Archpriest Victor Sokolov, beloved pastor of Holy Trinity for fourteen and a half years, fell asleep in the Lord on March 12, 2006 at his Healdsburg home. A biography of the former dissident activist, writer, lecturer, priest and family man is chronicled in the sketch that follows.
Victor Vladimirovich Sokolov was born on February 21, 1947 in the city of Kalinin (now Tver’) (pop 350,000) USSR, to the family of an electrician and a sales clerk. He left school in 1964 at the age of 15 to join the Yaroslavl’ Theatre School, where he studied for several years to become an actor. After his public protest in support of an actor who had once been his mentor, he was accused of “modernism,” which led to his expulsion from the theatre school for “opposing the collective.”
During the next two years Sokolov worked as an actor at the Tula Theatre for Youth until he was drafted into the Soviet army. In the army he was engaged in digging trenches and other non-combat construction projects. No arms were ever given to him. Much later he discovered that his mother, convinced that he would defect, had petitioned the military commissariat not to station Victor abroad with Soviet troops in Eastern Europe.
He was discharged on December 17, 1968 and hired as an actor at the Kalinin Theatre for Youth directed by the now famous Roman Vityuk. Although Sokolov enjoyed acting, he experienced a growing dissatisfaction with the lack of artistic freedom in Soviet theater, where actors had no say in the roles they were assigned. In April of 1970, for example, Victor was assigned the role a young Vladimir Ulianov (Lenin). This role, glorifying the man who had brought so much suffering to the Russian people, was contrary to all of Victor's beliefs and ethics. When, by the decision of the Party Committee, Roman Vityuk was fired from the position of artistic director, Victor Sokolov and a group of 12 other young actors resigned in protest.
Leaving the theatre, Victor started to look for a job that, even in the totalitarian Soviet regime, would entail less ethical and moral compromise. Providentially he saw an application for a contest recruiting young writers, poets, critics, and play-writes, for the Maxim Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. When he read this small classified notice, Victor smiled. He was not a poet, he was not a novelist, he was not a play-write, but perhaps he could be a literary critic. He knew and loved poetry; he could recite poetry by heart for hours. Why not become a literary critic? And so he wrote a couple of articles, sent them to the jury, and was accepted into the institute -- one of only two people who were received as literary critics.
During fours years of study at the institute, Victor wrote many poetry reviews and articles on the history of literature. During his third year of University, he was offered a prestigious job at the literary journal, "Molodaya Gvardia" (Young Guard), with millions of subscribers throughout the Soviet Union. He was first hired as an editor in the department of critics, and shortly thereafter promoted to the position of senior editor of prose.
On the surface Victor successfully belonged to the Soviet establishment, but in reality, after hours, Sokolov maintained active relations with political dissidents, with writers, scholars, and clergymen, who were not satisfied with the status of human rights in the Soviet Union. Among his friends were people who inspired him, writers such as Vladimir Maximov, Bulat Okudzhava, Valerii Leviatov, Evgeny Ternovsky, and eventually Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself.
It wasn’t long however, before Victor encountered an old dilemma. He had hoped that in the field of literature he would have more freedom of conscience than as an actor. But one day his editor-in-chief brought him the manuscript "Voina" (The War), in which Stalin was rehabilitated and glorified. His boss warned Victor that not a single word was to be touched. It was to be edited only on the level of "commas." On that very same day Victor resigned from his position at “Young Guard.”
In the late fall of 1974, Sokolov found himself unemployed — a crime in the Soviet Union. While still at “Young Guard,” Victor had been in the position of giving manuscripts for internal review to free-lance editors. Now, Victor’s old friends from other publications arranged such jobs for him, thus providing some minimal employment. These small jobs created a shelter from police harassment and prevented him from being labeled a “parasite,” while he turned his attention almost completely to dissident political activities.
