Our Woman of the Week is Inga Leonova, nominated not only for her role as chief editor of The Wheel but also one of the movers behind the Women's Orthodoxy and War conference that took place in New York in the summer of 2022 in reaction to the war in Ukraine. You see her here in 2017 amid The Wheel’s editors and authors (l to r, Daniel Struve, Fr Christopher d'Aloisio, Gregory Tucker, Susan Arida, Inga Leonova, Fr. Joachim Destivelle, Fr Robert Arida, Elena Belyakova) on the porch of the chapel of St-Serge Institute in Paris for a Conference on the Moscow Council of 1917/18, and among The Wheel’s editors (Michael Clark, Katie Kelaidis, Liesl Behr) this summer in Ravenna: We asked her to tell you what made her want to found a journal of Orthodox life and thought:
“I should start by admitting that I am two people: one is an accomplished architect working for a large healthcare design firm, and another is an Orthodox writer and editor. And both these halves of my personality came from the way I grew up, always a little torn. Both my parents are architects, and they were very committed to me following in their footsteps because architecture is perhaps the last remaining ‘Renaissance’ vocation where one is an artist, an engineer, and a philosopher at once. And I love my profession because I believe that architects literally, physically change the world and are co-creators with God. But in my family and among the friends of my parents there were also journalists, writers, and publishers. My great-grandfather was a publisher, my grandfather a journalist, my maternal aunt a poet … I was raised among books, disputes, and poetry readings. I have always been a prolific writer and when I was in high school, I briefly dreamed of going into journalism. When I was in architecture school, I was in a research Master’s program which required a robust written thesis, and I ended up writing what was really a book draft on architecture as a means of transcending the material. So somehow these two halves of me continued to coexist, and I continued to write both on architecture of the sacred, and on the various issues that were related to the church and the challenges that Orthodoxy experiences in the modern world.
“The Wheel was born out of the sense of a hole in the world of Orthodox publishing between church bulletins and newsletters, and very segregated academic publications. I felt that there was very little for an average intelligent Orthodox reader, especially in English. It was as if all the Orthodox media existed within the walls of the self-created ghetto that had little contact with the environment in which the absolute majority of the Orthodox live every day. I believe the church inside its walls makes no sense, has no raison d’etre. ‘Go, teach all nations’ was the direct command, wasn’t it? There was a proliferation of mostly online Orthodox media in Russia that was trying to explore the church's engagement with the world, and of course a plethora of excellent heterodox publications, but almost nothing for the rest of the world Orthodox readership. So, I started thinking about something like an ‘Orthodox New Yorker’, something that is geared toward an intelligent crowd but not a high brow academic crowd, intelligent but accessible, and definitely eclectic, dealing with the entire mosaic of the world, various issues, but also art, poetry… everything. And I wanted to attract and feature different writers, not only the kind that publish a lot within the narrow Orthodox academic world. Facebook was a very enlightening and helpful resource that has shown that there are many people who can write and think interesting things. I was talking to people for a couple of years, figuring out who would be good collaborators, how we could set out about it.
“My earliest ‘partner in crime’ was Joseph Clarke who is also an architect, now a professor at the University of Toronto, whom I somehow managed to convince that it was a worthy project. One October day in 2014 I showed up in Joseph’s apartment at Yale with a few bottles of cranberry wine, and by the middle of the night we had an almost fully-cooked plan. We went out and recruited several friends who shared our vision and enthusiasm. One of the things we agreed upon right away was that it was only worth it if we set ourselves very high standards from the get-go. The journal not only had to have high quality materials and rigorous editing, but it also had to be beautiful, and always include art and poetry. As they say, the rest is history, and it has been a fantastic ride. I still sometimes have a hard time getting my head around the fact that in eight years we have garnered subscribers on six continents, we are in many university libraries including most of the Ivy League schools, and that it is read literally everywhere – no matter where I find myself in the English-speaking Orthodox environment, people have read The Wheel. And not only Orthodox… when I was introduced to the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he said, ‘Ah, The Wheel, yes… I read it… it is very good,’ upon hearing which I let go of my wine glass…
“And, you know, we are completely independent, which was our primary founding principle, but which means that we have no financial support whatsoever aside from subscriptions and very infrequent donations. This makes it very hard, of course, because while the editors are all working pro-bono, we have to pay the people who make the product, and pay for the web services, sometimes publishing permissions, etc., and of course a beautiful printed journal is not inexpensive to produce. But the editors are extraordinarily dedicated, and I do believe that the grace of God sustains us, because sometimes I feel that the fact that we continue to publish regularly is nothing short of miraculous. Something that is very important for us is to feature women’s voices, which is a challenge because women, as you well know, are significantly underrepresented in Orthodox publishing. But half of our editorial board is women, we have very accomplished women on our advisory board, and this is a significant priority.”
