“We stopped at the metochion of the Athonite St. Andrew Skete located in Galata. The wondrous elder Sophrony was its abbot; he nourished us and took care of us in an attempt to help us recover from our spiritual anguish. During the time of war, the premises that belonged to the metochion were used to house the Turkic soldiers, and they left it in a deplorable condition. There was stench, slippery and dirty walls, bed bugs in every crevice, and clouds of mosquitos from the dampness that developed due to the absence of heating during all those years,”
writes Metropolitan Evlogiy in his memoirs after visiting it in 1919.
He would later return to Istanbul again on board the “Irtysh”, but this time as an emigrant. This was when he met Fr. Sophrony, who managed to rescue him from the quarantined ship en route for Serbia.
Ever since that moment, the Church of St. Andrew the First-Called Apostle in Istanbul, located on the fifth floor of the Athonite St. Andrew Skete metochion, would have the status of an “immigrant church.”
“I’m from Latvia. In 1992, I stepped inside our church and became friends with the children of the Russian émigrés of the first wave. They were born in Istanbul in the 1920s and 1930s. It is simply unforgettable when you get to meet other Russians who are somehow imperceptibly different from us,”
says Lina Afanasyevna, the choir director who greeted us while Fr. Victor was busy officiating the service of the Holy Matrimony.
But let’s start from the beginning. A ten-minute walk from the Galata Tower along the narrow streets, past the bars and restaurants, and if you keep to your left, you will end up facing the five-story building that can be easily missed due to the inconceivably dense development in the area.
An inconspicuous five-story building built by Greek architects in the late nineteenth century would become the metochion of the Athonite St. Andrew Skete. It was built more than one hundred and thirty years ago to shelter those who went on pilgrimage to the holy places via Istanbul. On the fifth floor there is an Orthodox church with a small dome on the roof that can be easily located on panoramic photos from different years.
“Under the roof of metochions, a Russian pilgrim would easily discover a peaceful corner of Russia, where he can have a pleasant respite after the local hustle and bustle and everything he saw and heard on the streets of the Turkish capital. The metochions are commonly housed in spacious homes several stories high, and they are typically built in the European rather than Asian style. Each one of them has a church where the pilgrims can enjoy the divine services held daily in their native language. The rooms for the pilgrims are bright and clean; they aren’t ornately decorated, but they have everything necessary for a traveler; there are group accommodations or private rooms. The pilgrims enjoy the same meals as the monastics who reside here,” wrote Archbishop Alexander Trapitsin, who visited it in 1894.
That’s where we came to find out what the life was like in the Russian Church in Istanbul, at a time when Russia was dealing with yet another wave of emigration; and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with this church subordinate to it, have not been in communion with Moscow since 2018.
It was a Sunday. As we went to the fifth floor and walked past the doors of the church, we went to the refectory, where the parishioners shared meals at a long table after the service. We were seated right in the center of the room, where a lot of guests of this church were seated many times before us. This is where our conversation begins.
“Apart from this metochion, we also have the metochions of the St. Panteleimon’s and St. Elias Sketes located nearby, and the Russian pilgrims come there as well; both of them can be seen from our balcony. We keep the hospitality traditions alive and enjoy having guests. It hasn’t changed over the years, and I've already served here for thirty years. Throughout all these years, we have preserved a family-like atmosphere, despite having people of various nationalities as our parishioners. We’ve have Russians, Gagauzians,1 Bulgarians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Georgians. We also have newcomers who arrived in the most recent wave of emigration. All these people were able to find their place in the church. Everyone helps as they can, both the church and one another,” says Lina Afanasyevna.
A young man and a retired woman are seated across from us. The woman looks intently at her phone and tries to explain to the young man the rules of finding an apartment rental here, what nuances he should watch out for and the professional slang the Turkish realtors are using. Sitting next to these two busily searching for real estate information is a woman wearing white gloves—Vera Vladimirovna Gilbert, the granddaughter of Vera Kholodnaya, an actress of the Russian silent cinema.
As we leave the refectory, we walk back to the hallway, where one of the walls has a stand dedicated to Archpriest Simeon, who served in this church for about fifty years and died in 2015. He was replaced by two new priests, Frs. Panaret and Victor. By the way, Father Victor, who had just finished a wedding of a young couple, was busy putting away the wedding crowns used for many decades to wed his parishioners, was now finally ready to talk to us. He is Gagauz by birth, a specialist in Oriental and Turkic studies who graduated from Moscow State University. He seems to be in charge of public relations in the church—he runs the church's Facebook page and handles the correspondence on “Vkontakte.”
Following his conversation with us, Fr. Victor goes away for a meeting with parishioners, while we keep walking along the hallway. It has hundreds of photos that speak of dozens of different stories, all of them unique. Here are three generations of the Usovs who lived in Istanbul, then there is the merchant family of the Cherepennikovs, who gifted to the church the icons they brought from St. Petersburg, or the painter Nikolai Perov, who painted the church in the early 1920s, or the sculptor Iraida Barry, and the Packer family, and many others, whose lives were connected with this place.
We continue walking along the hallway towards the exit. Behind it there is a mini-museum that holds a great number of documents of the time. Here, behind the glass, there are dozens of original banknotes. There are rubles of all types and colors, copies of the bills, signs, liturgical objects, books from the nineteenth century, icons, and a shroud embroidered with gold thread—all of it brought by parishioners, a collection of a size befitting a small local history museum. Overall, many things in this building bear the imprint of their owners, including the bells with the embossed name of the master Bashlaev, who gifted them to the church.
After a visit to the museum we finally stepped inside the church. The dome, unnoticeable from the busy street, lets in light through the stained glass windows that falls on frescos and icons that were left to themselves, unrestored. They adorned the services here for more than a hundred years, as quiet observers of the ever-changing faces of this world. Behind the seven hills of Istanbul, the hive of activity, commerce and politics, and nestled beyond these hills, there stands a tiny Church of the Apostle Andrew the First Called. Time stands still there. The mystery of this place is that it’s hidden away from the prying eyes of the world, yet it stands open to all who knock at its door.