God's Providence & Bp. Basil

Bp Basil and Rabbit

For those of us who were blessed to have known this extraordinary man, it  is hard to believe that twenty years have passed since September 17, 1999. On that day, Bishop Basil was to have received American citizenship, but the Providence of God transferred him to heavenly citizenship instead. In the early hours of the morning, Vladyka suddenly and peacefully fell asleep in the Lord in his small apartment chapel in McLean Gardens in Northwest Washington, DC. He was 84 years old.

The Providence of God which brings good out of evil, was always one of Vladyka’s frequent themes as a teacher of Orthodoxy. And indeed, his entire life is an example of the working of God’s Providence.

He was born Vladimir Mikhailovich Rodzianko on May 22, 1915 at Otrada, the family estate in Ekaterinoslav, Russia. He was a subject of the last Tsar.

Within a few years, however, the life of his family was radically changed. Following the October revolution in 1917, his grandfather, Michael Rodzianko, President of the last Imperial Duma, was placed on a death list by the Bolsheviks. The entire family was included along with the youngest grandson, Vladimir.

The family managed to make their way out of Russia to Serbia, arriving in 1920. There, young Vladimir was brought up in the spiritual and cultural tradition that was lovingly preserved by the large Russian émigré community that settled in and around Belgrade. He was able to attend the excellent Russian Lyceum there, thanks to the sponsorship of an American family in Boston who wished to provide for the education of the children of exiled Russian nobility.

There, he was mentored by Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) and especially the young Hieromonk, Fr. John Maximovich, his first spiritual father.

“At our first meeting, his affectionate smile, his remarkable, penetrating eyes and his first words touched my soul. He spoke with me like an old friend. . . He was a very well educated monk, but at the same time he was not of this world. He lived in the world of the Gospel, the Holy Fathers, in the environment of the church. The world around him was practically non-existent. . But mainly in him was his remarkable love for everyone, without exception. . . He made such a deep impression on me that I decided that I would serve the Church in the same way as Fr. John and that I would also become a monk, like him. . . A new life began in me, full of meaning and joy. Fr. John was able to show me the other world, that paradise in which we were and which we lost.” (Моя Судба, p. 99-100, Сретенскии Монастырь, Москва, 2016)

Thinking in this new inner life, young Vladimir made an interior vow to Christ that he would become a monk, “like Fr. John.” Many years later, having ultimately become a monk and a bishop, he would attend the canonization of Vladyka John in San Francisco in 1994.

But at that time, he continued his studies at the Theological Faculty of Belgrade University. Among his renowned professors was Fr. Justin Popovic, who would also be recognized as a saint in the future. These soaring figures had a powerful formative influence on him and the spiritual legacy that he later brought to Orthodoxy in America.

Soon after completing his studies at Belgrade University, one of his sisters brought home a friend, “a bride for Vladimir” as she announced to her mother. Vladimir was actually quite taken with Manya Kolebaev. But for a long time he was tormented by his promise to God. Finally, he turned to Metropolitan Antony for Confession, explaining that he had promised God that he would become a monk. “And now, I feel that I can’t." Vladyka asked him how old he was when he made that vow. “Twelve? Oh, what kind of a vow is that. And what is her name?” With that, he turned and pronounced “Oh Lord, bless Vladimir and Maria!" 

On August 29, 1937 they were married in the Russian church in Belgrade in the presence of the wonder-working Kursk Root icon. The young couple settled briefly in England, where he continued graduate work in theology through a fellowship from the Anglican Church. They returned to Yugoslavia at the beginning of World War II with their young son, Volodya, who was born in London.

Following his ordination to the diaconate in 1941, Fr. Vladimir was ordained to the priesthood by Metropolitan Anastasy in the Russian church in Belgrade, again in the presence of the Kursk Root icon. One week later, war broke out in Yugoslavia. The newly ordained priest served his first Liturgy on the Feast of Annunciation as German bombs fell all around.

The war was the beginning of sweeping change once again in the life of the Russian émigré in Yugoslavia. The Nazi invasion was followed by Soviet “liberation” and a communist takeover in Yugoslavia led by Marshal Tito.

With communism came religious persecution and on July 15, 1949, Fr. Vladimir Rodzianko was arrested for “excessive, illegal religious propaganda." He was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and transported to a gulag in Yugoslavia. The hard labor to which he was assigned was almost unimaginable in its severity. He was part of a team of prisoners assigned to pull a train.

