Orthodox America

 Letter from Russia  

A Moscow University student who spent last year as an exchange student here in the States, where he became acquainted with Orthodox America, wrote us the following letter on his return home to Russia.

...Economically I found the situation in Moscow considerably better than I had expected.  There is no catastrophic poverty among the masses,  no swarms of beggars-at least no more than there were two years ago; no mile-long lines; we aren't subsisting on bread and potatoes.  People are dressed in expensive clothes; there are many foreign cars-Mercedes and BMWs.  At every corner and bus stop there are kiosks selling American soft drinks, a great variety of American cigarettes, alcohol, candy bars (Snickers, Mars, etc.)  Many people buy them.  American cigarettes are being advertised on TV-in just the same manner as they used to be advertised in the US several decades ago. In general, we are becoming rather Americanized: we read American inscriptions on clothes and caps; we see large advertisements of American goods in the streets, we watch American-type commercials... People here love America for reasons quite different than those it should be loved for.  And they adopt those things. For example, everywhere you read: "The Million lottery-one step toward your dream."  (We are being persuaded that our dream is to win one million through the lottery.)

At the same time, churches are being opened, domes are being gilded and bells ring.   Writings of the Church Fathers and the Philokalia, as well as many different prayer-books, Bibles and other Orthodox Christian literature are sold in the streets and special stores.  Priests walk about in cassocks, monasteries are being reopened, Sunday schools organized. There are frequent programs about the Church on TV.  Services are celebrated in almost dilapidated buildings, amidst bare walls.  The majority of churches in the center of Moscow have been returned to the faithful.  In rural areas people talk and read about God still more.  Of course, many people are indifferent or even hostile.   For others, their Orthodoxy becomes a banner in the crusade against the "Jews", "Masons," "foreigners," "Americans", "democrats".

There is a great diversity of spiritual paths.  We now have a multitude of Protestant sects of course, but Christianity is not alone in Russia.  There are also many Eastern groups and cults as well as homegrown cults and heresies.  In every Moscow subway car there are posters which portray a young woman in a white robe with a staff in her hand.  An inscription reads that she is the Messiah, the "Virgin Mary Christ".  The text invites everyone to come and bow to her; to those who don't it promises "a painful death from the Antichrist."  This lady is also called "Comforter, Spirit of Truth."  There is no limit to the absurdities.  Unfortunately, this cult has many followers in our poor country.  I have read somewhere that two followers of this cult broke into a church while the Vigil was in progress, "blessed" everyone with a portrait of that lady and then cursed the priest as "a servant of the Antichrist." It took some time and effort to restore order in the church.  There is also the so-called "Theotokos Center" with its own printing press.  These people honor the Mother of God as divine; their teaching is a blend of ancient and modern heresies.   In still another paper I read that the Slavic pagan religion has been revived and has some followers.  They worship ancient Slavic pagan "gods" and teach old Slavic methods of self-defense.  So you see, we now have spiritual "food" for every taste.  Fortunately, Russia's long Orthodox history keeps most people from being carried away by these religious frauds.  Of course, after 70 years of atheism people have, in many cases, lost the ability to "test the spirits." Even so, the "Virgin Mary" posters in the subways are being torn down, or the number 666 is written on them.  And my father, who until recently claimed to be an atheist, said that "even he" clearly understood the lady to be an impostor.

My father was catechized at the parish of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, where I now attend services.  It is a former Catacomb parish. Services are conducted in a home church, a large apartment in the center of Moscow.  During the services it is usually tightly packed. Father Oleg Oreshkin is in his forties; until recently he was a catacomb priest. Father Stephan, an elderly hieromonk, serves with him.  The parish was organized four years ago. The atmosphere there is very prayerful.

Father Seraphim Rose's books are translated and widely available.  In the largest Orthodox bookstore in Moscow, "Trinity Books", I saw a collection of sermons by Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesenski, former Chief Hierarch of the Church Abroad) on sale.  In general, there are many books printed in Jordanville in our bookstores. In "Trinity Books" there is a stand where they are collecting signatures (already a long list) for the canonization of the Royal Martyrs.

