I’m still marveling at the reality of where I am as I type. I am in Russia. That is a sentence I never dreamed I would ever say about myself. I am in RUSSIA. I am IN Russia. And I AM in Russia. I am in a room at a seminary in the southeast and inner part of Moscow.
I was invited to teach for a week at a Presbyterian Seminary here. The story of how I came to be here has a classic start: I know a guy. The church I serve, St. Andrews, is in the process of receiving another church under our care. When the union is complete, the other church name will disappear and the church I serve will then have two church locations. We will be one church operating in two locations. We’ve never done this before, so we brought in a coach named James Kim to help coach us through the process. That coach is also a pastor from the Seattle area and he has been going to Russia almost annually since 1995. A month ago, the Brazilian pastor Pastor James normally team teaches with cancelled. James called me and invited me to go. I began to pray for discernment, spoke with Cile, asked the Session and other leaders to weigh-in and in a relatively short period of time went from not knowing about this seminary to being in country and teaching pastors-to-be here. Pastor Laurent Ramambason with whom I serve at St. Andrews told me when I received my doctorate, (with his beautiful Malagasy accent), “John, you did not get your doctorate just for St. Andrews. You are a doctor of the Church. Serve the larger Church.” With that in mind, I am here serving the larger Church.
I know a few people from Russia who are living in the United States. With the exception of those people, Russia has always been more of an abstraction. It has always felt like a distant place. It is literally distant from the United States, of course. I know that distance first-hand now. All 18 hours and seven time zones. Russia is also figuratively distant as well. It has always felt like a faceless, nameless place apart from the few faces you see in the news. I grew up at the end of the Cold War so Russia has been distant in the ways that political enemies are distant. All of that is changing.
My first impressions of Russia are formed from Moscow. I realize that trying to get an impression of this country by landing here is like trying to get an impression of America after one day in New York City. To narrow it further, I’ve only interacted with the students and leadership of the seminary. Having said that, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the people here are hospitable and open, even though the language barrier is a significant barrier. The people are also proud of their city and country, especially in the area of the arts. As expected, it is cold here even though several have reminded me, “It’s not even winter yet.” The nice thing is that the cold - at least this cold - doesn’t slow down the pace of the city. People are on-the-go. I ran outside this afternoon and being on the sidewalks in Moscow is like being on the sidewalks in New York City. There is a bustling urban vibe. So all in all, the first impressions have been positive.
One event helped shape that positive first impression. The night I arrived we went to the State Kremlin Palace theater to see the Kremlin Ballet company perform Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The venue itself has an interesting history. The State Kremlin Palace has origins that date back to the 15th century, but what we saw last night was completed in 1961. The palace was then used as a venue for important party, state, social and international events, and also as the famous Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR’s second stage and for large theatrical productions. Later, it would become as it is now: the other (the Bolshoi plus this one) world-class performing arts venue in Moscow.
Tired as I was, the show was dramatic, energetic and elegant. The dancing was beautiful and strong. I admit that the time change caused me to nod about four times in the slower first act, but by the second act the action was livelier. In Act 2, the evil Von Rothbart tricks Prince Siegfried, Odette (the Swan Princess) feels doomed, the Prince feels sorry and throws himself in a lake with Odette and.they both die, but are happy lovers in the afterlife. It was a beautiful night. Random note: the lead role of Odette was played by an American named Joy Womack.
I should say that Sasha, our driver last night, was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. He drove and talked non-stop. As fast as he would talk and point, Joseph, our translator last night along with a student named Jin So Kim, would explain it all to us. We stopped by the Moscow River, Red Square and in places where we could get a big picture view of the city.
The seminary is under extensive renovations, but they have arranged great accommodations for us. I’m staying in a suite with four bedrooms, a living room, bathroom and small kitchen with a four-seat dining room table. The founder of the seminary and his family stay in several of the rooms in this suite. One is unoccupied as best I can tell so far. This suite was part of the early renovation and is complete, so it is nice. The only thing not yet up and running is the steam heat for the radiators. We are using heaters that plug in to the wall. It is more than enough.
The food here has been outstanding and abundant. Two people cook for the founder, James and me. One of the cooks is a Russian woman named Valentina. The other is the founder’s daughter and I don’t remember her name.
It’s been a good day. Jet lag is for real, but that comes and goes. More later.