Olga Vladimirovna’s Mother, Sofia Lvovna, Sonechka
Sofia Rossi, née Balk, was left alone with two small children in her arms. This beautiful and intelligent woman had already experienced many sorrows and trials.
She was born in 1904 in sunny Simferopol and grew up in the loving family of Leo Alexandrovich and Anastasia Nikolaevna Balk, the youngest of four children. The oldest child was her brother Sasha (Alexander). He was ten years older than Sonechka who regarded him as the smartest and kindest boy in the world. Sasha loved her dearly as well. Her sister Liza (Elizaveta) was six years Sonechka’s senior, and the second brother, Misha (Mikhail), was four years older.
Anastasia Nikolaevna Balk inherited a beautiful estate in Alushta and organized a boarding house, where guests from St. Petersburg and Moscow stayed in the summer. The boarding house allowed the Balks to support their family.
Sonechka’s happy childhood is over
Sonechka’s happy childhood ended at the age of ten: In 1914, her mother died of a bad heart. She was just thirty-eight... Before her death, she gave her blessing to the twenty-year-old Sasha not to leave Sonechka and take care of her. But the First World War began, and her beloved brother went to the front.
Leo Alexandrovich took the housekeeper Lydia, a merchant’s widow from Yalta, into the house, and initially she took care of the household zealously. A tall mustached man, Gregory Ippolitovich, moved into the boarding house with her. He introduced himself as Lydia’s distant relative, and she affectionately called him “Grisha.”
Grisha turned out to be a completely unsuitable lodger. He often boasted that he had been in prison in Petrograd for distributing leaflets calling for the overthrow of the Tsar. He dreamed about Russia’s defeat in the War and about the future of socialism, with which Leo Alexandrovich angrily argued. Because of his delicate nature he could not immediately kick out the new guest, but if he had foreseen the future, then of course, he would have thrown out both the mustached man and the housekeeper into the street.
Every morning Sonechka sang the anthem, God Save the Tsar, at school with enthusiasm and began attending first aid courses at the local infirmary. There they made bandages for the wounded and knit warm scarves for them. Leo Alexandrovich began to do charity work, and this activity distracted him a little from grief over the loss of his beloved wife.
Early one morning Leo Alexandrovich invited Liza, Sonechka and Misha into the living room for a serious conversation. He told the children that, as the youngest daughter needed a mother’s affection, he had proposed to the housekeeper Lydia.
Sonechka’s older sister, Liza, did not accept Lydia and immediately left home, moving to live with her mother’s sister in Simferopol. Misha graduated from high school and dreamed of fighting at the front, like his older brother. And Sonechka was very upset about what was happening, especially since her father quickly realized his mistake: no Lydia could replace his beloved wife and a loving mother for his daughter.
The Revolution and the father’s death
The Revolution broke out, the front was falling apart, both of Sonechka’s brothers left for the Don River and joined the Volunteer Army. Leo Alexandrovich blessed his sons with icons of the holy Great-Martyr George the Victorious and St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. For Misha, the war seemed like an adventure, and Sasha, who had already known grief in bloody battles, understood what mortal danger awaited them.
Leo Alexandrovich was very upset by what was happening: the infamous Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918), the news of the brutal murder of the Emperor and his family... One day, returning from school, Sonechka found her father lying on the bed. He was not breathing. The thirteen-year-old girl was now an orphan.
An orphan’s sorrows
After the funeral, the housekeeper claimed the rights to the Balks’ property and, to Sonechka’s horror, began rummaging through the cabinets and cupboards, grabbing everything that seemed valuable to her. Lydia didn’t even bother to tell Sonechka’s older sister about her father’s death, and the girl herself was in a state of shock. She robotically continued to attend school, but her mind was occupied by her father’s untimely death.
Soon after returning from school, the orphan found that her family’s longtime and faithful helpers, the cook, the children’s nanny Glaphyra, and the gardener Simeon had been severely beaten and locked up in the barn. When Sonechka untied the ropes with great difficulty and they entered the house together, they saw that Lydia and the mustached Grisha had melted into thin air, and with them, all the family savings and investments had disappeared. Even the jewels bequeathed to Sonechka by her reposed mother had been stolen.
