Orthodox America


  The Day Will Come


Kirill Golovin 

A Moscow writer examines the situation of Orthodoxy in the Soviet Union on the threshold of the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus' 

     In spite of rich historical experience, many in Russia hoped that with the advent of the new General Secretary long-awaited changes would finally take place to bring the country out of the stagnation which has existed For so many years and would improve--even a little bit--the difficult everyday life. True, there were far fewer of these people than in the time of the memorable Khrushchev thaw because the level of trust in official promises has dropped sharply in the last decades. But human hope knows no bounds, and the new leader, relatively young and energetic in appearance, was prepared, it would seem, to introduce urgently needed reforms, without which the great nation slowly and inevitably slips into backwardness and despair. All of three or four months have gone by, and it has become clear that nothing awaits the people other than empty rhetoric, the old, familiar demagogy and new catch-words flavored with pseudo-democratic gestures the likes of which the country has not seen since the Khrushchev era. As has happened on more than one occasion in the past, only the West continues to deceive itself with the illusion that a totalitarian social structure is capable of voluntary and decisive changes, forgetting that such changes are anathema to the very nature of such a system and are not desired; the bottom line is that they undermine the power of the ruling elite.

    Succumbing to those sweet but unrealizable dreams, most people did not concern themselves with the position taken by the Soviet authorities to the millions of Orthodox believers and whether that position had changed for the better on the eve of the impending great celebration: the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Russia. To the modern secular and politicized conscience, this problem is extremely insignificant in comparison to the shifts taking place in the party apparatus and the rejuvenation of the massive governmental bureaucratic machine. The naming of the Second Secretary of Mordovia or Tula interests the clever Sovietologist much more than the actions taken by the official atheism to detract from and cloud over the upcoming celebration. What do all the believing Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians--a mere 15% of the total population and mostly elderly women--mean to him, when compared with the zealous 15 million strong party mass, on which, it might seem, the fate of the planet depends? These believers make up only a supplemental force, despite the fact that these very people withstood, with the help of God, many years of severe and destructive attempts at eradication before which even the most severe persecutions of the early Christians pale.

    After the Khrushchev persecutions, which were supposed to break the growing influence of the Church, the atheistic power holders, whose innermost essence remains theomachy, began persistently to harass and demoralize the Church from the inside, with the goal of ultimately turning it into some kind of unobtrusive almshouse where a voiceless priest "serves the religious needs" of people over sixty. To fence off the Church from the majority of the people, to make it into a rarity fit for a museum and keep it under unremitting control so that no living forces may awake in it--this is the task that the state atheists set for themselves in the Brezhnev era, the time of the greatest blossoming of "partocracy," Whenever the opportunity presented itself they closed churches, but quietly, without making a big fuss, and they did not open new ones even if--as was the case in Gorky--believers complained to the U.N. The godless propaganda was carried out mechanically, without spirit, but in those years atheism was brought into the curricula of the schools and institutions of higher education. Whoever was quiet and kept his belief to himself was not persecuted, but zealous Christians were systematically Murdered, oppressed and imprisoned. Along with human rights activists and nationalists, these Christians were considered by the KGB to be real or potential opponents of the regime and a special subdivision to keep track of them was created.

     But in these very years of seeming stability, a "religious awakening" began which, despite its limited scope and contradictory character, caused the authorities rather serious concern as it developed simultaneously with the human rights movement, at times overlapped with it, and ran parallel to events in Poland, which in terms of so-called socialism most convincingly demonstrated the influence of Christianity and of the Church, an influence which could not only compete with but victor over the party ideology, despite its external strength. All this forced the apparatchiki (functionaries) not to review the policy which was taking shape in relationship to the Orthodox Church (it is an effective policy because it is a cruel one, and why make concessions when there is no need?) but to make it somewhat more flexible and tolerant of divergent views. This corrective action [korrektsia] began recently and, it would seem, is still not finished.

