Orthodox America

The Russian Church Today  

Excerpts from an address given by Archpriest Victor Potapov at the Clergy Assembly of the Diocese of New York and Canada of the Russian Church Abroad on September 30, 1987, in Montreal.


       The 70 year Soviet experience clearly shows that although crosses may be torn from the domes crowning the churches, and the churches themselves may even be destroyed, the temple of the human heart, which lives by faith, cannot be destroyed as long as the image of Christ remains in it.

      The reasons for this heightened interest in the C hutch are manifold and it isn't difficult to understand them. For believers there is no doubt that one of the main reasons for the renewal of interest in the Church is mystical: the blood of the New Martyrs became the seed which has sprouted in the depth of the Russian people as the present day spiritual renaissance. There are also more mundane reasons. The most fundamental of these is the waning authority of ideology in the country. Very few believe now in the Party ideology. This is clear to everyone living in the USSR; the ideology is dead and is unable to satisfy the demands of the spirit. An enforced ideology only inspires repulsion...

      The loss of ideology provokes searching with the aim of finding in the life of society something free from ideology. The Church is, of course, precisely such an institution. It is the only foreign body within the totalitarian regime, being in its very essence the opposite of atheist ideology. Everything in the Church attracts those who are searching: the unchanging traditions, the beauty and richness of her rituals, the mystical nature of the icons, and the depth of the Gospel revelation. When people learn of the most recent history of the Church, many naturally experience compassion for her persecution and suffering. In observing the Church's position, a Soviet citizen sees the continual oppression and discrimination on the part of the authorities, and this of course serves to strengthen his compassion.      /.../

      One can say with certainty that contemporary Russian society is becoming more mature and more spiritual than was the case in the '60's and '70's. I don’t mean to say that there is a mass conversion to Orthodoxy. Not at all. For many the return to the "father's house" is a complicated path leading through various Eastern religions and philosophies, through misfortunes in life, etc. But there are people joining the Church who have lived through experiences totally alien to the Christian faith, and this is becoming an increasingly typical phenomenon in the life of the Russian people.     /.../

      Over the last year, 1987, there were a number of interesting events in the religious life of the country. Prisoners of conscience were released before the end of their term; two unofficial Christian journals appeared-the "Christian Community Bulletin" and "Choice." In the area of official Church life, St. Daniel's Monastery in Moscow is completing its restoration and will become the administrative center of the Moscow Patriarchate and headquarters for the Department of Foreign Relations (the largest government department). Adjoining the monastery there is to be a large hotel for foreign guests of the Patriarchate. According to Keston College, yet another monastery was returned to the Church last year, a convent located between Moscow and Zagorsk. In St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), the Chapel of Blessed Xenia in the Smolensk Cemetary has been restored and consecrated. And in the same city a chapel on Karpovka, built outside the walls of a monastery founded by St. John of Kronstadt, has also been returned to the Church. The authorities have also given their consent to the convocation of a local council of the Russian Orthodox Church during the jubilee year, 1988, the first such council since 1971. In Moscow, the obligatory registration of the passports of couples getting married in church and of parents who have their children baptized, has been abolished.

      In addition to these concessions, the authorities are now reconsidering legislation on religion. The Chairman of the Council of Religious Affairs, Constantine Kharchev (who replaced V. Kurdyeddo in November 1984), stated during his visits to the US in 1986 and 1987 that the authorities intend to give the Church more freedom...

      [Here Fr. Victor discusses a number of points introduced by the new legislation: the recognition of religious communities as legal entities (conditional upon registration with the government) able to own property and entitled to legal rights; the right of believers "including children 10 years or older" to participate in religious rites; and the right of clergy to celebrate religious rites for the gravely ill, the dying and departed, in hospitals, homes for the elderly, "places of deprivation of freedom," apartments... (previously this was restricted to special places where it could not be seen by unexpected witnesses). ] 

     Just what, essentially, do these changes; inserted into Soviet legislation on religion mean? If they are really enacted and do not merely remain on paper, it means a partial change on the part of the authorities toward religion and the Church; it means recognition by them that the Church is a real power which must be taken into account. In any case, these changes, which point to some kind of tactical detente by the authorities in their attitude toward religion, have inspired many people to openly request more freedom for the Church. /.../

    Last year Gorbachev received a letter expressing the need for the State to completely reconsider its policy towards the Church. This "open letter to Mikhail Gorbachev," which is signed by a group of eight believer s, became widely known in the West (see "NY Times," 6/8/87, p. 2). In a personal letter to me, one of the authors explained the reasons why believers decided now, during 'perestroika', to send a letter to Gorbachev:

    "The situation is such that everyone today is restructuring themselves, or pretending to do so. And everyone is asking for something, except the Church. The Church simply The has no mouthpiece through which to speak out about her needs. We, the authors of the open letter, do not dare to call ourselves her voice, but someone has to say at least something about her problems. The Church is immobile, not only outwardly but also internally, and we hope that if some of the external limitations are lifted, a normal blood circulation will be restored in her ailing body. May God grant this to be so!"

