Leonid Federov (1879-1935): Russian Catholicism - a brave vision unfulfilled

Leonid Federov (1879-1935): Russian Catholicism - a brave vision unfulfilled

Fr Peter Knowles OP

Few people in the world of Catholicism have heard of Fr Leonid Fedorov (1879-1935) who lived and died for his inspired vision of a restored Byzantine Catholicism in Russia. The odds at the time were far too overwhelming. Perhaps - as with so many other Catholic "heroes" - the seeds of Fr Fedorov's seemingly doomed project will bear fruit in due season.

Fr Peter Knowles O.P., a former Master of Mannix College, Melbourne, is a specialist in Eastern Rite Catholicism and has made several visits to Russia and Eastern Europe. At present he lives and works at the Russian Catholic Centre in Kew, Victoria.

Leonid Fedorov was the first, and to date the only Exarch (Chief Administrator) of the Russian Catholics of the Byzantine Rite. Little noticed in life, Fedorov was entirely unnoticed in death. He died while still under arrest, attended only by the family with whom the Soviet authorities had billeted him, in the frozen Arctic north. They could only watch uncomprehendingly as he slipped into death.

Since that day in 1935 he has been all but forgotten.

What is success? How do we judge who is or is not a success? Would the life of a solitary and isolated Russian who spent 16 out of the 55 years of his life in prison be called a successful one?

Fr Fedorov was born in 1879 in St Petersburg, the only son of restaurant keepers. He was baptised in the Russian Orthodox Church and his family life was religious, if not overly pious. Even as a young boy he read widely, but it was not until he was 14 years old that he discovered the Bible.

Fedorov attended a local high school, which like all such high schools in Tsarist Russia placed great emphasis on Latin and Greek. He graduated with all academic honours and a gold medal, but all these years he stood apart from his school fellows in his standards of morality and intellectual interests. He was not morose or stand-offish, in fact he was friendly and interested in all around him, but his ideals and plans were incommunicable to his companions of the time.

Fedorov's school friends were no doubt startled by his choice of life when he applied for enrolment in the Theological Academy as an aspirant for the priesthood in the Russian Orthodox Church. And during his years of study at the Academy, his preferred subjects were Church History and the Greek and Latin Fathers. Here his high school education stood him in good stead. Familiarity with the actual texts of the Fathers, not just with manuals of Patristics, broadened his vision of the Church. At the same time he formed friendships with Catholics of the Latin rite (for the most part Poles) and engaged with them in lively discussions on the nature of the Church.

In time, he began to move closer and closer to Catholicism, so close that in the end he had to make a personal decision to become a Catholic and a Catholic priest, something perhaps hard for us to appreciate. Being a Russian meant being Orthodox; the terms were interchangeable. There were numbers of Protestants in Russia, especially in the public service, but these were people who had migrated to Russia from the Baltic countries and retained their religion, just as the Poles and Lithuanians in Russia remained Latin Catholics. But for a Russian subject of the Tsar to declare for Catholicism could entail expulsion from society and even perhaps from the fatherland.

So Fedorov would have to leave Russia, his widowed mother, his friends and all that was familiar and comfortable, and set out on the road of exile. When he approached the Inspector of the Academy, Br Theophan, with notice of his intention to discontinue his studies, the old man responded, I know where you are going, and I know the reason: may God be with you!"


In 1902 a foreign student came to the seminary of Anagnie, 50 miles outside Rome, to commence studies there. He took his proper part in the life of the students, but again seemed a little apart; some of them may have known that he bore an assumed name. Indeed, his initial difficulty with the Italian language showed he was not a compatriot.

At the end of 5 years Fedorov was sent to Rome to complete Theology at the Propaganda Fide College, a prospect he did not welcome, wryly remarking that the change from Anagni to the somewhat stifling atmosphere of Propaganda was like moving from a university to a high school.

However, a hint of warning from the Imperial Russian Embassy in Rome alerted Church authorities to the chance of some danger for this seminarian (Leonid Fedorov) should he remain in the city. So he was directed north to Switzerland where he would complete his theology at the Dominican "Albertinum" in Fribourg, under yet another assumed name.

His mother's letters during these long years of study and exile were the one link with Russia. She had become a Catholic in 1908, and begun to play a part in the minute company of St Petersburg Catholics of the Byzantine Rite. There were several thousand Catholics in the city, but all were of the Latin Rite and of Polish or Lithuanian origin. They possessed several churches, but their church life was centred on the imposing Church of St Catherine on the Nevsky Prospect. Built by Catherine the Great at the close of the 18th century, it became the focus of superior fashion and exotic prestige. As with the Latin Church of St Denis in Athens today, to be a Latin Catholic and attend St Catherine's in those days was rather "the thing." Taking part in the orderly ceremonies and well-marshalled devotions with organ accompaniment in this fashionable part of town, near the Duma (Parliament), provided considerable compensation for these expatriates.

It was not here that Lybov Dmitrievna Fedorova went to worship, but at a chapel for Catholics of the Byzantine Rite in a less fashionable back street of the capital. The two priests who officiated there were both converts, one from Orthodoxy, the other from the Old Believers: both were married. The services followed the exact pattern of the Slavonic Rite as observed in any Orthodox parish throughout Russia. This had become the scene of his mother's church life. This tiny church with its minute congregation of neo-converts was the point of convergence for all Fedorov's plans and hopes. When he had set out for Rome in 1902 this community did not exist.

