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Centenary of the Archdiocese of Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe

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The Vitiaz

The National organization of Vitiaz (officially "Association of Vitiaz" in French-speaking countries) was originally the "brotherhood (in Russian" droujina ") of Vitiaz" - the educational section for children and adolescents of Christian Action of Russian students. Nicolas Feodorovitch Feodoroff, born in 1895 in the suburbs of Saint Petersburg (died in Paris in 1984), a student in railway engineering, a young soldier demobilized in Estonia after the civil war, had started to bring together refugee children who were often extremely poor and unemployed, sometimes became street children, according to the methods of scouting within the Union of Christian Youth of which he became the president. In 1926, he was invited by the NGO Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) to lead its Russian branch, headquartered in Paris. Quickly, the YMCA realized the merger of this branch with the Christian Action of Russian Students. With his wife Irene (daughter of Edmund Jung, a Belgian engineer and his Russian wife) Nicolas Feodoroff, always inspired by Scout methods, then developed within ACER a network of educators running educational units - the "droujina des Vitiaz ”, educational section for children and adolescents of ACER. Girls and boys from groups of children and adolescents were often grouped together in common activities (daily in summer camps), which, especially thanks to Irène Feodoroff and her instructors, constitutes one of the first experiences of co-education in the history of education. The difference with scouting was an emphasis on Orthodox education and an intense ecclesial life, a characteristic feature of ACER that the Vitiaz would retain when they became an independent organization.

Despite the successes, relations deteriorated between the Feodoroffs and the ACER leadership. While the great ACER intellectuals were debating - within the “students” section - a new vision of Orthodoxy which increasingly went beyond the Russian framework to become universal, Feodoroff and a very large number of his animators saw their educational project as a preparation for missionary work in a future Russia, a mission, of course, religious, but inseparable from a relearning of the other foundations of Russian identity - language, literature, arts, folklore and the traditions. History had to be taught in a patriotic spirit and military traditions were in the spotlight, which irritated many personalities of ACER still attached to the ideals of the revolution of February 1917. In 1934 almost half of the members of the droujina des Vitiaz broke away from ACER to form the “Organization Nationale des Vitiaz” (officially “Association des Vitiaz” for the French-speaking authorities). The same year was inaugurated its summer vacation camp on the shores of Lake Laffrey on the southern heights of Grenoble (a camp in operation every summer until today, except between 1940 and 1946). Other camps were organized across Europe.

Like ACER, the Vitiaz were decimated in Central and Eastern Europe by Nazism and then Soviet occupation. In France, however, the organization, although banned under the German occupation (like all youth organizations considered incompatible with fascist movements), operated semi-clandestinely under the guise of a charitable organization managing a center of 'evacuation for families fleeing the bombardments in Toury, in the South of the Ile de France (in reality, a real Vitiaz camp which lasted for years, in winter as in summer, in tents, accommodating up to 300 children and adolescents). People wanted by the occupying forces were even lodged there discreetly by the Feodoroffs. André Schmemann, future successor of Feodoroff at the head of Vitiaz, twin brother of the future father Alexandre, with whom he had assisted as acolyte Mgr. Euloge at the offices of the cathedral on Rue Daru, was one of the longest active leaders in Toury. There he trained a whole new generation of monitors, including his comrades from the cathedral, authors of a vade-mecum of the acolyte, Boris Kochko and Igor Kobtzeff (refractory to the Compulsory Labor Service hiding in the camp). After the war, the Vitiaz were reconstituted in France with this new generation, then, with new immigrants, in Belgium (Brussels and Mons), Argentina and Australia. From 1991, Vitiaz groups were formed and multiplied in Russia, from St. Petersburg to Siberia.

The Vitiaz Association is intimately part of the history of the Archdiocese. On the one hand, the movement had endeavored not to choose sides between the jurisdictions. Throughout its history, the Association des Vitiaz had been keen to serve as a gathering space for Russian Orthodox Christians from all jurisdictions and not to take any position in the conflict between the Archdiocese, the metropolis of America (future Orthodox Church of America) and the Russian Church Off-Borders. Without judging him or taking any official position against the Moscow Patriarchate, the association refused to maintain contact with him, as long as his hierarchy was forced to officially deny the persecutions of which she was the victim, but strong links were quickly forged. in the days of Perestroika. This assumed policy of inter-jurisdictional "ecumenism" allowed summit meetings and concelebrations - exceptionally rare in the history of the diaspora - between the hierarchs of the Archdiocese and those of the Russian Church Outside the Borders, as per example during the consecration of the Saint-Alexandre-Nevsky, Saint Olga and Saint Vladimir chapels of the Laffrey camp in 1961.

