The Orthodox Revival in Russia
AS AN INSPIRATION FOR AMERICAN ORTHODOXY
A talk given on September 1, 1980, at the
of California, Santa Cruz, during the West Coast
Conference held in preparation for the thousandth
anniversary of the baptism of Russia.
IN CHOOSING such a topic, my intention is not in the least "nationalistic" or "cultural." What is happening in Russia today is of interest to us in America not specifically as something "Russian," but as something that concerns the human soul, no matter what kind of blood or cultural background a man might have. And we in America and the free world in general have much to learn from what is happening to the human soul in Russia today. This is true both because the situation of the human soul in Russia and the West is really quite similar in basic respects, because the same historical process is occurring there as here; and because there are also basic differences in our situation, and an awareness of these differences can help to strengthen us—and specifically, to strengthen us in Christian faith.
I will speak first of the similarities.
2. THE COLLAPSE OF IDEOLOGY
First of all, we are seeing in Russia the collapse of a generally-believed ideology that underlies society and keeps it going. The beginning of religious awakening in Russia is invariably accompanied by a loss of trust and faith in Communism—Communism not first of all as a political and economic system, but as a faith. This is natural, because the first article of Communist faith is atheism, the "state religion" of the USSR, which makes sense only as a substitute for faith in God. Belief in God naturally is bound up with disbelief in atheism and Communism, and that is why the religious awakening in Russia today is not merely something personal, but takes on the character of a national movement.
In the West, our situation is really not so different from this as it might seem at first sight. In the West we are also seeing the collapse of the generally-believed ideology of progress, democracy, and so-called "enlightenment"—a secular religion which until the mid-20th century was accepted without question by almost everyone in America and Western Europe. The "Beat" and "Hippie" movements of the '50's and '60's were only the beginning of an attitude of disillusionment that is now widespread in Western society—so much so that a spokesman like Solzhenitsyn can freely tell the West that we have lost the will to fight Communism, not having deep enough faith in our own system.
3. THE DEAD-END OF CIVILIZATION
Together with the loss of confidence in a generally-accepted ideology, both in Russia and the West there is a sense that civilization has come to a dead-end. In Russia there is the feeling that Communism is finished as a power that can inspire any but a small group of merciless fanatics, that it remains in power solely by naked force—the army and secret police. In the West, the failure of will which Solzhenitsyn has rightly diagnosed is a direct result of the feeling that the West no longer has an ideology worth dying for.
4. THE SEARCH FOR FAITH
And finally, the collapse of a generally-accepted ideology and the sense of dead-end that this brings has led, both in Russia and the West, to a search for a way out in the form of religious belief. This is the motive power behind the "religious revival" in Russia, and also in the West. There is undoubtedly more interest in religion, more conversions (both to Christianity and to non-Christian religions) both in Russia and the free world than at any time in centuries. Of these conversions, probably the majority in Russia are to Orthodoxy; a much smaller but growing percentage in the West is to the same Orthodoxy. It is this movement of religious revival that I would now like to direct out attention to—looking first to Russia, and then to how the experience of Russia affects us in the West.
5. A TYPICAL CONVERSION
Let us look first in detail at one man's conversion in Russia. We who are converts to Orthodoxy in the West can compare and contrast our own experience of coming to the faith with this typical conversion experience in Soviet Russia; and those of you who were "born Orthodox" can learn the more to treasure you faith when you see through what torments a man often comes to find it. This is the experience of Yury Mashkov,
an emigrant from Russia just three years ago, who was
invited to speak at the Russian Orthodox Labor-Day conference in New
Jersey in 1978, just three months after he arrived in America. I
will quote part of his talk at this gathering and make comments on it
as I go along.
He begins by saying that when he was invited to give a talk, "I was disturbed. It seemed to me that I had nothing to tell you. The first half of my life I was a student, and the second half I spent in prisons and the political concentration camps of the Gulag. Indeed, what can I say to people who are more educated than I, more erudite, and even better informed about events in the Soviet Union?"