Inga Leonova is our Woman of the Week, nominated not only for her role as chief editor of The Wheel but also as one of the movers behind the Women's Orthodoxy and War conference that occurred this summer on Long Island, in New York. (You’ll see that, on principle, she doesn’t approve of the kind of women-only spaces we often create at Axia, and will explain her reason below.) You see her here with the other organizers of the conference, left to right, Lena Zezulin, Sr. Vassa, me, Katie Kelaidis, and with the same four speaking at the conference alongside Emily Waters (more on her below). We asked Inga to walk you through why she decided it was important to organize a gathering to talk through the war in Ukraine:
“The WOW Conference last summer came about in just as inspired a way as The Wheel. My friend Sister Vassa Larin called me and said, let's do a conference about what is happening in Ukraine. She said, look around: the ‘official’ church is nowhere to be heard, all those men are cowering in silence, and women are speaking up, we should give them a venue so their voices can be heard.
“The conference evolved much like the Wheel, we went about recruiting the like-minded ‘can-do’ people and pulled it off in a matter of weeks. When the conference was announced, there was some noise from the cyberworld of ‘Orthodox haters’, we got threats, so we even had to get some discreet security for the event, but thankfully nothing came out in this department, there was no disruption. It is worth noting that some of the detractors were calling for ‘finally shutting up these unbearable women who speak above their stature.’ Despite the short notice and the coincidence with the Feast of Pentecost, the conference was very well attended both in person and on Zoom, and I was happy that women and men were about equally represented in attendance, because I don’t hold with ‘women-only’ events and enterprises, I consider them counterproductive. I was reflecting on the fact that an Orthodox woman, Emily Waters, stood up and spoke of rape in war in very graphic detail, and men were in the room listening and hearing that. I wonder how many people reflected upon what tremendous courage this took.
“The conference had quite a bit of resonance, there is a lot of viewing of the YouTube recordings, and the special issue of The Wheel is coming out right now. Many people that we talked to after the conference said that it was a tremendous achievement to make it so obvious that women were essentially taking the Orthodox Church to task for its extraordinary failure in this war. And women are continuing to do so. Sister Vassa has an entire series of podcasts called ‘The Orthodox Against the War’, Xenia Loutchenko, a well-known Russian journalist, has written a number of articles; Lena Zezulin, a prominent Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia activist, has challenged her jurisdiction on the unification with the Russian Church and its consequences… I would daresay that no one in the church is witnessing against the war as steadfastly as women do. And history shows that time and again women stand up when men hide – just think of the Myrrhbearers, or the Soviet women that accompanied clergy into exile and kept the prayers going in the cold and priestless churches.
“I have to say, I certainly feel the advantage of being an independent woman in the church--nothing in my life depends on the church, it is really hard to silence me. I think part of it is that at some point, as Orthodox women, we realize that we have so much less to lose: we are not ordained, we rarely hold academic positions in the Orthodox institutions, which gives us a lot of freedom. I knew I could always speak freely as long as people who could be affected were willing to accept that. It was a great blessing to establish early on when I started to publish that both my priest and bishop were supportive. And to be honest, it was largely the clergy who have been my teachers, especially Father Robert Arida, who have taught me that there is no fear in love. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I could not and cannot understand why people in the church in the West are so afraid. There is something deeply wrong, deeply anti-Gospel in this fear that permeates our lives, and I think I will never tire of speaking up against it. We allow much evil to be perpetrated in the name of the church, and the war in Ukraine is perhaps the latest and most stark example of this, but not the only one by far.”
As always, we asked our Woman of the Week, Inga Leonova, to tell you about her morning routine. You see her here in her home parish:
“My mornings depend entirely on whether I have a 7 am call, or need to travel for work, or not. On a call-free, travel-free day I wake up at 6 am or so, have a cappuccino and something cereal-ly, and go for a swim at the pool at the Y. I have established that swimming is the only activity that’s one hundred percent ‘mine’ because doing laps is the only time I cannot be interrupted by calls and texts, so I hold on to it very hard. Unfortunately, I often do have that call or am traveling. Sometimes I take calls when on a walk, if can't get to the pool: in my neighborhood there is a local hidden forest with a pond. I need to commune with nature. I have a really hard time when I cannot get outside for at least a little bit. When I work from home, I am in the sunroom, which opens into the garden and is also filled with plants. This sustains me greatly.
“I do not have a proper ‘prayer rule’, never had. I’ve tried to be a good girl and establish it many times, but it’s just not in my nature. I love old prayers and know a lot of them, and they come to me as needed, unbidden, at various times, along with my own words. Sometimes I sing the Vespers in my head when I travel… In the months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine I learnt what it meant to ‘pray without ceasing,’ when the prayer is happening in you no matter what else you are doing. It is an extraordinary experience, although I wish I hadn’t had to learn it.”
Thank you, Inga!
Axia would like to acknowledge a profound debt to Inga and The Wheel. Before Axia existed, Inga invited Patricia Fann Bouteneff to act as guest editor for an entire edition of The Wheel, on women in the Church. It was her experience there that showed Patricia what featuring Orthodox women’s voices could look like, and a year or so later led to the focus and tone of Axia Women.