What was it that gave Fedorov the idea of a Catholic Russian Church of the Byzantine Rite; the idea of preserving church life according to the spirituality of the Byzantine culture? For Russian converts to Catholicism hitherto had meant becoming Latin Rite Catholics. And they willingly did so. It was rather chic. In the last century, the educated classes in Russia knew very little of their native Russian Church, and rather rejoiced in the self-assured Western ambience which the Latin Church carried with it.

Fedorov's idea was not this and he appears not to have been influenced by Vladimir Soloviev's writings (see May 1991 AD2000, pp.12-13) despite the two men's similar picture of Church unity. He read Soloviev only later. There was someone else apart from his mother who broke into the solitariness of Fedorov's exile with support and advice which no one else then would have been gifted enough to offer. This was Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the (at that time) Austro-Hungarian territory of Galicia. A giant in body and mind, it is largely due to him that the Ukrainian Church managed to weather the Communist persecution, and stand upright today.

Fedorov and he met frequently and were in constant communication, and it would have been expected that Sheptytsky would ordain his protegŽ a priest now that his long years of preparation were done. But Sheptytsky was a man of perspicacity and diplomacy, and he provided for Fedorov to be ordained in Constantinople by a Bulgarian Catholic bishop of the Byzantine Rite in 1911. The Russian Government looked on Sheptytsky as a political opponent, and he considered it safer for Fedorov, who would be returning to Russia, not to be linked to him in this way.

Apparently, Fedorov wished to add a monastic preparation to his long years of academic preparation, because in place of now taking up priestly activity in St Petersburg, he travelled to the other end of the Hapsburg Empire and entered a Byzantine Catholic Studite monastery in Bosnia-Hercegovina. He immersed himself in the traditional way of oriental monasticism: the celebrating of Church services by day and night, reading, and manual work of some kind.

Inevitable blow

Caught by the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war when on a secret visit to Russia, he was arrested and spent the next three years in the far off town of Tobolsk under police guard. When the Tsarist Government fell in February 1917, Fedorov was released and returned to St Petersburg where he was overjoyed to meet Metropolitan Sheptytsky. He too had spent the war under arrest in a monastery in Suzdal, east of Moscow. He delayed his return to his own country long enough to hold a council of the Russian Catholic Clergy (about half a dozen) and at it to appoint Leonid Fedorov as first Exarch of the Russian Catholic Church.

Fedorov would have six years in which to exercise this office in freedom, six years to spend all the study, prayer and thought that had filled his life since 1902, but also six years distracted by daily waiting for the inevitable blow to fall.

His flock was varied - in education, experience and ideals - being drawn from many levels of Russian society. The two most distinctive groups were the Moscow and St Petersburg Catholics. The old rivalries between these two cities were reflected in the Catholic Russian communities in each town, and Fedorov sometimes despaired of keeping the peace. Thus far, only a handful of priests and laity had joined the Eastern Rite Catholic Church, but despite the paucity of numbers it was the obligation of the Exarch to guide and advise them - they were widely scattered over this vast land and with the onset of the omnipresent Communist rule and its tactics of persecution and terrorisation were living on borrowed time.

The long-awaited blow finally fell in 1923. A group of Catholic clergy was arrested and sent to Moscow for trial. All were of the Latin Rite, except one, Exarch Leonid Fedorov. The result of the trial was that one of the priests was shot, one - Bishop Tseplak - exiled, and the rest imprisoned. Fedorov (thanks to the intervention of Maxim Gorky's wife!) was freed for a time in 1926, but in October of that year, he was again imprisoned, via Moscow's infamous Lyubyanka and thence to Solovetski Island, well within the Arctic Circle.

On this Island is a thick-walled, massive complex which is the monastery founded by St Savatios in 1435. The Bolsheviks used it as a prison for those opposed to their insane 'Utopia.' Hundreds upon hundreds of clergy, Orthodox and Catholic, were penned up here in appalling conditions, not to mention the Arctic climate

After three years of such privation, Fedorov was hustled from prison to prison until finally he came under the 'care' of the secret police and was foisted on a railway worker and his wife, at Vyatka, a small town to the north. They had three children, and the six of them had to live in the one room that made up the home. And it was these strangers who in 1935 gathered around the Exarch's bed as he lay dying; washed and clothed his corpse and then buried him in the nearby cemetery.

What sort of success was this? Certainly the success of the Beatitudes, the success of the martyrs, for Fedorov achieved great personal holiness, his lonely life warmed and lightened from within. Eyewitnesses have proclaimed the change that came over this unprepossessing, quiet priest when he served the Liturgy. The meticulous care with which he celebrated the Divine Liturgy showed both the knowledge and love of a true hierophant, i.e., one who makes apparent in ceremony the sacred presence of God.

What is the present state of the abandoned Catholics of the Byzantine Rite in Russia? No one knows. Or to be more honest, no one cares. What will be their future? They will certainly have a future: the hidden achievement of Fedorov's life has assured that. And just as he did not passively "roll darkling down the torrent of his fate" (Samuel Johnson), neither will the community he led and died for. God will see to that.

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