A British Baptism in a Russian Church, in 1968



George Hambleton, son of Pan-American Airways co-founder John Adams Hambleton, arrived in Moscow early in 1968 to serve as the airline’s first resident director there. The initial PanAm and Aeroflot flights between New York and Moscow were to take place that July.

I met him early in his stay, and we became friendly. George and his lovely British wife, Janet, had a son, James, who had been born recently in Helsinki, where George had previously resided.

George was determined that James should be baptized in the Soviet Union in a Russian church, but by Dr. Eric Staples, an Anglican priest based in Helsinki who was a good friend of both of us.

Permission finally was granted after George made numerous interventions with the Russian Orthodox Church bureaucracy, which he claimed had gone all the way to the Patriarch.

George had leased a weekend cottage at Zavidovo, on the Volga River nearly 70 miles north of Moscow, in a state-owned recreation complex known popularly as “the diplomatic dacha.”

Though modest by Western standards, this facility provided an escape, limited sporting possibilities (e.g., tennis, skeet shooting, boating, snowmobiling) and fresh air for foreign businessmen and diplomats.

On Sept. 21, 1968, a beautifully sunny autumn day, a smallish group of the Hambletons’ guests arrived at Zavidovo for the baptismal ceremony. Once assembled, we embarked in open boats powered by outboard motors for the short ride to a nearby village where the church was located. I was asked to serve as the unofficial interpreter.

The Russian priest was waiting for us at the church near the riverbank. Though cordial enough, he appeared nervous about what was about to transpire and, no doubt, about having a bunch of Western foreigners in his church.

It should be recalled that in those days the U.S.S.R. was still very much a closed society, where citizens were strongly discouraged from having contacts with (noncommunist) foreigners. Moreover, America’s involvement in Vietnam was a major focus of Soviet criticism and propaganda efforts.

Nevertheless, the priest chatted amiably with Father Staples and explained how best to conduct the service in the space available, though he politely declined George’s invitation to participate.

Just before the ceremony began, a large group of working-class Russian tourists disgorged from one of the riverboats that plied the Volga and sought to enter the church—the village must have been a standard rest stop for such outings.

The arrival of the tourists clearly upset the Russian priest, who tried to shoo them away. George, however, told him that we viewed a church as a public place, and that the tourists not only should not be barred from entering but, indeed, were welcome. That settled, the service began.

Father Staples and the Hambletons stood with baby James in an open space to one side of the church, with the Russian priest hovering in the background nearby. The Hambletons’ guests formed a semicircle around them. As the service was about to begin, however, perhaps 30 or 40 of the tourists approached and formed their own semicircle facing the invited guests. They watched silently yet respectfully and with rapt attention as the brief ceremony proceeded.

Once it was over, many of them rushed forward to greet the Hambletons, wishing them health, happiness and a long life for their son. It was the most genuine, spontaneous and moving outpouring of human feeling that I encountered in my two-plus years in Russia.

Ordinary people who understood not a word of the service they had observed nevertheless grasped the importance of the occasion and responded in a deeply human way.

Whenever I hear mentioned the warmth and friendliness of the Russian people, I think of what I witnessed that sunny day on the Volga and the flood of good wishes from ordinary citizens for foreigners whom they did not know.

Retired Senior Foreign Service Officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent the majority of his 35-year career in or dealing with Central and Eastern Europe. His final two overseas posts were as deputy chief of mission in Sofia and then Bucharest. He served as Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson’s staff aide at Embassy Moscow from 1967 to 1968.