Celebration of the feast of Saint Vladimir at the Vitiaz camp in Laffrey: part 1

Celebration of the feast of Saint Vladimir at the Vitiaz camp in Laffrey: part 2

Celebration of the feast of Saint Vladimir at the Vitiaz camp in Laffrey: part 3

But the simplest reason for the ties between the Vitiaz and the Archdiocese is that in France - the nerve center and historical center of the movement - the parishes attached to the latter are in the majority, which makes the majority of the Vitiaz families parishioners. of the Archdiocese. Thus, there were personalities exercising the highest functions both in this diocese and in the association of Vitiaz: it is necessary to quote above all Anton Kartachev, who, without breaking with the ACER, supported the organization of Vitiaz and was the founder, in 1935, of the section of social works. “Vitiaz d'honneur” like Kartachev, Pierre Kovalevsky, renowned historian who had taught Saint Sergius in his youth and was the founding dean of the Saint-Alexandre-Nevsky fraternity of sub-deacons and acolytes of the cathedral, animated many Vitiaz meetings for decades. Another famous figure in the arts and letters, Dmitri Stelletsky, the iconographer who covered the church on Saint Sergius hill with icons, was also an honorary member of the Vitiaz association. He painted many icons for them and regularly spent his summers in their camp at Laffrey in the 1930s. We have already mentioned André Schmemann who held important positions on the Archdiocese's council with his friend Prince Serge Obolensky, also member of the management of the Association des Vitiaz. Among the other presidents of the association are André Feodoroff, son of Nicolas and Irene, the architect who built not only the Laffrey chapel, but also the new Saint-Séraphim-de-Sarov church on rue Lecourbe, Vladimir Delaroff, unwavering support of the parish of Asnières, Nathalie Schmemann, daughter of André, literary agent of Alexandre Solzhenitsyne and secretary of the Institut Saint-Serge as well as animator for many years of the cultural life of her students, Serge Runge, member of the diocesan council and of the parish council of the Saint-Alexandre-Nevsky cathedral. Igor Kobtzeff, already mentioned, succeeded Kovalevsky at the head of the brotherhood of sub-deacons and acolytes of the cathedral; he also cumulated a seat on the parish council of the cathedral and the presidency of the French section of the Vitiaz association, as well as his son Oleg, reader at the cathedral then in the parish of Saint-Seraphim-de-Sarov before teaching at the Institut Saint-Serge. Among the many priests and bishops active within the Vitiaz, we must underline the role of Father Alexandre Semenoff-Tian-Chansky who, future bishop, was chaplain of the Laffrey camp for several years after the war, of Archimandrite Job (Nikitin ) who succeeded him in the early 1960s and who was the chaplain of the whole organization for decades, inviting the Vitiaz to organize an annual camp during the Easter period in his hermitage of Mourmelon near Reims, finally, of the future Archbishop Serge (Konovaloff), who, as a parent, showed strong support for the movement to which his children belonged, (the eldest, Vladimir, will become president of the section of the Association des Vitiaz in Belgium) then was, himself, chaplain to Laffrey.

But above all, the organization of the Vitiaz, through its educational project and its methods (systematic meetings in the premises of the parishes - Rue Daru, Boulevard Exelmans, Rue Lecourbe, Asnières, the cathedral of Nice, and even, recently, Rue Olivier- de-Serres, "stronghold" of ACER - with an appointment in the morning at services, life of prayer in the camp at least twice a day in the chapel and prayer before and after each meal, in addition to frequent liturgies, lessons of liturgical song, liturgical practice for acolytes, catechesis) like ACER, maintained the religious life of practicing families and initiated less practicing families into it. For the latter, learning about history, geography, folklore, all the Russian heritage and even military traditions, often served as a hook to attract young people and their parents to an environment practicing ecclesialization. of life. This is how countless Vitiaz became singers, acolytes, readers, choir directors, or simple parishioners, essential to the life of their community. Some became deacons and priests. Mgr. Elisha (Germain) in his investiture speech, recounting his personal development, illustrated precisely this type of journey from his childhood in the Laffrey camp, where he already discovered his vocation, until his episcopal consecration, through all the activities des Vitiaz and his formation - by several Vitiaz - near the altar in the row of acolytes and sub-deacons of the cathedral. For this new bishop the experiences within the Vitiaz and within the church, in particular within the Archdiocese, had become completely inseparable.

Competing in their race to best serve the cause of their motto which remained common after 1934 - "For Russia and for the Faith" - the Christian Action of Russian Students and the Organization of Vitiaz must be seen as complementary rather than opponents. Most of their members have always maintained close friendships, including weddings. The twin brothers Alexandre and André Schmemann, each president respectively of ACER and the Vitiaz symbolize this complementarity. Mgr. Alexandre Semenoff-Tian-Chansky liked to compare the two organizations to two regiments of the Russian Imperial Guard, competing in feats on the battlefield but in order to achieve victories for the same cause. The Archdiocese largely inspired this competition and was rewarded for it.