Moving in with her older sister
A few days later, help came to Sonechka in the person of her sister Liza’s fiancé. He came to Alushta on business and went to meet his fiancée’s father. Upon learning that Leo Alexandrovich was dead and everything of value had been stolen from the house, he was horrified and took Sonechka with him to Simferopol.
There the girl went to a similar classical school. She felt very lonely, she wasn’t close with her elder sister at all—Liza was too busy with work and her upcoming marriage. And she was too young to be a support for her younger sister—Liza herself still needed support.
Both were very happy when they received a letter from Sasha. He was fighting in faraway Siberia, in Kolchak’s Army. He also wrote that he had lost sight of his younger brother. None of them would ever know about Misha’s fate.
A scary job
Time passed, and no sooner had Sonechka calmed down a little after her father’s death when another terrible event took place. As she was going to school, a military man in a leather jacket stopped her and, threatening her with a revolver, took her to a two-storied house on the outskirts of the city. Sonechka trembled with fear, expecting to be raped or killed, but the soldier pushed her through the door with the inscription: “Commissioner for Combating the Counter-Revolution.”
A second soldier in the room glared at the girl:
“Your white hands indicate that you are a real bourgeois! These hands have never known real work!”
Seeing that Sonechka was very frightened, he softened somewhat and said:
“Okay, stop shaking! I’m not going to kill you! I just need an educated helper. You’re an educated girl, aren’t you? This is immediately apparent. And you are good-looking, so that works for me. As of tomorrow morning, you work here! You will type everything I give you. And don’t try to escape—we’ll easily find you!”
In vain Sonechka babbled that she was still a school girl, not yet an adult, she was a minor. The agent didn’t listen to her objections.
That was how Sonechka started working for the Cheka.1 She typed documents and put them in folders. Once, she was taken by truck into a forest. Two Cheka officers opened the back of the truck and began to dump corpses into a ditch, ordering Sonechka to count them. She tried not to look at the corpses and counted the sound of their fall. That terrible sound haunted her all her life, and she heard it in nightmares.
Many eyewitnesses testified about the Red Terror in Crimea. Prince Obolensky, abandoned in Crimea by a twist of fate, later wrote:
“In Sevastopol, there were mass executions. In Yalta, weights were tied to the officers’ feet and they were thrown into the sea, some after execution, and others while still alive. When, after the arrival of the Germans, the divers began to pull the corpses out of the water, they found themselves at the bottom of the sea among corpses standing at full height, already decaying. In Yevpatoria, those executed were subjected to terrible torture, which was ordered by two sadistic women. In Simferopol, the prison was overcrowded, and every day the prisoners were shot in ‘batches’.”
A prayer that saved Sonechka’s life
Sonechka remembered well how she went to church with her parents, how they all prayed together at home, how they celebrated Pascha and the Nativity. She did not forget about prayer when she became an orphan.
Once, as the girl was walking to work, for some reason she stopped, and raising her eyes to the sky, began to pray. Sonechka didn’t know why she so wanted to pray at that moment—maybe she had remembered her parents, maybe she was terrified to approach the Cheka building again. Those minutes saved her life.
When she came closer to the building, she saw that there was a raid there—unknown people were dragging Chekists out of the building and pushing them into cars, the headlights of which were directed at the girl’s face. One of the Chekists suddenly rushed towards Sonechka. A shot rang out—he fell at her feet, with his dead eyes staring straight at her, and she could scarcely restrain a cry of horror.
Sonechka never found out who had attacked the Chekists. The Greens?2 Bandits? The Whites? Thank God, her terrible job became a thing of the past.
Olga and John Hawkes’ wonderful book
We have touched upon but a fraction of the history of Sonechka and her family. The girl’s further life in Simferopol, her first love, adventures in Moscow, travelling from Soviet Russia to China and her life there, signs of the times, details of everyday life—these are a real epic that we aren’t going to retell: all this is recounted in the wonderful book, Sonechka.
