Father Sokolov finds a home in sister city



News Staff Reporter


Many Americans live too well, but the people of Buffalo aren't at all spoiled, says a former Soviet dissident who is the new pastor of Peter and Paul Orthodox Church.


Rev. Victor Sokolov, 43, is from Kalinin but didn't know it was Buffalo's sister city until he arrived in the Lovejoy neighborhood recently.


³Home again, home again," he joked in his Russian accent. "Kalinin is an industrial city of railroad-car builders, and Buffalo is an iron island - everywhere you go, there are rails."


Father Sokolov said that for him and his American-born wife and five children the most striking impression of Buffalo so far is the people.


³Iıve never known a place where people are so friendly, open and simple, in a good sense of the word," he says. "Relations are natural here. I guess it's because of the laborers - it's not a spoiled city."


Father Sokolov's claim to fame as a dissident is that he is one of a small group of Russians, including his friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who have been stripped of their citizenship.


It happened after he married an American woman and moved to California. But even as a child, Victor Sokolov said, he was a troublemaker.


"Both parents were working, so I was left to myself," he says, recalling the early 1950s, when Russians were still struggling to recover from the Great Patriotic War. ³Very often, with my cousin, I would hop a train and go anywhere outside of the city just to feed ourselves with something greater - a carrot here and a cabbige there.


"Just around the corner from me was the residence of the first secretary of the party, chairman of the local Soviet. I was sitting in the same classes as those kids – Œwhite power,' we called them - and here am I, one pair of shoes for all seasons, and never with a feeling of warm in your stomach, and here are the guys who eat only white bread."


The inequality of the Soviet system scarred his childhood.


"Misbehavior, any graffiti on the wall - of course, I was to blame, because you cannot blame a party chief's son," he says. "They called themselves servants of the people, but their apartments had tall ceilings, windows twice bigger than ours, and the militia man stands 24 hours at the gate. And they would receive, all the time from the back door, some carloads of food. We saw the cynicism of it."


When he was called into the Red Army, his mother begged that he not be sent abroad, for fear that he would defect to the West.


"She knew what she was doing," he says. "I was kicked out of secondary school for misbehavior. So they didn't trust me. The most dangerous arm I ever carried was a shovel."


The young soldier's first adult act of rebellion was in 1968, during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.


"I was on night duty in Moscow," he recalls, "and I used a headquarters typewriter to multiply (with carbon copies) an appeal of a group of five Soviet intellectuals who protested the invasion. I typed all night long with two fingertips; they ached in the morning."


Victor Sokolov's baptism in 1975 was "the final cutting of this cord of the system." It was more a political than a spiritual gesture.


"I prefer to downgrade it and, to say it, as I see it now 15 years later, as a rejection of that system, rather than acceptance of another system," he reflects. "For that came later, in America."


He had never felt close to the Russian church, with its dark, medieval smell and its rite in Slavonic, a Bulgarian dialect from the 9th century.


One night, he attended a Moscow party and met Barbara Wrahtz, a visiting graduate student from California who was employed as a governess by New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith. She and Father Sokolov were married in June 1975. In August, her visa expired, and she returned to California.


Her husband joined Amnesty International and stayed in the Soviet Union until November, when he finally received an exit visa.


"They never allow spouses of American citizens to go abroad with them simultaneously," he explained. "They just force you (the U.S. spouse) to leave. Then they make a decision. In my case, it was a positive decision.


"Since I was involved in the dissident movement, they had two choices – send me east, to Siberia, or west, to join my wife. And since the second was less troublesome, less scandalous, they allowed me to go."


The next year, they stripped him of his Soviet citizenship. He thinks that it was because he had continued to write anti-Soviet articles for journals in Paris, Frankfurt, New York and San Francisco.


³That was a really great warm-up for me," he says, "because before me, there were only four or five people, and all on the level of Solzhenitsyn."

He laughs.

"When I left," he says. "I was very much involved in the Soviet underground press and the Voice of America."


After attending an Orthodox seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., Father Sokolov was ordained an Orthodox priest in 1984.


"I discovered what the church was in America," he says.


Coming a decade after his baptism, the priesthood proved to be the spiritual turning point of his life.


"I cannot point out the moment," he says. "There was a strong guidance, being pushed and having no choice but to go. I know it sounds like a mystic, but I did have that feeling that I couldn't simply escape."


But this wasn't just another form of slavery.


"It was a liberation," he says. "It took probably 10 years between (emigrating) and the feeling of being free, finally, from all this lying and ideology.


"Ten years later, I learned how God is a god of freedom, the best definition of what faith is. If you don't feel free, really, then probably you are in a cult and are worshiping some human-invented thing not grounded in God."


After teaching Russian at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Father Sokolov came to Buffalo in February. The 96-year-old SS. Peter and Paul Church at 33 Ideal St. is down to 120 members.



PHOTO: The Rev. Victor Sokolov and his family, from left, Christopher, 12, Tamara, 6, Mrs. Sokolov, Maria 5 months, Anna, 2, and Philip, 10.


The Buffalo News, Sunday, April 22, 1990