The Western Guide to Understanding the Russian Soul
An interview with Monsieur Pierre de Fermor, the President of Friends of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice (Les Amis de la Cathédrale Russe de Nice - ACRN)
Adriel Kasonta: The St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Nice is recognized as a national monument of France, which was described by Russian Ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, as “the most beautiful and biggest Russian cathedral outside of Russia”, during the charity event hosted by ACRN on 9 June 2016 at The Negresco in Nice. The cathedral was opened in 1912, thanks to the generosity of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II, and consecrated in December the same year in memory of Nicholas Alexandrovich, Tsarevich of Russia, who died in 1895 in Nice. On that note, what is your assessment of the spiritual and cultural role the Cathedral play in lives of people associated with it and, in broader sense, what is its significance and impact on French-Russian relations?
Pierre de Fermor: Russia and the region of Nice have developed together a passionate love story for so long: The first Russian consulate in Nice was opened in 1749! The French Côte d’Azur has actually captivated all Russians, from all origins: In 1850, the exiled revolutionist Alex Herzen sighted: “Finally, I am back here in Nice, warm and perfumed, the quiet city…” In 1918 there were 156 Russians living in the south of France. Then 2000 in 1921 (at which time my grandfather emigrated there before offering his services to the Negus of Ethiopia), and more than 5000 in 1930. They have now passed the number of 20 000. The Russian cathedral, initially a mean necessity for the few Russians living far away from their country, became the expression of Russia itself, when they were forced to live Russia after the Revolution: It became an anchor, around which, especially on Sundays, Russia was reviving in their hearts. With its natural mysticism, its secular culture, its lost and revived majesty. And progressively the Russian cathedral became a part of Nice, together with the palaces and gardens built there, such as the castle of Valrose, property of Baron von Derwies, the blooming banker and friend of Tsar Alexander II. The magnificent villa of Princes Kotchoubey, today the Museum of National Arts of the city of Nice, used to home young and pretty Maria Bashkirtseff, who painted and wrote in this elegant mansion her desires and revolts, before dying aged twenty-five. Nice is probably the most Russian city of France, with its “art de vivre” based on a mix of nonchalance and effervescence. Its Russian cathedral inspires the essence of such, the unique entity that builds a spiritual and cultural bridge between French and Russian people. It is first a matter of curiosity, then of comprehension and finally of sharing.
Kasonta: As we know, in the mid-19th century Russian nobility have begun following the fashion set by the British aristocracy, which started visiting Nice and the French Riviera much earlier. You are yourself a cousin of His Imperial Highness Prince Dimitri Romanovitch Romanov, Head of the Imperial House of Russia, who has recently passed away in Copenhagen and during his lifetime was also strongly involved in ACRN activities. It seems to me that the well-being of the cultural heritage tradition concerning preservation of friendly and respectful ties with French citizens is especially close to your family’s heart. Why is that? Why this relationship is of so great importance to your family, as well as social class?
Monsieur de Fermor: Both princes Nicholas and Dimitri of Russia were actually presidents of honour of our association, the one after the other, a position now held by Princess Feodora Alexeievna Romanoff, the wife of Prince Dimitri. As Prince Nicholas told me once (and Prince Dimitri shared such saying): “Our blood is Russian and will always be. We are grateful to the nations which adopted us and which became our родиной (ed. "rodinoi" - motherland), but our отечествo (ed. "otechestvo" - fatherland) will remain Russian!” I agree with this and it is therefore important to me to maintain the Russian heritage of culture and spiritualty which I received from my ancestors. As well as it is important to preserve and develop the tights between our country of origin and the country where I was born. I am proud of belonging to a family which arrived in Russia (from England and through Sweeden and Latvia) on March 6th, 1661 under Tsar Alexei Mikhailovitch, the second Romanoff, and served the Russian Empire until the last Romanoff.
Kasonta: During the already mentioned ACRN charity event in 2016 Bernard Asso, who is Deputy Mayor of Nice, said the following words: “On the peculiarity of this French language practiced by Russia is to have understood through language our mentality. And we have understood many times the mentality that is French, because we share something strong. We are two peasant peoples, French and Russians, who are tide to their lands”. What is your take on his statement? Do you share his views on similarities between these two great nations? And would you agree with the assessment that both the French and Russians are naturally conservative people?
