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Jul 15

Day 52: The Jewels of Yakutsk

by in Russia

We have moved so far east and north, coupled with a time zone change, the sun is setting around midnight again. In fact, when we went to bed about 00:30 (12:30 a.m.), we couldn’t tell if we’d left a light on or not. Not. It was the twilight’s last gleaming. But we were so tired, it didn’t keep us up. And don’t ask when sunrise was. We slept right through it.

However, for an area with so much daylight at this time of year, it was hard to find anything going on in the evening. Around 21:00 (9 p.m.) families were out for strolls and letting the kids play in the parks and fountains. In Yakutsk, as Perm, there were groups of young people, consuming alcohol publically wherever we went. For so many, they appeared to be bored: merely sitting and drinking.

We went on to Holy Transfiguration Cathedral last evening to check the service schedule. Three ladies were cleaning; we entered and prayed. As we walked away from the church, a little guy, maybe three or four, came skipping by, big smile on his face. I didn’t catch it, but Ka’ren did.

“Did you hear what he said? He turned around and said, ‘Santa Claus?'”

Ho! Ho! Ho! Well, I guess the word is out.

A plaque commemorating the site where St. John the Theologian Church once stood.

As we had walked around town, we spied a wall plaque on a government building. It noted that the Church of St. John the Theologian stood there until it was demolished in 1981. It is located a few blocks from Holy Transfiguration.

Besides excess alcohol consumption, a greater social problem in Russia is abortion. Since legalization in 1955, it has been the chief means of “birth control”. In European Russia, the birthrate has fallen below replacement level. This is not the case among Moslems in Russia. But it’s hard to see families with more than one child anywhere. I did notice young families with two children at churches along the way. In several churches, pro-life information was prominent.

However in Irkutsk, we saw a commercial on television for a pro-life film, Give Me Life, as we sat at breakfast. It included commentary from a doctor, a lawyer, a priest, and a popular female rock star. Come to find out, there is a news article about Give Me Life in the local paper in Yakutsk and when it will be shown.

Of course, it takes more than commentary; but beyond seeing the commercial itself, I was most impressed by the fact that a popular singer would be advocating for life as she did. Combating atheistic ideology is a task that is never ending, especially in a society in which it was dogma for seventy-plus years. Its ravages are omnipresent.

The Diocesan Center and Seminary in Yakutsk.

Today, we went to the Yakutsk Eparchy Center/Seminary. The bishop died suddenly on 9 May and the loss is observable in the demeanor of the staff. A diocese whose bishop dies is said to be “widowed”. The term is most apt in this case. We are met by Hieromonk Efrem, who is the secretary of the Eparchy. He offers us tea and shares a bit about work in Yakutsk with us.

There are now 53 churches in Yakutia. (The city of Yakutsk alone had eight before the revolution.) A chief difficulty for mission is the lack of clergy, since not every parish has a resident priest. Transportation and isolation are attributing problems. In the past, the bishop would take a boat on the River Lena, northward towards the Arctic, celebrating liturgy for those far distant from the regular ministration of the Church.

Father Efrem also talks brings up the problem with their youth and alcohol, noted above, as a missionary challenge.

Father Efrem (left) gives a Father John (right) a tour of the high school complex being built by the local diocese.

He offers to show us the late bishop’s office upstairs as well as the new educational “Complex”, which is being built about 1 km (0.6 miles) away. The bishop’s office is exactly as it was before his sudden death two months ago, a large office with conference table. As we leave, Fr. Efrem graciously gives each of us a copy of the Psalter and the New Testament in Caxa, the native language here. It is also being used liturgically in addition to Slavonic.

We are driven to the “Complex.” Reminiscent of a monastery in lay out, it will house a gymnasium — that is, a high school, scheduled to open this fall. All forty places for the first two classes have been enrolled.

The St. Innocent Complex currently being built in Yakutsk.

We walked through the living quarters under construction, saw classrooms and auditorium, and the sports gymnasium, too. The wings of the school converge at a chapel to be dedicated to St. Innocent of Moscow. He served as bishop in Yakutsk after leaving Alaska. In fact, the entire complex will be named for him.

Adjacent to the complex is the site of one of the oldest churches in Yakutsk, dedicated to the Mother of God. It contains three “churches” or altars: Nativity of the Theotokos, Entry of the Theotokos and Annunciation. It was built in 1752, and fortunately not destroyed. Some feasts are already being celebrated here before renovation is completed.

