the name Basil.  He was received into the Orthodox Church in America from the Moscow Patriarchate and was consecrated bishop of Washington, D.C. on January 12, 1980.  From November 1980 until his retirement on April 24, 1984, Bishop Basil served as Bishop of San Francisco. During the last days of Archbishop John of San Francisco's life Bishop Basil stayed with him and served as his nurse, taking care of the dying Archbishop and in so doing repaying the hospitality Archbishop John had extended the Rodzianko family when thy fled Serbia.

  Retiring from San Francisco, Bishop Basil returned to Washington, D.C. and for the rest of his years he continued religious broadcasts to Russia. With the fall of Communism Bishop Basil was now free to return to his ancestral home where he preached widely in the largest cities and the smallest villages. Here thousands of' his spiritual children saw the face of the man who heretofore had been only a voice coming from their radios. Now Bishop Basil was appearing on weekly programs on Russian TV  speaking on the Orthodox Christian life, the lives of the saints, morality and variety of topics that had formerly been forbidden.

  In 1991, I was in Moscow and on a Saturday night attended the all-night vigil in the Danilovsky Monastery Church. At the end of the service I was approached by one of the young choir singers.  Upon learning that I was from America, Sergei asked, "Do you know Vladyka Vasilli Rodzianko?" To which I replied, "Quite Well, in fact he was recently in our house for several days." Then Sergei said simply, "In Russia we consider him a saint!"

  This man who in Russia was considered a "saint" lived a humble and simple life.  Once when in Washington, we invited him to join our family for  lunch after the Divine Liturgy. `No." he said.  "You have just seen me put on the vestments of a bishop, but now I will put on an apron of a cook and serve you." And so he did.

  Bishop Basil's home was like the saying goes, something else! He lived in a one room efficiency apartment. In the center of the room were a few chairs and a small sofa.  In one corner was his chapel complete with altar and iconastas. Here he would serve weekday Liturgies for a small congregation who would easily fill the one room. When not in use, the chapel was closed off by a floor to ceiling curtain. In another corner was the bishop's broadcasting studio where he prepared tapes to be broadcast into Russia. There were floor to ceiling bookcases on all walls interspersed with icons and family portraits. Behind one wall was a small kitchen area. Some years ago in an article it was stated that his living, working, and praying space was akin to living in a submarine.

  Having donned his monastic apron Vladyka began to serve matushka, myself, and our children various zakousski (appetizers) he had made for us, adding, "the vegetables arefrom my little garden..." In seems that the tenants had the use of a nearby field in our nation's capital for their individual gardens. Vladyka was invited to bless the gardens at planting time and that year the harvest was plentiful. Bishop Basil's zakousski was only the beginning. Next he invited us outside and in a grove of trees he began to grill chicken and Italian sausage. We had gone from his pre-Revolutionary like living space with its reminders of a time long since gone to a contemporary suburban barbecue where our grilling chef was the same man who a few hours earlier had mystically represented the cherubim.

  One of the most spectacular remembrances I have of Vladyka was in Moscow the end of May 1991. Bishop Basil had been asked by Patriarch Aleksi to lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and back to Russia. The purpose was to bring back the sacred fire from the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem which miraculously ignites every Pascha. The arrival of the sacred fire in Moscow was to coincide with a celebration commemorating SS Cyril and Methodius, the Enlighteners of the Slavs. Bishop Basil and his pilgrims upon leaving Jerusalem went first to Istanbul to receive the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch. From here Vladyka and the pilgrims carrying the sacred fire traveled by bus stopping in all the Slavic countries where SS Cyril and Methodius had preached. 

  For only the second time since the fall of Communisrn, the Patriarch would celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the Uspensky Sobor (Dormition Cathedral) in Moscow's Kremlin. The cathedral was filled to capacity and the service was televised and seen all over Russia. The magnificent icons, the choirs, and the piety of the worshippers seemed to reach a crescendo when at the singing of, "0 Come, Let Us Worship," the tremendous side doors of the cathedral were swung open and there standing with the sacred fire from Christ's tomb raised for all was Bishop Basil. Vladyka entered the ancient church and proceeded through the royal doors with the Patriarch and placed the holy fire on the altar. Somehow to call this the "Little Entrance" does not seem to adequately describe the awesome nature of that moment.

   At the end of the Liturgy the Patriarch led by Bishop Basil, all the clergy and thousands of worshippers exited the great doors of the cathedral for the mile or so procession through the streets of Moscow. Moscow had not seen such a religious procession in seventy years. All the church bells in Moscow were ringing, above our heads the blue sky was filled with giant hot air balloons with huge icons attached. Nearby at Lenin's tomb three or four of his "faithful" were processing with their banners. Because it was still the Paschal season the thousands who lined the streets sang over and over again for at least half an hour, Christos Voskrese! All the while Bishop Basil continued to lead us to a Moscow square where he and the Patriarch served a Moliben of Thanksgiving. How appropriate that the Patriarch had asked Bishop Basil to lead this pilgrimage to the Tomb of Christ through all the Slavic Orthodox Lands and back to his home where as a young child he had to escape those of his countrymen who had forsaken God.

   The life of Bishop Basil is lull of inspiring examples of living the Christian Life. He was also a person of good humor who could laugh at himself but not at others. He was comfortable with the Soviet Ambassador as well as the pious penitent. He was able to understand the technical aspects of radio and television broadcasting along with the mystical theology of the Orthodox Church. He was a great storyteller who could keep you on the edge of your seat. He was the grandfather that every youngster would love to have. He was to thousands of people around the world a spiritual father. To the end of his days he was devoted to the memory of his dear wife. He always traveled with a two part photo frame, on one side a holy icon on the other a photo of his wife.

  As a father he told me the story of the day one of his sons said to him, "Father, when I grow up I want to be a composer."  To which the then, Fr. Vladimir, said. "Do you not know that many composers are not acknowledged until they've been dead fifty years?" His son responded, "That's OK, many saints are not acknowledged until they've been dead five hundred years!" 

  May the memory of Bishop Basil who was spiritual father to so many be eternal and may he continue to intercede in the Kingdom of God for all his spiritual children.

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[Fr. Thomas Edwards is the pastor of Holy Apostles Church, Saddlebrook, NJ.]

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