By Paul Goble
The Assyrians, one of Russia’s smallest and least known nationalities, not only have kept their religious and national identity in tact despite the vicissitudes of the past century but also to speak the language of Christ, according to the leaders of that community.
The current issue of “Vera-Eskom,” a newspaper directed at the Christians in the Russian North, provides a remarkable glimpse of this ancient people whose ancestors fled from the persecutions of the Ottomans and helped keep Christianity and its principles alive in Russia during the depradations of the Soviet period (http://www.rusvera.mrezha.ru/625/14.htm).
In the early years of the 20th century, more than 100,000 Assyrians fled from the Ottoman Empire and Persia to Russia. Because of Soviet persecutions and intermarriage, that community has shrunk to only 13,000, Mikhail Sizov of “Vera-Eskom” points out. But its members are among the most socially active Christians in the country.
The occasion for this unusual article was a visit to the editorial offices of the journal by Tamara Gurmizova, an ethnic Assyrian pensioner who came to get a copy of the obituary “Vera-Eskom” published earlier this year when Mikhail Sado, probably the most famous Russian Assyrian passed away.
Sado who died on August 30th at the age of 76 played a remarkable role in Assyrian and Russian Christian life. The son of Assyrians who fled from the Ottoman Empire in 1916 only to be repressed by Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s, Sado left Leningrad at the time of the blockade and settled in Krasnodar kray.
After the war, he graduated from Leningrad State University after presenting a diploma on “Contemporary Assyrian Dialects of the USSR” and taught there. But he achieved a broader fame when in 1964, together with Ogurtsov, Vagin and Averichkin, he formed the All-Russian Social Christian Union for the Liberation of the People (VSKhSON).
That led to his arrest by the KGB and a sentence of 13 years in prison and the camps. (Curiously, the post-Soviet Russian officials have never rehabilitated him.) While incarcerated, he compiled a Russian-Assyrian dictionary, and after his release, he taught classical Hebrew and Aramaic at the St. Petersburg Orthodox Theological Academy.
At the same time, Sado became the founder of the Assyrian national movement, organizing an Assyrian school in the northern capital, Assyrian festivals, and a series of Assyrian associations, while gathering information and publishing handbooks on the Assyrian nation and its fate in Russia.
Tamara Gurmizova, a longtime resident of the Russian north, talked about her relatives, her ancestors, and her nation. She recalled meeting Misha Sado in the Kuban and attending a service at an Assyrian church there where the priest, an ethnic Russian, remarked that he had learned Assyrian with the help of an Assyrian priest from Kyiv.
The priest in question, Gurmizova continued, said that “Christ had spoken this language.” Assyrian, she said she had learned, “consists of Arameic dialects, including Urmiyan. And it is well known that the Aramaic dialect was one of the languages used by Jews during the times of Jesus Christ and the He spoke it.”
The elderly Assyrian also talked about her meeting with the late Patriarch Aleksii II. He blessed her during a visit to the Komi Republic, and she and other Assyrians continue to remember him with fondness because in 1998, Aleksii “blessed the construction in Moscow” of an Assyrian church.
Gurmizova concluded her visit by observing that “it is too bad that so many [Assyrians] did not live to see our churches begin to open again.” And Sizov, for his part, recalled that Sado, at his trial had said “Russia is my Fatherland, my mother,” thus combining his religious and his national identity in a manner that should be the norm in “an Orthodox country.”