- Saint Nikolai Velimirović and Saint John Maximovich as Unifiers of the Serbian and Russian People*
The relationship between Serbia and Russia, as well as the Serbian and Russian Orthodox Churches, has been positive and mutually beneficial through the centuries. This relationship began with Prince Rastko of Serbia (1173–1235), who fled Serbia and was tonsured as Sava in the Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon on Mount Athos, Greece. My paper proposes that the relationship between Saint Nikolai Velimirović (1881–1956) and Saint John Maximovich (1896–1966) is an extension of а deeply embedded ancient spiritual and cultural foundation, specifically, the genuine enduring relationship between the Serbian and Russian peoples that is based on their shared Orthodox faith and Slavic roots.
In this paper, I will provide a brief historical outline of the Serbian-Russian cultural relationship. Such an outline is intended to illustrate the evolution of the mutual ties between these two Slavic Orthodox peoples that extend back to the end of the 12th century. My analysis may appear to some as sentimental or romantic, but it is reliable and comes from years of participating in and observing Serbian culture. It presents a view of that culture that is hidden or at best under-represented in research about inter-Orthodox relations in the WeSaint The historical evidence, as well as the evidence of the spiritual relationship between Saint Nikolai and Saint John—and their writings—provides powerful support to the conclusions I reach.
When viewed from this broad historical perspective, the friendship between the two outstanding hierarchs, Saint Nikolai Velimirović and Saint John Maximovich, reflects and reaffirms the abiding friendship of the Serbian [End Page 151] and Russian peoples that continues to the present time. That being said, it also is noteworthy that as much as Saint Nikolai and Saint John strengthened Serbian and Russian traditional ties, the traditional spiritual and cultural bonds themselves had a profound impact on their mutual relationship.
While the Slavophile movement of the 19th century especially promoted unity between the Serbs and the Russians, this movement and this period by no means represent the onset of the close ties between the two peoples. In his book, On Russian Traces: Orthodox Anti-Westerners in Serbia, 1850–1945, Klaus Buchenau posits that during the wars of liberation of the 19th and early 20th centuries, "the Russians became increasingly aware of the advantages of linking up with their 'Little Brothers,' the Orthodox Slavs of the Balkans. Soon a strong bond was created between Russians and Serbs that resonates among both peoples to this day."2
Buchenau is correct when he says, "the strong bond persists to this day." However, he says nothing about the long and extensive religious, cultural, and national origins of these ties. In fact, these mutual ties were established much earlier and go back to the beginning of the Serbian state and church in the late 12th century. It was Saint Sava of Serbia who established these ties: the 17-year-old Serbian prince fled the court of his father Stephen Nemanja (died 1200) and became a monk in the Russian Monastery of Saint Panteleimon on Mount Athos.3 From then on, the mutual religious, cultural, and material support between the Serbian and Russian churches and their faithful have endured.
The two monasteries of Hilandar and Saint Panteleimon played an exceptionally important role. While Russia was under Tatar rule from 1237–1480, the Serbian rulers regularly sent donations to the monastery of Saint Panteleimon.4 The Russian tsars reciprocated and began to support the Hilandar Monastery during the Ottoman domination of Serbia and Mount Athos. Russian Tsar Ivan IV (1530–1584) granted quarters in Moscow to the Serbian monks [End Page 152] and allowed them to travel throughout Russia and collect donations.5 Thanks to these Russian donations, Hilandar was able to pay its debts in the 16th century and in subsequent years.6
In addition to the monastic ties between the two cultures, a second important factor that contributed to Serbian and Russian ties was the struggle for the liberation and preservation of the Orthodox faith in Serbia. During most of the period of Ottoman rule (spanning 450 years from the 14th century...