    Although the main principle of this policy, based as before on the blunt words of Lenin that "any thought about God...is the most inexpressible abomination," has remained, of course, immutable, it has been acquired and been enriched by certain contemporary nuances. The Orthodox, for example, are clearly divided [by the authorities] into the loyal Soviet minority and the few "religious extremists, accomplices and hirelings of imperialism.'' To the extent that is possible, one must treat the loyal believers mildly, but without concessions, politely, but without indulgence, remembering that they are citizens, albeit suspicious and inferior; but the "extremists" must be treated as out and out enemies who must be exposed immediately and isolated at every opportunity. The border between the two categories is very relative: in the capital it is one and in the provinces it is another, more malicious and arbitrary. If, for example, the appearance of a new man in a church in Tambov is an extreme incident from the point of view of the local party organs, then in the capital official unease is aroused only by the long-lived Orthodox circles and the influential activists. Given the conditions in the provinces it is possible to do an exceptionally devout [molitvennyi] (and at times, great) deed, at this time when social and religious activities can be undertaken (within, of course, certain boundaries) only in a few major centers. 

Atheists Turn to God

    The above-mentioned corrective action, strangely enough, was in part caused by the atheistic masses. The protracted and unyielding cultivation of atheism led to a paradoxical and unexpected result: many formal "atheists," coming to their senses and overcome with yearning, began to treat the beliefs of their ancestors with a naive pathos and an almost romantic trembling, experiencing, perhaps, the unrealized feeling of repentance and adoration of the All-Mighty. These sentiments did not, for the most part, result in conversions, but they created the necessary background for them. Nowadays one (almost) cannot find in the ranks of the nonreligious common people--who don't even know how to cross themselves! --the fanatical atheist of the past, and the attitude to Orthodoxy is generally either one of indifference and neutrality or sympathy and sincere curiosity. If someone were to suddenly be so bold as to start mockingly talking about Orthodoxy, then the reaction he would find would not he one of support, but rather a patient and unspoken judgment of those present. A gradual sobering is taking place of those who either through indifference or spite had previously permitted the atheists to trample down treasures of centuries.

     Although abandoned and half-destroyed churches still stand wretchedly in villages and cities, if you try to knock them down now you will inevitably meet with indignation or dissatisfaction. The patriotic and nationalistic spirit which has been reborn in the people (derogatorily termed "chauvanism" by russophobes), and which, in a manner of speaking, has little by little raised Orthodoxy, is now particularly to be perceived in the attitude taken to monuments of the past, among which churches occupy the most prominent position. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, a great national monument of the war with Napoleon, was torn down under Stalin along with other churches without second thought or any pangs of conscience. They even made an attempt on one of the wonders of the world--the church of St. Basil. If they were to try now to destroy the Cathedral of the Saviour, the possibility of this leading to spontaneous meetings could not be ruled out, as happened in the fall of 1986 when the house of the poet Delvig in Leningrad proved to be in danger. It is doubtful whether a thought of that sort would have occurred to anyone. Although the social consciousness, freeing itself from the stupor caused by the anti-Church invectives, is still a long way from thinking in terms not only of preserving churches but of opening them for worship, it is unquestionably developing in a direction favorable to Orthodoxy since it is gradually beginning to comprehend what the values and traditions of Orthodoxy meant and continue to mean for the whole nation and its future.

    The post-Stalinistic official culture has, in spite of its own desires, done more than a little to strengthen the interest in spiritual values. Distinctively Orthodox vanguards are portrayed very artistically and attractively in movies and television broadcasts; the stories of the "derevenshchiki"[1]--and of other writers--are full of nostalgia for obsolete national-Orthodox traditions; icons and church vessels are being collected with an unprecedented fervor; expensive albums of ancient Russian architecture and icons sell out as soon as they become available; Russian spiritual music is heard more and more frequently in concert halls. Despite the opposition, the national movement is gradually forcing out the cosmopolitan and foundationless Marxism from various spheres of the everyday consciousness, although even it manages to leave behind its dirty traces. There was a time when they wanted to inculcate a one-sided proletarian art and an artificial Socialist Realism into the thousand year old culture, but ultimately little came of this. Now attempts are made--absurd attempts also doomed to failure--by atheists to suggest that all these cathedrals, narratives and icons, as well as secular art were not created by a people imbued with Orthodox belief but by some amorphous communality, heathen in its nature and essence, 

The Atheist Campaign

Inveterate state atheists have long been trying to battle the ever growing and strengthening process of self-awareness. In July of this year, in the newspaper "Komsomolskaya Pravda," doctor of philosophy Kryvelov struck out at the dissent which has taken root and rebuked the writers Rasputin, Astafiev and Aitmatov for fideism. It is not difficult to imagine what the result of such a heart-rending cry would have been thirty years ago; now it only serves to pique the interest of the readers. Other newspapers did not reprint this material and did not begin an accusatory witch hunt. Now it is doubtful whether such slaps in the face could even bring anyone to self-criticism, as was the case so recently with Soloukhin after the statements in the journal Kommunist. The battle fervor of the official atheism has burnt out, the rigid cadres have died, and no longer does it have the thrill, force, and influence of the past; even the unsophisticated intellectual nonbeliever looks askance and with distaste at the official atheism, Let us not forget, however, that, as before, atheism remains the most important and fundamental part of the ruling ideology and thus is responsible for mobilizing small reserves in preparation for the anniversary of Christianity in Russia.