Few people here understand the reasons for the division between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Free Church.  Many, even Free Church parishioners, are disturbed by the division.  Meanwhile, the Patriarchate firmly stands on the approval of the 1927 Declaration [of Metropolitan Sergius].  In its publications there are persistent attempts to justify Metropolitan Sergius' policy.  These attempts signify that the voice of the Free Church is being heard and is disquieting.  I am convinced that our unification with the Moscow Patriarchate will eventually take place.  Our common believers are Orthodox; it will just take time for the hierarchs to hear their voice and change their un-Orthodox views.

You may have heard about the law initiated by Patriarch Alexis II and passed by our Parliament, which prohibits any but charity activities to religious groups from abroad and to foreign citizens.  Since the Free Church has its administrative center abroad, it may therefore be subject to this law.   [See article on page 3-ed.]

Here in Russia the Orthodox revival is underway. Now I see that all our history, arts, customs and even language are built on Orthodox Christianity.  If we safeguard our Orthodoxy, we are the richest nation, even if we are economically poor.  Orthodoxy is Russia's most precious treasure; sadly, many people are unaware of this.  Many people in Russia still look elsewhere for ideals and consolations. But they will not find them.  For us, Orthodox, the most difficult and important thing is to be and remain really "Ortho-dox", not only in name but "in deed and in truth."

I've just returned from Donskoi Monastery, a wonderful place. Some of the old spirit is there, while other monasteries in Moscow-St. Daniel's and Novodevichy-project a rather official, cold atmosphere.  In Donskoi's small church are the grace-filled relics of St. Tikhon.  The cemetery is very old; many old noble Russian families are buried there, as well as relatives of Pushkin, Turgenev, Lermontov, Tolstoy.  Many different personalities, convictions and paths of history have met and found rest there on the Donskoi burial grounds.

How many people work for your newspaper? It is very informative and interesting from the first page to the last. I really like the fact that it's in English and that it's called Orthodox America.  Unfortunately, the desire to "preserve" Orthodoxy from all "aliens" is characteristic not only for some in the diaspora.  When I told my university professor (who was recently ordained a priest in the Moscow Patriarchate) that after my seminary studies I may serve in America, he said that Americans don't need Orthodoxy.  We, Russians, owe to Orthodoxy everything good that we have. If there is anything valuable in our culture or character, it appeared there because for one thousand years we lived in the grace and light of Orthodoxy.  Our patriotic feelings and the love for our Church have become inseparable, because our Motherland owes its identity to the Church.  Now it is very easy for us to forget this and to imagine that, on the contrary, it was Mother Russia who created the Church, and is destined to guard it.

This is our "Third Rome" mentality, which echoes the Old Testament idea of "chosen people".  "Only Russians can be truly Orthodox."  But our Lord Jesus Christ teaches universality.  That's why His Testament is called "New": there is neither Greek nor Jew...  I think we need to remind ourselves that even if Russia never existed there would still be Christ's Church.  We need to remember the commandment of the Head of the Church to be the light of the world.  It is because St. Cyril and St. Methodius remembered that commandment that we have our Holy Russia.   Now it's our turn to remember the commandment.  Indeed, our Orthodox history is full of examples of missionary activity: St. Stephen of Perm, St. Nicholas of Japan, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Innocent of Alaska, St. Tikhon the Confessor and many others.  These people were not afraid to learn other languages and to translate the services into them.  They were not afraid to allow "aliens" into the churches.  They were not afraid that Orthodoxy will be "impoverished" by the translation.  But as soon as we begin to love the earthly more than the heavenly, to love our nationality more than Holy Orthodoxy, to love our Old Church Slavonic more than the souls of those who walk around us in darkness, to love our culture more than Christ-then our missionary efforts are likely to cease.  I think that the slowing down of our missionary work is a sad sign of the crisis which we have lived through in this century. With God's help, our witness to the world will be renewed with the renewal of Orthodoxy in Russia. To witness we need just to be Orthodox and to remember St. Cyril and St. Methodius...

The book you sent, the Letters of Igumen Nikon, has proved very inspiring, not only for me but also for my parents.  They are on their way to Orthodoxy, and both have an unquenchable thirst for spiritual literature. For my grandparents it is more difficult: they were educated under the most militant atheism.  However, both before and shortly after the Revolution my grandfather served as an acolyte in his village church, and he retains vivid and warm memories of his experience, together with extracts of prayers and hymns.  He and my grandmother approve of my return to the Church...

I hope all is well with you.  I look forward to receiving OA here in Moscow.