A Charmed Childhood

Posted July 9, 2007

The day that Imperial Russia was given its last Tsarevitch, a pretty girl name Valeria was also born. On August 12, 1904 (July 30 O.S.), in Kiev, Konstantin and Zinaida Gubanov welcomed their first child into the world.

She was a bright and talented little girl -- and was destined to grow up as an only child; her younger sister Ludmilla would die in infancy from scarlet fever, a tragedy that affected the girls' mother for the rest of her life.

Look how much my daughter Magdalena resembles her great grandmother. It seems the resemblance is not just physical, either. My Mimi is very musical -- she has always sung on pitch, and, at age 2, likes to seat herself at the piano and plunk out melodies, accompanying herself as she sings. She's also got a lot of spunk and determination, and, with a phenomenal vocabulary and advanced grasp of syntax, she speaks like a far older child.

Music and language were the great hallmarks of Valeria's talents. Growing up in the upper class lifestyle that the Bolsheviks would soon destroy, she had private tutors and governesses who instructed her in French, German, English, geography, history, art, literature, and music. She had a quick and curious intellect -- and no proclivity whatsoever for the banalities of domestic life. Unlike many girls of her generation, she had no talent or interest in needlework, sewing, or the culinary arts. In old age, she would compare her childhood experiences with those of my paternal great-grandmother, Sophia Dimitrievna Nabokova. Babi "Onia," who was such an excellent cook that many of her recipes have been published, would recollect how she adored sneaking into the kitchen and spending time with the cook. Valeria Konstantinovna's reply was: "I don't think I ever even knew where the kitchen was."

Although the family was from St. Petersburg, Konstantin Gubanov's career with the insurance firm Rossiia took them to the Caucusus, and they lived very comfortably in Tblisi for most of Valeria's childhood. Throughout her life, Valeria would wistfully recall her early years, the beauty of the Black Sea, the abundance and warmth of Georgia and Georgians. She studied piano with renowned musicians L. N. Pyshnov and A.K. Borovskii and was so successful in her training that a musical career was predicted for her, although her abilities in languages and writing were also highly praised.

While the family were believers, they were not very 'churchy,' attending divine services only sporadically. Nonetheless, when she was 14, Valeria began to have private instruction at home in "Zakon Bozhii" -- theology. Among her tutors was one unusually erudite and gifted priest, Father Vladimir Yegorov, who awakened her interest in and love for the Word of God. It would influence the rest of her life.

The 1917 revolution forced the family to flee Russia (today that part of the Russian Empire is its own country -- Georgia) -- they did so from the port of Batumi, sailing to Constantinople, and ultimately settling in Belgrade. Being there afforded Valeria the opportunity to enroll in the Theological Academy ("Faculty of Eastern Orthodox Theology") in Belgrade -- the same institution where St. John Maximovitch (of Shanghai and San Francisco) and many, many eminent pastors of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad would study.

Here is a photo from Serbia. Pictured above, at Mil'kova Monastery, are (l. to r.): Father Theodosius, "Lyova" Bartoshevich: (future Vladyka Leonty), a Greek monk, Konstantin Vladimirovich Gubanov (my great-grandfather), Father Luke (?), General Nagaev (future Vladyka Nikodim), Valeria Konstantinovna (seated), "Dusik" Bartoshevich (future Archbishop Anthony-- barely visible!), and Zinaida Platonovna Gubanova (my great-grandmother).

"Lerechka" was a successful student -- bright, pretty, poetic, and perhaps a bit romantic. Not surprisingly, she was of interest to many of the seminarians and young men at the Academy.

Many years after her repose, and just a year or so before his own, Bishop Mitrophan (Znosko) would recall how, he, too, had been a suitor to young "Lerechka," and confessed to my mother that he had planned to propose to her. But it was another Belgrade student that won her hand.

Paul Hoecke was, in fact, a German, hailing from a Protestant family of Dusseldorf. An intellectual with a strong spiritual bent, he discovered Orthodoxy, converted, and came to Belgrade to study theology at an advanced level.

Ultimately, he would be ordained a priest, but in this photo below, from Belgrade, he is seen serving as a sub-deacon with then-Bishop John (Maximovitch). He's the tallest one, with the wind-blown hair and glasses, at the far right:

This interesting photo also includes the future Father Boris Kritskii (the other sub-deacon) and the future Father Vladimir Schatiloff (the altar boy at the far right, in front of my grandfather). Father Vladimir would marry Anastasia Giorgievna Grabbe, and his youngest son George's face is now famous throughout Russia, as he served as Metropolitan Laurus' sub-deacon at the recent signing of the Act of Canonical Communion in Moscow.

It was in Belgrade that Valeria began her work as a liturgical poet, with the encouragement and blessing of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky).

... to be continued