Orthodox America

  A Light Shining in Darkness

 Archpriest Victor Potapov

        The 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus is approaching. Today, having lived through the sobering catastrophe of the "great falling away," a weakened and ravaged Russia finds herself at the crossroads ....   Will this great jubilee serve merely as a lament for past history, or will it be a sign and a prototype of a great new baptism.

      Just as a thousand years ago, the religious destiny of Russia again depends upon the clerical leadership of the Church and its missionaries. Will Russia see them, will she listen to their witness of Christ?

Priest Gleb Yakunin
Moscow. Aug. 15, 1979


The Free Word and the Rebirth of Russia

      The Gospel tells how the Apostles' faith wavered when a storm overtook them on the Sea of Tiberius. It wavered, although they had just been witnesses and participants of a erect miracle: Christ's feeding of the multitudes with five loaves of bread and two fishes.

    This can, in a sense, be likened to what befell the Russian people. Like the Apostles, the Russian people were witness to and participants of a erect miracle: the vision of Holy Rus which appeared after its baptism. But, like the Apostles, they were struck by a storm--a storm of godlessness and spiritual death surrounded the land. The Apostles in their fright did not recognize the living Saviour, walking towards them on the waves as if from the very heart of the perilous storm. In their confusion they thought: 'Is it not a vision? This couldn't be Christ! If Christ were here the dancer would pass, terror would leave us, death would depart...' Some people today betray a similar confusion, declaring that the spiritual awakening of Russia is merely an illusion. But "the light shines in darkness," and the figure of Christ is apparent in the heart of Russia's present storm. With God's guidance the Russian people will know the Truth, and the Truth--as the Gospel testifies--makes a man free.

    In our century Russia has come face to face with a warring, godless communism; the body of Russia has been sentenced to be crucified; she has been beaten, tortured. Only fourteen months after the Bolshevik takeover Vastly Rozanov wrote: "Neither the cruel Tatar invasion, nor the penetration of Napoleon into Russia, nor Crimea and Sebastopol, nor the Polovets, nor the Pechenegs, brought even a small fraction of that ruin which was wrought in fourteen months by the Bolsheviks."

    The godless were given open range for the destruction of the Church, and they were sure that the Church would not survive the scourging of her earthly body. However, the godless were not given the satisfaction of a victory over religion. And one may well ask how, after 68 years of systematic atheist propaganda of all kinds, faith in Russia is not only alive, but is reviving in the hearts of many.

     ...The roots of spiritual life are deep. The Orthodox poet Yuri Kublanovsky, who left the Soviet Union a few years ago, attests to this:

    "Our society is becoming more mature, wiser, and simply more spiritual in comparison with its condition in the '60's and '70's. I can speak of today's religious awakening which is taking place on a level far above what is often assumed; it is profound and doesn't advertise itself; it exists in potential readiness for sacrifice, in irreproachable honesty, in the nurturing of young children, in creativity, in prayer for the suffering and for the homeland."

    Yes, the repression and persecution of the faithful continues, and the Orthodox Church, as an institution, is held under the control of an atheist regime. But in spite of her enslaved condition, the people gravitate towards her and find in her the fount of life.

    The spiritual emptiness of Soviet life breeds a crudeness which is hammered into people in schools and institutions. This, together with the greyness and falsehood of Soviet life, has undoubtedly stimulated in many an attraction for the Church. As one discerning expert in the area of the contemporary spiritual life of the Russian people has keenly observed: "When from childhood they soak you from head to foot in a sickly sweet ideological irreality, it's no wonder that having become satiated with it you begin to feel nauseous at the very smell of it."

    The author of these lines, Vladimir Zelinsky, is a young Moscow writer who learned from within the process of spiritual awakening among the Russian people. In his extraordinary book, Entering into the Church, he gives a brilliant analysis of the contemporary convert's perception and describes thoroughly and precisely the problems encountered by those coming to the Church today.

     It is characteristic that an increasing number of those joining the Church come from backgrounds altogether foreign to faith. And it doesn't matter whether the number of participants in this movement of spiritual awakening at the present time is 10 million or 10. What is important is that the leaven of Christ is at work in men's hearts. People are coming to the Church, and within the totalitarian regime the Church, by its very essence, is a body foreign to this regime, and alone stands in opposition to its atheist ideology.

      In the chapter "Pastors" from the aforementioned essay, Vladimir Zelinsky notes that the bishops of the Russian Church, who lived a relatively quiet life in the shelter of a self-governing Russia, amazed many by their steadfastness in the face of the terrifying trials brought by the Bolshevik Revolution. Many hierarchs suffered death for the sake of Christ, like the martyrs of apostolic times. Zelinsky concludes: "Turn back the clock and you will find that the majority of today's bishops would find strength to follow in the path of their predecessors."