Several months earlier, in September of 1974, Sokolov had been invited to a party by his friend, Alec Goldfarb, a well-known Jewish refusnik. There he met a young American woman, Barbara Wrahtz, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz who was working in Moscow for NY Times Chief Correspondent, Hedrick Smith. A romance soon began. Together they visited churches, museums, and other sights, as any young couple would, but there was also another more secret and suspense filled dimension to their romance.
As Victor's dissident activities increased, Barbara turned out to be an indispensable helper and assistant. Through her privileged access to the U.S. diplomatic pouch, Victor’s accounts of political show trials and information on the persecution of Soviet citizens and minorities were mailed out of the Soviet Union, reaching western audience media. Many of his articles were rebroadcast back into the Soviet Union by Voice of America and Radio Liberty. Through Barbara, hundreds of censored books by Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, and others, as well as Bibles and theological books and journals published in the West, were reaching Russian readers. Risk became a daily factor in their romance. KGB surveillance was common, especially after they visited academician Andrei Sakharov. Victor's apartment was regularly searched and he was forced to change residences many times that year.
Victor Sokolov was a founding member of the Moscow chapter of Amnesty International, the first unauthorized public organization in the Soviet Union. The Soviet government was so irritated by this initiative on the part of its own citizens that they retaliated with the arrest of the chapter secretary, the scholar, Valerii Tverdokhlebov. Other arrests and imprisonments followed.
This period of intense dissident activity against the discredited communist system coincided with Victor’s spiritual quest for a new ideal worthy of trust and faith. He began to read his small Bible published by YMCA Press in Russian, copies of VESTNIK, a theological journal published in Paris, and other books about Orthodoxy smuggled into the country. Eventually his search brought him into the circle of the popular Moscow preacher, Father Dmitri Dudko. Father Dmitri’s maverick answers to people's questions (he was always ready to give an account of his faith) attracted many young intellectuals to Christ. In May of 1975, the Moscow scholar and dissident, Igor Khoklushkin, (his godfather) brought Victor to the apartment of Father Dmitri Dudko where he was baptized. Fr. Dmitri was unable to perform the baptism in church, because he had recently suffered broken legs, when struck by a car in an assassination attempt. The joy Victor experienced at his baptism would remain with him always.
One month later, on June 10, 1975, after surmounting all the roadblocks the regime placed in the way of marriages between Soviet citizens and foreigners, Victor and Barbara were married in an official civil ceremony. Five days later they celebrated their Orthodox wedding in the 17th century Church of the Resurrection in the center of Moscow, where they were surrounded by many friends, both Russians and Americans. At that time, Orthodox religious weddings were not a common occurrence in the Soviet Union.
The newlyweds’ life in Moscow was short and unpredictable. In September 1975, Barbara's visa was to expire, and the Soviet authorities refused to extend it. She had to return to America without her new husband and without knowing if they would see each other ever again.
Providentially, "The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe," signed by 35 nations in Helsinki on August 1, 1975, helped Sokolov to get his exit visa. In exchange for recognition of post World War II borders in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union had agreed to provisions requiring respect for human rights, including the right to be united with a spouse living abroad.
He left Sheremetyevo Airport on November 1, 1975. After short stops to visit with friends and fellow dissidents in Paris, London, and New York, Victor finally was reunited with his wife in San Francisco on November 8. After a short stay with his in-laws in Sunnyvale, Victor and Barbara rented an apartment in Santa Cruz. Barbara worked, and Victor attended ESL classes. Shortly thereafter they became Resident Preceptors at UC Santa Cruz, and Victor began teaching Russian language, literature, and culture, a career that would continue for almost 20 years. He would later teach at the Monterey Defense Language Institute, the Russian School of Norwich University (Vermont), the University of British Columbia, and UC Berkeley Extension to name a few.
