It has long been my dream to tell people about Metropolitan Nicholas, the new First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia ‒ not as a bishop, but first and foremost as the little boy Kolya Olhovsky, who was born in America and successfully preserved the flame of the Russian Orthodox Faith in a wholly un-Orthodox environment. In his humility and modesty, the bishop himself has avoided any such project thus far, quite rightly explaining that interviews and confession are two different things. Consequently, while hoping for a heart-to-heart talk with him in the future, I turned to Fr. Serge Lukianov, rector of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Howell, NJ. After all, the future First Hierarch was a spiritual son of his father, Protopresbyter Valery Lukianov, and as a child he attended the Russian School at St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
‒ Fr. Serge, Metropolitan Nicholas spent quite some time as the keeper of the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God. Two days before the election, he accompanied the Hawaiian Iveron Icon of the Mother of God to Washington, DC. Then the election of the First Hierarch took place on September 13, when the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of the Placing of the Cincture of the Most Holy Theotokos. Are all these events symbolic, or mere coincidences?
‒ I think they are coincidences. Our bishops set the day for the election back in June, and decided to hold it after the Beheading of St. John the Baptist and after St. Alexander Nevsky. It was very good that it happened to fall on the Placing of the Cincture of the Most Holy Theotokos. Most importantly, everything took place under the protection of the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God. She has always accompanied our Vladyka and continues to do so, and this is truly what is most important.
‒ Metropolitan Nicholas visited your church with the holy icon on multiple occasions.
‒ Of course; he comes to us several times a year, sometimes even when there are no services, and looks in on our Russian School. He will visit us on Monday of Bright Week, or for the feast of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God, or for no reason at all. We have a wonderful relationship with him.
‒ How do you view his involvement with the Kursk Root Icon?
‒ Metropolitan Nicholas was raised in the Russian Church Abroad from childhood. He grew up in two parishes: the Church of the Assumption in Trenton, NJ, where his family lived, and our own parish, where the only Russian school in the entire area was located at the time. His parents were very involved in the life of our school, so he grew up in this atmosphere.
Naturally, the Mother of God constantly cared for our parishes through her Kursk Icon throughout all these years. In those days Archpriest Boris Kritsky, a wonderful priest, would come to us with the icon. Later Archpriest George Larin accompanied it, then I myself. The next to be appointed to this obedience was our Metropolitan ‒ at the time, simply Fr. Nicholas. So, in little ways he was constantly under the protection of the Most Holy Theotokos. And it is good that he was elected as First Hierarch in the presence of this icon. I believe that the Mother of God does not forsake us, and that she protects us with her precious omophorion.
‒ To use a secular expression, Metropolitan Nicholas’ career has simply skyrocketed. Just a few years ago, he was not even a monk, yet here he is, already the First Hierarch.
‒ He had been preparing ‒ or rather, the Mother of God had been preparing him ‒ for eight years. In 2014, he became a bishop, and even before that he had been traveling with the icon. Of all our bishops, perhaps none has traveled as much as Metropolitan Nicholas. He accompanied the Kursk Root Icon not only to Russia, but also to Europe, Australia, South America, and even on various islands: Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic ‒ just about everywhere. He even visited Japan! It is remarkable that a man could travel the globe as he has and bear up under the strain. Of course, he is only 47 years old ‒ he is the youngest bishop in ROCOR, and that helps him considerably.
Metropolitan Nicholas was very close to Metropolitans Laurus and Hilarion. Without even realizing it, perhaps, they proved to have been gradually preparing him for the ministry of First Hierarch. And the Mother of God strengthened him by her omophorion.
‒ Tell me about how you accompanied Metropolitan Nicholas on his pilgrimages with the Kursk Root Icon ‒ to Russia, or perhaps to other countries.
‒ In 2009, he and I traveled to Russia as part of a large delegation headed by Metropolitan Hilarion. This was the first time the Kursk Icon had visited Moscow and Kursk in nearly 90 years. When he became a bishop, I accompanied him on a trip with the icon to Costa Rica.
