10 December 1955
It was the height of the Cold War. In 1955, West Germany joined NATO—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Shortly afterwards, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites established the Warsaw Pact as a military counterweight to the Western Alliance. In November of that year, the Soviet Union tested an inter-continental ballistic missile that could deliver a hydrogen bomb, many times more potent that the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the U.S. mainland. Tension was also rising over the future of Berlin, with Russia seeking to end four-power control of the German city. Another blockade was feared. Amidst this tense international environment, Archbishop Boris (Vik) of the Russian Orthodox Church came to Canada.
Archbishop Boris was appointed Archbishop of the Aleutians and North America and Exarch of North and South America in late 1954. His Canadian visit was organized by the United Church of Canada. The trip was the result of an invitation extended by the United Church to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1952. Two other Russians accompanied Boris—Archpriest Constantine Ruzitsky, the rector of the Moscow Theological Seminary, and Anatole Gorbatchov, the lay inspector of seminaries. Bishop Paladeus of Volynack and Rovensk was also supposed to visit Canada, but he was a no-show. No reason was given. The Russians were supposed to arrive in late November. However, the visit was delayed a week owing to an unexplained “mix-up” with their passport and visa arrangements.
Boris had hoped to twin a visit to Canada with a trip to the United States. But after initially granting the Archbishop a visa, the U.S. State Department retracted it. Boris had become caught up in a tit-for-tat struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union over religious representation. After he had received his appointment in late 1954, Boris had come to the United States on a 60-day visa. However, the U.S. State Department turned down his request for the visa to be extended when it expired at the end of February 1955. U.S. authorities were afraid that the United States might become the headquarters of a Moscow-controlled faction of the Russian Orthodox Church. In response, the Russians expelled Georges Bissonnette, an American Roman Catholic priest who was administering to the religious needs of U.S. citizens living in the Soviet Union and the broader diplomatic community. According to the 1933 Roosevelt-Litvinov agreement under which the United States recognized the Soviet regime, the U.S.S.R. had agreed that Americans in Russia would have freedom of worship. While the agreement did not clearly state that officiating clergy must be American, the Russian authorities typically granted a permanent visa to an American priest as long as he did not minister to Russian citizens.
The Soviet government finally agreed to give a visa to Father Dion, a replacement for Father Bissonnette, in November 1955, and the U.S. State Department in return issued a visa for Archbishop Boris to come to the United States. However, it retracted the visa a few days later on the grounds that the exchange of clergymen was not reciprocal. Father Dion was not permitted preach to Russians whereas Archbishop Boris could preach to Americans. This impasse was not broken until the beginning of 1959 when Dion finally went to Moscow and Boris received a three-month visitors’ visa to the United States.
In the meantime, Archbishop Bois and his colleagues made do with a two-week visit at the end of 1955 to Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Edmonton. The Russians arrived by airplane at the Dorval Airport in early December and was met by a welcoming committee of United Church dignitaries and G.F. Popov from the Russian Embassy in Ottawa. Dr Ernest Long, Secretary of the General Council of the United Church of Canada, said that the three-fold purpose of the visit was to promote understanding, give visibility to Christian unity, and to foster goodwill between Canadian and Russian Christians.
Conspicuously absent from the welcoming party was any representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Canada. The rector of the Orthodox St Peter and St Paul Cathedral in Montreal said that he would ignore the visit as the delegation did “not represent the true and continuing branch of the orthodox church” and that the Russian Orthodox Church had become “a mere political organ of the Soviet government.” The Russian visitors also had to sidestep a small group of about fifty demonstrators with banners who were handing out leaflets at the airport in protest of the visit. In answering questions from Canadian and American journalists, Archbishop Boris said through an interpreter that he was not a communist and did not have a personal acquaintance with either Party Secretary Khrushchev or Premier Bulgarin. He added that many Russians believed in God and practised those beliefs: there was no ban on practising religion in the Soviet Union. When asked about Canadian Orthodox churches, Boris said that there were fewer than ten Russian Orthodox churches in Canada and that they were “unfriendly” to the Russian hierarchy. As reconciliation attempts had proven unfeasible, the churches were considered to be “in schism.”
