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Journey to Freedom, by Sergei Ovsiannikov

09 April 2021

Michael Bourdeaux on Orthodox reflections

IT IS a rare privilege for a non-Russian speaker to have access to a pristine piece of Orthodox theology, but Sergei Ovsiannikov’s book (Faith, 1 April) provides it. Journey to Freedom has come too late to recommend as Lent reading this year, but it should be put on the list for next Advent.

This book illuminates John 8.33 (“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”) from numerous points of view, both personal and more general. Fr Ovsiannikov was a convert to the faith in prison during communist times. After his emigration from the Soviet Union, he remained within the ambit of the Moscow Patriarchate and served in London, until Metropolitan Anthony of Surozh (better known as Anthony Bloom) directed him to Amsterdam.

He writes to his own modest congregation principally of Dutch converts to the Orthodox Church. Instead of presenting a barrier to the English-speaking reader, this gives the text an attractive inflection, as though letting the reader glimpse the text through a Dutch colouring. The uplift of Orthodox Easter gains power by the walk “through several blocks of Amsterdam by night”. Dutch efficiency means that the parish council takes over an enormous amount of administrative responsibility, which frees the priest to concentrate on the spiritual life of the congregation.

The references to Russia are sporadic, but when they occur they carry great weight. He recounts that Andrei Rublev, the great 15th-century icon-painter, surprisingly depicted in a film released in Soviet times, refused to collaborate with other artists in painting a “doom” to cover the whole of the western wall of a new church. Instead, he broke away and produced the “Old-Testament Trinity”, the greatest of all icons. Rublev demanded his own freedom, breaking new ground with this, depicting the hospitality offered to strangers “unaware” and in a blaze of colour. In this depiction of finding the truth, Rublev achieved new freedom.

Ovsiannikov describes the effect on him of Sviatoslav Richter sitting in silence at the piano in contemplation before striking a first note — the freedom of expectation.

“On the new man” forms the central section of the book. Ovsiannikov tracks St Paul’s many references to the old and the new, expounding first Ephesians 4.22-4: “Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt. Put on the new man who was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” So the author opens out before us new perspectives of freedom.

But is there something missing? The text floats free of the autobiography of this remarkable man. Such details as his age, the crime for which he was sentenced during his military service, the details of his conversion, his formal theological education, his death — all these are absent from the text. Rudimentary information is found on the dust cover, but Google is not more forthcoming.

His arrest was while he was serving in the Soviet army in 1973; so he must have been about 18 then. He would have been about 66 when he died in 2019. The text tells us repeatedly that Metropolitan Anthony had an immense spiritual influence on him, but whether he ever studied theology in a seminary remains a blank. All these details could have made a fascinating supplementary chapter and perhaps added to the attraction of what is already a remarkable book, superbly translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

The late Canon Bourdeaux was the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.


Journey to Freedom
Sergei Ovsiannikov
Bloomsbury £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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