“I Used to Think that Russia Sucks and that It Is Too Backward”: American on His Life in Moscow, Baptism, and Russian Hospitality

Matthew decided to leave the US when he was 18. He didn’t have any objective reasons for his decision, “I just couldn’t see my future in America,” he says. Matthew hails from upstate New York. He lived and studied in the USA, Germany, and the UK but he decided to settle in Russia after visiting a church service in an Orthodox church in Saint Petersburg. Matthew got baptized in the Orthodox Church and has spent the latest six years of his life as a translator and an advertiser at Yandex in Moscow. He speaks perfect Russian and has merged in the culture. Aside from that, Matthew has a very special hobby: together with other volunteers of “The Common Cause” project, he restores wooden churches in the Russian North in the summer.

I arrived in Russia for the first time when I was 24. I had had quite a few prejudices against this country. I remember talking with a friend of mine back in New York. He told me about an event in Russia he had heard about in the news and added that it would be fun to go there. I replied harshly that I’d never go there in my life and that Russia “sucks, it’s a backward country, and it’s no good.” Six years into my life here in Russia, I realize how wrong I was.

A Russian friend of mine whom I had studied with in Great Britain invited me to visit him in Saint Petersburg. His family received me better than anyone else had in my whole life – even some of my relatives don’t treat me so well. They took me to theaters and showed me around the city. My friend and I dropped in the Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral on one of the first days of my stay in St. Petersburg. I hadn’t known almost anything about Orthodoxy at that time. I thought, like most Americans likely do, that it was like Catholicism without the Pope and with lots of icons. I immediately noticed that icons were especially important here. We looked around when all of a sudden the choir started singing, and the Royal Door sprang open. It was like a mighty blow. I remember vaguely that my friend picked me up from my knees and we went out. My face was awash with tears. I was struck by a profound and inexplicable feeling. I realized that I had to change my life. I also realized that I had to stay in Russia. It was as if someone told me: you’re at home here.

“Gospel of Matthew by Matthew.”

I started thinking about converting to Orthodoxy in Kiev where I went to study Russian – weird, isn’t it? In fact, it was much cheaper to study there. I used to go to St. Vladimir’s Cathedral after classes (I didn’t know that it belonged to schismatics) just to pray, not to a service. I would look at the icons and frescoes painted by Vasnetsov and Nesterov. I was impressed by their incredible profoundness. Once, I came to the cathedral during a service. It was a church holiday but there were few people in the church. I was told that the “Patriarch” himself was leading the worship. I was astonished: Why so few people if the Patriarch himself leads the service? Later, a teacher of mine explained everything to me and advised me to go to Kiev Caves Lavra instead.

I was baptized in Moscow, in the Church in honor of Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God in Alekseevskoye. Generally, people don’t have to be baptized when converting from Protestantism to Orthodoxy but mine was a special case. I can’t say that my life changed momentarily: in fact, I didn’t go to church for four months after my baptism. Later, I started going to church little by little but it seemed to me that I did it superficially. Only three years later did I realize that if I had been baptized, then I would have to change my life accordingly. It was a hard pill to swallow. In general, things become more profound and earnest thanks to the Sacrament of Repentance but at the same time it got harder. I had to force myself to tell the truth about my own inner life and to learn about it myself.

“Cleverness matters!”

Father Alexius who baptized me is in charge of the Common Cause project, which aims to restore wooden churches of the Russian North. It may sound funny but it took me four years to bring myself to take part in this project. Prior to that, I was unable to see any spiritual meaning in it. I thought it was some kind of a construction project. My first trip changed my opinion dramatically. I realized that it isn’t us who rescue churches: it’s the churches that save us. When we work to rebuild those holy places, we make our own souls better. We leave behind all the hassle that prevents us from focusing on things that really matter.

Last year, there were eighteen members of our team who would have never met each other in other circumstances. There was a business coach, a psychologist, a medical doctor, an NTV cameraman, a person who works in a children’s hospice, another person who makes soap and wears dreadlocks, and me – a translator and an advertiser. It was very unusual. Apart from work, we would read the Gospel every day, discuss the texts that we had read, and organize our simple lifestyle. It felt as if we were in the Paradise – I mean, there was no mundane routine, although we were busy doing a lot of hard work. For instance, we had to carry 20ft-long planks from a lake uphill. We spent the whole day doing this task.

“Taking wood out of water.”

While we were working there, we were visited by guests almost every day. The church is located in a forest far from human habitation but there is Lake Onega nearby. It is popular with anglers. Generally, in Russia you can meet people where you don’t expect them to be. That’s my personal observation. People heard the noise, saw the new roof, and realized that there was something going on here. One day, people came to us by boat and asked us where a shop was. We were baffled: how could there be a shop in that wilderness? The fishermen were convinced that if a church was being restored, there had to be a shop somewhere nearby. Once, people brought us some fish to thank us for what we were doing.

“Clouds above lake Onego.”

I was especially surprised by how Russians treat foreigners. I had expected them to attack me verbally but they didn’t. In fact, everyone wants to talk with me, even if their English is poor. Russians are people who are ready to accept a foreigner as one of them. My friends often introduce me to new acquaintances, “He is an American but he is one of us.” It is very pleasant, actually, to feel that I’m one of you here. I had a funny encounter back in New York where I went to see my family. A Russian-speaking Jew approached me and asked, “Are you from the USSR?” He hadn’t heard me speak Russian; neither did he know that I live in Russia. I don’t know how he came to that conclusion based only on my appearance. I replied that I was a local, born forty minutes from there. He didn’t believe me, though.

Originally published by Foma Magazine
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds

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