Last year the portal Pravoslavie.ru published the sad beginning of this story and its sad continuation. In a nutshell, a young Kosovo Serbian couple, Goran and Alexandra Velickovic living in Pristina’s suburb of Kosovo Polje, suffered damage from a Russian man. His outboard motor boat ran into Alexandra when she was bathing in the sea, an incident that doomed the young woman to temporary paralysis and led to numerous costly operations. The man escaped the scene and returned home without apologizing, while it is to the credit of Serbs that they displayed magnanimity and didn’t vent their burning anger on the whole of Russia. Rather, their love for Russia did not grow weaker: it is still “mother Russia” for them, and we are their “brothers”. We can only admire this ability of our brothers in Serbia.
Kosovo and Metohija with our apologies.
However, the sequel was sad as well: we were denied entry to Kosovo, and some of us were branded as “posing threat to public peace, national security and foreign affairs” on the territory of the “very democratic and independent” Republic of Kosovo, and indeed one of us was declared persona non grata and told that he would face jail time next time. So we had to meet with Goran and other Serbs in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, which is not far off.
It would have been too formal to come, give them the aid, talk around the festive table and then leave self-satisfied. This is not the way brothers and sisters treat each other. Thus we invited the couple to Russia. They agreed and paid a visit in June.
When friends gather together, when there are subjects for talks, debates, discussions, when you are surrounded by serene beauty, time flows slowly and even imperceptibly. And before we knew it we were already standing by an express train to Sheremetevo Airport from where our friends were going to fly back to Kosovo. We said good-bye to each other and agreed to get in touch on the phone and talk about the couple’s impressions of their first trip to Russia. “When you get back into a routine after your holiday, please tell us about your impressions. That’s very interesting to us,” we said. “We are so excited about the trip! We have lots of impressions. But, please, write down your questions,” they responded. “Be frank and don’t lay it on thick,” we asked. “You may be sure! See you! Long live mother Russia!” “Hello to Serbia!”
Soon we prepared the questions and called the Velickovics a couple of days later. Goran answered my call at once. He told me that since their return their house in Kosovo Polje had been “occupied” by their relatives, friends and acquaintances that had been pestering them with questions about “this unknown Russia”. And Goran and Alexandra as true pioneers with “expert knowledge” had told them everything for the umpteenth time. They are already highly respected in the neighborhood… So, below we offer the readers our talk with the Kosovo Serbs who have just returned from their first trip to Russia.
—Can you tell us how the idea of going to Russia was born? Why Russia and not Italy, France, or Germany?
—It is very simple. Firstly, for us Russia is not merely a state, “the Russian Federation”; for us it is “Holy Rus’”. Once we heard the hymn, “Holy Rus’, preserve the Orthodox faith, in which thou art established,” we realized that not only does Christianity heal souls, it also establishes whole nations, and that it can be triumphant as in the Byzantine Empire. It can be triumphant, joy-filled, and victorious rather than aggressive. When we dropped in at the Moscow Sretensky Monastery we were stunned: the atmosphere was beautiful, peaceful and festive at the same time. As you probably know, here in Kosovo and Metohija the atmosphere is quite different: sometimes you are afraid to make the sign of the cross if you are outside your own community…
Secondly, it was a real blessing from God to make so many new friends in Russia in a short span of two years, who are not indifferent towards the state of affairs in Serbia. It was an honor and joy for us to meet with some of them (unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to see them all). St. Petersburg, Vologda, the whole of the “Northern Thebaid”, Moscow—this is not a mere geographical space but a spiritual geography, where you are known and loved by others. As a result we know and love these places and people who live in them too. It’s a great blessing.
Thirdly, Alexandra had never been abroad, had never traveled overseas by plain or train. And now she has seized this opportunity and has experienced good, comfortable, beautiful and original plains and trains. And all is written in Cyrillic. Everything is clear with the exception of the Russian sound “ы”.
—There is also “щ”, as in “shchi” [a type of Russian cabbage soup], “borsch”, “sorrel” [“shchavel” in Russian]. But let us switch from phonetics. How had you imagined Russia before your visit?
—Shchi and borsch are tasty dishes. Yes, we tend to form some stereotypical opinions. Some people had warned us that we would see thugs in the streets of Russian cities shooting and robbing everyone. Of course, we had ignored the words about “bears in ushankas [Russian fur hats with earflaps], with balalaikas [a Russian stringed musical instrument] and vodka”… Some had tried to make us believe that Russia is “heaven on earth” and Putin is a “tsar”. However, all the prejudices vanished in no time, and we found that your country is not only big (we have probably covered one hundredth of its territory!) but also beautiful and deserving admiration. To begin with, we could talk for hours about the austere beauty of Russia’s North. Now I understand why you have great writers: the nature of the north is a powerful source of inspiration. We have seen the magnificent city of St. Petersburg with its “ceremonious manners”; and the beauty of the Peterhof Palace in Petrodvorets with its fountains was even a bit oppressive for us. Moscow with its tempo of city life and self-confidence, with its Kremlin and the spirit of hospitality did not leave us indifferent; we lingered in Arbat Street and the Kremlin and did not even want to leave them. Though there were swarms of yelling football fans who made us a bit annoyed (we are indifferent to football), but we got a grip on ourselves.
Your provinces, your northern regions are wonderful. Its people are interesting: first they try to size you up, and once they have become convinced that you are of the same spirit with them they will open their hearts to you. When they hear that you came from Kosovo and Metohija, they will treat you as their own brothers. We have learned a new word in Russian, namely “kruto” (meaning “cool”, “super”).
