Raw materials: Excerpts from my interviews with Father Andrew
There are three excerpts here: How two leading Russian emigres helped Andrew
Tregubov find his way in America; how his years living under Soviet oppression still affect him today; and his thoughts on
the spiritual dimensions of iconography.
Andrew and Galina Tregubov left the Soviet Union in 1974. After an eight-month stay in Rome, they moved to New York City.
They were relieved to be free of Soviet oppression; but at the same time, they were starting from scratch in an unfamiliar
land. Here, Father Andrew explains how they found their way in their new country.
We don't have any official education. We were very unhappy. We
were looking for something to do, and we couldn't find anything. We started going to church, and we wanted to know more about
it. We kind of rediscovered Orthodoxy. Not only because of Russian culture; we came to it because of its own merit, not only
because of its sentimental attachments.
So we started going to church, and one day a friend invited us to
go to a service in this absolutely wonderful place, it's called St. Vladimir Theological Seminary in Westchester. We were
living not far from there. And we met a person who radically changed our life. His name was Father Alexander Schmemann. He
was a world-renowned theologian and the dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary. When we met him that first time, we realized that
we had finally come home. We discovered a home in the church. And the church is such that it encompasses the entire world,
so all of a sudden from being this rootless cosmopolitan, we discovered that the entire world was our home. It was a fantastic
So we continued to work. We would come for evening classes, and very soon after, Father found some charitable
organization that would pay for my tuition, and I was accepted as a full-time student. St. Vladimir's Seminary is a graduate
school; I had never received a bachelor's degree. So Father said, "Well, why don't you write down a list of books that
you have studied?" So I wrote as many as I could remember. He looked over the list, page after page, and he said, "You
know, this is about three times more than people study, even for a master's degree, so you're okay."
While you were still a seminary student, you and Galina moved to Claremont, New Hampshire?
Yes, it's another wonderful story and another person who made a very big impact on our lives, another Alexander:
Alexander Solzhenitsyn [then living in exile in Cavendish, Vermont]. He invited us to come and work for him and live there.
We did a multitude of things there. I was an archivist, and we both tutored his children, and my wife was a copy-editor and
typesetter for his works.
I think it was 1977 when we came here. I was a student at St. Vladimir's at the time. I had
completed a half year full-time.
At first, we were in Cavendish only for the summer. And then
we stayed and I commuted back and forth once a week. Then in '78 my wife became pregnant and we had our first son in '79.
By then I was a deacon and served in this parish [Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Claremont]. This was the parish to
which Solzhenitsyn came. We actually met at the church because we didn't know how to find his home, so we came here for the
full liturgy and then we drove back to his home. It's about 24 miles from here.
How did you come to Solzhenitsyn's attention?
Through a mutual friend, a wonderful
woman named Irina Alberti. She became our best friend in Italy, in the eight months we lived there. At that time, the State
Department had funded efforts to help people from the Communist Bloc to break through the Iron Curtain. They funded this so-called
International Literary Agency, which was trying to smuggle books through the Iron Curtain.
And of course we wanted to read. We had worked as night watchmen, and we read. So now, we
found ourselves in Italy, having nothing to read! And somebody told us to go there, and they give you books. And we discovered
all the treasures of all those books in Russian language, by writers and philosophers and theologians who were part of the
cream of the crop of the intelligentsia who had emigrated.
So we went there, and we befriended her. Her parents
had belonged to the first wave of emigration. She spoke 15 languages fluently. Married an Italian diplomat. In every country
they would live, she would absorb the language. She was a marvelous person, and a deeply practicing Christian. She became
like our godmother.
She then was invited to work for Solzhenitsyn as a secretary. And they were looking for a
young couple who could help tutor their children and do some other work, help with publication work, and she immediately thought
At the time, we were living in Ossining [New York], in a tiny little apartment. And she called us and said, a
friend of mine is going to visit you. She said this Tuesday from 2 to 3, please be home. And Solzhenitsyn was traveling incognito
with a friend, visiting people. His main purpose was to visit the old emigres who might have some memories about life in Russia,
because he was writing the so-called "Red wheel" cycle.
So I open the door, and here stands
a guy with a beard, you know. I recognized him, but I wasn't exactly sure. We spent two hours talking in our tiny living room.
He asked all kinds of questions, and that was it. And then we got a letter from Mrs. Solzhenitsyn inviting us to come.
Did you realize who he was?