Olga Vladimirovna Rossi-Hawkes wrote this book about the life of her mother using her diaries and the memoirs of her loved ones. In it, she described all the events in her mother’s life in detail: tragic and joyful, unusual and fascinating. Olga Vladimirovna really wanted to tell the world about the harsh life of her parents’ generation, the trials that befell them, as well as the wonderful families they came from. Olga admits that without the support of her husband, John, and his love for history, especially Russian history, this book would never have been written.
We can only say that in 1924, on the eve of her twentieth birthday, Sonechka left for Shanghai at the call of her older brother Sasha. The brave young man had survived the famous Ice March, after which the White Army retreated to Manchuria in China. Sasha rescued an Englishman who had been badly wounded. Risking his life, the noble young man carried the wounded man to the infirmary on his own back, and the latter was so grateful to his savior that he later helped him buy a ticket from Shanghai to San Francisco.
The brother of the Englishman, who lived in Shanghai, helped Sonechka at the first stage. The girl got a job there as a seamstress and model, and a few years later she met Vladimir Rossi and got married. We have already related her life with her husband, the birth of Marina and Olga, help at the orphanage of St. John and the untimely death of Vladimir Rossi in a Shanghai hospital.
A miraculous rescue
Soon after her husband’s funeral, Sonechka and her daughters were summoned to the American Consulate to obtain a visa to travel to her older brother Sasha in America. Sonechka took the girls, and they went to the tram stop to get to the Consulate.
As the tram approached, the usually calm and obedient little Olga, began, to her mother’s surprise, to resist and shout that she didn’t want to get on the tram.
Frustrated, Sofia Lvovna didn’t know what to do. In the end, she decided not to drag the child onto the tram by force, but to take a rickshaw. After passing a short section of the road, at the corner they saw a terrible sight: the tram they could have gotten into was overturned, all around was broken glass, blood, and injured people right on the road. Sonechka concluded that it was her guardian angel that had compelled her daughter, an innocent child, not to get on that tram.
The consul welcomed the Russian woman with two children cordially. He explained that he was giving Sofia Lvovna an American visa only thanks to the guarantee of her older brother, Alexander Balk, to provide them with housing: Americans didn’t want to increase the number of homeless people in their country. Sonechka sold her Shanghai apartment and bought tickets for a steamship to San Francisco.
Moving to America
In 1948, Sofia Lvovna Rossi and her two daughters, Marina and the six-year-old Olga, came to America. Sonechka got a job as a seamstress at a factory, and the girls went to school. Her mother did everything to ensure that her daughters had the opportunity to study.
Olga went to school with children from the orphanage of Vladyka John of Shanghai. They came to San Francisco from Shanghai via Tubabao, and Vladyka personally petitioned for Russian refugees to be accepted in America. This was difficult to implement as there was a strict quota on the number of emigrants coming from China.
Olga especially remembered the orphanage boys Boris and Nikolai Maslennikov, with whom she was friends in childhood. They knew her mother well—they remembered her as a lady patroness of their orphanage from the Shanghai days. Nikolai Maslennikov later became a famous singer. Many years later, he flew to Tubabao—he wanted to recollect the years of his childhood spent on the island in the wild.
Three times a week Olga went to the Orthodox school at the “Old” cathedral, where Vladyka John of Shanghai served, until the New Cathedral was built in honor of the “Joy of All Who Sorrow” icon of the Mother of God. They also went with their mother and sister to the house church of the orphanage founded by Vladyka John.
The Convent of Our Lady of Vladimir
They also attended services at the Russian Convent of Our Lady of Vladimir, one of the first Orthodox convents in America, which had been founded in Russia. It was located not far from the apartment rented by Olga’s mother.
The first abbess of the convent, Mother Rufina (Kokoreva),was a clairvoyant eldress and ascetic in whose hands the Vladimir icon of the Mother of God had renewed itself. She reposed in the Lord in 1937 in Shanghai. She predicted to the sisters that after fleeing from the Chinese Communists they would end up in America.
Now Eldress Rufina’s spiritual daughter, Mother Ariadna (Michurina; 1900–1996), was the abbess. The abbess and the sisters of the convent made the difficult journey from Shanghai to Tubabao, and then together with Vladyka John to San Francisco.