       Another letter addressed to Patriarch Pimen and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church written by the same group of believers and dated May 23, 1987, refers in more detail to these "external limitations," which for decades have curtailed the life of the Church in the Soviet Union. In this letter the authors demand that the hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate secure for believers genuine civil rights, so that they can be recognized by the State as Christians. Such a recognition, the authors claim, could be expressed in a number acts of good will on the part of the government. They mention twelve reforms which could be "acts of good will":

1. A widespread opening of new churches (previously closed or newly constructed), especially in those regions where there are still only one or two houses of worship in a vast territory with millions of people.

     2. A substantial increase in the printing and distribution of Bibles, and mass publication of Gospels accessible to all believers.

     3, A review of clearly outdated laws concerning cults (which, as we know, has already begun), the annulment of many degrading prohibitions unacceptable to the Christian conscience or harshly limiting the activities of clergy.

     4. Permission to conduct seminars in church, apart from the services, explaining the fundamentals of Orthodox doctrine.

     5. The suppression of all form s of harassment of children born into believing families or wishing to be Christians. We consider it more useful for society to have good Christians than nominal Pioneers,

     6. The return to the Church of a number of monasteries which were closed in past decades, particularly the Kiev-Caves Lavra which still evokes a painful wound in the memory of the people.

     7. The return to the Church of the holy relics of the first Hierarchs of Moscow-Peter, Philip, Jonah and Hermogenes, which are presently in the Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin, and also the return of some of the specially revered icons now in museums.

8. Access for the Church to the State owned means of mass communication.

     9. The publication of ancient and contemporary literature, reflecting the Tradition and history of the Orthodox Church.

    10. The opening of religious-theological libraries in churches, which would be accessible to the ordinary parishioner.

    11. The repeal of the means of limitation which forcibly restrict the life of the Church. The abolition of compulsory registration of the Sacraments of Baptism and Marriage (a step has been taken in this direction, but so far only in a few churches).

    12. Acknowledgement that the Church has the right to give "mercy to the fallen" : the right of priests to visit hospitals, psychiatric institutions and places of internment.

     The authors of the open letters to Gorbachev and to the hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate understand, of course, that it is impossible to achieve these reforms immediately-not only because of the atheistic ideology of the State, but also because of the existence within the Church of quite a number of problems which have accumulated over the years of Soviet totalitarian rule. Stefan Krassovitsky, a layman of the Russian Church, refers to some of these problems in letters to Patriarch Pimen and Metropolitan Juvenaly of Krutitsi ....  In his letter to Metropolitan Juvenaly, Krassovitsky expresses the opinion that the time has come to reconsider the anti-ecclesiastical and uncanonical decisions of the 1961 Council of Bishops. As' is well known, the Council was convoked in the midst of the Khruschev persecutions when from 10 to 14 thousand Orthodox churches were closed down and the hierarchs, following the unofficial orders of the authorities, decreed that priests should be freed of the responsibility of parish administration and should turn over practical church matters to a so-called dvadzadtka, i.e., a group of twenty lay people who are in fact appointed by the local State authorities. This "reform" which was passed by .the 1961 Council led to various abuses on the part of many dvadtsatkas, including the expulsion of worthy pastors from parishes.

     In his letter to the Patriarch, Krassovitsky essentially mentions some of the desired

reforms already suggested in the letters of the eight believers, but adds to it two most important suggestions necessary for the real healing of the Church:

     "3. With regard to the basis of the relationship between Church and State, to replace the 1927 Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius, which he made under pressure of the Stalinist regime, with a document similar in spirit to the one composed by the hierarchs of our Church who were exiled to Solovki, and to inform the public of this in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, publishing also the text of the [Solovki] document.