‒ Metropolitan Nicholas has already described his trip to Russia in 2009. How did everything go in Costa Rica? Not many people are even aware that a Russian parish exists there.
‒ We have one parish in that country ‒ the Church of the Vladimir Mother of God in San José ‒ which is home to approximately 4,000 Russians. I made several trips there to promote the mission, serving and performing weddings and baptisms. We erected an iconostasis and a cupola; many people helped with the work. Then we had the idea of arranging a visit from the Kursk Root Icon. I contacted the Russian consulate, and the consul kindly agreed to assist us, even taking it upon himself to arrange for transportation. With God’s help, we made the trip. It was the first time the Kursk Root Icon had ever visited Costa Rica. Many of our own Russian people, Orthodox Costa Ricans, and even Roman Catholics gathered in the church. It was a momentous occasion ‒ to pray beneath the palm trees under the protection of the Mother of God. Then the consul held a reception and received the wonderworking icon at the consulate. Altogether it was a truly inspiring trip. The people had only watched on television how the icon traveled to Russia and the people there stood for up to eight hours to venerate it. And here this same sacred icon had come to their own little parish. Can you imagine what that meant? For Costa Rica, it was probably one of the most important events in history.
‒ Let us turn the clock back to a little over 40 years ago. Do you remember what Kolya Olhovsky was like as a child?
‒ Of course; I remember quite well. He was always quiet and modest; always calm, with a ready smile. He was a nice boy, as people say. He studied well in school and served in the altar. His mother Evdokia (God rest her soul!) was a very religious woman, and I think it was she who instilled in her three sons the spark of love for the Church and the Mother of God.
The future priest and bishop Nicholas spent many years with us in Lakewood ‒ in the school, in the choir, in the altar, and in various youth organizations. I think our parish really did play an important role in his upbringing.
‒ And what role was that?
‒ Our parish always brought us up to preserve the Russian Diaspora handed down to us by our fathers and grandfathers. That is how we live to this day ‒ teaching our children the Law of God, Russian culture, literature, and grammar, to preserve what we have inherited.
‒ You have just painted a very idyllic picture. Can it really be that Kolya Olhovsky was never naughty ‒ that he never brought home a bad report card?
‒ No, he did not; I do not remember it ever happening. As a boy, he was always calm and behaved very well, just like his brothers. That is how they were brought up. Of course, they would get together with other young people to have a good time. But I always heard only positive things about him. We knew his family very well ‒ they were all part of our Russian community in the Diaspora.
‒ The Russian Church Abroad really is a family at heart: everyone knows each other, and everyone is as though related. Do you think that atmosphere will continue under Metropolitan Nicholas?
‒ Yes, I think it will. Metropolitan Nicholas was born in that atmosphere, as were we all. We were born in the Church Abroad; by this spirit we live, and with it we will die. We love Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and all other Orthodox countries, but we also value all that is good and decent that our parents and grandparents handed down to us. We preserve this with the help of our Russian parishes and Russian schools ‒ without them I do not know what things would be like.
Our parents taught us the Russian language, and the Russian School supported us; we felt that this was where we ought to seek our future spouses. Today, unfortunately, we see many interfaith marriages, but we constantly tell our children, "Why look elsewhere? Here you have Orthodox girls and Orthodox boys; this is where you ought to be looking, where you can start an Orthodox family. Otherwise, we will fall apart."
At the same time, however, in the Church Abroad we have many parishes where other languages predominate ‒ especially in the Southern states and, of course, in Australia. And we try to convey the spirit of Russia even to these parishes. An excellent example is the wonderful Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia. It is home to around 30 monks, and the monastery is entirely English-speaking. Currently they are building a large, permanent cathedral. Everything there is in English, but the spirit is remarkably Russian ‒ Russian cuisine, Russian smiles, Russian souls, Russian worship. This, despite the fact that they are Americans ‒ there is even a Japanese monk, and an Irish monk, and people of other nationalities. All of them have accepted Orthodoxy and love Russia; they love all things Russian and want to preserve them. They tell the young monks about our Metropolitans ‒ Anthony (Khrapovitsky) or Anastassy (Gribanovsky), Philaret (Voznesensky), Vitaly (Ustinov), Laurus (Škurla). This is very important. Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville does the same.