Borders don't change personalities. In America, Sokolov continued to write articles exposing the cruelty of the Soviet regime and documenting human rights violations for various Russian émigré publications and in his capacity as West Coast correspondent for the Voice of America. As a result, on November 17, 1976 Victor Sokolov received news that he had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship by a decree of the Supreme Soviet, becoming the fifth person on a short list of dissidents to earn this distinction. In a written statement he said, "The rash decision of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, stripping me of Soviet citizenship, I accept as a high honor, in that this act of the Soviet government places me on one plane with such people as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Maximov, Valery Chalidze, and Zhores Medvedev. I call this action rash because it is evident that I do not merit such a high honor. But I will strive to."
Victor's interest in Orthodox theology and his love for the church also continued to grow after his arrival in California. Under the loving guidance of Archpriest George Benigsen in Saratoga, Victor continued to read and study, and the Sokolovs became committed parishioners at St. Nicholas Church. Inspired by the lectures and books of Father Alexander Schmemann, Victor dreamed of one day studying at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York.
The Sokolov's first son, Christopher Kirill, was born in Santa Cruz in January 1978. Victor had always loved the idea of being a family man, and now that dream had become reality. In November 1979 a second son, Philip Michael, was born in Monterey, where Victor was then teaching at the Defense Language Institute.
The family moved to New Jersey in May 1981, when Victor became the assistant editor-in-chief of the Russian daily, Novoye Ruskoye Slovo in New York. A year later he was finally able to follow the long and steady calling to full time service in the Church. In the fall of 1982 Victor Sokolov enrolled in Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, and the following spring the Sokolovs were blessed with the birth of their first daughter, Tamara.
Protopresbyter and Dean Alexander Schmemann recommended that Victor be ordained a deacon earlier than usual in his academic career, and the date of November 21, 1983 was chosen because this was the feast day of the Russian Student Christian Movement whose philosophy of "Religion in Life” Victor always appreciated. His ordination to the priesthood took place on Bright Saturday, April 18, 1984. During his diaconate, Fr. Victor assisted Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky in Sea Cliff, NY. After ordination to priesthood, he and his family ministered at Cosmas and Damian adult home on Staten Island.
After graduation, Fr. Victor served at Holy Resurrection Church in Vancouver, BC for a short time, after which he taught Russian Language and Literature at the University of British Columbia and was the pastor of Mar Elias Orthodox Church.
During his time in Canada, the Sokolov’s two youngest daughters, Anna and Maria (Masha), were born. On New Year’s Eve, 1989, Father Victor was transferred to Ss. Peter and Paul Church in Buffalo, NY, where he served until being appointed Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral in September 1991.
Fr. Victor always cherished his assignment as Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, the oldest Orthodox parish in the contiguous United States. He was fascinated by the Cathedrals rich and colorful history, which he researched extensively. Articles from his research were published monthly in “The Pages of Our History.” Fr. Victor was a popular lecturer on historical, political and ethical questions, speaking at various high schools, colleges, public forums, and on television and radio.
Father Victor loved the Divine Liturgy, and he always served with Paschal joy, dignity, and grace. The power of God’s love, revealed in His mighty acts of salvation, were proclaimed each week in a loud clear voice, inspiring the faithful in their spiritual struggles and inflaming their hearts with love for God and for each other. Father Victor considered the greatest legacy of his pastorate, the longest in the Cathedral’s history, to be the atmosphere of mutual love and friendship that reigns in the parish.
Father Victor Sokolov was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer on December 28, 2004. The love and prayers of so many people helped sustain him during his illness, and he continued to celebrate the divine services for nearly a year. On March 5, 2006, Father Victor rallied his waning strength and was able to attend Forgiveness Sunday Vespers. He embraced each person in the church, assuring each one of his love and asking forgiveness. One week later, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Father Victor Sokolov fell asleep in the Lord at his home in Healdsburg.
Fr. Victor is mourned by his beloved wife of nearly 31 years, Barbara, their children, and extended family in America and Russia.
Last modified: April 19, 2006