After a short stay in Montreal, Boris and his entourage took a train to Toronto. There, two Ukrainian Catholic priests presented him with a letter asking him to negotiate the release of Bishop Joseph Slipyj from a Siberian labour camp. Slipyj and eleven other Ukrainian Catholic bishops had been sent to Siberian gulags after the war. Slipyj received an eight-year sentence in 1946 for alleged collaboration with the Nazis and for his refusal to accept the forced take-over of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church by the Russian Orthodox Church. (Constatine Ruzitsky, one of Boris’ travelling companions, was reportedly one of the masterminds behind this takeover.) Despite the conclusion of his sentence, Slipyj remained in custody. Archbishop Boris promised to place the request before the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on his return to Moscow. If Boris did anything, it was not effective. Slipyj remained in a Soviet prison for another eight years, and was only released through the intervention of President Kennedy and Pope John XXIII in 1963. Expelled from Russia, the Pope made Slipyj a cardinal in 1965.
While in Toronto, Archbishop Boris visited the large department stores, took a side trip to Niagara Falls, and officiated at a service at the Timothy Eaton Memorial United Church dressed in full Orthodox regalia including a golden mitre studded with precious stones, a purple robe banded with scarlet and white, a lavender stole, two large golden crosses, one around his neck and another in his hand, and a glittering bracelet on his left wrist. When a newspaper reporter took pictures in a gallery, Anatole Gorbachov followed him and asked if he had permission to take pictures. When the journalist said no, Gorbachov told him to go. This put paid to the notion that none of the Russians spoke English.
Archbishop Boris, Archpriest Ruzitsky and Anatole Gorbatchov arrived by train at Union Station in Ottawa at 8.30 am on Saturday, 10 December 1955. An Ottawa Citizen article described Boris as a “huge man” with a “long ginger-coloured beard flowing over the front of his long black cloak,” carrying a silver-topped staff. Rev. Frank Fidler of Toronto and Rev. Herman Neufeld of the United Church College in Winnipeg accompanied the Russians. As they were being welcomed by United Church dignitaries, Lydia Szarwarkowska of 325 Laurier Avenue pushed ahead of the greeters to plead for help from the Russian prelate. In tears, she asked in Russian for his intercession on her behalf with the Soviet government for an exit permit for her 70-year old mother who lived alone, the rest of her family having been killed in the War.
After checking into the Château Laurier Hotel, the Russians were taken on a tour of the capital, visited the Russian Embassy on Charlotte Street (the embassy was to burn down three weeks later on New Year’s Day 1956), and was taken out to dine at a restaurant by the Ottawa Presbytery of the United Church. Apparently, the Archbishop spent the evening relaxing and watching Russian movies.
The next day, the Russian delegation joined the congregations of the Greek Orthodox Church on Albert Street and St Elijah’s Syrian Orthodox Church on Lyon Street for Sunday services. The Russians were also given a tour of the Parliament buildings—the Archbishop was surprised there was a Liberal government in power. Boris, a big man weighing close to 300 pounds, reportedly “beamed” when he was told that Jack Garland, the Liberal member for Nippising, tipped the scales at 400 pounds. The group also went to the National Galley. While Boris was not impressed with a modern Henry Moore sculpture, he liked art made by Canada’s native peoples. That evening, the Russians attended a candlelit service at the Dominion United Church for the Canadian Girls in Training. Archbishop Boris, wearing a cross of thirty two diamonds, sat behind the pulpit with the Rt Rev. George Dorey, the Moderator of the United Church and the Rev. J. Lorne Graham, minister and Presbytery Chairman. Boris spoke at the service, urging Christian unity and told the girls the Russian legend of the Christmas tree. Moderator Dorey warned against western propaganda that religion was non-existent in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, a dozen men, apparently immigrants from Communist-ruled Eastern Europe, handed out anti-Russian pamphlets.
The following day, a luncheon was held in Archbishop Boris’ honour attended by senior representatives of the United Church, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Baptist Church, as well as a representative of Canada’s External Affairs. Afterwards, Archbishop Boris, accompanied by George Dorey, the United Church Moderator and Lorne Graham, the Presbytery Chairman, held a press conference. Boris, dressed in flowing black robes spoke of his experience so far in Canada, saying he found Canadians to be “hospitable and hard-working.” He was also impressed with the church services. Boris also took this opportunity to denounce the U.S. decision to rescind his visa. He said it amounted to “pressure on religion.” In contrast, he said that although communists were unbelievers, he knew that some came to his church. Moreover, he had seen with his own eyes the good work the communist government was doing. He posed the rhetorical question “Is the American Government Christian?” He also insisted that there was no interference in the Russian Orthodox Church by the Soviet Government. He added that Russians were entitled to their own opinion and could practice religion. After a final service at Southminster United Church, the Russian clerics headed west, stopping first in Toronto.
