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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.
 

1. 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 thing! 

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 of us. 

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 he was. 

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. 

Samizdat [the 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 know. 

You became 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? 

They were 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. 

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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 today. 

 

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 under it. 

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 degrees. 

 

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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. 

On 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. 

Absolutely. 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. 

The 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. 

This 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.  




E-mail me at john [at] johnswalters [dot] com