Student Memories of Marian House and Skaryna Library

Aleksey Gibson

In his short memoir for the Skaryna Library, an American Slavist Aleksey Gibson recalls his time as a student in London in 1978-1982. Though not taking “advantage of exploring the Skaryna Library”, he paints an interesting picture of the transformative time for the Library, Belarusian Catholic Mission and Belarusian community in London. In 1979, the Library became a charity which meant that in the eyes of the British society it was an important cultural institution working for the public benefit. The Library was particularly active in popularising the Belarusian studies among researchers and students like Aleksey Gibson.

From September 1978 till June 1982, I was a student at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies in the University of London where I obtained my BA Degree in Russian Language & Literature with Old Russian History. Although my own Slavic family background is Carpatho-Rusyn and Greek Catholic (my mother’s family, the Vislockys had emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the USA in 1921; my father was an American Catholic convert who adopted the Byzantine rite soon after my parents’ marriage in 1950), my main interests at the time were the Russian Silver Age &  Medieval European History. Looking back now after more than thirty years, it might still be possible to reconstruct the particular thinking that characterized my generation of descendants of Eastern and Central Eastern European exiles and immigrants during the last decades of Soviet domination and the circumstances in which we attempted to study and perpetuate our family heritages.

For those of us of E. European background, there was a series of impossible challenges that our fellow students of purely British of American descent did not face. On the one hand, we were conscious of the heroic efforts of the preceding generations to preserve in exile the institutions necessary for academic study free of Soviet interference, such as university departments, journals, libraries and archives, at the same time, we also realized that as second generation Poles, or Hungarians,  Romanians or Russians, etc. we were at a disadvantage primarily because we knew that without contact with the homeland, it would be difficult to gain proficiency in our particular language or credibility in academic circles. For most of our peers this attempt to maintain a viable East European identity in exile seemed like an exercise in futility that was hard to understand. At the same time, it was equally hard to imagine, except for the “true believers,” that cultural life in the Soviet zone was, in fact, flourishing or even improving. The heavy hand of the Brezhnev regime was very much in force as shown in 1979 by.such events as the banishment of Andrei Sakharov, the arrest of Fr. Gelb Yakunin, and the imprisonment of  Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. Earlier in the 70s we had already learned from the exile of Joseph Brodsky and the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam what the Soviet system was still capable of doing to individuals with any integrity or originality. In this context, institutions and archives such as SSEES and the Skaryna Library, and the various émigré journals that existed in Paris, or London, or  New York offered a challenge to the hegemony of the official Soviet narrative of  Russian and East European history and the possibilities for truly independent research.

Arriving in London at age nineteen, I had already had an introduction to this “other ” Eastern Europe through my own family history, but more immediately through my contact in my late teens with Irène Posnoff founder of the Foyer Oriental Chrétien and the Vie-avec-Dieu press in Brussels. Imbued with the teachings and example of Vladimir Solovyov, Ms. Posnoff worked tirelessly for the reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and later inspired me to translate the biography of Solovyov by his nephew the poet and Russian Catholic priest Sergey Solovyov. Thus, although I was certainly aware of the ethnic and religious differences between my Carpatho-Rusyn family heritage and and Russians, I was willing to adopt what one might call the big picture view of the East Slavic world in which it was more important to emphasize what we had in common, rather than what divided us. (In fact, at the time, the Rusyn language and culture were non-existent as a field of study among most Slavists who accepted the Soviet doctrine that Rusyns were ethnically “Western Ukrainians” who had “returned to Russian Orthodoxy.”) This more inclusive Catholic position was not particularly popular, either among the Orthodox, who distrusted ecumenism or, as I was to discover, among the other East Slavs, the Ukrainians and Belarusians who were eager to define themselves in opposition to anything perceived as “too Russian.”

In any case, perplexed as I was by all these various divisions: religious, historical, linguistic, and political, I was determined to maintain my identity as a Greek Catholic and not to be pulled too closely into the orbit of the Russian and Orthodox émigré communities that I frequented as a student. (I also assiduously avoided anything I perceived to be “too Soviet.”) During my undergraduate years, I lived on the Old Marylebone Road (NW1), so it was possible to attend Divine Liturgy at least once a month at Marian House.  When I first arrived, Bishop Sipovich was very gracious and must have acknowledged my connection with Irène Posnoff. At that time, he was still celebrating the Liturgy in Church Slavonic and had a small choir to assist him. I remember meeting there Helle Georgiadis a “true” Greek Catholic who was active in the Society of St. John Chrysostom (after serving many years before as the Secretary of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius) and, of course, Fr. Alexander Nadson.

Strangely enough, perhaps because my interests were “too Russian,” I did not take advantage of exploring the Skaryna Library. I had some knowledge of the history of Belarus but found the language and literature too different from what I was studying at SSEES to appreciate. I do have a distinct memory of attending the first Divine Liturgy in Belarusian which Bishop Sipovich and Fr. Nadson had translated. While I recognized the work involved, I do recall expressing my concern that such a translation might further erode the commonality of the East Slavic tradition of Church Slavonic which the Ukrainian Greek Catholics had already abandoned.It was also unclear which musical setting would best fit the Belarusian liturgy, but that question was beyond my expertise. Finally, I was aware – but only peripherally – of the various other projects at hand, such as the publication of the Latin translation of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom that I believe had been found in the archive.

My last distinct memory of Marian House is, of course, the unexpected passing of Bishop Sipovich in October 1981 and his funeral at a large Roman Catholic church. It was very touching to see how many people attended, so many more than ever appeared in the small chapel in N. Finchley. I also attend the memorial mass at Brompton Oratory where the bishop was remembered with so much affection and admiration.

Thus, while I was never involved in the inner circle of the Belarusian community, as long as I was a student in London I had a spiritual home at Marian House.

Washington, DC 20 August 2015

Aleksey Gibson received his B.A. and M.Phil. in Russian Language & Literature from the University of London and his Ph.D. in Slavic Languages & Literatures (1995) from the University of Virginia, where he wrote his dissertation on “The Spirit of the Medieval in the work of M. A. Voloshin.” His work on Russian émigré literature Russian Poetry & Criticism in Paris from 1920 to 1940 was published in 1990 by Leuxenhoff, The Hague. Dr. Gibson has also translated biographies of Marina Tsvetayeva (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1994) and Vladimir Solovyov (Fairfax, VA: ECP, 2000).