      Zelinsky's words are substantiated by a letter written in 1977 by Bishop Theodosius of Poltava, a letter which reached the West only in 1981. Addressed to Brezhnev, the letter points out some common examples of the difficulties which the faithful come up against in their daily church life.

In the beginning of the letter Bishop Theodosius cites the fact that prior to 1958, i.e., before the Kruschev persecutions, the Poltava diocese numbered 340 churches, whereas in 1964 there remained only 52. He lists a whole series of incidents attesting to the atheistic debauch in his diocese and asks: "Why is this? What's it for? Who needs it? But perhaps this is some misunderstanding, an unfortunate mistake, a chance occurrence? Not at all! ... to our sorrow I this has become the norm of atheist propaganda; this is our  everyday life ....    Our patience is becoming exhausted; we have been brought to a critical and desperate situation."

      In June, 1983, a deacon of the Russian Church, Fr. Vladimir Rusak, addressed an open letter to the delegates of the Sixth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Vancouver. In concluding his letter, he wrote: "I believe in God, I love my Church, I grieve for her fate and want to serve her, but not at the price of compromise, that terrible price paid by the church administration, a price which I, too, have been offered to pay."

     As we know, the path of compromise was also refused by Fr. Gleb Yakunin, sentenced to 10 years' deprivation of freedom. In his last words at his trial in 1980, Fr. Gleb spoke about the reasons which motivated him to become involved in human rights--essentially charitable--activities:

     "The primary religious commandment which each believer must fulfill consists in a two-part and indivisible formula: Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself. According to this commandment, the love of God is inseparable from the love of one’s neighbor; serving one’s neighbor is a form of serving God Himself. All of my human rights activity--including the founding of the Christian Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights in the USSR and my participation in its work--was directed towards helping my neighbors, Russian Christians, who are in misfortune. To defend their right to believe is a religious imperative of my conscience. Additionally, the defense of the interests of the Church is my religious duty as a priest, for Christ said: 'The Good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.' .... "

      How many such pastors there are concerning whom we know very little--or nothing at all--who are silently enduring persecution and hard times! One of them, living in Kiev, is Fr. Peter Zdrelyuk. He was dismissed from serving in 1981, and we would know nothing about him were it not for the concern of his spiritual children. In a short appeal they wrote: "Fr. Peter was an exemplary pastor, he was accessible to all: peasants, young people and intellectuals. The faithful came even from other parishes of Kiev to hear his sermons."

     Of course, his zeal and his attraction of young people to the Church could not remain unnoticed, and now he is deprived of registration and deprived by the authorities of the right to serve.

     Another pastor who had a positive influence on many in the Soviet Union was the Moscow priest Nicholas Bedashenko who reposed not long ago. He is mentioned by Vladimir Zelinsky in his book:

     "One cannot say that Fr. Nicholas was a great spiritual father and guide, but he was uncommonly compassionate. People brought to him their misfortunes, their sins, tangled circumstances, and all their woes somehow sank into his soft, grace-filled kindness--it was a spiritual gift he had; and there they dissolved in his co-suffering and became somehow simpler, more forgivable, less confusing. Contact with him was itself a kind of absolution..."

      And how many priests there have been like this--and still are! Fr, Alexander Ilyin whom we know from the pages of Nadezhda, Archimandrite Sebastian Karagandinsky who founded a convent 'in the world'—most of the nuns are former prisoners of the Soviet camps; Fr. Nicholas Grinov, Fr. Paul Lysak, Fr. Vladimir Shibaev, Fr. Alexander Pivovarov... and many, many others whom we don't know.

      A priest in the Soviet Union today is closely tied to the people. Outside the perimeter of large cities, the relationship toward him has remained patriarchal. He can be disturbed at any time--to serve a funeral, to give holy unction, to strengthen a soul at its departure. The matushka of a priest who left the Soviet Union a few years ago once related how one night her husband changed into lay clothing and, concealing the Holy Mysteries, climbed through the window of a hospital ward; he was let in by some believing nurses so as to give Communion to the dying. Not everyone finds the courage to bring their children to be baptized in a church; some ask the priest to come to their home. The priest knows that this is forbidden, but he goes nevertheless and baptizes the child.

    The Church in Russia is sowing the Good News, Christ's Word, through the ascetic labors not only of worthy pastors, but also of ordinary believers. Alongside the intellectuals who are entering the Church, there is a movement among simple people—especially older women – to return to the Church. These women spent their youth in the years of the turbulent atheist advance. In this period of relentless persecution, the mothers of these women served the Church by their faithfulness, and sometimes simply by gathering in crowd s in or around the churches. Today their place has been taken by their daughters and granddaughters. It is they who form the nucleus of believers in the Russian Church today and save her from destruction. "The Russian woman will save Russia," wrote Dostoevsky more than a hundred years ago in his Diary of a Writer. "She contains our greatest hope, one of the pledges of our resurrection." Before our eyes the prophetic words of the great writer are being fulfilled.

