A History of St Andrew’s

A History of St Andrew’s is taken from a series of articles published in the St Andrew’s parish magazine in the first half of 1999. They were written by Jean Coussmaker, wife of Canon Chad Coussmaker OBE, the first full-time chaplain of St Andrew’s since the October Revolution.

The story of the English Church in Moscow

One frequently asked question is, “How do we know about the history of the church?”
There are two main sources: Firstly, there are the service registers which clergy in the Church of England are compelled to keep. As the churches in Russia came under the Diocese of London, completed registers were kept in their archives where they can be found today. Secondly, from the eighteenth century, the English churches in Russia were supported by the Russia Company, a trading company based in London, whose membership changed from a group of merchant adventurers in the sixteenth century to stable business communities by the eighteenth century, when the company began to concern itself for the spiritual needs of their members living abroad.

It was the Russia Company’s financial support which enabled permanent chaplaincies to be maintained, and they shared with the Bishop of London the responsibility of appointing and paying clergy, building and maintaining churches and parsonages. Today we still have the support of the Russia Company which contributes generously towards the financial needs of the chaplaincy. The chaplain writes regular reports on the progress of the chaplaincy for the Company, and addresses their annual meeting in London. The Russia Company records are kept in the Guildhall Library in London, and give a fascinating insight into chaplaincy and community life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; so many of the problems and needs are echoed today.

The history of the English Church in Russia can be traced back to the sixteenth century, during the reigns of Elizabeth I of England and Ivan IV (“The Terrible”) of Russia; it was he who gave permission for foreign communities trading with Russia to have their own forms of worship, to build and own church buildings and appoint their own ministers.

There are many gaps in information about the early period, but probably the first English church in Russia was built in Archangel in the seventeenth century. This was the major port for Anglo-Russian trade, and records tell us that the chapel had its own communion plate and hymn books, and the chaplain travelled to Moscow to take services for the community there from about 1705; Archangel and Moscow formed a joint chaplaincy.

Eighteenth century Moscow was considered an unsuitable place for women and children. In 1706 there were only 8 women in the congregation, 6 of whom were probably female servants. Records show that all the children born to British women before 1720 died in infancy. The majority of merchants living at that time in Moscow were considered to be “debauched and low in their pleasures.” They were young men, far from home and family; they lived in groups sharing servants and expenses, drinking was their main pastime, and this led to fights, often with loss of life.

Moscow remained a very small community until the nineteenth century; most foreigners lived in the capital, St. Petersburg, where a church was opened in 1754, and its chaplain took over the responsibility for serving Moscow. This was a period of expansion for Anglo-Russian trade; a port chaplaincy was opened in Kronstadt in 1771, and by the nineteenth century the chaplain in Archangel had two centres.

The earliest English churches in Russia were all made of wood, they were lit by candles (early chaplains’ expenses show a special candle allowance!) and the Russia company has records of frequent fires.

Moscow was the last independent chaplaincy to be established by the Russia Company, and it served a very different community from the other chaplaincies: it did not depend on the diplomatic corps or those who surrounded the court, nor was it intended to serve the spiritual needs of seamen; instead it was made up of professional families involved in trade and manufacturing. Moscow had become an industrial centre, and the resident British community began to expand sufficiently for a committee from St. Petersburg to recommend that a full-time chaplain should be appointed there, so that “the community should enjoy the benefit of a church.”

The first chaplain appointed by the Russia Company was the Rev. Charles Barlton, in 1825, who had been acting as locum in Kronstadt, and the Tsar (Alexander I) gave permission for a church to be established in Moscow “with the same privileges” as those in other cities in Russia. The British Chapel was built in 1828 on the site where St. Andrew’s stands today. The establishment of a church was considered to have a stabilising effect on a foreign community, providing a focus for social life, and an incentive to families to settle nearby, as a primary school and library were set up on the premises by the chaplain.

The Russia Company records show the gradual development of the premises to serve the needs of the growing community. Stables, a coach house and a hearse house were built in the grounds. Next time you walk to the church remember that £200 was paid by the church committee to the city authorities to build the first pavement outside the church!

