In Memory of Bishop and Confessor, Metropolitan of Almaty and Kazakhstan Joseph (Chernov) (1893-1975)

The below text is a memorial/introduction to a unique Russian bishop of the last century. It is also, perhaps, something on which to ruminate in regard to a recent council that took place. No judgements, however, on my part (and don’t give your opinion in the comments–I will delete it; I will scandalize some by saying that I paid absolutely no attention to the proceedings of said council). Just a “funny” and “Soviet” perspective…

This text was written by another unique bishop of recent times, Archbishop Basil (Krivocheine), also about whom there is little material in English (I hope to be translating more about him; here is a succinct article by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)). In the meantime, here is a short statement from Archbishop Basil’s nephew, Nikita Krivocheine.

In those years, my uncle, Vladyka Vasilii (Krivoshein), Archbishop of Belgium and Brussels, began to visit Moscow. He related to me well. One time (we were in private), I asked him directly about his reasons, considering he had a free choice, for why he, an emigrant and white officer, decided to remain in the Russian Orthodox Church. His answer was clear: ‘For the sake of the future. It is necessary to have the continuity of at least a part of people that are free, able to be a support for the better part of the hierarchy inside the country, and that want and are not afraid to speak the truth.’ This is particularly how Vladyka acted, both in Brussels and the Soviet Union. With certainty, he added that ‘if I didn’t, you would see how they would re-consecrate the cathedrals in the Kremlin.’ This was a prophecy, but at the time I thought that an old man is accepting the desire for reality!

By way of preface, here is a story about Metropolitan Joseph and outer space.

From the remembrances of Vladyka’s chauffeur, Zakhar Ivanovich Samoylenko.
April 1961. The first time that mankind completed a flight into space.
The [local] representative, Stepan Romanovich Vokhmenin, called in Vladyka and said, “Ivan Mikhailovich [Footnote 1], you need to preach a sermon about this “miracle.”
I was driving Vladyka home and he was sitting in the back seat. I look in the mirror and see that Vladyka is twisting his fingers (he always did this when he was actively thinking). “Well,” he said, “Zakhar Ivanovich, let’s prepare. I need to preach a sermon about Yurii [Footnote 2] Gagarin.” “Oh?!” I answered, “What are you going to say, Vladyka?” “I’ll say something.”
We arrived home and I observed how he was walking around the room. Usually, when he was preparing for a sermon, he walked around and talked to himself.
The day arrived when he had to preach the sermon. Vladyka came out, as usual, and began something like this:
“Brothers and sisters! You know in what times we live, what progress is being made in the world. Many scientists have invented much that is good! And have you heard what latest event happened: our young man, Yura [Footnote 2] Gagarin, was in space! He was told by Nikita Sergeevich Khruschev when he took off: “Yurochka [Footnote 2], take a look and see if God is there or not.”
And Vladyka continued: “Yurii [Footnote 2] Gagarin didn’t see God…but God saw him! And He blessed him!”

[Footnote 1] Ivan Mikhailovich was Metropolitan Joseph’s name and patronymic before monasticism.
[Footnote 2] Yurii is the complete form of the name. Yura is a short form generally used among closer acquaintances or in a more informal setting. Yurochka is a tender form usually used in a close relationship and/or when addressing children.

Thus, without any further shenanigans:

In memory of Bishop Confessor Metropolitan Almaty and Kazakhstan Joseph (Chernov) (1893-1975)

Archbishop Basil (Krivocheine)

Metropolitan Joseph (Chernov)

On September 4, 1975, Metropolitan of Alma-Aty and Kazakhstan Eminence Joseph (Chernov) died at the age of eighty-two. In his person, the Russian Orthodox Church suffered a heavy, irreparable loss. He was not only a man of holy life, outstanding hierarch, vivid, peculiar personality but a steadfast confessor of faith. Metropolitan Joseph spent a total of about twenty years in Soviet camps and exile. I would like to say a few words about this remarkable man, mainly concerning personal memories.

I had a chance to meet and converse with him a good deal at the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church at Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra in May 1971. I, unfortunately, do not have sufficient data for a detailed and systematic biography, so my story of his life is based on personal conversations with Metropolitan Joseph.

The future metropolitan was born in 1893 in the city of Mogilev. It is hard to tell exactly from what society he came, but, judging by the fact that all of his secular and spiritual education was limited to a “model primary school,” we can assume that his parents were poor urban residents. However, if Metropolitan Joseph did not have a special theological education, this did not prevent him from subsequently making up for this lack by reading a great amount of both ascetic and patristic literature in general.

In 1906, at the age of thirteen years, the future metropolitan became a novice in the cenobitic monastery in Mogilev, where he was ordained a hieromonk in 1915.
In connection with the coming of the Germans in the First World War, the monastery was evacuated to the Don region, where the further church life of the future metropolitan began to proceed for several years. As a young hieromonk, Fr. Joseph was under the eldership of an experienced bishop known for his spiritual life, for whom he served as cell attendant.