Here there is already a striking contrast with the experience of us Western converts to Orthodoxy, and of most young Russians in the West as well. Usually (if we are very interested in our faith) we have read many books on Orthodoxy and have a broad theoretical knowledge of it; and we have had a secure childhood and no experience of repression or prison. But here is a man who is going to speak, unwillingly, not out of books and a secure past, but simply out of his own experience of suffering. Here already we can learn something.
He goes on: "Therefore I decided not to write down my talk, but to say whatever God would place in my soul. And then, as we were hurrying away from Bridgeport, Connecticut, in a splendid automobile along the astonishing freeway in the midst of a luxuriant nature, I understood that all my spiritually tormenting life in the Communist 'paradise,' my path from atheism and Marxism to Orthodox faith and Russian nationalism, is the only valuable information that can be of interest to you. My life is of interest only inasmuch as it is a drop in the ocean of the Russian religious and national rebirth."
Here again we in the West can sense a great difference from our own experience. Some of these points may seem like small details, but they are very revealing of our spiritual state. We in the West have learned to take for granted splendid automobiles, freeways, beautiful nature—we would not even comment on these things. But such things, which represent the ease of life in our America, are unheard of in the Soviet Union. Recently I spoke with a recent emigrant from the USSR, and she spoke of one form of dishonesty and crime in Russia today which is almost incomprehensible to us in the free world: when a poet can speak beautifully about flower in a field and be silent about the fact that this field was a place for the torture and murder of innocent people. The whole of Russia is covered with such places today. At one such place, the former concentration camp of Solovki, the tourists are warned to "stay on the paths"—because some have wandered off of them and unexpectedly found human bones sticking out of the earth—remnants of the thousands who perished there. When this is the experience of your country, you cannot feel at ease with beautiful cars and freeways and nature; there is a pain in your soul that is seeking for something deeper.
"I was born (he continues) in the bloody year of 1937 in the village of Klishev, thirty miles from Moscow (on the side of Ryazan). My father, a blacksmith by profession, died in the war, and I do not remember him; my mother, who worked at various jobs, was, I think, indifferent to religion. My grandmother, it is true, was religious, but she had no authority in my eyes because she was totally illiterate. Of course I was baptized as a child, but in my school years I took off my cross and until the age of 25 was a convinced atheist. After finishing the seven-year (primary) school, I had the good fortune to enter the Moscow Higher School of Art and Industry (the former Stroganov School), and I studied there five years out of the seven. Thus, outwardly my life had begun very successfully… In time, I should have received the diploma of an artist and would be able to work anywhere I wanted."
This is a typical Soviet life—but how sobering when compared to our sheltered life in America! Born in the "bloody" years, not of war with an outside enemy, but of Stalin's purges and liquidations, he lost his father in the war, grew up in an atmosphere of atheism (although with reminders of the Orthodox past, especially his Baptism), and had a good future in store in the highly competitive Soviet school system. All this is a far different experience from that of the youth of our Western world. But then something happened to him.
"But the boring Soviet life and spiritual dissatisfaction gave me no peace, and somewhere at the end of 1955, in my 19th year, there occurred an event, outwardly unnoticeable, which however overturned my life and (finally) brought me here. This event occurred in my soul and consisted of the fact that I understood in what kind of society I was living. Despite all the naked Soviet propaganda, I understood that I was living under a regime of absolute rightlessness and absolute cruelty. Very many students came to the same conclusion at this time, and in time there appeared those who thought as I did, and we all considered it our duty to tell the people of our discovery and to somehow act against the triumph of evil."
Here, of course, there is something akin to the idealistic youth of the West, and the awakening of an awareness of truth and higher values which is universally experienced at this age—with the important exception that the background of this experience in Russia is a difficult life, suffering, and terror, while in the West it is usually a full stomach, an easy life, and plenty of spare time. In the free West, this youthful experience has led to the numerous demonstrations in the past decades for various causes, some of them very low and unworthy ones. In the USSR, however, the result is very different.