Successive chaplains became involved in charitable work in the wider community, particularly in providing medical and educational services. In 1831 The English Chapel established a Foundling Hospital (Orphanage), and about 1850, the chaplain in St. Petersburg who also served Moscow, set up a school here for boys and girls.

The British Chapel became too small for the growing community in Moscow, and in 1882 it was decided to build the present church of St. Andrew on the same site. The Bishop of London consecrated it in 1885, and its official designation was altered to “The British Church of St. Andrew’s.

St Andrew’s Church

Completed in 1884 the building “exclusive of stained glass and other presentations” cost 213 616 roubles. The Russia Company contributed 25 000 roubles, and the rest was raised by the congregation. The records show how proud they were of their new church: “besides the Church, which has 300 sittings, a Cloakroom is provided under the organ and the choir gallery, and a wing is built out on the south side, three storeys in height, for Library, Committee Room, Vestry, Organist’s Rooms, Lavatories, etc, under the church are the hot water heating apparatus and rooms for the church servants, and under the chancel a mortuary has been made.” Bishop Bury, recorded in his book “Russian Life Today” (1915) that St. Andrew’s looked like a typical English Parish Church, “almost startlingly like, it seems in that ancient capital, to a bit of a London suburb.”

The tower is of particular interest. There was no belfry, as only Orthodox churches at that time were allowed bells, but in the tower was a Strong Room containing strong boxes and drawers, which could be hired by members of the congregation who wished to deposit valuables or securities. Six roubles a year was charged for a large drawer, 3 roubles for a small one, and there was an additional “opening fee” of 50 or 25 kopecks respectively every time a drawer was opened. When the church was taken over by the Bolsheviks in 1918, they removed 126 strong boxes from the tower. Probably no-one will ever know what became of their contents.

The church also housed a library which had its own librarian and committee, and a set of strict rules. Those who lived outside Moscow were required to provide a “suitable box for the safe conveyance of the books to and fro,” The Library Committee reports have also survived and make fascinating reading. In 1915 there was a major reorganisation of the library, which included opening the “Forbidden Cupboard” to discover what it contained. Apart from back copies of The Economist, they found a number of theological works dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, but nothing to shock the searchers!

Few photographs remain of St. Andrew’s before it was confiscated in 1919, but the meticulous record keeping by the church clerk help to give us an idea of what it must have looked like. A list of “presentations” indicates that almost all the church windows were filled with stained glass, mostly depicting episodes in the life of Christ, and donated by families in memory of those who had died. The chancel window of the Ascension was erected by the congregation in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. One wonders if their choice of subject was influenced by the street name, or by the dedication of the little Church of the Ascension on the corner of the street?

The windows in the foyer were filled with mosaics of coloured glass. Many of the gifts reflect the expat business community. “Draperies and fittings for nave doors” were given by Muir and Mirrieles, the Scottish Department Store we now know as Tsum, while the heating boiler, wrought iron church gates and railings were given by the Smith family who had a boiler making factory in Moscow.

Almost all the fittings are now lost: portraits, brass memorial tablets, the oak pews, the Bishop’s chair, the Reredos, the Royal Arms for the Ambassador’s Pew, the Pulpit and Lectern. The list is long and detailed, right down to “Church seal, small size” and “Translation of Russian Law on Wills.”

The lights you now see hanging from the church roof must have been put there by Melodiya. The church was originally lit by gas standards, and electric lighting was installed in 1911; a photograph from 1912 shows standard lamps placed between the pews. More recently we solved the question of the unusual light fittings in the foyer; Melodiya employees explained that they are fake, and were put up for a film, so have nothing to do with the original church fittings!

Building the Parsonage

The new church had one major drawback; there was nowhere for the chaplain and his wife to live! They had occupied part of the old chapel building, and while the new church was being built, the committee rented temporary accommodation for them, intending that a parsonage should be built alongside the church. A fund was started for this in 1886, but money was slow to come in. The church had cost far more than had been anticipated, and there was little enthusiam for a second major appeal.