    As is well known, two commissions have been formed in the country for the celebration of the 1000-year anniversary; one in the Patriarchy and one in the ideology division of the Central Committee. The first is for the celebration; the second, to detract from and limit this celebration to the greatest extent possible. So-called committees for counterpropaganda, created by "raikoms' (regional committees) and by the major ideological institutions, have been called upon to help. One of the major tasks of these committees is to engage in battle with religion on a local scale. After all, once they exist they should have something to do. And this they do with an effort and without any enthusiasm, so to speak, out of an obligation to the bureaucratic "conscience." In the spring of 1986 the monthly journal Religion and Society (they wanted "and Science" as well, it seems, but held back for some reason) began to appear in television broadcasts on Channel 1 of the ' Central Television Broadcast, which, on the one hand, exists to "refute" the Western reports about the oppressed condition of the believers in the country (with, unfortunately, the help of a "baited" clergy) and on the other hand creates the impression in the average person that the Church is a purely political organization, reactionary in the West, but in the USSR not without use in a "peacemaking" capacity, i.e., to help undermine the Western effort against communism.     /.../ 

The Struggle to Open Churches

During the celebration of this Jubilee the propagandists will not fail, obviously, to mention how many Orthodox churches and houses of worship have been opened in recent years (33 since 1977), having "forgotten," naturally, to say how many have been closed in that same period. It is no secret that the local authorities, particularly in the provinces, take advantage of any appropriate opportunity to persecute or "liquidate" the "cult place" so hated by them. As a rule, to open a new cathedral exceptional local or political conditions must be present,

      In Brezhnev (formerly Naberezhne Chelny) this was made possible only after loud

publicity in the West and even then the house of worship was transported a dozen miles away from the city itself. The residents of Zelinograd (formerly Kriukov), a major research center outside Moscow, have long been asking for another church because the one that is already functioning is overcrowded --but the authorities don't listen to them. The snow-white church in Zelenogorsk outside Leningrad has at long last been restored because it stands on a major route by which many thou sands of tourists enter the country. It would seem to be the perfect find for propaganda--a functioning church visible from the window of a foreign automobile. But here's the stickler--aside from this church there is nowhere, as it turns out, room for a most needed museum in a tourist area! A museum is also a must for the restored church in Peterhof whose Orthodox citizens are also forced to travel a long distance in order to be able to pray. And this is in places where there are old abandoned churches! And to build a new church in one of the cities that has sprung up in the Soviet era--to even mention this is horrifying. For now the atheist authorities are not giving away any indulgences in this important question and it is hardly likely that one can expect any "favors" from them on the occasion of the Jubilee.

     Just where are churches being opened? Along the border with China, where it is crucial to maintain the Russian presence and to not alienate the population too much; on the territory of old Prussia where to this day --although the Germans are long gone--there has never been a single Orthodox church; in a few rural stanitzas and remote settlements, where after long efforts and at great intervals churches are being opened again. But what do these 33 new churches mean in comparison to the 10,000 closed during that time! In the elapsed period some of them have become very decrepit--and this is playing right into the atheists' hands. Two years ago in the Ukraine the order was given to take down several hundred such "decrepit" churches.

    If the majority of the attempts to open an Orthodox church end in failure, then the case is somewhat different with the Baptist houses of worship. [The author, obviously, has in mind the houses of worship or the official Baptist Church which has entered into a compromise with the Soviet authorities. The deprivations and persecutions the independent EKhb--communities are subjected to are well known to everyone.] Since the same year, 1977. 300 og them have been opened; that is nine times more! And this is not because the people have turned away from their native Orthodoxy but because, beginning with the Revolution, the atheists have considered Orthodoxy their main enemy (this is obvious from the number or publications against it) and they are using the Baptist religion to undermine it. For this reason it is erroneous to maintain that Orthodoxy is in some special honor with the Kremlin powers. Outwardly it appears this way only because the majority of believing Russians is Orthodox ....