"But the KGB very carefully looks after all the citizens of the USSR, and when on November 7, 1958 (when he was just 21 years old) we gathered at an organizational meeting to decide the question of an underground samizdat, six of us were arrested and all who did not repent were given the highest punishment for anti-Soviet agitation—seven years each in concentration camp. Thus began a new path in my life."
It should be noted that there is nothing said yet about any religious conversion; this is still only youthful idealism, about to be tested in the Gulag.
"All of us ten were atheists and Marxists of the 'Euro-Communist' camp. That is, we believed that Marxism in itself was a true teaching which lead the people to a bright future, to the kingdom of freedom and justice, and the Moscow criminals for some reason did not want to realize this teaching in life. In the concentration camp this idea completely and forever died in all of us."
And now begins his spiritual rebirth.
"I would like to reveal a little of the process of spiritual rebirth so that you can see how unfailingly it is proceeding in the Russian people. It is not only I and those who were with me who have gone through the spiritual path from Marxism to religious faith… This is a typical manifestation for the Soviet political concentration camps." (He mentions Vladimir Osipov and Deacon Barsanufy Haibulin as examples of those who entered the camps as atheists and left as Orthodox believers.) "What is happening with the Russian people? The process of spiritual rebirth has two stages. At first we discern the essence of Marxism and are freed from any illusions with regard to it. Under a profound and thoughtful analysis we discover that Marxism in its essence is a complete teaching of totalitarianism, that is, an absolute Communist slavery, and any Communist Party in any country, once having undertaken the realization of the Marxist program, will be compelled to repeat what the Moscow Communists have done and are doing, or else renounce Marxism and liquidate themselves. Having understood this simple truth, we lose the ideological basis on which we had opposed Marxist slavery. We fall into a spiritual vacuum which draws after it an ever profounder crisis."
This experience is not too different from what happens in the West when a young person becomes thoroughly disillusioned with the ideals of democracy and progress, although this is usually a less extreme experience than what happens in Russia, where Communism is virtually the "state religion." But the next stage of "spiritual rebirth" occurs in Russia under quite different circumstances.
"Coming to camp, we Russians are surrounded by enemies, because the nationalists of all colors (Ukrainians, those from the Baltic countries, Armenians, Uzbekis, and others), not understanding the historical uniqueness of the Marxist dictatorship have gone the way of least mental effort and identify the international power (of Communism) with the Orthodox Monarchy and accuse us Russians of chauvinism. Thus, there is no salvation anywhere: on one side the Communists annihilate us, on the other the nationalists prepare the same thing for us. After being freed from camp, our outlook is one that we could not wish for an enemy: either to go back to camp and remain there for the rest of our lives, or dies in a psychiatric prison, or be murdered by Chekists without trial or investigation.
"In these conditions of spiritual crises, with no way out, there inevitably comes up the chief question of a world-view: what am I living for if there is no salvation? And when this frightful moment comes, each of us feels that death has really caught him by the throat: if some kind of a spiritual answer does not come, life comes to an end, because without God not only is 'everything permitted,' but life itself has no value and no meaning. I saw in the camp how people went out of their minds or ended with suicide. And I myself clearly felt that if, after all, I came to the firm and final conclusion that there is no God, I would simply be obliged to end with suicide, since it is shameful and belittling for a rational creature to drag out a senseless and tormenting life. Thus, at the second stage of spiritual rebirth we discover that atheism, thought out to its logical end, inevitably brings a man to perdition, because it is a complete teaching of immorality, evil, and death."
This experience is also similar to what some Western converts have experienced; but the urgency of the life-or-death situation in which he found himself, face to face with the Soviet apparatus of terror, is on a deeper level than most of us here have experienced.
