From Dissident Soviet Writer to Priest:

The Journey of Father Victor Sokolov

 

By Krystal Coop

 

I.

 

 

Drenched in pastels rather than ominous red and marching into friendly competition instead of hostile confrontation, the former Soviet Union participated as the "Unified Team" in the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics last month, as the world watched in joyful disbelief. After an incredible year, during which others struggled to achieve what we, as Americans, take for granted, it's interesting to ask ourselves, "What would I be willing to risk for the freedom of speech, for the freedom to say what I think and to write what I say?" Would you risk your career, contact with your family or possible exile? Someone in our neighborhood was willing to do just that...

 

During the 1970s in the former Soviet Union, a dissident Russian writer was standing trial for his writings. Other writers in the dissident movement were immensely interested in the trial because of the injustice of persecuting a writer for free thought and free speech and because this particular writer was thought to be bargaining for his freedom by implicating others in the movement. Another young writer, Victor Sokolov, traveled to what was then Leningrad to hear the trial. Sokolov was unknown to the KGB at the time and, due to his anonymity, was able to secretly take notes and transcribe the trial for circulation. The story was distributed through the underground network, "samizdat." Unable to publish either articles or creative writings that weren't about the greatness of communism, the network relied upon the writers to circulate their stories. One would type his article five times on his typewriter and give it to five friends. If they liked the story, they would type it another five times and give it to five more people and so on. The system worked quite well and many stories, like the one about the trial, made it out of the Soviet Union and into the West via Radio Liberty and Voice of America.

 

This may sound like the plot of the latest spy thriller, unfortunately, it was reality. The young writer eventually left the Soviet Union, after becoming a well-known figure in the movement, and is now living in San Francisco. Sokolov, who is Father Victor at the Marina's Holy Trinity Cathedral, is the most recent addition to this extraordinary church, the oldest Eastern Orthodox in the continental United States. Obviously, this man brings more to his new job than birthplace and priesthood. Today, as Sokolov sits in his dimly lit, rectangular office on Green and Van Ness, amid thinning rugs and aging furnishings of dark wood, there is a sense of wealth in the room, a wealth of reverence and of knowledge. Immediately, it is evident that the richness of the room radiates, not from the four, sparsely decorated walls, but from the man within them. Sporting a comfortable presence and an abundance of brown, but greying hair, Sokolov could just as easily be mistaken for a Santa Cruz native as an off-duty Santa from Union Square. Beneath his warm, bearded smile and worn, flannel shirt, lies impressive intellect and many fascinating stories.

 

Born February 21, 1947 in Kalinan (formerly Tver) in the Russian republic, Sokolov says, "I was always a non-conformist, a troublemaker." As a child in Youth School he commonly played pranks. As the son of an electrician, electrical jokes quickly became his specialty. His favorite was performed during the dark, cold winters. Just before his teacher would enter the school room, Sokolov would stick a needle through one of wires, which were exposed on the walls in those days. When she turned on the switch, the lights would short and the students would be sent home while workman searched for the glitch. It pre-circuit breaker times, this could take all day. Voila! No school held that day.

 

Early in his adult life, Sokolov held a variety of jobs. He served in the Soviet army, studied at the Moscow Literary Institute and was a writer and editor for the prose section of a monthly literary journal. Later he became one of the original members of the Moscow branch of Amnesty International. In 1974, around the time that he began to become active in the human rights movement, he met Barbara, a California girl. She had just received a B.A. in Russian History from UCSC and had come to work as a nanny in the Soviet Union for a year before she returned to school to earn her Master's. They soon fell in love and in 1975 were married. Sokolov describes the event as, "dramatic because in those days no one was sure if you would ever meet again." Barbara's visa expired and she was forced to return to the United States -- alone. By now, Sokolov had earned a reputation with the KGB and was being watched. "I lived in a constant shadow of being watched, observed, frightened." Later that year, the Soviet government decided that it would be cheaper and less scandalous to export him to the West than to send him to Siberia, so after some difficulty in obtaining an exit visa, Sokolov was allowed to come to the U.S. to join his newlywed wife.

 

The year after arriving in the U.S., Sokolov received word that the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet had decreed that he be stripped of his Soviet citizenship. In recent times, only four other people have been deprived; Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and writers, Valery Chalidze, Vladimir Maximov and Zhores Medvedev. Sokolov wrote a statement in humble response saying that he considered it to be a "high honor" to be classed with these others. "I call this action of the Supreme Soviet rash because it is evident that I do not merit such a high honor. But I will strive to."

 

II.

 

Gorbachev, "wanted democracy and he experienced it first hand," said Father Victor Sokolov, the new priest of the Holy Trinity Cathedral on Green and Van Ness. Originally from Kalinin, Sokolov speaks as a former dissident writer from the Russian republic. After spending many years criticizing communism, at great personal risk, he now reflects on the "amazing" events of the past year and on his own incredible journey from Marxist atheist to Russian Orthodox priest.