     The situation of the Orthodox Church is not as bright as seen by the visiting guests who attend an impressive service in a church in the capital that is filled to capacity. According to the priests themselves the attendance at religious services has gone down in comparison with the preceding decades due to the change in generations that has occurred. The place of the generation dying out is taken by one that had its formative years in the 1930's, when not only living a Christian life but simply pronouncing the name of Christ was extremely dangerous because of the raging of the most shameless atheism. This atheistic influence undoubtedly is to be seen at work in the reduced numbers of parishioners nowadays. The main factor, however, lies elsewhere: the ties of the new generation to the pre-revolutionary tradition which so fortified the Church during her rebirth in the post -war years, are weaker than those of any other generation. Not only do people who are completely ignorant of religion come to the churches today, but people steeped in Soviet concepts and prejudices to such a degree that they are in need of a completely unique catechism. The Church attracts them, but rather than feeling at home in it, they feel that they are only visiting, and for this reason they care about it with a lesser love...

    In order to prevent the closing of churches, the village priest is forced to hold services in several different locations. The parishes that are far removed from the city are horribly poor and the priests living in them are sometimes only just barely able to make ends meet. Sometimes it's not even possible to patch the roof without subsidies from the bishop. One wonders at the legends of the replete, carefree life of the priests which are still making the rounds among ordinary folk.

    With the flow of the population from the countryside into the city, religion in Russia is gradually being transformed into primarily a religion for the city with some specific peculiarities. Many clergymen of the, let's say, Kurskaya, Ryazanskaya and Kalininskaya Oblasts [administrative unit equivalent to a province] do not even live in their oblast centers, but in Moscow, from which they travel forth only to make their circuit. It is easy to imagine just how such an "absentee" priest is connected with his flock and how he tends to their needs. The rural pastor who lives with the people and among the people is a type that is, alas, rapidly disappearing and is being replaced by a city dweller who sees the village only as a place of exile or as a temporary stopping ground. The people have no trouble perceiving this and respond with alienation.

    To be blunt, it is no exquisite pleasure to live in the Soviet countryside: one is plagued more by the government agents, the authorities are hostilely disposed, the people outside the church are conducting themselves timidly. The priest gradually becomes shut up in his church and his house, whether he wants to or not, socializes mostly with clerics and resignedly puts up with being harassed by the martinets who hold the power, he lives under constant pressure: at all costs he must avoid quarreling with the dvadstatka [20 people who make the decisions] which after the ill-fated parish reform acquired an ominous power over him. To prevent the people from getting used to their priest, the diocesan authorities send him off to another place every three or four years and keep him in check if he begins--God forbid--to preach a lot and to preach effectively.

      In the latter years the Church has been stifled most of all with her own hands. That the archbishops are appointed in agreement with the atheist Committee for Church Affairs, is taken as the norm, but now the agents make efforts to insure that the seminaries do not accept members of the intelligentsia who simply by virtue of their strong knowledge are capable of strengthening the Church. The "partocracy” needs not only a submissive but an ignorant Church as well, which is why the curriculum of the future clergymen is overburdened with not particularly necessary subjects and why there is a general absence of ways of raising their qualifications. The Church resists this but not, unfortunately, with much resolve or decisiveness.

        Supported by the growing authority of Orthodoxy in the social consciousness, the Church could act much more boldly now, on the threshold of the Millennium celebration, for it is un likely that the atheists would be so bold as to initiate new persecutions at this time. It cannot be said that the Church is sleeping and is only obsequiously bowing to the demands of the atheists, as is usually asserted by her numerous critics. If this were the case, then why are the authorities so unrelentingly pursuing, holding in check, and watching over the Church? In spite of everything, the establishment of Christ remains an alien body in the socialist government, and the essence of the Church's activities is at odds with the basic principles of this government. Despite its extreme and at times tragic dependence on the government, the achievements of the hierarchy towards strengthening the Church itself are not insignificant; almost all priests receive a thorough education; every effort is made to keep churches from closing; some archbishops fearlessly consecrate new priests and make efforts to attract the help of a new Orthodox intelligentsia. Although one would hope for greater activism, this support and pressure "from below" are imperative.

