Metropolitan Anthony on Mother Maria

Here is an interview with the late Metropolitan Anthony in which he recalls Mother Maria Skobtsova and others associated with her.

I did not know Mother Maria very well personally, that is, I met her, I saw her, I heard her speak, but I did not have a personal acquaintance with her, so I can only remember some very short episodes.

The first thing I remember was that, as is well known, she was twice married and by her first marriage she had a daughter Gayana. She was in the Movement, in the seniors, when I was in the juniors. Her father, Kuzmin-Karavaev, became a Jesuit. And she would joke, saying: ‘What a strange family I have, my father is a Jesuit and my mother an Orthodox nun.’ I remember her only by sight, but I cannot describe her, I somehow see how she walked, but that was in any case very many years ago. So that was my first impression of that group of people.

My second impression of Mother Maria was when she was not yet a nun. That was in the Sergiev Hostel. I do not remember how I came there, when she spoke on some subject. But she spoke with great enthusiasm and fire. This struck me, because I found that in her enthusiasm there was too much fire. I was quieter then. There was the feeling that she always spoke from deep conviction. From that period I was told that she went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where a large number of Russian soldiers and officers were working. She came there, she was not yet a nun, and announced that she was preparing to give a series of lectures on Dostoevsky. She was met with general howling: ‘We do not need Dostoevsky, we need linen ironed, we need our rooms cleaned, we need our clothes mended, and you bring us Dostoevsky!’ And she answered: ‘Fine, if that is needed, let us leave Dostoevsky alone.’ And for several days she cleaned rooms, sewed, mended, ironed, cleaned. When she had finished doing all that, they asked her to talk about Dostoevsky. This made a big impression on me, because she did not say: ‘I did not come here to iron for you or clean your rooms — can you not do that yourselves?’ She responded immediately and in this way she won the hearts and minds of the people. This was my second impression of her.

The third impression relates to the period when she had already become a nun. She was a very unusual nun in her behaviour and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw: in front of a cafe, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.

Then I learned something different about her. At that time she opened a hostel in Rue Lourmel, where some remarkable people were gathered. There was Fyodor Timofeevich Pyanov.

MF: Ilya Fundaminski?

MA: Yes, Father Dimitri Klepinin and …

MF: Fedotov, certainly.

MA: Fedotov was around, and Mochulski played a very important part. And they gathered together all those who needed assistance. They did not ask whether you were innocent or guilty, why you were living such a life.

Mother Mary went through the most dangerous and dubious streets of Paris, entered those guest houses where other people were simply afraid to go, found out whether there were Russians there, took them out of that place — beggars and drunkards, took them to Rue Lourmel, washed, clothed and fed them and for some time they lived there. But then they went away again, went back to their previous situation, because their poverty and living conditions were such that it was very difficult to hold out, when you had lost everything and taken only a short rest. And she would then again return to the same place, bring them back, again wash them, dress them and feed them, and so years passed like this. And Mochulski took part in this work with her, although he was not concerned with the physical work, but immersed them in his culture. He was also a Dostoevsky specialist. But he did not teach them Dostoevsky, but simply Russian culture and tried to awaken in them some interest in life, which would draw them away from drink or unemployment.

MF: When was that, was it in the thirties?

MA: It was in the late twenties — early thirties

MF: It was a terrible time; even the French went hungry.

MA: Even the French went hungry, but Russians even more so, because apart from anything else they were foreigners. We did not have passports: in 1925 we lost our Russian citizenship, and they did not give us a new one, we had the ‘Nansen passport’, which essentially did not give us any rights, except that we had a civil identity. But we could not move, could not travel with it.

MF: And were there any priests at Rue Lourmel?

MA: Besides Father Dimitri, who was there constantly and worked inseparably with his wife Tamara, I think Father Kern was there.

MF: Was he apparently the abbot there?

MA: Possibly, I do not remember. I am not sure of it.

MF: I was once in Paris at one of the meetings, and the organisers arranged a car for me at the station. A very good, nice woman took us in the car and when we talked, I learned that she, it turned out, was the daughter of Father Dmitri Klepinin. She was certainly quite young when he died; he perished in Buchenwald.

MA: He was a very fine man, a simple, uncomplicated man, with a pure heart, pure thoughts, a pure life, who wanted good things and did good deeds.

MF: And what was Mother Mary’s reputation in Paris? How did Orthodox public opinion take her?

MA: On the one hand, they praised her very much for her social work.

MF: For her exploits.

MA: Yes. On the other hand, she was somewhat eccentric. And for that reason some people regarded her in a positive light, while other looked at her in a negative light.

MF: Can one not say that her ‘eccentricity’ was a manifestation of the intellectual side of her character? Because she was very unusual and came from completely irreligious, lay circles.

MA: Yes, if you read, for example, her poetry. It is very lively, but in it are some very unusual passages, which you do not expect, not because they offend any feeling of yours, but because if you think that this is a nun, it is strange — why did she write this poetry?

MF: If you imagine her as an heiress of the St Petersburg circles and generally of that whole Silver Age movement, then maybe she was in her right place, but in a new dress?

MA: I think she was in her right place, but would be an eccentric even in Russia. I remember, when she had not yet become a nun and somebody standing next to her raised an objection to her, she seized this person by the shoulders and shook him in front of everyone. Not every lecturer relates so hotly to his lecture.

MF: It is interesting to know that there are such strange people, who are suitable not only for exploits, but also for martyrdom in spite of everything.

MA: There are various rumours about her death. I had a letter from a Frenchwoman, who was with her in the Ravensburg concentration camp. I received all Mother Mary’s papers and gave everything to Father Serge [Hackel]. This woman wrote that the Germans assembled them one day and called out the names of those who had to go to the gas chambers for asphyxiation and among them was a young woman, who struggled and cried, and Mother Mary, whom they did not call out, stepped forward out of the ranks and said to her: ‘Do not struggle, it is not terrible and I can show you that — I shall go with you’. And she, as an extra person, went to her death. A witness wrote this to me. Even now witnesses do not always clearly understand. Father Serge has another witness account. In any case, she freely gave up her life for others. She hid Jews in Paris. When the Germans came to arrest her, they did not find her, but found her son, Yuri. They arrested him and left her a note saying that if she came, they would release Yuri — she came, but they did not release Yuri, and he also died there in the concentration camp.

MF: And is there any veneration of her as a martyr in the Russian Church?

MA: There was talk of canonisation, there were even articles in Russian newspapers about this. I have not heard that they in fact canonised her, but there was talk of it and I think that she was no less a martyr than others who were arrested in Russia for the faith or for Church activities. She did not die for the faith in the sense of confession of faith, dogma, but for the fact that she lived according to the faith with readiness to give all of herself, unto death, moreover not only when she died, because you imagine how much hunger and cold there was at Rue Lourmel and how crowded it was. That house was overflowing with those needing constant support, assistance, food, clothing, whom it was necessary to wash, comfort, give new hope to, so that sooner or later they would get out of those holes where they lived. She was all the same a cultured and refined woman, but she did not at all take that into account — it was not a way of life she led at that time. She continued to write, she wrote both prose and poetry, but that was somehow another expression of what she did. Her faith consisted of action, she never taught anyone how to live, she just lived like that. I think that is about all I can remember about her.

Recorded on 21 September 1999. Translated by John Phillips. Edited and annotated by Oleg Belyakov.

From the Cathedral Newsletter, Sourozh Diocese, London; issue of May 2001; the full text of the newsletter is posted on the diocesan web site: www.sourozh.org