In 1925, Hieromonk Joseph was arrested and exiled, where he spent two and a half years. In 1932, he was consecrated as vicar bishop of Taganrog and the deputy patriarchal Locum Tenens of Metropolitan Sergius. In the following years, he was arrested two more times and spent six and a half years in total in Stalin’s camps. By the beginning of World War II, he was released from camp and lived illegally in the Taganrog district with believers who sheltered him.

With the arrival of the Germans at the end of 1941, Bishop Joseph came out “of the underground” and served as bishop in the Rostov diocese, but he immediately had problems with the Germans. They could not forgive him for his loyalty to the Moscow Patriarchate and his commemoration of the name of the Patriarchal Locum Tenens Metropolitan Sergius (the Patriarch of Moscow from September 1943) in prayers and worship.

As Vladyka Joseph told me at the council in 1971, the Germans informed on him and accused him of Bolshevism, repeatedly called him in for questioning, and threatened him with arrest and execution. “And I told them: Bolshevik atheists never spoke so rudely to me as you!” said Metropolitan Joseph. Before his departure from Rostov, the Germans took him to Uman, where he remained until the arrival of Soviet troops. Patriarch Sergius then appointed him bishop of Umansky.

However, in that same year, 1944, Bishop Joseph was arrested again by the GB and sent to terrible camps in the Chita oblast, where he stayed for eleven years, until 1955. This was his fourth arrest, and he spent a total of twenty years in camps and exile. Upon emerging from the camp in 1955, he was able to resume his episcopal ministry in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Some time later he was appointed as Archbishop of Alma-Ata and Kazakhstan, elevated to the rank of Metropolitan, and was awarded in 1972 the right to wear two Panagias on the occasion of his fortieth anniversary of service as a bishop. In the last years of his life, Metropolitan Joseph was the second in seniority bishop of the Russian Church (the first was Metropolitan Oryol Bryansk Palladii, ordained in 1930).

As I said, I personally met with Metropolitan Joseph at the Council in 1971 during the election of Patriarch Pimen. But even before that, during the, so to speak, “pre-election period,” when I visited Moscow in October 1970, I was able to hear many stories about Metropolitan Joseph. In particular, they spoke of him as a possible candidate for patriarch. They claimed that the Alma-Ata Commissioner for Religious Affairs strongly suggested to him: “Take up your candidacy for Patriarch. We will support you!” To which Metropolitan Joseph replied (which became a famous phrase): “I do not need your support!”

Later, I was told that a large group of clergy and faithful, led by the former rector of the Patriarchal Cathedral in Moscow Archpriest John Potapov, appealed to Metropolitan Joseph by letter. This letter was signed by nearly two thousand people and urged him not to refuse election to patriarch for the good of the Church. It was said in this letter that he, who had survived so much persecution and suffering, may be the most significant candidate for patriarch, adding that, otherwise, he will answer before God on the Day of Judgment. But Metropolitan Joseph continued to stubbornly refuse. I must say that the following opinion was very common among the Moscow clergy at the time: “Yes, of course, Metropolitan Joseph is a good bishop, steadfast, vibrant, and lives a holy life, but he is not suitable for patriarch. He is already 80 years old (actually he was 78), and, besides, he was under German occupation and was in the camps for a long time, and the authorities do not like that.”

At the Bishops’ Conference in the Novodevichy Convent in Moscow on May 28 before the opening of the Council, I did not have a chance to meet with Bishop Joseph personally. He was silent throughout the meeting, and I did not know what he looked like; to look for him among the many bishops was difficult, but I had a great desire to meet him. I thought that maybe I would run into him at the hotel “Russia,” where we had all been given a room before the opening of the council. As it turned out, this was not reasonable: the size of the hotel, the floors and corridors divided us. And then, quite unexpectedly, on Saturday, May 29, we were all at Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and there, at lunch, fate brought us together. I spoke with Vladyka Joseph, or, rather, he spoke to me. We had dinner at a small table, and there was no one at our table except for the two of us. “Yesterday, all the bishops,” he said, turning to me, “listened to you and agreed with what you said. All the bishops kissed your lips [Footnote 1].” I must explain here that on the eve, at the Bishops’ Conference, I had to speak out a lot against the so-called “Resolutions of 1961 on Parishes [Footnote 2].” I challenged these “resolutions” as contrary to the canons, violating the unity of church administration, transferring all power to the laity in parishes, and, in a word, as harmful to the Church. Now, I was happy to hear that Metropolitan Joseph fully endorsed my speech. “But why, then, were all silent?!” I asked Vladyka Joseph. “We, here [Footnote 3], are gagged. We cannot speak. But you spoke on behalf of all. Thank you,” said Metropolitan Joseph.