Our trip to Spaso-Kamenny Monastery was like visiting another planet! If you look at the map, you see that Lake Kubenskoye (in the Vologda region) is rather small, but it turns out that it is seventy kilometers [about forty-three miles] long, like from Kosovo Polje to Visoki Decani! And just imagine: there is a tiny islet in the middle of the lake, and there is a monastery on the islet, and the Divine Liturgy is being celebrated in it! Peace and quiet, light, waves, a “thoughtful” cat is roaming about, campfire, while you are praying! When you are there, you couldn’t care less about politicians and tsars!... So Russia appeared to be very different from what we had imagined; it is much better and that is good.
—Many people both in Russia and in Serbia call Russia “the bastion of Orthodoxy”. In your view, is it true?
—Absolutely! I have seen it with my own eyes and can assert that today Russia is the bastion of Orthodoxy in the world. We received evidence that that is true both at the huge Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and in small northern churches and monasteries. Russians take Christ and their religious faith very seriously. I have not seen anybody trifle with his religion in Russia. If you continue along the same lines, Christianity will live on.
—Your lips dispense sweet honey…
—I have my opinion, and you have yours. I assure you that this is neither politeness nor diplomatic language. I have just compared what I saw in my country and what I experienced in yours. It is a difficult issue. We will discuss it later in detail.
—Firstly, you have too few currency exchange offices. We have them at every turn, but in Russia you need to make efforts to find them…
—Our situation was very similar until recently, but at last we started to appreciate our national currency again…
—No problem. Though sometimes it was inconvenient, we did manage to find currency exchange offices in your country. Secondly, your shops open too late and close too early as compared with ours. For example, while in Sergiyev Posad we wanted to buy something for the following morning, but all the shops were closed at ten in the evening.
—You can also recall how we wanted to buy some bread in Ustye Kubinskoye [a village in the Vologda region] at about eleven in the evening! We must thank Alexei, the owner of the fishing company, who laid in supplies of all the necessary things beforehand. He heated his banya [a traditional private bath-house] for us and went fishing with us. What was the point in a village shop staying open till late at night?
—I don’t know. We also saw drunkards. Right near the railway station of Sergiyev Posad! One woman who was stiff drunk fell and her head hit the asphalt. There were the Lavra, the monuments to Sts. Peter and Fevronia of Murom, Sts. Cyril and Maria of Radonezh around… It was a sorry sight and my heart ached.
—I totally agree with you.
—But your gnats were the most irritating thing.
—You are fortunate because you have never seen Karelian gnats!
—May it not happen. As long as you are in the middle of the lake, it is peace and harmony, but as soon as you go ashore swarms of these creatures appear. This buzzing, biting cloud of gnats is flying permanently there! As far as I remember, the venerable fathers lived in your “Northern Thebaid”. Monks and hermits lived there. Now I begin to understand what they were faced with in their everyday lives. I will never become an anchorite!
—We are both married so we cannot become hermits… What did you say about gnats?
—Gnats were the most unpleasant experience. We will never become venerable fathers.
—Okay. We acknowledge our imperfection. What else can you say about your negative experiences?
—It is hard for me to remember anything else right now. There is one important moment. If you are disposed to see negative aspects of something, you will surely see them. If you look at the people and their land through a lens of kindness, your heart will become kinder. And we looked at Russia precisely through such a lens. In truth your country has quite a few problems, but your advantages are much more important to us.
—Can we say that Serbs are not foreigners in Russia? Did you feel at home or like a foreigner during your stay in Russia?
—We felt that we were among our brothers and sisters! And it is good that we have some cultural differences, they make us glad. But when the giant Igor, Director of the Sugorye complex (with a sword hanging from his waist and an ox skull fixed upon the palisade), throws his arms around your neck and shouts, “Long live Serbia! Welcome, brothers!” you first get scared and then remember that it is the way we meet our guests as well! So everything is all right, you are at home. Igor told us a lot about early history of Russia and we were impressed. He “promoted” us to the “princely rank”: I became “Prince Goran the Great”, and my spouse, “Princess Alexandra the Merciful” of Russia. We also made a feast with our druzhina [princes’ armed forces in Kievan Rus’] there.
When you are staying with your friends or travelling with them across Russia, you don’t feel that you are abroad. We didn’t once feel homesick. Of course, we missed Teodor, but he is still too young to travel.
—The last question concerns these trips. Do they have any benefits?
—Such trips as our recent trip to Russia (or your visits to our country) are even essential. It is not only a matter of broadening horizons, namely geography, history, culture, literature. Seeing with our own eyes that we are Orthodox brothers and sisters (regardless of the distance that separates us) and developing the feelings and traits that make us Christians is of no less importance. I hope there will be more trips made by our people from Kosovo and Metohija and Serbia to Russia. I hope you will be able to visit us too. Sometimes we get long for companionship. See you again, God willing!
P.S. Completely agreeing with Goran and Alexandra’s suggestion, I would like to organize more trips of Kosovo Serbs to Russia. Next time I want to invite a group of high school students from the Silovo village of the Kosovo Pomoravian region and arrange their visits to St. Petersburg, Pskov, and the Pskov Caves Monastery. At this high school much emphasis is placed on teaching the Russian language and literature, which is worthy of respect given the current circumstances in Kosovo. If you want to make a contribution, you can transfer money to the card (Sberbank of Russia): 5469 0177 0923 5086. The name of the recipient is «Петр Михайлович Давыдов» (Pyotr Mikhailovich Davydov).