by Father Michael Plekon
A screen or TV writer could not create it, the sheer sweep and turbulence, the drama of Mother Maria Skobtsova’s life. Connected to the high society of St. Petersburg through her family, she was most at home in the almost Mediterranean wine country in Crimea, in Anapa, where her family’s country house was located. As a child, a favorite of the stern and much feared High Procurator of the Russian church, Constantine Pebedenotsev, she was thrown into a near breakdown by the sudden death of her beloved father. She then struggled academically though she was brilliant, and by adolescence she was hanging out in the Petersburg literary salons of Merezhkovsky and Gippius, where she met her first husband. For some time she was not only a protégé of the leading poet of the Russian Silver Age, Alexander Blok—still in her teens she was treated by him as an equal in literary gifts and personal insight. In recently published reminiscences of hers, then Lisa Pilenko literally stalked Blok during a period of social unrest and his own personal turmoil. Seeking wisdom from her mentor, Lisa became his counselor as well as well as conscience.
The first years of the last, the 20th century appear antiquated—the long skirts, high collars, hats and beards. But it was in many ways as radical as the later 1960s and perhaps more so than out own second decade of the 21st century. Lisa was very much swept up in the radical literary and political waves, part of the revolt against middle class manners, values and pieties. The loss of her father, the impending political upheaval, the criticism of the monarchy, the established church, the calls from so many corners for change, for reform—this was the world in which she flourished, breathed new life and hope. By 1917, after years of pressure for change, the Moscow Council of the Russian Church was convened, a council that would propose more sweeping reforms of church life at every level than ever in the history of the Orthodox churches. The Revolution made the implementation of those amazing reforms impossible, and that part of the story is better known than that of the council. Reds and Whites, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks—first the creation of a representative legislature, then the royal abdication, chaos as the effects of WWI and then internal turmoil made government impossible. Lastly the Bolshevik takeover, Lenin the visionary, and the turning upside of nearly every part of Russian society and life.
Lisa Pilenko was nearly executed by the Reds, only some quick talking and claims of personal ties to Lenin’s wife saved her. Then she was elected mayor of Anapa, the Black Sea family hometown. When the White Army came through, she was put on trial again, the assumption being that any village head, in this case the first woman mayor, must be Soviet. She succeeded in clearing herself, fell in love and married once more, A White Army officer, Daniel Skobtsov. Like thousand the family flees the Crimea, first to Georgia, Istanbul, then to Belgrade and finally to Paris, a center of Russian emigration during and after the Revolution. The oldest daughter, Gaiana, was from the first failed marriage. Two more children would be born during the journey westward. Nastia was born in Yugoslavia, a son, Yuri was born in Georgia. Within three years of their arrival in Paris Nastia would die of meningitis, her parents and the medical staff helplessly watching on. Not long after, Gaina, who had returned to Russia with her boyfriend, also died, only in her 20s.The trauma these deaths broke an already failing marriage and pluged Lisa into a crisis of faith. Lisa threw herself into work visiting Russian émigrés dispersed in industrial regions throughout the country. Quickly she realized that hostels for the suffering were desperately needed—houses of hospitality where meals, shelter, medical care, care and counsel could be obtained. Lisa’s connections with the Russian Christian Students Movement and with the Metropolitan bishop of the diocese in Paris, Evlogy, as well as Fr Bulgakov, dean of the newly opened St Sergius Theological Institute and other intellectuals and writers led her to more than social outreach but to a ministry to the neighbor which would be rooted in Christian life and prayer. She started seeking funding for and opened several of these hostels in Paris and one for the elderly in the suburbs. She asked if she could be tonsured as a nun and Evlogy agreed, only if Lisa were to make the world her monastery—such was his vision of the need for ministry in the city, to not just Russian homeless and suffering but to any who would come.
The love of the neighbor as the reality of the love of God—this became a dominant theme not only her work but in her writing. She devoted half a dozen essays to it. Every one of her houses had a chapel, the largest has a resident priest and eventually virtually a parish comprised not only of residents but of those in nearby neighborhoods. At the largest hostel, there were regular gatherings for presentations by religious thinkers, writers and philosophers. Out of these Lisa, now Mother Maria, formed with several friend the group Orthodox Action. They were convinced of the need for the authentic “churching” of life, namely the real presence of Christian faith and Christians in all parts of culture and society. They debated the political turbulence that was rising around them—the Fascist states in Germany and Italy, the Stalinist purges in Russia, The Spanish Civil War and the continuing pain of the Great Depression. Maria not only solicited funds and food for her hostels. She participated in the many gathering, and she wrote for several of the Russian periodicals, in addition to her own literary efforts—poems, plays and essays. The volume of her collected writings from the 30s and 40s is astounding, given her daily administrative work at the hostels. Along with her colleagues, she saw war inevitably approaching—and wrote about the tragic inability to counter Fascism before armed conflict erupted.
When France was occupied by the Nazis, she, her chaplain Fr. Dmitry Klepinin, her treasurer Ilya Fundaminsky, her son Yuri and others who staffed the hostels, began to hide the targets of the Gestapo—Jewish neighbors, Resistance members, others at risk for political reasons. After mass arrests of Jewish citizens, including thousands of children, Maria visited nearly 7000 held in a cycling stadium, bringing water and food and during her visits, she was able to smuggle some children out in garbage cans and into hiding. But by 1943 all those mentioned above were arrested by the Gestapo, the men sent off to Compeigne, then Buchenwald and Dora and Maria to a women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruk. All of the men—Fr Dmitri, Ilya, Yuri, eventually died of disease. Maria survived until one month before the camp liberation in spring of 1945. She went to the gas chambers on March 31, taking the place of another prisoner. In the almost two years of hell in the camp, she held Bible studies and prayer meetings, counseled desperate fellow prisoners, even embroidered an icon and a version of the Bayeux tapestry, a defiant gesture of hope that Normandy would be invaded once again.
Mother Maria and her companions were made saints by her local church, the Russian Orthodox diocese of western Europe May 1-2, 2004. The icon here of her and the others was made by Olga Poloukhine, whose mother, Sophie Koloumzine, worked with Mother Maria in Paris. Mother Maria called the faithful gathered for liturgy the “living icons,” saints in the making. Her writing and her tireless work for the suffering were the brushstrokes, as it were, of the icon that her life is, still for us today. A poet, a writer, a spouse and parent, a monastic, a social activist –she was a person of her time, fully alive. She shows us what each of us can become.
[The best available books remain Sergei Hackel, Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova 1891-1945, Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982 and Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, trans,Helene Klepinine ed., Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2003.]