Metropolitan Vitaly Ustinov

Russian Orthodox leader in exile


Rostislav Petrovich Ustinov, priest: born St Petersburg 18 March 1910; clothed a monk 1939, taking the name Vitaly; ordained priest 1941; Bishop of Brazil 1951-54; Bishop of Edmonton 1954-57; Archbishop of Montreal 1957-86; First Hierarch of Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia 1986-2001, died Magog, Quebec 25 September 2006.

For the last 15 years of the 20th century, the aged Metropolitan Vitaly headed the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (Rocor). This proud but dwindling church defiantly traced its history back to Patriarch Tikhon, the last non-Soviet-chosen head of the Moscow Patriarchate who blessed the émigré church's escape from Moscow's control in the 1920s as the Soviet authorities moved to crush the Patriarchate at home.

Rocor revered the "martyred" Russian imperial family, resisted what it regarded as the "heresy" of ecumenism and from afar scorned what it viewed as the ungodly collaboration of the Moscow Patriarchate's bishops and priests with the Soviet authorities.

Even in his nineties in retirement, Vitaly fought a rearguard action to resist Rocor's growing rapprochement with the Moscow Patriarchate launched by his successors. "I can calmly assert, with a clear conscience," Vitaly declared in 2004, defending his decision to split from his erstwhile colleagues, "that we have remained faithful to the ideology and principles of the Russian Orthodox Church and of that free part of Her which was created by Patriarch Tikhon."

Rostislav Ustinov was born in 1910 into a military family in the Russian imperial capital St Petersburg. In 1920, as the civil war raged between Reds and Whites, Ustinov's family sent him to the military school founded in Crimea by the White general Pyotr Wrangel. The boy joined what he later described as the "glorious" White forces, but as their cause crumbled all 650 cadets were evacuated to Constantinople. "Within the depths of my soul," he later recalled, "I felt and realised that I was beholding my native land for the last time, until it vanished beyond the horizon."

The Cadet Corps - among them the young Ustinov - was relocated to Yugoslavia, where many Russian monarchist émigrés settled. In 1923, his mother took him back to Constantinople and then to Paris, where he completed his schooling. After a spell in the French cavalry he decided to follow his vocation and in 1938 he entered the Monastery of St Job in the Carpathians (then in Czechoslovakia). The following year he became a monk, taking the name Vitaly. By now Central Europe was engulfed in war and was soon invaded by Nazi forces. In 1941, in the Slovak city of Bratislava, Fr Vitaly was ordained by Metropolitan Seraphim of Berlin and assigned to minister in two towns on the Polish border.

However, if conditions were not too uncongenial for anti-Bolshevik Russian Orthodox under Nazi rule, the imminent Red Army invasion forced the monks to flee. Vitaly ended up in Berlin, ministering to Russian forced labourers and prisoners of war in a tuberculosis-ridden camp near the Nazi capital. But as the Red Army moved closer to Berlin he and a fellow priest fled to Hamburg, where the two did their best to save émigré Russians from forced repatriation to the Soviet Union and certain death.

In a barracks in the Fischbeck displaced persons' camp - where most of the inmates were Orthodox - he established a makeshift chapel and theology courses for young men. "The camp church was the centre of life and growth in the Orthodox faith for young and old alike," one inmate who later became a priest recalled. "Its spiritual leaders enjoyed the common love and respect of all."

In 1947 Vitaly came to London to head the Rocor parish. He and Fr Anthony Bloom of the Moscow Patriarchate alternated their Sunday services at a dilapidated Anglican church on Buckingham Palace Road, but relations between them were hardly cordial. Bloom once asked Vitaly what he thought of him. "If I wanted to be polite I would say: 'You are not a priest'," Vitaly responded. "But I will give you a straight answer: 'If you are under Moscow, you are a priest of Satan!' "

Vitaly was consecrated as a bishop in 1951 in London and transferred to Sao Paolo, Brazil, where he founded a small orphanage for boys. In 1954 he became Bishop of Edmonton, and in 1957 Archbishop of Montreal. There he acquired and renovated the huge St Nicholas' Cathedral but, as before, he preferred to live in a small monastic community he established in Mansonville in rural Quebec.

After the death in 1985 of Rocor's leader, Metropolitan Philaret Voznesensky, the Council of Bishops met in New York in 1986 to choose his successor. After several tied ballots, Vitaly was chosen by lot.

As Communism began to crumble in Russia in the late 1980s - and with it the monopoly of the Moscow Patriarchate - Vitaly eagerly welcomed defectors within Russia, setting up parallel parishes and dioceses. But many in Rocor were wary, fearing an unstable network of parishes in Russia would discredit the church.

Suffering memory loss, Vitaly retired in 2001, 50 years after his consecration. But within weeks he regretted the move, publicly attacking his successor, Metropolitan Laurus. Vitaly led his faithful followers into schism. "There came a time when I recognised that I was left all alone," he explained:

I had the choice of writing the final chapter of the Church Abroad or of embarking upon the road once more, and of again carrying away the true Orthodox Church to freedom with me. Our church became small, but preserved her crystal-like purity.

Vitaly's final years were marred by murky goings-on at his monastery, with allegations that his entourage was holding him hostage and faking his signature on church decisions. Like many splinter religious communities, his church came to fight not so much to preserve the purity of its faith as to engage in bitter infighting.

Felix Corley

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