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Issue Date:  September 3, 2004

Russia regains religion, clings to old hurts


For anyone who remembers the city in the bad old Soviet days, the new Moscow is astonishing. Some things are deeply ironic. Just across from Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, the old GUM department store has been turned into a trendy upscale mall. And there, looking across at the holiest shrine of communism, is a Christian Dior boutique! Surely the father of the revolution of the proletariat must be ready to flip in his refrigerated coffin.

There are now traffic jams in streets that had been for so many years almost devoid of private cars. And the cars are now frequently Mercedes, Volvos, BMWs and Audis. Plus even a few Jaguars. Where do their owners get the money?

At night expensive restaurants are crowded with hip young people and the city is bright with lights. Neon flashes outside the Las Vegas-style casinos where the Mafia makes deals in drugs, prostitution and stolen automobiles. There is no real need to be discreet since police and judges are notoriously corrupt.

But something else has happened since the collapse of communism. If Russia has embraced capitalism and consumerism with a vengeance, it has also rediscovered religion. It had never totally disappeared, of course. The liturgy was allowed in a few churches. But both Christian clergy and laity suffered a prolonged martyrdom in the gulag. Some years ago I remember a young Russian showing me with evident satisfaction a battered and forbidden copy of the New Testament that he had somehow obtained and was reading. One night after supper in a Leningrad apartment a couple confided to me that their best friend had become a “believer,” something dangerous but admirable. Everyone knew that no one who practiced Christianity would ever go to the university or become a teacher, an army officer or government official.

And now a man leads Russia who is baptized. In fact President Vladimir Putin even has a monk as a spiritual director. Alexei II, the patriarch, observes that “religion in Russia is enjoying a renaissance; more than 13,000 churches have been built or rebuilt in the last 10 years alone.”

Stalin ordered the great Church of Our Savior in Moscow to be dynamited and the site prepared for a grand skyscraper. On top would be a colossal statue of Lenin, so big and so high it would tower in the clouds. Saner minds prevailed and this monstrosity was never built. Instead, a huge outdoor swimming pool was constructed there.

Now, however, the Church of Our Savior has been reconstructed at the same place for $250 million. Its golden domes dominate the riverside landscape. Its costly marble and mosaics are truly astonishing. And it is clearly a potent symbol of the power and prestige of the Orthodox church in the “new” Russia. Putin, the mayor of Moscow and, of course, the patriarch all heartily approved of the project.

A smaller but equally significant reconstruction is the Church of Our Lady of Kasan on Red Square. Stalin decided that more room was needed for the entrance of tanks and huge missile carriers for the May Day parades, so this old and elegant little church was also destroyed. Now, using old photographs and postcard views, it has been rebuilt in exactly the same style and in the same location across from the Kremlin walls. On the feast of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Virgin it was full of devout worshipers. They stood reverently during the endless litanies and watched the young priest and acolytes in their splendid blue and silver vestments. The many candles, clouds of incense, glowing icons and ancient chants clearly made this a religious experience that young and old, men and women wanted to share. But it is doubtful that the worshipers there, lighting their thin brown candles in front of favorite icons, were at all interested in the Roman Catholic pope and ecumenism.

Many Catholics felt a certain dismay as it became clear that Patriarch Alexei II was not keen on having Pope John Paul II come for a visit. It is, of course, too late now, but there is no doubt that the pope would have liked to add Russia to his list of places visited. Why were Alexei and the rest of the Orthodox hierarchy so cool -- in fact, downright cold?

I think there are two main reasons. Alexei does not need the pope. The Orthodox church has made a surprising comeback after a near-death experience. The hundreds of restored churches are splendid. Monasteries and convents are again functioning and welcoming many young men and women as novices. At the most famous monastery of St. Sergius, about 45 miles from Moscow, thousands of pilgrims line up to venerate the tomb of the hermit saint. But more important, the monastery, the “Orthodox Vatican,” contains a theological academy with, I was told, almost 1,000 seminarians. From the seminary of the Alexander Nevsky monastery in St. Petersburg to the one in Nizhny Novgorod, there are hundreds of young men ready to become pastors in a revived church.

How would this revitalized Orthodox church benefit from a visit by the bishop of Rome? How could the patriarch, even in his most splendid vestments, gem-encrusted crown and pectoral icons, outshine the Roman visitor in his familiar white cassock? No doubt Russians of all or no religious affiliations would turn out in the thousands, if only out of curiosity, to see the man who helped bring down the ideology that had enslaved them. In fact, how many Catholics would suddenly surface for a papal Mass in Gorky Park? How many cheering young people would fill the soccer stadium to hear a pope speak fluent Russian? These were risks the shrewd Alexei did not want to take. Even greeting the pope at the airport could have meant a loss of prestige. Better that John Paul II stay in Italy than that he disturb the new religious success of “Holy Mother Russia.” Indeed, Orthodox protocol would not even allow the two men to say a common prayer!

But there is another reason why this pope, his health aside, will not visit Moscow. He is Polish. There is a long and unhappy history of Poles in Russia. The Russians believe that their “Time of Troubles” started when a young man appeared at the castle of a Polish nobleman claiming to be the Czarevich Dmitry, the heir to the throne of Russia. The papal nuncio and Polish Jesuits were very supportive since the young pretender, who converted to Catholicism, agreed to help establish Catholic schools and churches and convert Russians to the One True Church of Rome.

An army was formed and without great resistance made its way to Moscow. The Polish king, Sigismond III, was skeptical when he met Dmitry at Kraków in 1604, but he recognized him as the legitimate czar. The pretender ruled from the Kremlin with a rather liberal style until his fiancée arrived from Poland with a large entourage of nobles and Jesuits. It was more than the boyars could endure. The pretender was killed, his body burned, and the ashes put in a cannonball, which was then fired in the direction of Poland.

Horror stories from those days linger. It is said that at the Optina monastery, the Poles massacred all the monks and then drove the women and children into the village church, which was then set on fire. True or not, it is clear who the villains are. It was therefore probably not politically astute for the pope to appoint, except for one Volga German, only ethnic Poles to be bishops of the new Russian dioceses. From his offices in the Danilovsky Monastery (a prison under the Soviets), Alexei II led his church in sponsoring a bill to restrict all other faiths in the country. He commented: “A law on religions is needed to protect Russians from destructive pseudo-religious cults, and foreign false missionaries.” One wonders whom he had in mind -- Polish Jesuits?

Surely the day will come when Russia’s 4 million Roman Catholics and 5 million Eastern Rite Catholics will welcome a pope in their homeland. But he will probably be an Italian, a Nigerian or a Mexican.

Fr. Willard Jabusch writes from Skokie, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2004

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