Archbishop Boris did not have a good flight from Ottawa to Toronto. Leaving on a small DC-3 airplane, he was given two seats to accommodate his size. However, he had trouble buckling his seatbelt. After an attempt to use two seatbelts failed, an attendant managed to fasten him in using a cargo belt. Unfortunately, Boris’ long whiskers got caught in the strap. Reportedly, he “let out an unchurchmanlike roar,” as he, his two Russian aides, and a stewardess struggled to free him.
After a brief stay in Edmonton, the Russians returned to Montreal, before heading back to Moscow via Amsterdam.
The two-week visit was a great propaganda coup for the Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet Union. Well covered by Canadian and American press, Boris faithfully toed the Communist party line that religion, while not encouraged, was thriving in the Soviet Union, and that Russians were free to practice without hindrance. This view was openly supported by George Dorey, the United Church Moderator. Boris also had the opportunity to literally demonize the United States for barring his entry. “I believe in God, but there is also a devil [a.k.a. the U.S. Government],” he thundered. Of course, the reality was quite different. Although there had been some thawing of government-church relations which began during the War when the Soviets sought the help of the Orthodox Church in defeating the Nazis, that window of relative tolerance was fast closing. Despite religious freedom being enshrined in law, the Soviet Union was militantly atheist. Thousands had died or had been imprisoned for their faith. Nonetheless, Boris disingenuously claimed that “the Russian government had never persecuted the church as such but only church members who had been against the government.” Also, communist toleration of religion, if you can call it that, only went so far. Persecution of believers, especially non-Orthodox practitioners, continued. Roman Catholics, given their “allegiance” to the Pope, were under particular suspicion.
The pastor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin on Echo Drive called the United Church “tragically naïve” in arranging the visit. He added that Archbishop Boris is trusted by the Communist Party. He likened the Russian trip to “a secret police mission.” Before inviting Archbishop to Canada, the United Church ought to have consulted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada. “We have no quarrel with the United Church. But we do after all know a little more than them about Russia. We know that the Soviets executed 38 bishops of the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine alone.”
Following Archbishop Boris’s visit to Canada, Soviet oppression of religious organizations increased under Nikita Khrushchev during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Among the many anti-religious measures taken was the closure of thousands of churches and monasteries. Clergymen who criticized atheism were forcibly retired or imprisoned, while parents were forbidden to teach religion to their children.
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Decatur Sunday Herald and Review (The), 1955. “Delegation From The Russian Church Hits Opposition on Visit to Canada,” 25 December.
Globe and Mail (The), “U.S. Cancelled A Visa Granted To Boris 11 Days Earlier,” 15 November.
————————–, 1955. “Forbidden To Enter U.S., Moscow Prelate Due In Canada On Monday,” 22 November.
————————–, 1955. “Expect Four Russian Clerics To Arrive Sunday,” 30 November.
————————–, 1955. “Russians Pledge Action on Priests’ Requests,” 8 December.
————————–, 1955. “Satisfied With Reds,” 13 December.
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Ottawa Citizen (The), 1955. “Woman In Tears Pleads For Aid From Russ Cleric,” 10 December.
————————-, 1955. “Visiting Archbishop Tells Christmas Legend,” 12 December.
————————-, 1955. “Protest Visit of Russian Clerics Here,” 12 December.
————————-, 1955. “‘Our Only Aim to Live In Peace,’ Archbishop Affirms At Luncheon,” 13 December.
————————-, 1955. “Visiting Red Priests Called Moscow Spies,” 13 December.
Ottawa Journal, The, 1955. “Russian Churchmen Escape Demonstrators at Montreal,” 5 December.
————————-, 1955. “Russian Archbishop Shows Interest,” 7 December.
————————-, 1955. “United Moderator Says Russian Church Autonomous,” 12 December.
————————, 1955. “U.S. Bars Russian Bishop,” 12 December.
————————, 1955. “Russian Churchmen Display Keen Interest In Parliament,” 12 December.
————————, 1955. “At CGIT Service, Russian Inspector Pockets Pamphlets,” 12 December.
————————-, 1955. “Ottawa Clergyman Calls Visiting Russians Stooges,” 13 December.
————————-, 1955. “Tangled in Strap, Couldn’t Be Freed,” 13 December.
Soviet History Museum, 2018. Hydrogen Bomb, http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1954-2/hydrogen-bomb/.