The Sea of Japan Has a Wonderful Russian Monastery (Profile,Photo Essay, VIDEO)

The beautiful late 19th century St. Seraphim of Sarov church on Russky Island was built to provide spiritual support to the 34th East Siberian Shooting Regiment stationed in the nearby sea fortress. It was unfortunately closed during the Soviet Regime and fell into disrepair.  However, thankfully after the fall of Communism it has been reopened and renovated into a monastery. Recently the brothers of the monastery celebrated the 20th anniversary of it’s reopening, and the Abbot of the monastery gave an interview to the Monastic Herald about the struggles and triumphs the monastery has faced. Below is a machine translated of that interview, and while the English may not be entirely perfect in some places, the information and pictures provided are a fascinating study of this monastery and its monks.

The turbulent phase is behind us. The monastery has become a spiritual family


Father, you are heading the monastery for the twelfth year. This is a serious period of time, during which it was possible to look around, to gain experience as a rector, to reflect on it. So, I would like to hear you answer the following question, how difficult is it to sincerely and wholeheartedly love the brotherhood entrusted to you, their Abbot, seeing not only the virtues of each of them, the zeal in their work, but also some of their drawbacks, which sometimes are not very small?


It so happened that I became only the second Hegumen (Abbot) of the monastery. And I have been here from the very beginning, from the day it was founded, having worked my way up from worker and novice to hieromonk and dean of the monastery. So, passed my first decade here, and then I was appointed rector. Not everything went smoothly with the departure of my predecessor, and for some time the monastery went through a phase of turbulence, if I may say so. That is, our brethren reacted differently to the departure of the first Hegumen, and to my appointment. There was no unanimity within the Brotherhood at that time. From the very beginning of my priesthood, I set a goal - to preserve the monastery numbers. I don't know if that was the right thing to do, but I tried to make sure that none of the monks left. Nevertheless, someone left, although most of the brethren remained, and we have preserved the monastery, preserved the brotherhood.


The monks with 'truzhniks', which are people who live at the monastery who receive room and board in return for helping with physical labor, and who are expected to attend services. 


In my opinion, it is as natural to love the brethren as it is natural to love one's wife and for the wife to love her husband in a good family. And for them to love their children. And for the children to have love for their parents and grandparents. During that difficult "period of turbulence," I had no desire to go to war with anyone. I understood that it made no sense and that I had to accept the person as he was, since he had been tonsured in this monastery and had taken his vows here. I couldn't point him to the door if I didn't like him in some way, if he wasn't close to me in some way. We are all different, and in monasticism too, our human passions and human limitations remain. Nevertheless, I think that a monastery can be called ideal where there is inner unity. Where there is a spiritual leader, the father of the brotherhood, and the brotherhood at least treats him with trust and sympathy. (And this is not just a dream - it is a realistic possible picture). It is hard to live in a fraternity when it is internally divided into groups with informal leaders. Our monastery went through this, and I am unspeakably glad that this period is over. We now feel like one spiritual family.


Concentration in prayer. Monk Pitirim, head of the apiary and the monastery's housekeeper.    


Well, I would also add: if a monk is dissatisfied with the abbot or something in the monastery, there is an option for him to take on the feat of patience and humility and treat it as his monastic cross. Not everyone, unfortunately, copes. (Here as in war - not everyone is a hero, some show both weakness and cowardice. Which, by the way, is humanly understandable). Personally, in my opinion: in order not to confuse the other brethren, not to bring division, it is better for a person who cannot overcome a serious spiritual problem to leave. We have many monasteries, and let him look for a leader who will meet his needs. Although it's legitimate to ask: will he find an ideal monastery, an ideal leader? Experience shows that the one who left will find cause for dissatisfaction in other places as well. This is confirmed by many examples from the Paterikon (A book on the lives of the Church Fathers). Let us remember one of them - a well-known one. A monk had so many temptations in the monastery that he decided to leave the monastery. No sooner had he put on his sandals than he saw another man putting on his sandals who then asked the monk, "Is it not because of me that you are leaving? But I will go ahead of you wherever you go." It was the demon who had been tempting him all along.


And how did the fate of the inhabitants who left the monastery of St. Seraphim of Sarov during that difficult "period of turbulence" turn out?


In different ways. Some moved to a parish, some - to a neighboring diocese, some carry their obedience to the diocesan administration, to the cathedral. (I'm not talking about monks who have taken their vows and returned to secular life.) But almost everyone who has left the monastery and is serving in other monasteries, churches, and church institutions regrets that they left our monastery years later. This I know for a fact.