"A tragic end (suicide or madness) would have been my lot too it, to my good fortune, there had not occurred on September 1, 1962, the greatest miracle in my life. No event occurred on that day, there were no suggestions from outside; in solitude I was reflecting on my problem: 'to be or not to be?' At this time I already realized thoroughly the savingness of faith in God. I very much wanted to believe in Him; but I could not deceive myself: I had no faith.
"And suddenly there came a second, when somehow for the first time I saw (as if a door had opened from a dark room into the sunny street), and in the next second I already knew for sure that God exists and that God is the Jesus Christ of Orthodoxy, and not some kind of Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or other God. I call this moment the greatest miracle because this precise knowledge came to me not through reason (I know this for sure) but by some other way, and I am unable to explain this moment rationally… And so by such a miracle my new spiritual life began, which has helped me to endure another thirteen years of life in concentration camps and prisons, a forced emigration, and, I hope, will help me to endure all the difficulties of emigrant life.
"And this 'moment of faith,' this greatest miracle, is being experienced now in Russia by thousands of people, and not only in the concentration camps and prisons. Igor Ogurtsov, the founder of the Social-Christian Union, came to faith not in the camps but in the university. Religious rebirth is a typical phenomenon of contemporary Russia. Everything spiritually alive inevitably returns to God. And it is absolutely evident that such a saving miracle, despite the whole might of Communist politics, can be performed only by the Almighty God, Who has not left the Russian people in terrible sufferings and in a seemingly complete defenselessness before many enemies."
This detailed look at one main's spiritual experience gives us something of a feel for what is happening in Russia today. Let us look now at the more general picture of the Orthodox revival in Russia today, in particular through the observations of two of its best-known representatives, in order to see what specifically we can learn from this phenomenon for our own Orthodox life.
6. ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN AND THE GULAG
I will speak first of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His is a typical Soviet life. Born one year after the Revolution, he lost his father in World War I, studied mathematics in order to get a job, served as a soldier in World War II, was with the Soviet army in Germany, then was arrested in 1945 for writing disrespectful remarks about Stalin in private letters and received a "mild" sentence for this—eight years. At the end of his sentence in 1953 he was further sentenced to exile for life in southern Kazakhstan, at the edge of the desert. He contracted cancer there and nearly died from it, but was healed in a cancer clinic. In exile he taught math and physics in primary school and wrote prose in secret. He was rehabilitated in the de-Stalinization era and his first book was published in Russia in 1961. His other books were not published in Russia, but their publication outside Russia made him a troublesome celebrity for the Soviet authorities. In 1970 he received the Nobel Prize for literature, and in 1975 was forcibly exiled to the West, where until now he has continued to write novels and speak to the West about the meaning of the Soviet experience in Russia. In the course of his sufferings and imprisonment he came to Christian faith and is an Orthodox believer.
Now living outside of Russia (in Vermont), Solzhenitsyn in one sense is almost a symbol of the contemporary Orthodox revival in Russia. Born with the Revolution, he underwent the sixty years of suffering of the Russian people and emerged a victor, with a strong Christian faith and a message for the world based on his experience. Most of what Russia has to tell s today in the free world can be seen in Solzhenitsyn. Here I will try to speak of the main points of this message, drawn not from his fiction, but from his public addresses and articles.
First of all, Solzhenitsyn has told us about Gulag.
Of course, many spoke of the Soviet slave system before Solzhenitsyn, but the world did not listen. Only in recent years has the world been ready to hear of this frightful reality which Solzhenitsyn has described with tremendous power.
He speaks of Gulag not merely as the prison system of one modern country, but as the logical end of the whole of modern history once God has been removed from men's lives. This is not merely a "Russian" experiment—it is the end of all peoples who remove God from the center of life. And Gulag is an essential part of atheist society—if you remove it, the Soviet system itself will crumble. Atheism is based on the evil in man's nature, and Gulag is only the natural expression of this. Russia's experience with Gulag is for the whole of humanity, and no one should presume to comment on the nature and meaning of modern history until he has read this book.
