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32 years ago, Solzhenitsyn came to a small church in Millville

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/186/story/221919.html 32 years ago, Solzhenitsyn came to a small church in Millville By EDWARD VAN EMBDEN Staff Writer,
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 5, 2008
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      http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/186/story/221919.html

      32 years ago, Solzhenitsyn came to a small church in Millville
      By EDWARD VAN EMBDEN Staff Writer, 856-649-2072
      Published: Tuesday, August 05, 2008

      MILLVILLE - It was something she felt was remarkable at the time, as
      she and the rest of the congregation filed in behind him in the small
      church and left the general public standing on the lawn waiting for
      him to emerge again.

      When Alexander Solzhenitsyn visited Millville and the St. Nicholas
      Old Russian Orthodox Church in 1976, his message, delivered in
      Russian to a crowd of between 50 and 70 congregants, was about
      culture, pride in religion and maintaining the existence of that
      which was threatened by the Western world.

      The Nobel Prize-winning author who provided firsthand accounts of the
      oppressive rule of dictator Josef Stalin and his slave-labor camps
      died Sunday at 89, nearly 32 years after his intimate and largely
      unheralded visit to Cumberland County.

      "It was really, really unbelievable to us and all the people that
      knew of him in any way that he would come here and talk to the old
      believers," Katherine Shea said. "It was really quite exciting."

      Shea has a scrapbook filled with clippings related to church events.
      In the middle of the book, somewhere between entries on Sunday school
      and Christmas celebrations, are a few pages reserved just for that visit.

      The 76-year-old church member said people come, people go, and right
      now she's the one who keeps the memories.

      A few newspaper clippings, frail and yellowed by age, offer few
      insights or details about Solzhenitsyn's visit.

      The facts are reported - Solzhenitsyn spent time in a slave labor
      camp, he was exiled from Russia for his controversial writings, he
      settled and lived out of the public eye in Vermont - but the
      religious purpose of his visit isn't.

      When word got out about his arrival in Millville, Shea said, plenty
      of people, including members of the media and academia made an effort
      to claim a seat inside the small Newcombtown Road church. But their
      efforts, illustrated by frustrating shots of the bearded man, cloaked
      in black and standing in the December cold outside the closed church
      doors, were not rewarded.

      But he hadn't come to talk about his life or his writing, Shea said,
      but rather their shared religion.

      "He told us how happy he was to find a congregation that was
      following, as closely as possible, the old way," she said. "He didn't
      expect to find any of us in the United States."

      The Old Russian Orthodox Church was, as reported at the time, and
      still is one of just four such churches throughout the country. Shea,
      who said Solzhenitsyn was a practicing New Russian Orthodox - the new
      and the old church split in the 1600s - said the writer championed
      faith and bringing the still separate churches together.

      The almost private delivery of that message - there is no transcript
      or tape of his Millville speech - was special at the time, Shea said,
      but it's likely that his words, now only memories, will be lost.

      In the 1-mile drive from her home to her brother's, Shea said
      plaintively that everyone else is gone now. Everyone in the faded
      news clippings: the old priests, Solzhenitsyn, the rest of the
      congregants, even her sister who appears in the edge of one of the
      photos, has died.

      And the children, she said, have moved on too.

      At 81, John Bulboff joked that he can remember more about 30 years
      ago than he can the day before. But when it's something as
      significant as hearing a Nobel Prize winner speak, he rationalized,
      it's pretty hard to forget.

      "He told us, 'Don't forget that you're Russian and don't be
      assimilated,'" Bulboff said. "They didn't have a translator there and
      they didn't need one, we were all Russian and could relate to what he
      was saying."

      Another issue addressed by Solzhenitsyn, he said, was the growth of
      the Orthodox religion. Stalin, Solzhenistyn told the congregation,
      had persecuted those of the Orthodox religion but after his death it
      had experienced a bit of resurgence. That was something, he said, he
      expected in America.

      But in the years since his visit, Bulboff said, there's only been decline.

      "He asked us to maintain the faith," he said. "But I expected (a
      decline). The old ways are hard. Young people, now, they want
      everything to come in a spray bottle."

      E-mail Edward Van Embden:

      evanembden@...
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