 

Sokolov came to this country as an exile in 1975. He has since become an American citizen and has five children with his wife, Barbara. After his arrival in the United States, Sokolov continued to write articles critical of the Soviet Union. This Christmas, as Gorbachev officially dismantled the Soviet Union, Sokolov's words became prophecy, not just criticism; communism does not work.

 

Sokolov said that he felt "tremendous pride" for what he still considers to be his fellow countrymen as they disassembled their government and moved toward democracy. "In general it was amazing. I thought, we can do this too." He is most proud of the fact that the conversion has been relatively bloodless. He said that there were those who thought that the January 2 price liberation would cause riot, "but nothing happened." He cited a recent poll that asked former Soviets what they would do if there were no change in their situation in the next six months. Sixty-plus percent said that they would just tighten their belts and look for additional income -- no mention of violence. Sokolov said, "so far, so good." He hope that the people will be patient.

 

As for Gorbachev and Yeltsin? Sokolov considers Gorbachev to be lucky. He is the first Soviet Premier to leave the office and live as a private citizen with a pension. All of the others have been killed. Sokolov acknowledges that Yeltsin, "went out to get Gorbachev personally," however, Sokolov respects that he surrounded himself with, "good, thinking people that he listens to." Yeltsin didn't retain the old guard. He sought people who are in their forties, who are committed to change. "Yeltsin is still a populist." He reminds Sokolov of a Russian fairytale about a man named Ivan who slept for an extended amount of time. When he awoke, he jumped up and started to change things and put them in order. Sokolov said that this is what Yeltsin has done and besides, "he always looks like he has just woken up."

 

Sokolov was raised under this blanket of communism and, therefore, without any formal religious education. So, how does a man transform from atheist to priest? Sokolov said that he doesn't feel that he was as much an atheist as just plainly ignorant in regard to religion. He said that Bibles were scarce and that although the churches remained standing during the 74 years of Communist rule, they were converted into dance halls, movie houses and warehouses. The old women of the country, who lived before Stalin or were schooled in religion by their parents, continued to organize religious meetings in the converted churches. Sokolov said that you wouldn't be arrested for attending the services, however, you would be unable "to make a career in an intellectual occupation," if you were caught. What intrigued Sokolov most about faith, is that these Russians, without any religious training, knew how to behave reverently in a church. This began Sokolov's dramatic change from religious ignorance to the priesthood.

 

Sokolov began to believe in God sometime during the 1970s before coming to this country. He had acquired his first Bible and had married his wife, Barbara, in a Russian Orthodox church. In 1985, after arriving here as a man without a country, he graduated from St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theologian Seminary in Crestwood, New York. At St. Vladimir's he earned a Master of Divinity Decree and learned to speak fluent English. Prior to his arrival in San Francisco, Sokolov moved several times. He and his family have lived in Santa Cruz, Monterey, New York and Canada. He now feels, however, that he is "home" and plans to stay in The City.

 

Holy Trinity Cathedral is perhaps the perfect place for such an extraordinary man. The church itself has a long and varied history. Established in 1868, it is the oldest Eastern Orthodox Church in the continental United States. At its current location, 1520 Green, many treasures lie behind the white walls and stained glass. Particularly spectacular are two gifts that were acquired from Czar Alexander III's family in gratitude for the thwarting of an assassination attempt. One is an enormous, gold chandelier which hangs in the main iconostasis along with ornate altar pieces and polished wood floors. It originally burned candles, but has been converted to electricity and is currently in use. The other gift of interest is now known as the seven bells of Holy Trinity Cathedral. Five of the seven were received from the Czar and the other two were made right here in San Francisco by Garrett & Co. in 1888. The bells hang in their own tower, are rung manually and are of varying size, the largest weighing 5,765 pounds. Holy Trinity is fortunate to have these Russian bells both because of their historical value and because most were melted down for the making of cannon during the Russian Revolution and World War II. Another reason to be thankful for these bells is their miraculous survival of the 1906 earthquake. The bells just happened to be lowered before the earthquake started and were, therefore, saved, for the original church crumbled and then burned. The bells celebrate their 100th anniversary next year and expect a visit from the Patriarch of the Russian Church from Moscow.

 

Sokolov said that he has been, "well-received" by his new parish, although people are somewhat distant, "as they tend to be with any new person." This may have something to do with the well-loved Father George Sondergaard that Sokolov replaces. Marinaites who know him, know that he would be a tough act to follow and that "well-received" constitutes a high mark for Sokolov. Approximately 70 people are in the congregation, however, many more visit each year as tourists. When they ask in which language the sermons are delivered, the witty Sokolov's usual response is, "In English with a heavy, Russian accent." Services are held every Saturday night and Sunday morning. Several other events are held at the church each month and they are constantly collecting all types of donations that are sent to Russia each month or so. Father Victor will be pleased to give information regarding this extraordinary church; call him at 673-8565.

 

Marina Times, March-April 1992