Many plans are underway for further social and educational ministry, including a kindergarten and hospice facilities. The death of the bishop means that everything is technically up in the air. But there is hope that there will be no radical departure from the current goals once a new bishop is appointed.

I asked Father Efrem whether this is a training center that will lead to seminary, or a general education program. Father explains that no expectation of going to seminary is involved. The overview is to train a generation of leaders with a Christian foundation, no matter what future discipline they pursue. “Then, no matter where they are, they are ours. It may be like the Jesuits, but I think it’s a good way to go.”

I agree. There is a definite commitment to transforming society at all levels evident here. Frankly, I wish our bishops in America had such vision. It may be after Patriarch Kyrill visits this fall to dedicate the new “Complex” before a new bishop is named here. And hopefully, the new bishop will prove to be an Elisha to the former bishop’s Elijah.

All too soon, our visit is over. We leave Father at the Eparchy Center and walk the short distance back to the hotel. We have two items left on our must do list: to see the gemological exhibit at the State Gemological Museum next to our hotel; and to take a boat ride on the Lena.

The gemological exposition is wonderful. Yakutia is rich in diamonds, silver, gold and semi-precious stones. The exhibits include historical artifacts of Yakut (Caxa) culture: bone and ivory carving, silver and steel work. The metal work was noted by early Russian explorers, that Yakuts were capable of producing finer silver work than that of Europe. No one knows when the metal age was entered here, but it advanced to a very high level. The suit of steel armor on display is reminiscent of samurai armor.

Modern jewelry, based on old designs and new, keeps me transfixed by each display. The gemstones are truly magnificent. The semi-precious ones are equally beautiful. In particular, inlaid tabletops formed of local mineral stone are on view. They are totally smooth, with no ridges or joints to be felt where one stone is next to another. But the patterns are not random, or even only geometric. Pastoral scenes of Caxa life are featured here.

In the Hermitage, there were similar tables that had been made for the sovereigns. Of course, we could not touch those. Here we allowed: smooth as glass.

The Lena River, the tenth longest river in the world and the greatest Russian river.

We finish the tour all too soon. It certainly beats looking at permafrost! We head for the River Port to catch a ferry to the other side of the Lena. It is a two hour round trip. Of course, it is a slow boat, but one cannot underestimate the magnificence of the Lena, or the dependence that people here have always had on it.

Our trip is merely a local one, to Mene Xanagas. That’s a Caxa word. I don’t know what it means. However, when we arrived on the other shore, the boat just coasted toward the bank head on, stopped and lowered a gangplank to the sand. There was no port, just a spot. Everyone on board, but us, got off; new riders going to Yakutsk got on. The return trip seemed shorter. It must have something to do with the route the captain has to take to go to Mene Xanagas, fighting the Lena current. Somehow, the return seems a bit more direct.

I had originally wanted to travel the length of the Lena the 1,000 miles or so that it is navigable from Ust’-Kut. But it is difficult to arrange the trip unless you live there or have a lot time on your hands. In summer, excursions do run both up and down river from Yakutsk. Our trip today was nothing like the journey taken by our missionaries, but for a realistic modern account let me recommend Jeffrey Tayler‘s River of No Reprieve. It is a wonderful account of his trip down the Lena, way past Yakutsk to Tiksi and the Arctic Ocean in 2004. I read it in preparation for my sabbatical and it allowed me a vicarious river trip, nevertheless.

We have completed another day here and still need to unwind a bit before our early morning flights tomorrow. The hotel is packing breakfast for us. I will be continuing on my way alone. Ka’ren will be returning to Moscow and work.

I asked him to write down the following phrase for me in my day-planner: “I have an email ticket” figuring that it might come in handy when boarding my last train for the overnight from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok tomorrow. So, Ka’ren handily writes: “I have an email ticket” in English!

OK, wise guy: write it in Russian! He does. You will have to wait until the weekend to see if I make the train and arrive in Vladivostok, or not.

We are really going to miss traveling together. It difficult to comprehend that we’ve been on this phase of my pilgrimage since June 29. It has been wonderful having his knowledge of country and language to rely upon.

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One Response to “Day 52: The Jewels of Yakutsk”

  1. From Elisabeth:

    I pray that everything goes well for you on your journey alone.

    Posted on July 18, 2010 at 12:32 am #