One of the most extraordinary Orthodox women of the twentieth century, Sophie Shidlovsky Koulomzin, experienced and helped to shape the life of the Orthodox Church throughout some of its most turbulent decades and critical periods. Although she counts herself first as mother and grandmother, she is also known and loved as teacher and educator, responsible for the religious education of countless Orthodox children both in the United States and abroad. Her life has spanned vastly different places and times, as evidenced by the title of her autobiography: Many Worlds: A Russian Life (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980), and she has loved and nurtured the Orthodox Church in each of these worlds.
The first of her worlds was the life of upper-class, pre-Revolutionary Russia, a time fondly remembered by Sophie as a period of gentle civility and grace. Born in 1903 to a prominent and respected family, Sophie was raised with a respect and love for education and family. This period provided her with a deep connectedness to her Orthodox faith and a sense of belonging to a greater whole, a security that derived from something greater than herself or her nation. She would sorely need this rootedness in her faith to face the great dangers and difficulties that were to come.
When she was thirteen, the revolution broke out in Russia and life there forever changed. Sophie's family suffered considerable hardship as their estate was nationalized, and they struggled to secure means of support and food to live. An even greater horror was the gradual destruction of their family life that took place as they were forced to split up in order to escape and survive. Many friends and relations met tragic fates, and Sophie's own father, who had been one of the leaders of the Duma, the pre-Revolutionary Russian parliament, was in extreme danger. It was only after several years of deprivation and peril that the family was able to escape to Estonia.
In Estonia from 1920 to 1922, Sophie continued her education and received her first exposure to the ideas of Christian social ministry. She and others formed a Russian youth group that attended lectures and Bible studies, ran a Sunday school for refugee children, and produced a manuscript magazine. Although she was still quite young, idealistic, and inexperienced, she already had developed the interests that guided her work in the Church: love of education, devotion to her faith, and the concern to reach out beyond herself in service to others. In 1922 she obtained a scholarship from the YMCA to study at university in Germany.
The move to Berlin in 1922 was especially fortuitous, because it coincided with the arrival of an elite group of Russian émigrés in Berlin, including Nicholas Berdyaev, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, S. L. Frank, and many others. Vital to the revival of Russian Orthodox spirituality and theology in the early twentieth century, these men continued to influence Orthodox thought through their activities and writings, and they became the vanguard of the remarkably creative and theologically fertile Orthodox community in Europe and later also in America. Their friendship and teaching was very important to Sophie. Through the efforts of these thinkers and the work of the many young and enthusiastic Orthodox in the emigrant community, the Russian Student Christian Movement was born in 1923. Mrs. Koulomzin writes in her memoirs that she herself was deeply influenced by all she learned and experienced through this group, and that most of the Russian Orthodox leaders outside of Russia were in some way its product.
In 1924 Sophie's family moved to Paris and she was forced to discontinue her studies. However, in 1927 a new opportunity presented itself when she was selected by the YMCA to receive a scholarship targeted for a Russian Orthodox student with leadership ability to study in the field of religious education and youth work in the U.S. Her studies convinced her that her vocation was children and their education, and after a year she returned to Paris eager to teach and write religious books for children. For the first time she was paid to do what she loved: to work through the Russian Student Christian Movement to develop the religious education of émigré children. She helped to prepare a new curriculum for Orthodox church schools, started instruction by correspondence for Russians scattered throughout France and North Africa, and became director of an Orthodox summer camp for girls. Soon after she began this work she became reacquainted with Nikita Koulomzin, a distant relative by marriage whom she had known in her youth. They married in 1932, and were soon blessed with three daughters: Elizabeth in 1933, Olga in 1934, and Xenia in 1939. With the birth of her children, Sophie Koulomzin realized her greatest joy and vocation: motherhood. Her work in religious education had ended (for the time being) in 1933 because the depression had eliminated the funds for her work. However, Mrs. Koulomzin found that she had to continue to work outside the home because of the great financial need of the family.
Soon after Xenia's birth, Germany went to war with France, and the Koulomzin's were caught up once more in the nightmare and turmoil of war. Their fourth child, Dimitri, was born in 1944. Despite the severe limitations of war-torn Europe and postwar France, the Koulomzin family survived, and in 1948 decided to immigrate to the United States.
The move to America provided Mrs. Koulomzin with the opportunity for a new call to the work that she has described as being as meaningful for her as her family life. Her special interest had always been the needs of children, and now, in America, she was drawn to the need of immigrant Orthodox children, and the subsequent generations born in America, to understand and experience their faith more deeply and completely. Although Orthodox Sunday schools were being set up, and untrained volunteers were ready to help, there were no books, no guidelines, no educational programs or teaching aids, and almost no one qualified to teach these eager volunteers. Mrs. Koulomzin soon became active in religious education, at first translating the texts she had produced in Paris, and then adding texts for younger children and a Church history for teenagers.
Through this work she became known among Orthodox teachers and theologians, and in 1956 was asked by Fr. Georges Florovsky to teach the course in religious education that had just been introduced into the curriculum of St. Vladimir's Seminary. Mrs. Koulomzin, who was the first woman to serve on the faculty of St. Vladimir's, continued in that position until 1973, and through it she influenced an entire generation of priests who were to change the nature of religious education in parish life. During her tenure at St. Vladimir's, Mrs. Koulomzin became the esteemed colleague of some of the most gifted Orthodox theologians to teach and write in the United States: men such as Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who had been her Sunday school pupil many years prior in Paris, and Fr. John Meyendorff, who was related to Nikita and had attended the Koulomzin's wedding as a very young icon-bearer.
Mrs. Koulomzin strongly believed that the success and excellence of an Orthodox religious education program depended on the joint efforts of all the Orthodox, and that divisions along ethnic lines would seriously hamper progress. She initiated a series of meetings and lectures that culminated in the formation in 1956 of an Orthodox Christian Education Commission supported by all the various Orthodox churches. Although they began with no money, no budget, no staff and even no address, they published a bulletin biannually, periodically published larger texts such as manuals and books, and started magazines for various age groups of Orthodox youth. Through this commission, Mrs. Koulomzin, together with many other wonderful and committed workers, has touched the lives of generations of young people.
Even after Mrs. Koulomzin formally retired from her position at St. Vladimir's, she continued to publish and participate in various activities. She has since become involved in an important program called Religious Books for Russia, for which she prepared a textbook for young people based on her work in America; a book about the saints; and other texts. Hundreds of thousands of her books have now been distributed in Russia. By God's grace, Sophie Koulomzin finally has been able to serve even the Church in Russia, the home of her first "world" so many years ago, in the vocation to which God has called her.