ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. - James Hazen only planned to visit Russia for six months, but he ended up spending 18 years there as a teacher, tutor and novice in a monastery.
Hazen, 64, of Franklin Township graduated from Riverside High School in 1968 and went on to graduate from Swarthmore College in Philadelphia with a degree in philosophy, taking pre-med subjects with plans to attend medical school.
He entered the University of Pittsburgh medical school, but after a divorce that left him devastated, he said, Hazen dropped out of college.
"I really liked children, so I became a teacher's aide, and then with my education, I began as a substitute teacher in the Pittsburgh school system and also in Carrick and Ambridge," Hazen said.
"I think I was a natural-born teacher. I really loved to teach. I was very patient," he said. "Jessie Stuart, the poet and teacher, said, 'A good teacher loves his subject or students. A great teacher loves both and marries the two in his soul.' That is exactly what I did. I loved both."
Hazen moved to San Francisco, taking manual labor jobs and beginning a spiritual journey. "I had seriously rejected God in college, but then I began to seek God. I wanted him back, and my main focus was seeking God."
In 1992, Hazen decided to volunteer as a teacher for six months to show his gratitude toward God. As he was searching for a spot that needed a teacher, he heard about a place in Moscow that needed an English teacher, and his six months turned into 18 years.
"I loved it so much. It was a wonderful life. I felt I was in Holy Russia. I threw away the return ticket," Hazen said.
In college, he had taken Russian as a language, and he tutored students in Russian in California.
"When I got there, it was so hard," he said. "Reading Russian was all right, but in conversation, it was difficult. I would catch a word or two and then try to figure out what they were saying."
Hazen lived the life of the average Russian, he said, and it was financially difficult.
"I lived like the people, and they were poor," he said. "People shopped in the Soviet stores, and we never knew what we would find. Maybe apples, maybe pears. Inflation was bad. Bread went from 2 rubles to 15 rubles, and I thought, 'It won't stay that high,' so I waited a day and then it was 30 rubles."
During his first five years, he taught in the Optina Gymnasia school, which had preschool through high school. He also lived with a Russian military officer's family, tutoring his son in English for a while.
Hazen also spent time as a novice in the Bulgarian Podorye Metachio in Moscow.
"I sang in the choir, and services were morning and evening. As my disciplines, I taught school and I cleaned the sanctuary," Hazen said.
Hazen described the Russians as very friendly.
"They loved Americans. They liked Ronald Reagan, and they felt Reagan had challenged (Mikhail) Gorbachev. They were happy the Berlin Wall came down. We were like heroes to them," Hazen said.
The Russian attitude changed during the Kosovo War, when NATO forces bombed Serbia in 1999.
"The people were confused. They didn't know what to make of that. On the street, a person told me to go home," Hazen said.
During the summers, Hazen returned home to help in the family business, Hazen Dairy Farm in Franklin Township.
"I loved Russia, but when Russia changed the visa laws, requiring people to leave the country for six months, it was a struggle to stay there, and I returned home," Hazen said.
Hazen's spiritual journey has continued.
"Before I went to Russia, I had gone from San Francisco to Arkansas and worked at a summer camp and taught school for a short time. It was in Arkansas that I became aware of the Orthodox faith, and I wanted to be Orthodox and was baptized in 1988. I believe it is the true Christianity," Hazen said.
"Orthodoxy is to see yourself as you are and others as they are, and love yourself and them."