[Footnote 1] Here, he seems to have in mind that the bishops were inspired by his speech and Bishop Joseph expresses this in them “kissing his lips” (as can sometimes be observed in traditional Russian culture during, for example, an excited meeting of friends).
[Footnote 2] The Resolutions of 1961 on Parishes took authority in the parish out of the hands of the priest and basically made him an employee of the parish. These resolutions were in effect until 1988.
[Footnote 3] Metropolitan Joseph could be referring to not being able to speak freely at the council itself or, in general, in the Soviet Union. Archbishop Basil, as he served outside of the Soviet Union (in Brussels), would probably have been less likely to have negative repercussions for speaking out more directly.

In consequence of our meetings at the council, Metropolitan Joseph told me a lot about his life, about how he lived all those years in the Soviet Union. However, about his time in the camps, terms, and arrests, he avoided details. In general, he was more willing to talk about the present than the past. “I often ask myself,” he told me, “are we doing the right thing that we are silent and do not expose publicly is happening in the Church? And what difficulties she is experiencing now! Sometimes I feel disgusted, and I want to drop everything and go into retirement. And my conscience reproaches me for not doing that. But then my conscience tells me that I cannot abandon the faithful and the Church, they need me. For to make an accusation or even openly criticize ecclesiastical procedure in our country means, at best, to be immediately removed from all church activities. And what will change? Nothing will change… So I try, while I have the strength, to calmly work for the Church. I serve often and preach every time and go around the parishes, talking with the laity. I have forty-five parishes scattered over the vast area of Kazakhstan. Indeed, my diocese includes nineteen oblasts, so I have to deal with nineteen authorities. Distances are enormous, often more than a thousand kilometers…”

“How do you travel, Vladyka?” I asked.

“I have two cars. I try as much as possible to speak with the priests, to appoint the good and remove the bad. And, most importantly, to serve liturgy often and pray for all.”

“Tell me, how do you get along in your personal life? Do they treat you poorly?”

Metropolitan Joseph with his dog, Jerry

“Not now,” he said. “I live in a nice detached house. I grow roses in my garden, and I have more than a hundred varieties. I have good relations with the authorities.”

“Is it true that he [referring to the authority*] even offered to put in your candidacy for patriarch?” I asked Metropolitan Joseph.

“Yes, it’s completely true. But I will never agree to that. Firstly, I am already too old, then I have no theological training…and very little secular education. I do not want them in the Synod to reproach me for ignorance, and to be forced to agree with their views on the grounds that they are theologians and that I’m illiterate and have to listen to them.”

In the days that followed the council, I had two more opportunities to talk with Vladyka Joseph. It so happened that I needed advice, and I turned to him for such spiritual advice. The problem was that some bishops, members of the council, in conversations with me, urged me not to speak about the issue of the “Resolutions of 1961,” and insisted that it will hurt the Church. I was completely at a loss as to what to do and decided to consult with Metropolitan Joseph.

“Vladyka,” I asked him, “Some here have dissuaded me not to speak more about the ‘resolutions.’ What do you think?”

Metropolitan Joseph’s answer was very energetic and determined: “Whoever discourages you is a scoundrel!”

“So, you think I need to keep insisting?”

“Yes, keep speaking and fighting for the Church, even if you have to suffer for it. I bless you in the name of the Church and the faithful for this podvig! I know that this is not easy and you will be attacked but continue.”

That is what Metropolitan Joseph answered me. I was touched by the directness of the words of the aged metropolitan and grateful for his moral support. On the day when there was a discussion of the papers presented, and those speakers that had signed up on the eve were speaking, during the lunch break, Metropolitan Joseph came to me.

I must say that all of these speeches were not novel or original and, for the most part, were conventional and reduced to a paraphrase of the papers presented. The papers avoided all the acute problems, church life was little reflected, and, therefore, there was little genuine interest in them. So Metropolitan Joseph came to me during the break, and, in his characteristic vivid expression, noted particularly that boredom and impersonality: “Once again we will be sick today from these discussions!”

Indeed, the afternoon speeches gave a reason for such characterization. I want to note that as a person, Metropolitan Joseph gave the impression of a cheerful man, inclined to joke and even act the fool-for-Christ. Of course, his age was evident, and it was obvious that he had experienced a lot. However, there was nothing broken, tragic, or even terrible that can be seen on the faces of people that had spent time in the camps. In him, one could see a rare combination of a clairvoyant elder and holy fool in the person of a bishop of the Church of Christ. This propensity of “fool-for-Christ” was even considered by some as one of the reasons why Vladyka Joseph was not suitable as patriarch.

And this is a strange remark I heard from a prominent and civilized bishop: “He looks at you, and then suddenly says so penetratingly…’but your eyes are so clear and bright’; for a patriarch, such reactions are no good, even embarrassing.”

This is what I can say about this blessed elder, bishop, and confessor of the faith of God who with his life proved his loyalty.


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