A Discussion with Cyrille Sollogoub, President, ACER-MJO, Paris, France
June 19, 2012
Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June 2012 undergraduate student Masha Goncharova interviewed Cyrille Sollogoub, president of the Russian Students Christian Organization—Orthodox Youth Movement (Action Chrétienne des Etudiants Russess—Mouvement de Jeunesse Orthodoxe, ACER-MJO). In this interview Sollogoub discusses his family's history with ACER-MJO, why the organization has chosen to emphasize common Orthodox faith over common Russian cultural heritage, and the role of service and volunteer work in ACER-MJO's initiatives.
Tell me about your life in Paris, your family’s history in Paris, how you think about your Russian and French identities, and how you came to be president of ACER-MJO.
I was born in Paris in 1975. All of my grandparents were born in Russia, and they all immigrated in the beginning of the twentieth century, around 1905 and 1906. They all immigrated with my parents, who were then young children. This happened when my great-grandparents were killed (shot) during the revolution. As a result of that, quite quickly, they all fled to France, particularly Paris. So they all immigrated during or immediately after the revolution. When my parents came here, they were between 10 and 15 or 20 years old; they were just teenagers. In my family we spoke Russian, but of course we went to French school and quickly learned the French language. In my family, this is very typical of Russian émigré families; the older children speak Russian nearly fluently, and the younger ones do not speak well because we, the older children, learned French in school and of course at home spoke in French with our brothers. I must admit, our parents didn’t make us speak Russian around the house, and even now quite naturally I speak to my parents in French. But of course, with my grandparents, we must speak Russian. My grandparents died in the 1990s, and they retained their Russian culture the entire time.
I graduated from French university, now work for a French company, and teach physics in a French university—and from my childhood, I have been involved with the ACER-MJO camps because my own parents went there deeply committed to this program when they were little. They actually met at an ACER summer camp. This is also very typical of the Russian émigré community. They socialize among themselves in these summer camps and at church, then they marry among themselves. Both of my parents are from this movement, so they both were at first campers, then they became camp counselors. So, my siblings and I knew this movement very intimately from a young age. Truly this movement has brought us so much—specifically, religious teaching. That’s the most important because of its love to the church and to service, and to Russian culture.
Has the goal of the ACER movement changed over time?
Our historic path is very unique. Specifically in our movement, the most important is to follow God and to serve the church, and this goal is put before service to anything else, including to Russian culture. There was a moment in our history when we realized that, for us, the most important is our Orthodox belief. We realized that of course our richness is our Russian culture and tradition because we live our Orthodox faith through this Russian tradition, but that we also have to open ourselves up—and specifically open ourselves up to the West. And it wasn’t just my generation who realized this; it was the generation of our parents. And thus, specifically our work with Russian émigré youth, our education is done in French. From the very beginning, we realized that we are here—away from our homeland’s borders—specifically to witness and share the Orthodox tradition with the Western world. That primary goal is to give witness to the Orthodox faith, and nothing else—not necessarily Russian culture. So, our movement quite quickly accepted this route and opened itself up quickly and early to other children, even French.
It’s important to remember that many young French children accepted the Orthodox faith, and many children of other nationalities. We call this primot (acceptance) of the church. So today’s goal is, like before, to attract youth to God and to the Orthodox church. I’d say that any means of reaching this goal are accepted for our movement. It’s interesting—we haven’t started working with sociological research, but it’d be interesting to find out: our summer camp takes almost 200 children every year. From those kids, I’d say that the majority already don’t have any connection to Russia. I think I could say that with confidence, although I don’t have the data. We can say that 40 percent are completely not Russian. A big minority still speaks Russian. The remnants of the first immigration basically don’t speak [Russian], or speak poorly. And our organization doesn’t necessarily insist on this point. The most important part is to be Orthodox.
Do you see your organization, ACER-MJO, ever putting an emphasis in their teachings and events on their Russian cultural heritage, in addition to the Russian Orthodox faith?
