The walls of the church are still bare of evergreen and holly decorations, and the precious nativity icon remains hidden behind the altar. Adults are still shunning meat, milk and eggs in the third week of pre-Christmas fasting, and the little ones, who will receive a few token gifts today, have almost two weeks more to wait before tearing into the gifts bestowed by their Santa, Ded moroz -- Grandfather Frost.
Christmas has not arrived yet at the Russian Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist, and will not be celebrated until Jan. 7. But on that day, the small Adams-Morgan congregation will celebrate Christmas along with an estimated 40 million other members of the worldwide Orthodox community that stretches from the hilltops of Jerusalem to the plains of South America; from Montreal to San Francisco to Jordanville, N.Y. In January they will celebrate in accordance with both the 2,000-year-old Julian calendar, which remains 13 days behind the one used in most of the world and which guides their liturgical life, and with centuries-old ethnic traditions, the sinew of cultural pride.
This week, while non-Russian neihbors gorge on turkey and eggnog and lose toddlers in piles of discarded ribbons, many parishioners of St. John's will be preparing for the feasting and fellowship yet to come. Still others, infected by politically charged Washington, will be reflecting upon the special responsibilities and concerns of their very special ethnic world. For her part, 16-year-old Natasha Vernigora has been thinking of the presents and parties. "We sort of celebrate both Christmases," she said. "On December 25, we give out half the presents, nothing special. But January 7 is when we really, really, celebrate it. We usually go away before American Christmas, and then we come back and have a big feast with all the things you weren't allowed to eat the weeks before that." Natasha, a sophomore at the Washington International School, has also been preparing the last several weeks to go carolling with other teen-agers from church, thereby visiting as many parishioners' homes as possible.
While Natasha traverses the city singing traditional Russian carols, her Polish-born mother will prepare a dinner of kutchya -- buckwheat, honey, nuts and raisins -- to be followed by a Christmas Day meal including a roast, fish, sausage and compote. A traditional Russian Christmas begins with a strict fast all day Christmas Eve until the appearance of the first star in heaven, but ends with 12 dishes, one for each of the apostles, and a houseful of hungry guests sampling and complimenting their friends' cooking throughout the day.
Founded in 1949 at 4001 17th St. NW., St. John's is one of at least 18 Orthodox churches in the Metropolitan area. But it is one of only two Russian Orthodox parishes in the District, and the only one where services are always held in Russian and an ancient liturgical language, Church Slavonic. Also the site of a thriving Russian school for both children and adults, the church is the spiritual home of about 240 families of Russian heritage and a growing number of converts spead throughout the Washington area. Much of the community came here in the second wave of immigration from Europe after World War II, or as descendants of the first wave of refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The refugees were largely "White Russians," supporters of the Church and the Czar in pre-Soviet Russia; they were and remain strongly anticommunist and are particularly resentful of Americans who use the terms "Russian" and "Soviet" interchangeably.
Most immigrants first settled in the Adams-Morgan area near the church, and near Kamkin Books, formerly in Northwest D.C. and reputed to be the largest Russian bookstore in the United States. Now Kamin has moved to Rockville, along with many other church members whose new affluence propelled them to suburbs. But the parishioners and their children continue to return to the cramped and peeling St. John's, where their fierce devotion to the preservation of pre-revolutionary Russian culture regularly transforms the gold onion-domed building into a window of another world and time. So intense is the cultural and religious loyalty of the parishiners, say some church members, that they find their numbers steadily growing at a time when many parishes around the country are losing members to apathy and assimilation.
"The uniqueness of this parish is that Washington is a transitory place; people are constantly coming here to work to use the Russian," explained Father Victor Potapov, 32, assistant pastor for the past three years before becoming rector of the 31-year-old church complex in June. "The majority of our people come here to work to use the Russian, to work for the government, the CIA, Voice of America, as translators. A lot of our churches all over the country are going away from the Russian because they have no practical way to use it. Here, it is much easier to bring up our children because most of the people speak Russian." Because of those occupations, however it is also one of the few Washington communities where the question "What do you do?" is perceived as sensitive, perhaps even rude.
St. John's is also a place where Russian is often the first language of second and third generation Americans, where teen-agers spend weekends learning Russian scout songs and discussing Dostoevsky; where the world is so small that young children automatically greet a visitor in Russian, assuming that everyone is as fluent in their language as they. The cohesiveness is something everyone works at, said 15-year-old Nadia Borowski, who has attended St. John's for most of her life. "We go back and forth (between Russian and English) and somethings we forget so we remind each other. We say govorit po russki -- speak Russian. But sometimes it's annoying when you're trying to tell your parents something that happened really exciting that day and all of a sudden, here it comes -- govorite po russki ," she said laughing.