It became extremely inconvenient for the chaplain to continue living at “Some considerable distance from the church,” so in 1894 Jane McGill, widow of Robert McGill who had been one of the most generous contributors towards the cost of the church building, paid for the cost of the parsonage. This was designed by the same architect who made the plans for the church, R. Knill Freeman of Bolton. If you look at the wall of the parsonage to the left of the front door, you will see the commemorative plaque to Jane McGill, who also gave the money for the governesses’ hostel (now part of the Marco Polo Presnya Hotel) and a hospital.

At every stage of the building and restoration of St. Andrew’s, it was Jane McGill who provided both money and property to enable the work to go ahead. However, as a mere woman, she could not attend meetings or deal directly with the committee, and her brother, Charles Hastie, acted on her behalf.

Mrs. McGill died in tragic circumstances in 1918; Revolutionary Workers were billeted in her house, and the sick, elderly lady was confined to one room. When winter came, they threw her out into the snow to die. Fortunately she was recognised by passers-by and taken to St. Andrew’s House, the hostel she had provided, and where she died a few days later aged 86. Her death certificate recorded “paralysis of the heart,” the usual polite euphemism for death by starvation. Her brother died in similar circumstances two months later.

Patriots and Dissenters. 

Church minutes reflect the patriotism of the British community in Moscow, and this is particularly apparent for significant occasions. Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 was an occasion for deep mourning; the church minutes’ secretary recorded: “The Memorial Service held on the day of the Funeral was the most touching ceremony ever held within this Church. An oil-painting of Her late Majesty, notwithstanding the fact that it was finished in nine days, can be considered a very good likeness…” In contrast, he wrote of the service to commemorate Edward VII’s coronation: “Our beautiful little church was brightly decorated with flowers and flags, and a large congregation (of 285 persons), including the Consuls of most foreign nations, heartily joined in the specially selected service, led by organ and full choir. Marble busts of their Majesties were raised on pedestals at one end of the cloakroom and prettily decked out with evergreens and flags.” However, death drew the biggest crowds; when King Edward died in 1910, the congregation numbered 550 (the largest ever recorded at St. Andrew’s), and included the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and her suite; but only 237 attended the coronation service for King George V. After the coronation service, many of them went for a banquet in the Hermitage Restaurant – does anyone know if the building still exists?

Church records also give us an insight into the domestic running of the church. Thus we read of the Church and Parsonage being joined up to the town water supply, the repairs made to the hearse, the change from gas to electric lighting, made possible once more by the generosity of Jane McGill, and improvements made to the Library thanks to a donation from an amateur theatrical performance.

But as church committee members know only too well, financial problems are a recurrent item on the agenda. To offset the costs of Queen Victoria’s memorial service, the “church in mourning” was photographed, and copies sold for church funds. It is a copy of this photograph which we have today.

In 1905 the resources of the Church Poor Fund became increasingly strained as “an apparent stream of indigent Britishers” passed through Moscow from Japan and the Far East, using the new Siberian railway which the British themselves had helped to build. Applicants for financial aid were examined very carefully. After the Russo-Japanese war, church funds were very low, as more and more of the British community left Moscow. Fees were introduced for occasional worshippers, those “who never hesitate to make use of the Church when necessary, from attending the various services to having a free christening,” wrote an indignant church clerk.

It is comforting to read that the same ups and downs in parish life occurred then as they do today. Harvey Pitcher, who wrote several books about the British in Moscow, spoke to one of the English governesses, Emma Dashwood. She recalled that on her first Sunday in Moscow in 1912, she was asked to sing in the choir: “I was dragged into it; the choir was so depleted then!” She described the organ and choir stalls “high up at the back” in the gallery. An archive photo shows the large pipe organ; perhaps Melodiya will tell us one day what they did with it.

The church employed a number of paid servants in the nineteenth century, but as times grew more difficult their number was cut back until there were just two Russian workmen. The only other paid employee was the organist, who had a small flat in the church. In 1903 the minutes record that he was sacked as “His knowledge of anything at all about matters regarding our Church property, not solely comprised in his duties as organist, was primitive in the extreme.” The accounts show that for 600 roubles a year he was expected to combine the duties of organist, librarian and church caretaker, and it is perhaps significant that after his departure, these jobs were divided up.