    As has already been mentioned, the atheists of our time function, generally speaking, through bureaucratic channels: they sometimes forbid the placement of crosses on new graves; or open Houses of Atheism [in Soviet society there are many such "houses" which are roughly the equivalent of American "centers,'' "youth centers," etc.] which nobody goes to, or will organize among schoolchildren...an odd exam: "erudite--a young atheist," or order that the image of the Eucharist in the Yaroslav church be torn out of calendars printed in East Germany...

    We must not...labor under the delusion that atheism in Russia has lost its fangs and has become beneficent and meek. This will not happen as long as godlessness continues to be the ideological foundation of a structure which will have to change radically if it is to reject that foundation. Taking into consideration the turn in the social consciousness and, in particular, the pressure from within, time tested method at the carrot and the stick. In February 1986, Vladimir Poresh of Leningrad, one of the founders of the religious seminars for youth, was released from prison without any confession, and shortly thereafter, the sentence of Alexander Ogorodnikov the other founder, was increased. The poet Irina Ratushinskaya was released from prison and shortly thereafter, the Kiev librarian Protsenko was sentenced to three years. Having legalized the existing practice, the Church was granted legal indulgences, but immediately Father Iosif, an aged priest from the out-of-the-way parish of Novgorodskaya Oblast, was accused of "possession of weapons.''

    Taking all of these facts into consideration one comes to the simple conclusion that even under the new General Secretary the position taken by the powers that be to the Orthodox Church has, despite the corrective action currently being implemented, essentially not changed but has been colored, as in other areas, in somewhat demagogic tones. According to some accounts, Gorbachev requested the Orthodox Church at one of the Kremlin receptions to help the Party raise the moral level of the people. If this is a sincere desire, then why don't they allow more churches to be opened for this purpose and restore the Temperance Society which existed in Russia before the Revolution? But no! The partocracy holds on to its previous atheistic dogma and its previous forms of contact with religion.

      For this reason the illusion that holds sway in some nationalistic-bolshevik circles that the communists have no other recourse than to finally come to an understanding with the Church and, in affecting a "concordance" with her, grant greater freedom in society, seems somewhat naive, The communists will not voluntarily relinquish even the tiniest bit of their control over minds, but this power, in the further decay of the central aspect of their ideology, will in an inconspicuous way be slipping away from them. At that point a dilemma will arise: whether to return this power with force or to legalize the new situation, having kept for themselves only general control over it?

    However, let us leave such discussions to the veteran Sovietologists and take up for ourselves the question of the preparations, for the glorious event. Every Orthodox person can do something in keeping with his God given abilities, One person may help instill faith in someone close; another may help the infirm or console someone who has suffered a misfortune; yet another can be an example of Orthodox life and virtue for others; still another, either by means of the pen or a personal declaration, can offer support to his native Orthodoxy. And we can all show our faith and gratitude to the Lord, Who never leaves us or the Church without hope or help, most of all in the humble and sincere prayer which we offer up to Him in our homes and in the churches,

    The Russian Church will not be greeting the celebration of the 1000 years of Christianity in Russia with, the brilliant imperial magnificence that accompanied the last Jubilee celebration; further, the Church will be in a "Babylonian captivity" which will purify her, fill her not only with grief but with the great glory of the assembly of new sufferers and confessors. What other Church in our century has had to suffer so much for Christ. What other people, in the long and dark conditions of a frightening era, have evinced such a devotion to the Saviour? Every Orthodox person will meet the impending Jubilee not with a haughty realization of this heroic event, and not with a feeling of pompous triumph, but rather with a humble prayer: to forgive our Motherland, which ha.; suffered so much, for all her sins, which have wrought the righteous anger of the Lord, and in His mercy to deliver her from the terrible affliction which drains the strength of the people.

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners and in Your grace do not abandon us! 

 November 1986                         Kirill Boloyin

 (Reprinted with permission from Samizdat Bulletin, September and October 1987, where it was translated by Larissa Vilensksya and Jim Reister)


[1]a reference to writers from the derevnya, or country, i.e., such critically acclaimed and popular contemporary authors as Rasputin, Asralley, and Aitmatov whose writings are more concerned with the older, traditional value s of the people in the Russian countryside, in Siberian villages, etc., as opposed to the body of mainstream Russian literature which is generally associated with city life, or, more importantly in the case of post-revolutionary literature, in reaction to Soviet regime – Trans.


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