And yet this church, where National Symphony musical director Mstislav Rostropovich worships, as does author Alexander Solzhenitsyn during his trips to Washington, is also a cosmopolitan world comprised, according to Potapov, half of emigres and half of staunchly middle-class American natives who take a keen interest in world affairs. "We feel a responsibility to use our freedom to inform the rest of the world," said Potapov. Although the cultural exchange is never more joyous than at Christmas, when the notes of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" mix freely in many homes with strains of Tchaikovsky, the season brings sadness to the parish as well. Particularly at Christmas, St. John's parishioners are reminded of the religious freedoms which are denied to those in other parts of the world.
"We are very grateful to this country; we have a Thanksgiving celebration in the church because we felt that it was an important holiday," said Potapov, with a tug at his sandy beard. "But we are somewhat embittered about the Western press, too. When they write about all the bad things, they say Russia; they fail to understand that the first state to be persecuted by the Soviets are the Russians.
"We hear so much about the persecution of the Jews and I support (anti-persecution causes), but people forget about the thousands of (Christian) believers who are persecuted and imprisoned for their beliefs," Potapov said. "We feel that Russia is one of the republics of the Soviet Union, and also an oppressed people, as much as the Ukranians and the Baltics." In an effort to help, Potapov began working at Voice of America three years ago and now writes a religious program which is broadcast three times weekly to the Soviet Union.
Although Potapov feels that Americans are becoming more sensitive to the plight of persecuted Christians, recent months have heaped new concerns upon the parish from other parts of the world.
Two weeks ago, two nuns from the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem traveled to St. John's to tell of the plight of the Mission there, located on the Mount of Olives. Mother Maria and Mother Raphaela, who mark time by the cycles of daily prayer and church festivities rather than by hours and calendar dates, came to collect money for the inhabitants of the 130-year-old monastery, considered one of the most sacred places in the history of the religion, a symbol of preservation and survival.
"Russian pilgrims used to go to the Holy Land on foot from the 14th century. They would walk from wherever they were in Russia, then take a boat from Odessa to the port in Jaffa. Then they would walk, literally, from the Mount of Olives to the River Jordan, as a sign of devotion, although many pilgrims died," said Mother Maria Shewchuck, as firmly as if she were speaking of events of her childhood, rather than of six centuries ago. A native of Syracuse, N. Y., she speaks English haltingly after 28 years of monastic life, 10 years in Jerusalem. "There is a special feeling (about Jerusalem) which is difficult to express; it is the Holy Land for three religions, three! I think every Christian wants to see the Holy Land. Anyone who's been there wants to go again and again."
"We knew we had to come, to deliver appeals to the different parishes (because) we want these lands to be preserved the way they were given," she said. "But it isn't easy to ask for money. We love our monastery and we love the Holy Land. With God's help we are going to try to do the best we can."
Subsisting on donations from Russians outside the Soviet Union, proceeds from the harvest of the Mount of Olives, painting icons and embroidering vestments in gold, the nuns have barely enough income to supply the minimal needs of their ascetic life. According to Mother Raphaela, who shops for the monastery, the cost of bread has doubled since the beginning of the year, and they can only afford eggs, their only source of protein, on feast days.
With Israel's rampant inflation and the region's unrest, the Mission has been unable to support new residents; as a result, according to Father Anthony Grabbe, a church offical based in New York, the number of clergy residing in the Mission has shrunk by 20 to 25 percent over the past 10 years. Adding to the troubles have been scattered reports of harassment and threats by the Soviet Union and Israel in a 30-year-old, three-way dispute over ownership of the extensive church properties claimed by the church.
In all, many Russians in the Washington area fear that an important link to their heritage may be slowly dying; St. John's raised approximately $1,700 this month to send to Jerusalem. They will celebrate Christmas next month by beginning a monthly collection for the Mission, which parishioners are expected to support vigorously. "Everyone feels it's their responsibility to maintain the monasteries. You see, Russians are political refugees, they're not economic refugees," said Lena Zezulin, a 25-year-old attorney who has been active in the relief efforts for the Mission. "I remember my uncle sitting me down and telling me that we live here, not because they don't have refrigerators in the Soviet Union -- they do -- but because we want to practice our religion, and because communists are bad people and atheists. It's a feeling of growing up schizophrenic; because they're political refugees they always feel they want to be somewhere else."
Christmas at St. John's will be that somewhere, that haven in a hostile world.