General Polyanovskii, “New Israel”

The following is a short chapter from Establishment of Unity by Archbishop John (Shahovskoy).

The Monk Gerasimos

He had been taken as a seven year old boy, from a Jewish family of the Chernigov province, into the Cantonists[1] during the time of Nikolai Pavlovich [Nicholas I]. When he was a colonel at General Headquarters and a talented astronomer, he visited his poor Jewish family in Chernigov province. It is hard to imagine what that meeting was like. What he said and what they said to him, I do not know. He was already a convinced and profound Orthodox idealist and had his own believing family. It is only known that he displayed a love that would be understandable to his old Jewish family.

Forcefully taken and sent to an elementary school somewhere in Kazan, the poor Jewish boy felt all the bitterness of being abandonded by people but all the sweetness of being protected by angels. Basically, when he was still a child, against his will he was “tonsured” into a new life and, of course, his second and real tonsure in his elderly years separated him from his previous life than that first stern hand of Nikolai’s Chernigov province official.

The boy’s businesslike, sharp mind quickly and obediently adapted to his new situation. Not receiving baptism conscientiously, he quickly filled up his consciousness with those grains of revelation which fell to him from the catechists table at his first school. It was not hard for him to study. What was hard was for him to tolerate the low level of morality of his classmates and even of the teachers. With a broken heart and pain he would remember that first period of his introduction into the Orthodox world.

Then there was secondary school. As a talented student he was sent on for further studies. After graduating from the military academy as an officer with great capabilities, the young man was sent to the Academy of General Headquarters to the land-surveying department. He left as one of the few military astronomers, worked in Pulkovo, went on assignments throughout Russia, occupied an important post in Siberia, and went up in the ranks and in his own self knowledge.

He got attached to the Church passionately with all his bright Jewish personality. At the time when I knew him, he looked very much like an Old Testament patriarch. He had a large, pinkish-white, cultured face and a very pure, childlike, wise, and calm eyes.

When he lived in St. Petersburg, he became friends with the well-known (in church circles) Fr. Sergei Slepyan, an English Jew, full of love for Christ, who converted to Orthodoxy and became a priest in Russia. These two Jew-Christians who had solid social standing in Russia, dreamed about a time when the creative Word of God would call into existence an Orthodox Jewish Church. It would probably be more universal than local. The New Israel would surely blend with the already existing Apostolic New Israel, that is, Christianity, the Kingdom of God’s children, among whom there is neither Greek nor Jew.

“I am New Israel,” would Mikhail Pavlovich joyfully and triumphantly tell me. I often visited him. It would happen that I would come and, standing in the yard in front of the door, would see him from behind slowly praying. He especially liked to pray with the Psalms; it was obvious that he felt, as no one else, their essence and was experiencing exactly what King David had experienced. “O God, be attentive unto helping me; O Lord, make haste to help me,” [Psalm 69:1] he repeated with joy and self-denial.

I loved him very much. In him I saw a living personification of the promise of God given to the Jewish people. By the beginning of our acquaintanceship, he walked with two canes but rather briskly. Using them like oars, he walked and the only thing that was hard for him was to stop when he needed to on the street. His life was getting close to 90.

St. Gerasimus of Palestine [of the Jordan] had a special meaning for him. He communicated with saints as with real people. His life consisted of prayer and recording the barometric pressure and temperature. His hand wrote it as if by itself, though he had no use for it now, and he could not refuse it.

Mikhail Pavlovich’s hair was uncut; white and silky, the locks fell right on his silver general’s shoulder straps. At all times did he come to communion in his uniform.

His lunch was delivered from the local Russian refugee organization. I mention this detail as it is connected with one of Mikhail Pavlovich’s qualities (the best quality in a general), that is, humility. In regard to this service, he happened to grumble at the director’s wife, and that little sin immediately became an obstacle to his unceasing prayer. And Mikhail Pavlovich decided to pull this sin out with its roots. The next Sunday, at the door of the church, he, before all the people, in full general’s uniform, he dropped to his knees before that elderly lady and asked for forgiveness. Some of those who themselves did not yet completely know why they went to church smiled. And particularly due to the inevitability of such smiles was Mikhail Pavlovich’s humility revealed.

He died because his time had come. After his final communion on the Dormition of the Mother of God, I visited him. He lay in bed and sang in an old, shaky voice, “In giving birth thou didst preserve thy virginity; in thy dormition thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos.” The long awaited was coming; he was going to his God. He was returning to his Heavenly Father carrying the cup of his life, filled to the brim.

1. For more information on Cantonists, see Wikipedia.

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One thought on “General Polyanovskii, “New Israel”

  1. I didn’t realize there was something at least similar to the Ottoman devşirme system (Janissaries) in the Russian Empire. Of course, similar is the ‘the same’ since while there was pressure to convert, it was not forcible conversion.

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