The Clergy

The history of our church is also a history of her clergy who were appointed by the Russia Company, and licensed to officiate by the Bishop of London as a guarantee that the candidate was an “orthodox member of the Established Church!” Although at least one chaplain left because he found the winters too harsh, the Russia Company had no problems finding clergy for St. Andrew’s. In 1865 there were no fewer than 130 applicants for the post, and they appointed the Rev. Robert Penny. A year later he complained to the Company that although most Churchmen were behind him, his ministry was threatened by “the factious opposition of a few malicious Dissenters.” The British community was fairly equally divided at that time between English (Anglican) and Scottish (Presbyterian), and the Scottish “Dissenters” did not like the Prayer Book services. At the height of the dispute each side elected its own wardens, there were fights over which side should have the Minute Book, and for several years no meetings were convened. It took two major events to resolve the situation; firstly the old chapel was found to be in danger of falling down, and the Russia Company’s agent in Moscow was instructed to convene a General Meeting to discuss the rebuilding. Secondly, Mrs. Penny died, and her husband decided to return to England; however, he was not forgotten – whenever there were disputes with their clergy, the older members would say: “Another Mr. Penny sent to try us!” The Bishop insisted that services should be conducted according to the Church of England Prayer Book, but agreed that the new church should be dedicated to St. Andrew, Scotland’s Patron Saint! The property was registered in the name of the British community whereas the old chapel had been the property of the Russia Company.

The chaplain’s problems were not at an end! The next clergyman, Mr. Wybergh, resigned in 1911 after 23 years at St. Andrew’s (the longest serving of any chaplain), when his application for an increase in stipend, to take into account the rising exchange rate and the higher cost of food, was rejected. He accepted a living in Sussex, and later wrote to the Russia Company of his time in Moscow: “My work in Moscow was difficult and uphill… for I am a good and definite Churchman, and yet I had to persuade people, who were really Dissenters, to look at Church matters from the Church point of view.” The same problems had surfaced again! Mr. Wybergh’s successor, the Rev. Frank North, had been curate in St. Petersburg, where he was very popular. Congregations increased with his arrival, and much to Mr. Wybergh’s disgust, Mr. North even managed to persuade the committee to pay him double his predecessor’s salary! However, the honeymoon didn’t last long. Six months later in December 1911, the committee met to deplore the decoration of the church with flowers and evergreens for Christmas. It appears that it was fitting to decorate the church for a coronation, but NOT for a religious festival! “Ritual machinations!” objected the Scots and the congregation divided into pro-North (the younger generation) and anti-North (the older ones who also held the most influential positions on the committee).

Women, of course, could neither serve on the committee nor even attend the meetings. (As for St. Andrew’s House, the Governesses’ Hostel, not even the Matron who was in charge of all the domestic arrangements, was allowed to attend meetings of the Board!) There was, however, a Ladies’ Committee which was concerned with various charitable activities. During the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5) they helped to raise funds for wounded Russian soldiers. The minutes record: “although we are living here in a foreign country, yet it is our duty to help those who are to a large extent, our personal and good friends in their hour of need.”

The chaplain was also not a member of the Church Committee, nor was he allowed to attend any of its meetings. There are records of many bitter letters on this issue from the chaplains, but it was not until the Revolution that the rule was changed, and the chaplain became chairman of his own committee.

The Norths’ Story. 

While in St. Petersburg, Frank North married a member of the congregation, Margaret Caird Birse. She was born in Russia of Scottish parents, and was bilingual. One of her brothers, Arthur Birse, became Churchill’s Russian interpreter in World War II. (Frank was born in England and never learned Russian; perhaps he was too busy grappling with the Dissenters!)

In “The Smiths of Moscow,” Harvey Pitcher records an interview with Herbert, the Norths’ son, who remembered vividly the events of 1917. “The Bolsheviks set up a machine gun post in one of the attics, and we spent nearly a week in the basement with no light and little food. On emerging from the house at the end of the fighting we found many spent cartridges in the courtyard and two large pools of blood.”

