Saturday, December 15, 2007

Godspeed, Fr. Dmitrii

The remarkable life of Fr. Dmitrii Dmitrievich Grigoriev has come to an end. Fr. Dmitrii was my Russian literature prof at Georgetown in the late l970s, and everyone thought he was an exceptional teacher and an outstanding human being. He particularly loved Dostoevskii and would use his works to make relevant points about l9th century Russian history. Of course, he was also a priest, too, serving at St. Nicholas Orthodox cathedral in northwest Washington at the same time as he maintained a full load of classes...he was something. He was the quintessential absent-minded professor. We always knew, every fall and spring when the time change came, to correct for Fr. Dmitrii's failure to note the change. If the clocks went back, we showed up an hour later than usual. If the clocks went forward, an hour earlier. He never took any notice of prosaic things like Eastern Daylight Time...that's part of what made him special.

He never said much about his background, but you somehow knew that he had been around. Today, when I read his obit, I found out just how MUCH he had been around. His life story reads like the Russian exile's 20th century. I can't reproduce it as well as the Washington Post can, so here it is in its entirety:

WASHINGTON - Archpriest Dmitry Grigorieff, dean emeritus of St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and a retired professor of Russian language and literature at Georgetown University, died Dec. 8 of cardiac arrest at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. He lived in Bethesda, Md.

His father, Dmitry Dmitrievich Grigorieff, was the Russian governor of Sakhalin and served on the Central Board of the Russian Red Cross. In 1918, during the Russian Revolution, the elder Grigorieff fled Russia with his family, first to Riga, Latvia, and later to England. The elder Grigorieff's son Dmitry was born in London in 1919.

The Grigorieff family moved to Japan in the early 1920s, and the young Dmitry was baptized at St. Nicholas Church in Tokyo. After the Russian Civil War, the Grigorieff family returned to Riga, where Father Grigorieff studied in Russian schools and enrolled in the Orthodox Theological Institute.

As a British citizen, Father Grigorieff was evacuated to Australia during World War II. He served in 1943-44 in the British Merchant Marine in the Pacific. In 1945, he moved to New York, where he served in the Office of War Information.

He received a master's degree in linguistics and comparative literature from Yale University in 1948 and a doctorate in Slavic studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1958. He also received a diploma in theology from St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York.

A Dostoevsky scholar, he taught Russian language and literature at Georgetown University from 1959 until 1989. He also taught Russian at the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif., and at Columbia University.

Father Grigorieff had always been active in the church, and in 1969, at age 50, he was ordained a priest at St. Nicholas Cathedral, where he was designated second priest. During the 1970s, he introduced regular English-language services to the cathedral, and he was made dean of the cathedral in 1986. He was given the title dean emeritus in 1998.

Over the decades, Father Grigorieff maintained ties with the church in his homeland, even when suppression was the official policy of the Soviet Union.

Father Constantine White, dean of St. Nicholas Cathedral, recalled assisting Father Grigorieff in conducting a service in the days before glasnost. Father Grigorieff offhandedly said, "Who knows, one day people from the embassy might be coming to church here."

His wife, Galina Grigorieff, died in 1998.

He notably was never bitter or angry about Russia, and in that next-to-last paragraph there, you see something of his fundamental optimism: when the Gorbachev changes were barely underway, he could see the day when Russian embassy staff would be attending services at his church.

A prince of a guy. Rest in peace.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear this. It's amazing, isn't it - to learn so much about a person in their obit. I had a co-worker who had quite the life I had no idea about until I read his obit. Fr. Dmitrii certainly sounds like quite the interesting fella.