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Gainesville's Russian Liturgies Remind Local Russians Of Home

Rev. Migunov at the time of communion at the Russian liturgy at the Greek Orthodox Church, St. Elizabeth. Despite the current political situation in Ukraine, some local Russians and Ukrainians come together once a month and celebrate their common faith.
Rev. Migunov at the time of communion at the Russian liturgy at the Greek Orthodox Church, St. Elizabeth. Despite the current political situation in Ukraine, some local Russians and Ukrainians come together once a month and celebrate their common faith.

Growing up in the Soviet Union, Father Arkady dreamed of becoming a mechanical engineer.

Eventually, he realized that dream when he received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tver State Technical University in Russia.

But now, a golden cross hangs across his chest.

Father Arkady’s mother asked him to attend an Orthodox liturgy one day. After that, he had a new dream: become a Russian Orthodox priest. He went on to take monastic vows in 1989 and spent nine years in a monastery in Tver, Russia.

In contemporary Russian society, the Orthodox Church is still a pillar of power despite communist attempts to weed it out.

Lisa Booth, executive director of the Center for European Studies at the University of Florida, said religion is so important in Russia today because of the difficulties the Russian people have been through since the collapse of communism.

Orthodoxy has been a way for leaders to unify the population, she said. When Nicholas II became Tsar, it was one of the central identifiers of Russian identity. During World War II, Stalin was more permissive towards the churches.

For some Russians living in Gainesville, Orthodoxy remains an important part of their lives.

“I was invited in the states nine years ago, to do ministry of Russian speaking people to help them keep their faith,” Father Arkady said. “There are not too many Russian priests here in Florida, and so many Russian-speaking people.”

Father Arkady first spent a year in Ft. Lauderdale. He then moved to Jacksonville, where he currently does regular services at the Annunciation Orthodox Church. He also serves once a month in Gainesville and in Orlando.

Gainesville has a total population of about 128,460, only 2,606 of those are Russians and Ukrainians. Or about 2.1 percent of Gainesville residents, according to a five-year estimate done between 2009-2013 by the American Community Survey.

The idea of holding a Russian service in Gainesville came when Marin Smilov, a Bulgarian man living in Gainesville, approached Father Arkady five years ago. Smilov asked him if he could come once in a while to St. Elizabeth the Wonderworker Greek-Orthodox Church and hold services for Russians and Ukrainians.

Father Arkady gives the liturgy on the second Saturday of every month in Gainesville. Approximately 25 people, mostly from the former Soviet Union, attend the service, he said.

“This is not a separate ministry,” Father Arkady said. It might be one day – who knows?”

In the Orthodox tradition, the experience of going to church is not only formal, but also very personal and spiritual, Booth said.

On several instances, Father Arkady has walked in and out of the central door in the golden three door-icon stand that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church. Only he can go through the central Holy door; the altar boys use the two side doors.

Although pews were available, no one sat down during the hour-and-a-half long service. Some Orthodox churches don't even have chairs, only a handful on the edges of the room for those who really need them.

The entire Liturgy feels like one continuous song, wholly harmonized between Father Arkady and the choir.

Elena Mavrodieva, iconographer at St. Elizabeth, also helps with the choir during the Liturgy. Russian churches usually have professional choirs, she said. In some churches you cannot see the choir, only hear them, adding to the “divine” experience.

“When you attend the Liturgy over there (Russia) it feels like you’re in heaven,” she said.

Traditionally, no instruments are allowed besides the human voice.

Mrs. Mavrodieva moved to Gainesville from Volgograd, Russia in 2002. She said it was a difficult transition but was able to overcome it with her faith.

The ability to attend a Russian liturgy is particularly special for her.

“It’s like coming home for a couple hours,” she said.

Both Russians and Ukrainians in Gainesville are members of St. Elizabeth, and they attend the regular Greek service on Sunday, which is mostly in English.

Anna Dranishnikov helps spread the word about the Russian service. She said Father Arkady insists that they go to church on a regular basis; it doesn’t matter what language.

“But confession in the native language is more natural, easier to do,” Mrs.Dranishnikov said.

Like Father Arkady, some of the people who attend also wear a golden cross. It is a fundamental symbol for Orthodox Christians.

During the service, people made the sign of the cross whenever the Trinity was invoked, whenever they worship the cross or an icon and on several other occasions throughout the Liturgy.

At the end of the service, everyone lined up to kiss a golden cross that Father Arkady held. He said there are different practices, but faith is still the same.

“It’s just a good addition they have that once in a while they can experience this service in Church Slavonic,” Father Arkady said. “They seem to enjoy the service and confessions in Russian language."

Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Bulgarians, and Serbians all have the same language for the services – Church Slavonic – because they share the same roots, he said.

After the liturgy, those who attend sit down together for coffee and conversation.

“Faith is something that unites," Father Arkady said.  “Religion should be something that brings people together.”

Victoria is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org