I, too, realize that I am a bearer of this spirit, and that I have a responsibility to God, to the Church, and to my parents and grandparents to continue this spirit. I think that Metropolitan Nicholas will uphold this spirit in the Church in exactly the same way.
‒ Your father ‒ Protopresbyter Valery Lukianov ‒ was Metropolitan Nicholas’ first spiritual father. What was their relationship like?
‒ They kept in very close contact. Even before he was a bishop, Vladyka would always come to ask F.r Valery for advice, make confession to him, and ask his blessing. He loved my father very much, and always speaks warmly of him. On the anniversary of his death in May, he always visits our parish. To this day, even outside of services, if he happens to be in the area he will stop by to visit my mother, Matushka Irina, or sometimes he will call her. He always behaves very lovingly toward her.
‒ I first saw the future Metropolitan Nicholas when he was not yet even a monk, it seems, though it was only recently that we met. I had the sense that here was a person who was greatly maturing spiritually and was becoming increasingly wise and luminous.
‒ You are correct: in his eight years as bishop, he especially saw much, drawing on the experience of our elders such as Metropolitan Hilarion. During his travels with the Kursk Root Icon, I believe he saw miracles, which most certainly did occur. It seems to me that all this helped prepare a vessel within him, filling him with the oil of grace.
Metropolitan Nicholas is very obedient, as a monk ought to be. He does not consider himself some sort of "pope;" as First Hierarch, this will not be his pattern of behavior. He will listen to all the bishops. Conciliarity maters to him. His diocese is one thing ‒ there he will make the decisions himself. But in all matters that concern the whole Church Abroad, he will always consult with the Council of Bishops. This is what Metropolitan Laurus did, as well as Metropolitan Hilarion, and this is very important.
‒ Could you share any humorous "human interest" stories about Metropolitan Nicholas?
‒ You know what is interesting ‒ Metropolitan Nicholas is a person of very equable temperament, without dramatic highs and lows. Metropolitan Laurus was another person of this sort of temperament.
Of course, Metropolitan Nicholas can be lighthearted, and may even laugh, but he always retains the same calm, equable temperament. He does not have his head somewhere off in the clouds, however: he understands what is happening in the world, he sees all the rampant immorality, and he understands that one must guard one’s soul. In all the years that I have known him, I have always had the most pleasing impressions of him.
As for humorous stories… Well, for example, in Costa Rica we went on a guided tour to a place that had parrots and other tropical birds. One of these birds sat on his head. The whole time, I kept praying that it would not leave him a "present" (laughs). We took a photograph, but I no longer have it. He enjoyed it all very much and laughed about it. My only comment was, "Vladyka, just be glad it did not do its business on you" (laughs).
Episodes like that did sometimes occur. But, generally, in him one was always conscious of the equable temperament that I mentioned. He has a tremendous devotion to the Church and to the divine services. For him, prayer and the services are the most important thing of all, just as they were for Metropolitans Laurus and Hilarion, from whom he learned. They maintained absolute obedience to the Council of Bishops, and of course to their monastic vow, and this is very important. Modesty and tranquility in all things, and for this glory be to God.
‒ Incidentally, Metropolitan Nicholas is the first primate of ROCOR who never lived in a monastery.
‒ Yes. He lived in the monastery in Jordanville, but not as a monk ‒ just as a worker and a seminarian. Of course, all our previous First Hierarchs lived in monasteries, and they imparted that spirit to him ‒ a spirit that he embraced.
Interview given by Archpriest Serge Lukianov to Dmitry Zlodorev.