At the convent, Olga began to sing in the church choir—from her dad she had inherited an excellent ear. The girl also learned to play the piano, but, unfortunately, her mother did not have the opportunity to buy one—the apartment they rented was too small. Later, aunt Dora, her father’s elder sister, came to live with them from Paris where she had worked in a hospital for many years.
Olga remembered forever what wonderful prosphora Mother Fevronia baked at the convent. She treated the girl to her prosphora, and she remembered their taste for the rest of her life.
By the end of Olga’s school, Sofia Lvovna saved up money so her daughter could go to Europe, because her beloved husband Vladimir Rossi had once dreamed of such a trip. So, the seventeen-year-old Olga went to Paris with aunt Dora to see France and visit her aunt’s cousin.
Olga left for two or three months, but stayed in Paris for three years. She really liked it there, wanted to learn French, and she entered the university. She studied the humanities, the French language, and earned some money. First, she got a job as a governess in a French family where she helped a nine-year-old girl—she would take her to school and ballet lessons and teach her English.
A momentous meeting
Olga also worked part-time in the reception of a very prestigious hospital opened in Paris by Americans back in the 1920s. Her aunt Dora had once worked there. There Olga met a young Englishman, John Hawkes, a doctor and athlete, and a fourth generation New Zealander. Among John’s ancestors were Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen.
In 1962 in Paris, Vladyka John of Shanghai (from 1950 till 1962, Archbishop of Brussels and Western Europe) blessed the marriage of the Russian young lady whom he had himself named Olga nineteen years earlier and the twenty-seven-year-old Englishman John Hawkes.
They were married in January of 1963 at St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Paris. This cathedral was built with donations from the Russian people, and Emperor Alexander II made a personal contribution to its construction of about 150,000 francs in gold. The cathedral was consecrated in 1861.
Auckland, New Zealand
The newlyweds first settled in England, where Dr. John Hawkes worked as a rheumatologist at Bedford Hospital. They lived in England for four years, then moved to Australia, and now reside in New Zealand, in the city of Auckland. This city is located on North Island, and it never snows there. Now it is summer there, the temperature is twenty-three degrees Celsius, but summer is already ending. The local nature, according to Olga Vladimirovna, is glorious—it is very green, and there are no dangerous animals as in Australia—everything is peaceful and safe. The Hawkes’ house is a seven-minute’ drive from the ocean.
Auckland and the surrounding area are home to approximately 1.5 million people out of the country’s five million population, including representatives of many nationalities. Europeans make up more than half of the population, but there are also Chinese, Japanese, Polynesians, and, of course, Maori—the native people of New Zealand.
They keep the Russian language and the Orthodox faith everywhere
Yes, Olga Vladimirovna Rossi-Hawkes has an amazing life: she was born in Shanghai during World War II, spent her childhood in America, in San Francisco, spent her youth in France, studied at the Sorbonne, lived in England, Australia and now in New Zealand.
And everywhere people like Olga Vladimirovna and her peers (children of the first wave of Russian emigration who left their homeland because of the Civil War) went, they kept the Russian language and the Orthodox faith.
When the Hawkes family first arrived in Auckland, there weren’t many Russians here, but they had their own, albeit small, Orthodox church, and a priest would come once a month.
God’s Amazing Providence
Now Olga Vladimirovna is looked after spiritually in an Orthodox church by Archpriest Vladimir Boykov, who is well known in Russia. His parents were from Harbin, his grandfather, though Chinese, was baptized and spoke only Russian. Fr. Vladimir was born in Sydney, Australia, graduated from the Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville and now he serves in Auckland.
Olga Vladimirovna’s mother, Sofia Lvovna Rossi, passed away in 1974 aged seventy. Last year, two weeks before her ninetieth birthday, Olga Vladimirovna’s elder sister, Marina, also died. The funeral was modest due to the coronavirus. Now Olga Vladimirovna is in her seventy-ninth year, and her husband John is eighty-six.
We hope, God willing, to continue our story about these Orthodox Russians whom Divine Providence brought to the other end of the world, so that people there too would praise the Lord in Russian and celebrate the Holy Eucharist in an Orthodox church.