24 December 2009

Christmas Eve

Warmest Christmas greetings to anyone who happens upon this page. My own report will be brief--I'll provide a few interesting links down at the end. But most of this week's space goes to Peter Dyson of St Petersburg, Russia, whose report on the funeral of our late Friend Olga Dolgina moved me very much, and who gave me permission to pass along his words.

Olga Dolgina, looking toward camera, on Quaker Council for European Affairs study tour, 2007. Thanks to Peter Dyson for the photo.
Olga was a Russian Friend, a professor at Herzen Pedagogical University in St Petersburg, Russia, a recognized scholar in the field of teaching English, and the Russian translator of Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion. I mentioned her translation several times in recent weeks on this blog.

Olga and I served together on the board of Friends House Moscow back in the 1990's, and at the last board meeting in Odessa we had been talking about inviting her back on the board. In early December, she was struck by a car very close to her home--only twenty meters from her entrance--and was hospitalized with a broken leg. On December 9, she was discharged, and to all appearances was on the road to recovery. However, on the morning of December 11, she reported feeling unwell, and then died shortly afterwards.

The funeral took place on December 16. Peter Dyson wrote:
Today was not the best of days; but it was not the worse of days either; in fact it was a Good Day. It was one of those days when the sun shone brightly just above the St Petersburg horizon casting long shadows over a fresh light fall of snow. The temperature was a brisk minus 17, reminding you that you are alive, and glad you remembered your gloves and to put thick woollen socks on.

The new St Petersburg Crematorium is on the outskirts of the city, about a 20 minute ride in the bus [Olga's husband] Zhenia had arranged to pick us up from the metro. It was full and there was a brief kerfuffle whilst the driver insisted that all those standing should sit down before he would start the engine. Bunches of flowers were moved and people sat three to a seat to make him happy and we set off beyond the Piskarovskaya Blockade Memorial towards the new ring road.

It is a vast new complex with thousands of empty memorial niches. Utilitarian? A bit Soviet? Perhaps a little, but plain and uncluttered simplicity are the words I would choose: practical, spacious and fit for purpose; no adverts just informative notices. There must have been 150 to 200 of us; I gave up counting; all with our flowers waiting in hushed silence with muted whispered greetings of recognition.

I must have stood out as being on my own; for one of Olga’s students came and talked to me so that I would not be alone and she kept asking me if I was okay.

An usher came and asked us to take all the flowers in. Thus when we were finally shown into the Centralni Zal, all our flowers were beautifully arranged round the closed coffin (not an open coffin as per tradition) with the huge Quaker bouquet of white lilies on the coffin itself with its card.

The hall was large; a white marble floor and stuccoed walls with a large window on the end going over into the roof itself. The ground falls away outside so that you get a view of the silver birch forest beyond; more Klimt than Shishkin. There were no decorations or furniture just large verdant bushy plants around the room. We can’t have made it more than a half full.

Olga’s coffin stood in front of the window and Zhenia and Anna stood at its side and we enclosed them in a semicircle. In the background was very quiet unobtrusive classical music; Bach, Beethoven, Pachelbel – all those pieces you would expect. The Officiate made his introduction and invited people to come forward and say their words- thus it turned into a Quaker Meeting with good reflective pauses and Ministry to the Life of Olga Dolgina. I was too choked to speak at this point.

After more silence we were invited to say our own personal farewells and slowly filed passed the coffin with everyone stopping to touch or silently say their prayer with Zhena and Anna last. The coffin descended gently from sight but with a mighty banging of metal as the doors to the aperture closed. I was put in mind of another funeral of a friend here when the lid was place on the open coffin and the nails hammered in. It is a very final sound that stays in the memory.

An overall impression would be of a gentle unhurried calm and sensitivity; not an easy achievement for any institution with daily routines to maintain.

About fifty of us adjourned to an intimate cosy downstairs restaurant across the city at Chernaya Rechka, not far from where Pushkin fought his duel. Tables full of Russian salads greeted our arrival. Not long into the meal the toasts and speeches started. If the tone at the funeral had been more formal and about Olga as a teacher and colleague, here people spoke about their feelings, their disbelief, the last conversation they had with her: all very personal responses to this tragedy of a post accident blood clot moving into her lungs.

I spoke fourth and told me them that I was not there as one alone, but stood before them representing hundreds of Olga’s Quaker Friends in Europe and America and of how the Divine shone in Olga’s life. I referred to all the messages I had received from Friends around the world, and read one that seemed to sum everything up (and later gave Anna a printed copy of the fifty plus messages I had received. There are more in her in-box). I spoke of my Quaker travels with Olga across Europe and of Olga’s role as a “wordsmith” (a pause and “thank you for that Peter” from my translator as she explained what I meant). I talked of Olga’s sensitivity to words and the struggle to translate Quaker language in Russian, particularly from the 17th Century. I talked of our hope to set up a memorial fund in her name to continue this work of translation… and of love and of celebration… and then I was choked by tears and could say no more.

What followed at my end of the table was unexpected. Thank-you s for the reminder about celebration and lots of questions about Quakers, because of course they knew of Olga’s involvement but without understanding. The consequence is that there will be a meeting with a group of Olga’s colleagues to talk more of Quaker values and of course being teachers they want preparatory materials! So I agreed I would talk about the role of silence in Quaker worship and will use Alan Davies’s 1983 article on Levels of Silence as my document in advance!

We drifted away slowly after many more reminiscences and up-holdings of Olga’s life. I cannot affirm too strongly this type of rite of passage where everyone is heard.

The sorrow is for us left behind; the joy .. in a life fully lived .

And a knowledge that my life was made richer by walking cheerfully together with her. I am going to miss Olga.

I shall leave this overnight for reflection.

But it was a Good Day.

Yours .. but by no means alone in North West Russia,

Thank you dear Friends,


16th Day 12th Month, 2009
Translation Fund: A number of Friends have proposed or affirmed that a fund for translation of Friends materials into Russian be established in memory of Olga. Consultations about the practical arrangements for this fund are underway; I'll report more when something has been decided.

Righteous links:

Russian is back!

"It is, after all, our tax money paying for this monstrous system."

A Friendly forum for considering the path "Toward an eco-economy."

Ross Douthat: "The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response."

Anne Jackson is at it again--giving away books. And she blogs about another free book, one that you can download (I have done so, and am enjoying it).

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