“4. To bring up the question of the canonization of Christians who were victims of arbitrary rules and persecution. The Church cannot forget the sad fact that in the course of a number of years, her representatives exalted, almost idolizing, a man whose evil doings are no longer hidden even by the authorities, The truth must triumph in the Church, for, according to the words of St. Paul, "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Rom. 1:18). /.../

    In early September the weekly "Literary Gazette" (9/9/87) published the text bf an interview between its correspondent and academician Dimitri Sergeyevich Likhachev in an article titled "From Repentance to Action!" In this discussion Dimitri Sergeyevich essentially repeats Solzhenitsyn's appeal "Do not live by a lie !" (Zhits ne polzhi) and then proceeds to an open apology of the Church.

    "I receive many letters," said the academician, "with reference to atheist propaganda: it frequently inspires our citizens with a hostile attitude towards believers and church. Faith is considered a sign of ignorance, although I must say that hostility towards believers is due precisely to ignorance --Ignorance of the history of the Church and of history in general...

    "It is commonly believed that monasteries were somehow seed beds of Superstition. But who transcribed books? Who introduced new systems of agriculture, as there were, for example, on Solovki? Who cultivated new varieties of fruits and vegetables? It was in the monasteries that problems of genetics and selection- were studied, already in Early Russia. Some 300 kinds of apple were known ! Not to mention aesthetics--the aesthetics of church singing, church writings, art, architecture--which today we admire so much, and which were always on the highest level. We mustn't close our eyes to all of this. And furthermore, we know the role played by the Church in the history of Russia. In the period of feudal division, for example, she stood for unity, against civil strife. She inspired those who fought against foreign invaders. We speak of the victory of Dimitri Donskoi in the Battle of Kulikovo, but we pass over in silence [St.] Sergius of Radonezh who inspired this victory, who, in the words of the Church, 'foretold to the Great Prince Dimitri concerning the victory over the countless proud Hagarenes who desired to lay waste to Russia by fire and the sword.' And who came out against the cruelties in the grievous time of Ivan the Terrible? Metropolitan Philip, who fearlessly accused the despot.

    "If one should speak of the Church today," continued Likhachev, "then one must emphasize--especially now, on the eve of the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus'--that we stand for the absolute and real separation of Church and State. Our government must be a-religious in practice; it should not involve itself in the affairs of the Church. And the Council of Religious Affairs should see to this! Unfortunately, in the recent past the Council interfered--and very actively--in Church affairs. And is it really necessary to restrict the Church's right to publish sufficient numbers of those books needed by believers: the Bible, church calendars, patristic and other church literature?" 

    What is the attitude of the Soviet regime towards the approaching 1000-year Jubilee of the Baptism of Rus'? It appears to me that the Soviet government has not come to a definite decision on this issue. In any case, the organs of propaganda have adopted a complex, dual position: on the one hand, many newspapers and magazines have printed positive articles and essays concerning the approaching Millennium, as, for example, the above quoted interview with Likhachev. One might think that a fundamental change was taking place in the policy of the authorities towards the Russian Orthodox Church. This is not altogether so. The propaganda apparatus continues as before to wage a sharply critical "anti-jubilee" campaign.

    Furthermore, if we listen carefully to what is being said by the chief ideologue of ' glasnost, ' Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, we will be convinced that the attitude of the authorities towards the Millennium and towards the Church is as hostile as before. In the journal Vestnik (Messenger) of the Academy of Sciences USSR (#6, 1987) there was published a major address given by Yakovlev before an elite audience of the Soviet 'ideological front.' It took place in Moscow on April 17, 1987, in the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences. In his address Yakovlev touched upon many subiects,  including the attitude towards religion and the Millennium. While conceding the Church’s role in the enlightenment process, he declared:    "To god [sic] --what is god's; to the church –what is of the church; but to us Marxists belongs the fullness of truth. And on this basis any attempts to depict Christianity as the 'mother' of Russian culture must be decisively repudiated .... And if the Russian middle ages merit the attention of historians, this is in no way connected with the millennial date of Orthodoxy."

     Gorbachev's 'perestroika' has brought little change to the situation of the Church. For the time being what is happening is just a matter of words. Those minor changes in her life are undoubtedly tied either to the pragmatization of the system or to the upcoming Millennium--to throw wool over the eyes of the West, so to speak, and of foreign guests who will be visiting the USSR in the jubilee year ....

Archpriest Victor Potapov 

(Translated .from the Russian)

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