We weren't sure,
because we had seen his pictures, but he did not introduce himself. We knew that most likely it was him, but who knows. It
was one of those ambiguous moments in life (laugh). It was actually symbolic of the way they lived. There was a whole department
of the KGB just to deal with Solzhenitsyn, because of his fame and importance. They had a rather large number of people working
on how to suppress him in one way or another. And they have done quite a lot, totally defaming him with the American press.
It's not only because Solzhenitsyn spoke his mind; he was not looking for acceptance or praise from the American media. But
it was a concerted effort by the KGB in order to pacify and nullify his message.
So there was a lot of necessary
security. Not only because of the KGB, but also the local reporters who would make a scene. Solzhenitsyn was a private person,
and he wanted to be in control of his privacy. For famous people, that's impossible.
He was a great man in so many ways, but he became a celebrity in some sense disconnected from the person
Of course. And don't underestimate
the conscious efforts by the KGB in order to nullify his influence. They wanted to make him irrelevant.
His Vermont home was often
described as a compound.
This is not true. It's a plain falsehood. Compound because they have a screen fence that
anyone can step over? There are plenty of properties owned by rich or famous people with far more security. Solzhenitsyn never
had a bodyguard! For a celebrity, that was either stupid or a point of principle.
So a screen fence
that had to be propped up after every rain because it would be washed down. And a gate that, the post will come out and anybody
can get in. "Compound." It's part of the propaganda. It's still there; you can drive by and see that there's nothing.
When you were in the Soviet Union, you and Galina read a lot of officially
banned books. Had you read any of Solzhenitsyn's?
Only a few, because they were like handling plutonium.
We got them for one night. So we copied them with our little camera, and we had this library of about 300 or 400 books in
microfilm. If that library had been discovered, you and I would not be talking today.
dissidents' method of spreading banned material] worked that way. Somebody would bring you a book at night, and somebody else
picked it up the next morning. So you only have five hours or ten hours.
It must have been amazing to work for Solzhenitsyn.
Yes. It was an honor. It was an unearned blessing and an incredible gift, just to meet them [Solzhenitsyn
and Schmemann] and observe who they were.
Both of them were extremely personable and extremely humble. Solzhenitsyn
would never, ever accept any kind of preferential treatment, as some celebrities will expect from you. He was always very
human. He was respectful to everyone. And he was interested; he spent two hours talking to this young couple, you know? What
could we tell him that he didn't already know? [his voice rises] But there
was a genuine human interest. And the both of them were very similar in that respect.
How did Solzhenitsyn affect you?
I learned how to work. He was a very hard worker.
I remember he worked fourteen hours a day. His whole life, not just his writing, but his whole life was a perfect abandonment
to the creative process. You cannot imagine Solzhenitsyn sitting on the porch. He had some recreation; he would go hiking,
he loved to play tennis. But you'd never see him sitting down in front of the television and going click, click, click, you
the priest of Holy Resurrection Church in 1979. The Solzhenitsyns attended the church until they returned to Russia in 1994.
Was it at all strange for a brand-new priest to have such renowned parishioners?
very gracious. After my ordination -- of course, I was a deacon for eight months, that was a bit of a transition. But after
I became a priest, they were very kind and gracious. Young priests are very vulnerable because of the inescapable change of
relationship. As a priest, you are kind of alone.
The Solzhenitsyns were extremely gracious and careful and
nurturing, for both my wife and myself. They taught us so many things, and gave us quite a lot of responsibility -- teaching
their children, and helping with their work. We were allowed to do things that were most dear to them, and enter into things
that were extremely important to them.So it was a great gift for us. A blessing.
2. As young adults in the Soviet Union, Andrew and Galina Tregubov were deeply disaffected by the
emptiness and futility of life behind the Iron Curtain. The absolute oppressiveness of the Soviet system still affects them
When you were living in the Soviet Union, did
you have any encounters with the authorities?
Thank God, I never had a direct encounter with KGB, which
normally means that you are sent an "invitation" to come in and talk. Lubyanka, the KGB building in Moscow. I thank
God it didn't happen to me, although a number of my friends and acquaintances had that. Somehow we were under the radar; we
were too small, too young. I could not claim any dissident fame. We did not present any interest to them. I'm sure they knew
about us, because they knew about everybody.
A good friend of mine who we met, actually, in Italy, not
only was brought in a number of times, but wrote an article on how to resist interrogation by KGB which was very, very widely
read and popular.
The KGB structure, totalitarian country, it's all by degree. It's power.
You never came in direct contact with it; but indirectly, you were constantly living
Absolutely. It permeates one's entire life.
I had a harrowing experience
as a teenager. My friend and I were traveling by train. A guy came in who was disheveled, bum-like, and he started telling
us the story of his life, cursing the authorities and all that. In our estimation, the guy was crazy, he would be picked up
at the next station.