The monastery is committed to a daily liturgical circle. Monks serve in the bakery, whose produce is sold not only at the monastery, but also in some grocery stores in Vladivostok churches, i.e. is demanded by both locals and city dwellers. And I heard about monastery's apiary with many beehives too. But what can you say about those who take interest in reading? Are there brothers who read in the monastery?


I can't say that the brethren read heartwarming literature. But at the same, I try to encourage them in this respect. This year in 2022, several people graduated from the Vladivostok diocese Training Center for clergy professionals, one is studying at the Khabarovsk Theological Seminary by correspondence, two will enter the seminary and one into the Training Center. The inhabitants of the monastery study by correspondence and periodically go to some lectures. In addition, we have weekly classes which we call “brotherly hour”. We discuss various spiritual topics and watch videos. There is no problem in finding topics for the brethren's hour - there are so many things the brethren are interested in. If we want to know what kind of literature they are particularly attracted to, then according to my observation the most popular among us are the books belonging to a peculiar genre, which I labeled for myself as follows: 'ascetic action.'


 In these works, asceticism is combined with dynamic action. Let me name some of them. These are "Revealed Tales of a Wanderer to his Spiritual Father"; "In the Mountains of the Caucasus" (Notes of a Modern Desert Dweller)" a book about the Orthodox asceticism of the XX century, written by monk Mercury (Popov); diary entries of monk Simon Bezblorny (monk Simeon of Athos) called "Birds of Heaven or the Wanderings of the Soul in the Embrace of God". In the monastery we also like to read "Everyday Saints" by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), now Metropolitan of Pskov and Gdov, and a collection of memoirs by spiritual children about an outstanding ascetic of the last century, "Father Arseniy". Of the holy fathers, we recommend the "Teachings" by Abba Dorothea, the Ladder by St. John Climacus, and the writings of St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov). By our standards, our library is good, comfortable, and spacious. You go in there and want to stay and read something, study and talk.


Father Clement, you were once guided to faith by a book of spiritual and instructive literature, weren't you?


It was the 1990s. I was given a book called “The Eve of Confession”. The author was the well-known church writer of pre-revolutionary times, Archpriest Gregory Dyachenko. I myself came from a family of unbelievers and until the age of 24 I knew nothing about faith. Reading page after page, I experienced in those moments, hours of real shock. Why is it that something that is the most important thing in our lives on earth passed me by? Why hadn't anyone told me about it before? And who gave me this reprinted edition of the Synod period...? My friend and classmate Ilya Turenko, with whom I studied at the Institute in Nizhny Tagil in the Faculty of Art and Graphics. Ilya came to faith before me and led me to church. Later he became a priest, and now serves as a second priest in the St. George Church near the village of Nakhabino, Moscow Region, whose rector is a well-known Orthodox blogger and missionary priest Pavel Ostrovsky. He now has ten children.


This is how the Lord judged two friends of the same class to find each their own way! One chose monasticism and the other became a "white priest," a father with many children. But you, as reported in "Going to a Monastery," refused several times to put on the cassock because - and I quote: "There was no concrete determination to stay here." And when did it come about?


I remember that when our monastery was first formed, monastic orders were taken quite quickly. At many monasteries at that time, it was probably the norm for a person to be admitted to a monastery and take the minor schema in a year. Although I already understood (probably, by some intuition) that it was hasty. I was a novice for two years and a junior for a year. Having come to the monastery at 26, by the time I was 29, I felt that I had already checked myself out. And there was this exacting inner dialogue with clear questions and honest answers to myself: "Do you want to go into the world?" - "I do not say that I want to." - "Is it good for you in the monastery?" - "Yes, it's good." - "Can you imagine your life here in ten, fifteen, twenty-five, thirty years?" - "I can. There is something to do here. I can see my real future." - "And in the world can you imagine your future?" In a world where a tangle problems remained and it was unclear from which edge to begin, I could no longer imagine my future by that point.... That is, there was a realization that it was time to make important steps in my life - you cannot remain in infantilism, and avoid responsibility. After all, life is for you to make decisions and exercise your freedom. "...where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17). It's just that some people can get to that point, say, at age 18, and some people can get to it much later. And some, unfortunately, will not understand anything even at the age of 40.


Our ruling bishop, Vladyka Veniamin (Pushkar), who is now retired, did all the monastic tonsures at the monastery. Vladyka liked to perform monastic vows - he came and interviewed all the candidates. I cannot say for what reasons my candidacy aroused his doubts. The day of taking monastic vows was approaching - my vestments were ready - but I had no confirmation! Vladyka came and, thankfully, administered the tonsure to all of us four novices, all of whom he had spoken to shortly beforehand. So, on December 26, 2004, a new life began for me in the spiritual sense. By the way, our tonsure coincided with the consecration of the restored Church of St. Seraphim of Sarov by the rank of bishops.