Monsieur de Fermor: In my opinion, what Russians and Frenchs really have in common is the fact that they are both tied to their history (both countries actually share such a dramatic feature as a bloody revolution), and to their own culture (which is very different of course, but shows a long tradition of cultural exchanges between each country on all kinds of art, music, painting and literature). When asked, Russians express a good opinion on Frenchs, who are described as sincere, cheerful, optimist and sociable. Unpredictable too! Frenchs on their side, are not many to personally know Russians, and are often misguided by some of the media, which have a shortcut tendency to describe Russians as generally cold and alcoholic! This is so inappropriate, and our association does spend a lot of efforts to explain to these media that Russians, on the contrary, are passionate people, maybe careful to offer their friendship, but then the best friends that you may have, happy to share with the French their love for good food, good wines, and therefore good company. Yes, both Frenchs and Russians are indeed conservative in many aspects: They are proud of their past, conscious of the glory of their country, anxious to be (and remain) considered as leading countries in the world of today. This associated to a persistent search for freedom.
Kasonta: Will the outcome of the recent Presidential Elections in France have any impact on French-Russian relations? If yes, what are the possible scenarios?
Monsieur de Fermor: Recently elected president Emmanuel Macron is a surprising man. His story is the story of an undeniable success. Honestly, my own vote went for Mr François Fillon, who in my opinion was carrying a good program, both on the economic standpoint and his political perception of today’s world, where Europe needs Russia to remain strong in a world dominated by the USA and China. Macron is clever, that is obvious, and he will probably modify his present perception of Russia, built on a certain caution, which he will need to use even more when talking to the new leader of the USA, certainly more unpredictable than the present president of Russia. It is easier to find terms of understanding when between predictable individuals… Also Mr Macron is a hurried man, and hurried men do need friends rather than enemies, to be able to achieve their goals fast. I therefore believe in a necessary easing of the present political ties between France and Russia, in spite of Germany. Am I optimist? I hope not.
Kasonta: Your grandchildren Nina and Oscar were baptised at the very Cathedral in 2015. I assume that religion and tradition expressed in attachment to religious customs plays quite significant role in your life. Am I right?
Monsieur de Fermor: Yes, you are!
Kasonta: What does it mean to you personally to be a Russian Orthodox Christian living in the West?
Monsieur de Fermor: I am anchored in the Russian Orthodox religion as I am anchored to my Russian blood. When my grand-father Choura arrived in Nice on May 10th 1921, landing by boat from Constantinople, the first thing that he did was to walk to St Nicholas cathedral. To pray of course. But also to meet other Russians in exile, to breathe a taste of his disappeared Russia. He had lost everything, except his pride for being Russian. He is an example for me, installing his wife, born Countess Alexandra Sheremetieff, then leaving for Addis-Abbeba by boat, train and horse, a three-month journey to start there a new life as a Cavalry instructor in millenary Coptic Ethiopia, ending there as the Commander of the Horse Guard of the Negus.
Kasonta: Have you personally, or anyone from your close circle, experienced any discrimination motivated only by the fact of your religious heritage or family background? Has your organisation ever received any threats based on the merit of its activities explained in the ACRN’s mission statement?
Monsieur de Fermor: No, I have not and neither has the organization which I am presiding. Nice and the region are friendly to Russian immigrants, who are totally integrated in the French culture, do respect the French authorities, and contribute to maintaining good ties between Russian and French communities. Nice does need its Russian residents and visitors, and they appreciate it.
Kasonta: Do you happen to know Mr Alexis Obolensky, Vice President of the Association Culturelle Orthodoxe Russe de Nice? If yes, could you please describe to us the person and nature/agenda of his organisation?
Monsieur de Fermor: No, I do not know him personally. Actually, he is working for ACOR, which is a “cultual” association presently in charge of St Alexandra Russian church on rue de Longchamp in Nice, not “cultural” as ACRN is.