    And it is not only the elderly who fill the churches in Russia today. The youth are beginning to come to the Church, having made their way through the tortuous path of knowledge to find their place beside the older generations, to be one Church with them. This movement of young people is the most encouraging sign in today's religious awakening in Russia.

And our hope of you is steadfast, knowing that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation. (II Cor. 1:7)

     It is appropriate to mention here the activity of the young people's religious seminars. Almost all of their known leaders are today serving sentences of imprisonment in the camps. Fr. Gleb Yakunin wrote:

     "The authorities are striving by all means to suppress the activity of the young Orthodox groups and seminars which facilitate Christian fellow ship and religious self-instruction over which the authorities have no control. The persecution of these groups attests to the fact that it is precisely here that a genuine meeting is taking place between Russia and Christ, a meeting which terrifies her enemies."

      We have information that in Leningrad alone there are more than 100 such fellowships; for obvious reasons they do not advertise their activity.

      Many young converts to the faith were raised in an atheist atmosphere, in families of party officials where it was impressed upon them that religion is the fabrication of ignorant people, and the word 'church' was associated with greedy priests who exploited the simple and un learned people. All this is gradually changing. Zelinsky writes:

     "Use your imagination to lift the roofs from our venerable and seemingly inaccessible institutions, and you will discover that in the company of those who feed on newspapers and the TV heroics of some Chekist, there works unnoticed, let's say, a talented mathematician who is a patristic scholar with an excellent library of Russian religious philosophers; or a psychiatrist engaged in unceasing prayer; or an artist preparing to enter seminary, or a programmer ready to give an impromptu lecture on liturgics, or a theoretical physicist immersed in Orthodox asceticism."

     Not a few converts enter the priesthood ready to part with their diplomas, professional status, and the comforts of urban life to serve God and neighbor in some remote country parish. In this inclination towards pastoral service manifest by those raised in godless surroundings, by those who have had to overcome both internal and external obstacles-lies the hope of the Church, the hope of Russia.

In today’s Russia there are people who, hearing Christ’s call to serve their neighbor, willingly sacrifice a safe existence to dedicate themselves to works or Christian charity and to co-suffering compassion towards the persecuted. Such activity has been proclaimed a crime by the Soviet regime. Using the mass media at their disposal, the Soviets have continued to smear the Russian Social Fund established in 1974 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn to help prisoners of con science and their families. This Fund is not an organization but an active charity which helps those directly persecuted to physically survive their ordeal.. (Moreover, the Fund's resources are spent primarily on children and elderly people who have been deprived of their bread-winner for his attempt to build a life following his moral and religious convictions.) It was precisely this kind of activity which led to the arrest in 1983 of Sergei Khodorovitch, former manager of the Fund, who had taken upon himself the responsibility in answer to the Saviour's call.

      Quite possibly, many of those who have come to the Church and who have begun to lead a life in Christ, were inspired by the edifying labors of a woman: 57-year old Zoya Krakhmalnikova, the compiler of the extraordinary anthologies of Christian readings titled Nadezhda ("Hope"). Working almost single handedly, she produced a whole library of soul-profiting literature. She resurrected Russia's religious memory, so desperately needed by her people, In taking upon herself the cross of apostolic service, Krakhmalnikava revealed to believing Russia what it was to love and to serve the Church. She did not aspire to the martyr's crown but, as any convinced Christian, she was ready at any moment to accept it, and she accepted it with Christian courage; her last words at her trial were "Glory to God for everything." And her anthologies, as I witnessed myself, are in great demand in Russia and are read until they are completely tattered. 

For unto you it is given in behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake. (Phil 1:29)

       I began with an image from the Gospel-the miracle on the Sea of Tiberius. I shall end with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man had everything; his life was an unbroken circle of banquets and merrymaking. At his gates there lay the wretched Lazarus who begged merely the crumbs from the rich man's table with which to sustain his life. The rich man, living in enjoyment of the abundance which life had granted him, didn't think to pity the poor Lazarus who had nothing. The rich man spent his life oblivious of its purpose, not caring how other people lived. And at his door a man who was his fellow countryman hungered and suffered. This indifference led to the spiritual impoverishment of the rich man, and God found him worthy of condemnation.

    And today, do we not have a Lazarus begging for our help? The Russian people hunger for spiritual food. While the Lord still gives us life and strength, let us come to our senses. Let us use all possible means and go to the aid of our Russian Lazarus who is now awaking from a godless sleep. And let us not be discouraged by our weakness, remembering the words of that great Russian saint, Prince Alexander Neysky: "God is not in might, but in Truth." 

                       Archpriest Victor Potapov (Shortened and translated from "Possev," May, 1986; a lecture originally delivered November, 1985 in Nyack, NY)

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