This is a difficult question. Specifically in our movement, the most important from the very beginning was faith. We are Orthodox people rooted in the church. The church is the whole purpose of our life, and in the church we can find all the answers to our existential questions. This is actually a unique phenomenon among other Russian Orthodox groups of émigrés that have formed around Paris. But truly, all of the documents about the first émigrés from our movement do indeed report this. We are people of the church. We are responsible for the fate of the Orthodox faith in the West. Of course, we are all Russian in Paris. For us, it just wasn’t a question of being Russian that connected us, but rather our religion.
But the founding members, and most members today, are Russian by blood?
Absolutely. Nobody questions it. All of our first work was in Russian, because they only spoke in Russian. They belonged to this Russian church tradition and cultural tradition; it was natural. But from the very beginning, it was a religious organization, and this separates our émigré group from others. For this, I think our movement can survive the emigration. The goals of our movement are not tied to the social Russian immigration.
Well, it’s not connected—but does that mean your nationality doesn’t matter if you’d like to participate in the Orthodox faith?
Absolutely. Back then, Russian culture and Russian faith carried a bit of a universal character. Of course we are a part of this tradition that begins quite far in Russian culture, maybe since Dostoyevsky, specifically this universality of it. We do not reject our Russianness. In fact we value it, and we try to save it, but this richness is not national. It can bring something and give something to everyone.
Today, in your programs like this summer camp, how do you think the kids today react to their identity as Russians?
The question of identity is a very challenging question. I would say that among our members, the outlooks are extremely varied. For some, their Russian identity means nothing. They are only Orthodox. For the first wave of émigrés, some have saved a bit of Russian culture in the family. Some try to speak in Russian, but this is a very large minority. Some don’t speak at all. We have a big diversity in this regard. But none of us forget our history. In fact we are proud of our history. After all, it is a beautiful page for the Russian émigré community. But we also understand that we take on responsibility for this heritage. Some, with a big interest, follow what is going on in Russian society and maintain contacts in Russia. Some people even within ACER regularly travel there.
What about social equality? Volunteer work? Social justice?
This is one of our greatest priorities, especially for kids within our movement: the call to service. Yes, to serve the church, but also volunteer work. All of our social work is based on volunteer efforts. It wasn’t like this in the beginning, because our movement was actually helped by the Protestant church and the YMCA. Our founders and ancestors survived by their help, and for that we are incredibly, truly grateful to this day. In the beginning there were many people in our ACER group who received money for social work. But today it is almost entirely volunteer work.
What kind of service projects do you engage in?
There is a lot. Of course our biggest project is the summer camps and winter camps for over 200 children. We teach them Russian culture and history. There are many publications that we print (although there used to be many, many more in circulation about 20, 30 years ago). Other projects include what’s called ACER-Russie, which is the office that collects money in the West and supports social projects in Russia. We have two serious partners there at children’s shelters. The money we receive from donations, work, and the bi-annual yarmarka, or yard sale of old Russian antique jewelry our ancestors left behind—all of these proceeds to go ACER-Russie. In fact, some students from ACER-MJO go to visit and volunteer at the shelters of ACER-Rusie. Then we have quite a serious service project involved in ecumenical work. I said that the Protestants used to help us, and indeed we represent Orthodox in many meetings and dialogues in the interreligious community. Furthermore we’re active in Syndesmos, which is a global fraternity of Orthodox youth that helps other Orthodox youth around the world.
What is the language of instruction?
Every class will be conducted in French, and all of our services will be in French. It has been this way since we transitioned completely to the French language about 30 years ago. This happened quite naturally. There were of course problems, discussions, and disputes and dialogues—what is more important, to pray in Russian or in French? But we did overcome this crisis. This is all behind us now, thankfully. Now, it is important to move forward, not forgetting our Russian roots. And one of the leftovers of this heritage is the culture of working with kids. We believe that having access to culture is to have access to God, and to understand others. And to root yourself in a culture is to have an ability to open yourself to others.