The scary thing is that he was telling US! He was addressing us! It was scary for a kid who
knows the danger. But it was also fascinating; that was the first time I met a person who was crazy, but free! He did not
have any inhibitions. Of course, I'm sure he was on a short leave between incarcerations. But his story had an incredible
human value, a tragic value, that it's been 40-some years and I still remember exactly what he said.
I've talked with survivors of the Holocaust; even now, they still have a profound
fear of authority.
Absolutely! My experiences cannot be compared to those of a person who was in a concentration
camp. But it is a testimony to the fact that a totalitarian regime is a concentration camp for all inhabitants. The
entire population. That is something that people don't understand.
To this day, I try not to travel by
air because the harassment that you have to go through, it cuts me much deeper than anybody else. I talk with other people
about it, and they say, "It's all right, they're doing it for our protection." Well, I've heard that before. It's
been bred somehow in me, and I cannot stand it.
And to go to Canada, and pass the border. I was sweating!
I'm a law-abiding citizen, I have nothing to hide. But when I talk to the border guards, it immediately cuts me. It's not
because I'm afraid; I'm violated. It's the violation of my freedom. It violates my innate sense of freedom, which was trampled
down by everybody. That's the whole point of life in the Soviet Union, that you have no freedom. Your personal freedom is
trampled down time and time again. It makes me more sensitive to violations of personal freedom.
We have this stupid roadblock below I-89 on I-91. [A border checkpoint 100 miles away from
the border.] There's no justification except that this is to terrorize the population, and convince them the security is needed.
To me, authority that is used "for the good of the people" is always suspect. It's a fraud. To different
3. In addition to his work as priest of Holy
Resurrection Orthodox Church, Father Andrew is also an accomplished iconographer -- a crafter of the iconic images used in
Orthodox worship. Here, he talks about this unique medium and its spiritual dimension.
Iconography is transparent. The point
of iconography is not to create a sacred object; this is the realm of paganism. The icons are a visual expression of our unity
with the invisible God. And between us He becomes visible -- when He says that you are my disciples if you do what I tell
you, if you manifest my presence in yourself. This is what the icon is, that visualization of our communion with God. So it's
not an object; it is, if you want, a manifestation of the experience of the Eucharist, of communion with God.
one hand, the icon is very transparent. There is nothing solid in it. The icon is not a decorative surface; it is an art in
which you employ the movement of light and shadow, creating space. So every color field is intimately deep.
It must be a profound responsibility to paint icons.
The icons are born, because we believe they represent a living reality born out of three agents: the church itself, the faith
of the church; and the iconographer, who adds his own unique creativity to it; and ultimately it is the revelation of God
Himself. And all these things come together in a unique unity.
Icons are not signed. It's not MY experience.
My feeling or my understanding is included. It's a process of addition. Just think of all those hundreds and thousands of
iconographers, two thousand years of history, developing a canon of iconographic imagery, language. Then I take that and add
my five cents to it. I process it through my own creative system. And then what comes out is a continuity with tradition.
I look at as many icons as I can, I absorb them. Not just look at it, but look INTO it, absorb it.
The icon is not an idol. The icon is the ultimate weapon AGAINST idolatry. It is the confirmation of this mystical
unity of the church -- of me as a person with everybody else around Christ.
Iconography is based on two principles. First,
you create luminous space. It has to be filled with light. Therefore it has to be transparent, and it has to be variable.
And then within that space, you organize that light that comes from the luminous color fields. Then you give
it direction. That's all. Your eye moves along; you perceived the movement of light within the work. It's all about light.
It's not about figures; it's not about accurate representation of anatomical features or objective reality; it has nothing
to do with that. Icon, in a sense, is an attempt to capture in light, a living vibrant relationship between one invisible
-- God or Christ -- and you, the viewer. It tries to capture you; you literally have to step in.
church is also like that; it is an icon that you get in.
The point is that it is the place of encounter.
You are welcome to come in. But what you see is an image of harmony, an image of encounter. Of course, it cannot be realistic
in any way; it has to have room for you to step in. And it has to have the living presence of the Other, with whom to encounter.
That's why an icon is an image of a person.
This is something that is not understood in modern times.
I don't know if I explain it well enough.
What you see is already relational. I look at your face; I do not
see your face in isolation, I see our relationship. I see you in the context of relating to me.
is what the icon is! It does not pretend to represent God; nobody knows who He is. But only the way He reaches out and makes
Himself visible to us.