Kasonta: The reason why I am mentioning this particular person is the fact that on 13 September 2016 Andrew Higgins, who is a Moscow correspondent for The New York Times and previously worked as the Brussels bureau chief from 2012 to 2016, wrote (quite shocking to my Polish-Jewish sensitivity of a follower of the Pope John Paul II intellectual thought) article titled In Expanding Russian Influence, Faith Combines With Firepower, where Obolensky was given a platform. The author went to great lengths to express his anti-religious views and, in particular, hostility towards Russian Orthodoxy, where the following excerpt can serve as a perfect example:
“While tanks and artillery have been Russia’s weapons of choice to project its power (…), Mr. Putin has also mobilized faith to expand the country’s reach and influence. A fervent foe of homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community or nation, the Russian Orthodox Church helps project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women’s and gay rights. (…) faith has also helped Mr. Putin amplify Russia’s voice farther west, with the church leading a push into resolutely secular members of the European Union like France. (…) But the Russian church’s push in Europe has taken an even more aggressive turn in Nice (…)” What is your take on this? Do you agree with Higgins’ views? If not, what may be the cause of this hostile stance, which may hurt feelings of many Christians around the world, who may have considered these very words being a pure example of the discriminatory hate speech?
Monsieur de Fermor: I strongly disagree with this wrong vision of a hypothetical utilization of the Russian Orthodox Church by the Russian government. It makes no sense and can only fuel unnecessary incomprehension and hatred within our Christian community. Deceased Prince Nicholas of Russia himself helped us to bring St Nicholas cathedral back to Russia. Let me quote his own words to me, which were published by French newspaper Nice-Matin: “In imperial Russia, the autocrat Tsar was the incarnation of Russia. And vice-versa: For the Tsar who had decided to erect this cathedral in Nice near the mausoleum built in memory of the Tsarevitch deceased there, this cathedral did naturally belong to Russia, and not to him personally”. The Russian government received it back as ordered by the French Justice, which we must all respect. And Russia financed its most needed renovation, to the huge satisfaction of the Nice City Hall and Region, taking into account that St Nicholas is the most visited monument in our department.
Kasonta: It is worth to recall that quite similar discriminatory mood was professed by the Communists through persecution of religion in Russia, and which led some Russian Orthodox dioceses abroad to form jurisdictions not affiliated with Moscow. In Poland itself Nazis and Communists were attacking and brutally surprising the Catholic Church, where names of national priests martyrs Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko loom large. Having said that, do you consider Higgins’ rhetoric being a Russophobic repetition of this ugly ideological traces? And if yes, why this sort of practice finds its place on the pages of a respectable Western media outlet like The New York Times?
Monsieur de Fermor: What happened in communist Russia was a tragedy, as it was in Poland. I certainly do not concur with anything written anywhere that would have shown Russophobic aspects. I shall never. Let us leave the past to where it belongs: As said to me Nicholas Romanovitch Romanoff a few weeks before his death, “One must accept everything, good and bad. Past is past. It was, and a page was turned. Let us look forward!”.
Kasonta: As a young Polish person, who was born and brought up on the legend of the Cold War triumvirate including Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Saint John Paul II, I have a strong affinity for the idea of freedom championed by all of them. Like many Western contemporaries, who often tend to refer to the first two great figures, I feel equally obliged to not allow equally significant part of our mutual success in the person of the Polish Pope to be forgotten, as I get the impression that after the end of the Cold-War (hence Pope’s prestigious usefulness in combating Communist ideology at that time) many, willingly or unwillingly, have neglected his, I dare to say, significant intellectual legacy. Having said that, it is worth to recall that in 1985, during his visit to Morocco, Pope warned that “dialogue between Christians and Muslims is today more necessary than ever,” as “it flows from our fidelity to God and supposes that we know how to recognize God by faith, and to witness to him by word and deed in a world ever more secularized and at times even atheistic.” Do you consider the Pope’s words as a warning against the current behaviour of people like Higgins, who are openly hostile towards religion and people who want to exercise their constitutionally secured right to practice their belief?
Monsieur de Fermor: I believe that everyone may adopt his/her chosen religion, as long as it does not create intolerance and hatred. The soil on which religion develops and grows is one made of love, not of war. Most certainly today more than ever.
Kasonta: In an encyclical letter dated 1995, and titled Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II made clear that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!”, relating to the Russian Orthodox Church. On that note, do you believe that indeed the unity within the Church is achievable or similar attempts to those practiced by The New York Times’ writer will make this attempt completely impossible, leaving the entire body handicapped?
Monsieur de Fermor: Christians must be united in their faith, and realise that they belong to one family, as Pope John Paul II was meaning. Still all children do not necessarily wear the same clothing: Cultual and cultural differences have to be accepted when needed. The objective remains a perfect understanding of each other’s faith.