As times grew harder, “Churchmen” and “Dissenters” alike were grateful to Frank and Margaret North, who remained in Russia until March 1920, when, after arranging for the evacuation of the British community, they were permitted to board the last train going to Helsinki. They had visited those held in prison, protested to the authorities about cases of ill-treatment, and had themselves been imprisoned several times. Frank North apologised that on one Sunday the church had been closed, due to his arrest. He and his wife converted part of the parsonage into a canteen, buying food on the black market to feed the weak and destitute; Herbert remembered helping his father pull a sledge round the villages outside Moscow, in the search for food. Both Norths were later awarded the CBE for their services to the community, and Frank North accepted the Helsinki chaplaincy which was renamed “Helsinki with Moscow,” a sign that St. Andrew’s was never relinquished. In the years before a permanent chaplain could be appointed to Moscow, the chaplain from Helsinki used to try to come to Moscow once a month, often taking services in the British Embassy. The Church Registers list regular visits from clergy and Bishops.

During the time that St. Andrew’s was closed for worship, the parsonage was used for brief periods, first as the Finnish Embassy, and then as the Estonian Legation. The church itself was used as a hostel, and was eventually allocated to Melodiya, the State Recording Company, as recording studios and offices.

The Rebirth of St. Andrew’s. 

In 1991 the Rev. Tyler Strand managed to persuade Melodiya to allow the use of the church for Sunday services when he came from Helsinki. Services were held approximately fortnightly; Dr. Hugh Carpenter, Doctor to the British Embassy and a Lay Reader, took Morning Prayer when a priest was not available. Chad and I came to visit St. Andrew’s in October 1992; there is a picture of me standing outside the parsonage, which was used as offices by Melodiya. Visitors were not encouraged, but Dr. Carpenter seized us by the arms and hustled us up the stairs on a whistle-stop tour, before anyone realized what was happening! By the time we were outside again, and doing a tour round the back of the church, word had got round, and employees were crowding round the windows to catch a glimpse of these extraordinary foreigners! Access to the church was often quite hard as the porch and foyer were stacked full of old Melodiya records; there was no room for coffee then! There was nowhere for meetings either, and the church committee, which was a small, volunteer body, met in a room in the British Embassy; elected officers and a constitution were still a long way off.

Chad Coussmaker was appointed in 1993, and that marked the start of weekly services, much to the relief of members of the congregation, who could never remember whether it was a church Sunday or not. The committee rented a three-room apartment for the chaplain in Park Kultury, originally as a temporary measure until the parsonage was handed back – we never imagined then that it would take four and a half years!

October 19th 1994 was a very special day when Queen Elizabeth visited St. Andrew’s as part of her visit to Russia. President Yeltsin told her that the church was being returned, but so far we have only managed to regain full possession of the parsonage. When Chad recently received an OBE from the Queen, her first question was: “And have you got the church back yet?” [In fact a usage agreement was only finally signed with the City in 2017]

Newcomers may have wondered why we have a small crucifix either in the centre or on the left hand side of the church. The primitive figure was discovered on a pile of rubbish by the church door; Jennifer had it put on a simple cross, and it became a symbol of hope for our church, for the people and the building. The crucifer carried it outside at the head of our first Palm Sunday procession, watched by curious Russians who were passing by. One person present, who had been a student in Moscow during the repressions of the 80’s, wept with joy as we sang in the open. Later the crucifix was carried across to the Parsonage, where the chaplain, and curate, Jonathan Frais, gave thanks for the return of the building, and blessed it.

This has only been a brief overview of the story of the Moscow chaplaincy; there is still a lot more to discover, and I hope that someone will take over the exciting task of research

Despite the ever-changing nature of the congregation, we do have one living link with the past in the person of Mr. James Colley, whose family played an important part in the running of St. Andrew’s in the last century. [Mr. James Colley died in 2002, but we still have connections with his relatives]

We can take heart that our predecessors suffered as we do: from changes in the exchange rate, from sudden decreases in the numbers of church members, from political upheaval. Despite all this, St. Andrew’s still stands as a sign of our faith, a church for the worship of God, and as the opportunities open out for further development, a centre for activities which will benefit the wider community.

Canon Chad and Jean Coussmaker were in Moscow from 1993 – 1999, when Chad retired. Jean died on 21 August 2022