But the Providence of God once again brought about a turn in the life of this young priest. Through the fervent prayers of his matushka, as it was later discovered, St. Seraphim of Sarov appeared to him in a dream one night with a message of consolation that everything would be alright. Soon after that his labor assignment was lightened to a new “labor” of monitoring foreign broadcasts. His knowledge of English and other European languages qualified him for this work. And he was introduced to the technology of radio broadcasting. More than that, it was a personal experience of the impact that radio broadcasts could have on imprisoned people. This experience soon led him to an important new mission, religious broadcasts to Russia, the Soviet Union.

Through the efforts of the Archbishop of Canterbury and others, Fr. Vladimir was released from prison in 1951 after serving two years of his term. He was then able to move with his family to France. They went straight to the little community in Versailles where his parents and other members of the Russian community in Yugoslavia had sought refuge from Tito’s communist regime. Fr. John, by then an Archbishop, was there too, on his way out of Shanghai, seeking refuge for his flock in the West. While they were there, Archbishop John miraculously healed Matushka Marusya from the incurable degenerative condition that was disabling her.

The young family soon settled in London where he was to remain for the next twenty five years. There, he was offered a job as a news broadcaster with the Russian department of the BBC World Service. When asked if he would like to do programs on other subjects as well, he suggested religious broadcasts. “This is not the policy of the BBC," was the reply.

But he changed that policy. Working by night in the studio, he gradually initiated the first religious programs. These were broadcast on off hours through the night, but they reached listeners all over the Soviet Union in spite of the government jamming. Soon, letters of gratitude from listeners began to reach the BBC.

When Patriarch Alexis I visited London in 1960, he met Fr. Rodzianko at the Russian Cathedral at Ennismore Gardens. At one point during the Liturgy, they were alone in the altar. The Patriarch took off his enameled white cross and presented it to him. “This is for your broadcasting”, he said. Being at a loss for words, Fr. Vladimir simply asked, “Do they listen?” “Millions listen” was the reply. These broadcasts continued for thirty-five years and played a significant role in the re-emergence of Orthodoxy in Russia.

In 1978, his matushka, who had joined him as a BBC broadcaster, suddenly collapsed following a talk she had recorded in the studio on “The Life of the Soul After Death." She was taken to the hospital where she died of an aneurism early the next morning, March 5.

After forty years of marriage, this was a difficult milestone in the life of Fr. Vladimir. He soon decided to take monastic vows, as Matushka Marusya had once told him. She always remained a spiritual participant in his subsequent episcopal ministry. He was given the name of Basil by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, his spiritual father who tonsured him at the Russian Cathedral of the Dormition in London.

Within a year Archimandrite Basil was elected by the Orthodox Church in America to become a bishop. The Providence of God brought him to Washington, DC. where he was consecrated bishop at St. Nicholas Cathedral on January 12, 1980. He was 65.

After serving as Auxiliary Bishop of Washington for a year he was transferred to San Francisco to succeed Archbishop John Shahovskoy, who was retiring. On February 5, 1981, he was installed at the historic Holy Trinity Cathedral as Bishop of San Francisco and the West.

Right from the beginning of his episcopacy, Vladyka shone forth as a gifted pastor with great spiritual insight and knowledge of the Word of God. Numerous spiritual children began to come to him, and he received many newcomers into Orthodoxy. He continued to record talks and sermons for the BBC Russian Service. But his episcopacy in the Diocese of the West was cut short by the heavy arm of church politics. His health began to decline, and in the spring of 1984 Bishop Basil was retired from his administrative duties in San Francisco and returned to Washington where he focused on the continuation of his broadcasting mission to Russia, serving regularly at St. Nicholas Cathedral. In retrospect, the Providence of God opened a door that led to the political changes that would soon happen in Russia in 1991. It then became possible for him to travel to Russia where he was able to broadcast talks and interviews directly over Russian radio and television.

During these years Vladyka deepened in humility and in the grace that emanated from him like “rays” as one passer-by in Moscow once said, seeing him walking along Bolshaya Ordynka. In the years since his death in 1999, Vladyka’s spiritual presence continues to be felt. His prayers are still helping his spiritual children. And I am one of them.                             

-Marilyn Swezey

Bp Basil's Washington D.C. Apartment Chapel