Father, another friend of your youth, the ex-drummer of the rock band Gadfly, of which you were the leader in your youth, said of you with great regret: “I think he didn't play enough.” Those who valued above all creative pursuits, success, and human fame did not understand at all that you saw other horizons. Is your heart sometimes sad because not all of your loved ones have understood that all of us have Eternity ahead of us, and that we should prepare for it on earth?


Of course, it does. But before the feeling of sadness was more acute, but now I look at it more calmly, because I understand: in everything we need to trust in God. You can't push a man with a pitchfork into the kingdom of heaven, you can't force him into the temple. Who doesn't know the proverb, "A slave is not a worshiper"? Although neophytes often forget it and begin to actively and very obsessively (sometimes even destructively) drag all their relatives and friends to the temple. Many people find this repulsive. And I used to have this kind of mentality, which can be classified as a growth disease that many neophytes go through. Now I try to pray for the person, in the faith that God's Providence will lead to the salvation of everyone I care about. Along the way I have had the opportunity to make surprising discoveries, some friends or relatives of whom I least expected that they would come to the church, have come and been converted. And on the contrary: sometimes someone who I was expecting to read spiritual books and understand everything, to run to church, was deaf to the Gospel message! Concerning my friends: in the end they all accepted my choice, and no one now points a finger at me. That is, they have come to understand that everyone goes his own way in this life. Well, maybe also because with age we become more tolerant of each other, more respectful of each other. When we are young, everything is harsh, frank, and rude. I don't impose my values on my remaining worldly friends, but they know which lines they shouldn't cross. There is some spiritual tact on their part. It's the same situation with my close relatives.


Whom, as you said above, you had to comfort in letters for several years, and then when you came home to see them, to your considerable joy they realized that you are not a "zombie"...


Now they have, perhaps, a worldly feeling, not alien to vanity: "There he is! He's building something there, he's become an abbot." But in any case, it warms my soul to think that my loved ones are happy for me.


Father, let's leave the story about the construction at the monastery and the household economy, the apiary and the experienced monk-keeper, as well as your responsible obedience to the dean of monasteries of the Vladivostok diocese for our next conversation. Now we would like to hear how the monastery is celebrating the feast day in honor of the finding of the relics and canonization of St. Seraphim of Sarov, while at the same time, the brethren are bearing a serious burden. Are they holding out?


The August 1 holiday has long been our most visited day of the year. The number of parishioners, pilgrims, and guests is generally greater than at Easter or Christmas. People from the entire Vladivostok diocese and other local temples come here. Compared with central Russia, the percentage of believers here is small, so almost everyone, if not by name, you know in person. Traditionally, the festive service is conducted by the ruling bishop. Earlier this was Metropolitan Benjamin, now it is Metropolitan Vladimir of Vladivostok and Primorsky. Sometimes there is a joint bishop service with several bishops of our archdiocese. Undoubtedly this is a tremendous burden on the brethren, but we understand how important this day is for all believers. In addition, the time of year is favorable and the weather disposes people to come to Russky Island and pray in unison on this holiday especially revered by our people. By Moscow standards, 400-500-600 people at the celebratory service is not a lot, but for us it is a huge figure, because Sunday Liturgy in the monastery is usually attended by 50-60 people, and on Easter - about 120-140 people. After the service we try to feed everyone. There is one company we have been working with for a long time: we coordinate the menu with them and they bring ready-made meals to the feast. We feed people both outside and in the refectory. Then, of course, we get tired, but it is a pleasant tiredness. Although I wouldn't twist my arm to say that everything always went off without a hitch. In some ways, the "influx" of people becomes a natural disaster for the monastery, and in the days that follow, the brethren have to return to normal monastic life, which is sometimes monotonous. Sometimes a brother cannot stand it physically or psychologically and he may snap, or slam the door. Unfortunately, it always happens on holidays. But if we take it as a whole, setting aside some nuances, then everyone feels a spiritual uplift on this day.

End of Interview


* * *


At the end 1920s the "official" robbers began to take the church property from the island church of St. Seraphim of Sarov; the iconostasis alone took four carts. Now at the beginning of the 21st century some people have come here to restore the church with the high goal of establishing a monastery on this holy place. The first the pioneers had to live, as already mentioned, directly within the temple, of which only the walls and the rusty columns covered with old paint were left. Today the church has been restored, as well as the icons ... In the monastery, on the iconostasis, half of the icons were painted by Father Clement himself - or with the help of other iconographers. According to the abbot, his two longtime worldly hobbies and two educational degrees – art and music - are very useful here. His first service at the monastery was as a clergyman. Then, with the prior Abbot’s blessing, he began to paint icons.