But most of all I want to speak about an almost paradoxical second aspect of Gulag: it reveals the evil of man's nature and the folly of the modern dream of earthly happiness—but at the same time it is also a starting place for man's spiritual rebirth, the condition which makes the spiritual rebirth of Russia so much more profound than the various "spiritual revivals" of the free world. Solzhenitsyn himself describes this in Part II of The Gulag Archipelago:
"It has granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of my youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only wen I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first strivings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and then all human hearts… And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil."
How much deeper is this observation than anything we in the West could say based on our own experience. And why is it deeper? —Because it is based on suffering, and that is the reality of the human condition and the beginning of true spiritual life. Christ came to a life of suffering and the Cross, and the experience in Russia enables those who undergo it to see this profoundly. That is why the Christian revival in Russia is so deep.
And what of us in the West, and particularly in America? Do we have any image that explains our situation as well as Gulag does that of Russia? I am afraid there is an image, most unflattering to us, which is almost our equivalent of Gulag. It is "Disneyland"—an image which exemplifies our carefree love of "fun" (a most un-Christian word!), our lack of seriousness, our living in a literal fool's paradise, unaware or barely aware of the real meaning and seriousness of life.
Anyone who has met or read the writings of people who come from the USSR and other Communist countries, cannot but notice how serious—sometimes to the point of grimness—these people are. I am not saying that we should be grim like that—that would be fakery on our part—but only that we should realize that our experience in freedom and prosperity has to a great extent crippled us spiritually, and that therefore we must expose ourselves to and take deeply to heart the message of men like Solzhenitsyn. We must study the Gulag and make it, to the extent we can, a part of our own experience.
Don't Live by Lies!
Another part of Solzhenitsyn's message to us is contained in the title of one of his essays written in the Soviet Union: "Don't Live by Lies!" This is his answer to the Gulag and to the dead-end of Soviet society in general: a new revolution will not save Russia—only a spiritual change now in each person can hope to do this. The single most difficult thing to bear in the Soviet State, as many have testified, is the lie of it all—not just the daily propaganda or the constant falsification of history, but the daily dishonesty and lack of sincerity produced by fear of the all-powerful State and by cooperation (willing or unwilling) with the lie (the working for a socialist "paradise") that is the basis of the whole Soviet system.
In the West we also have some experience of this phenomenon of the daily lie, when our relationships with others are governed more by our need to get ahead or put something over on someone. This is a product of the growing cold of Christianity. For us also a big part of our Christian life is the restoration of truthfulness in daily life. But probably we do not love the truth as much as people do in Russia—because we have not experienced the enormity of the lie which is the Soviet system.
Back to the Earth
Still another part of Solzhenitsyn's message is often interpreted by his critics as "romanticism," and it is probably the least understood of all that he has to say. He wishes to restore a human element to modern life, which has produced inhuman cities in the name of "progress." In his Letter to the Soviet Leaders he speaks eloquently against the "poisoned zone of asphalt and gasoline" in Russian cities, the imitation Western skyscrapers, the "contaminated belts of wasteland around our industrial centers," and urges a return to a "non-progressive economy," to old-fashioned "towns made for people, horses, dogs," and a return to the "supreme asset of all peoples"—the earth.
Of course, all this is not romanticism at all, but common sense which becomes more evident with each day, as the exhaustion of the world's resources and the contamination of the environment with industrial wastes becomes ever more disastrous. Many sensitive people in the West, including small communities of Orthodox Christians, have already seen the necessity for a slower-paced, more human life outside the big cities with their artificial atmosphere which is a hindrance to Christian warmheartedness and truthfulness. The situation of our own American farmers—who also feed many people abroad—with the declining number of farmers and the fact that farms are becoming less and less humanly attractive, could well give us cause to worry that we also are not using wisely the resources of our own American earth.
Gulag is Coming Here
And a final part of Solzhenitsyn's message to us: What has happened in Russia is coming to the West. America and the free West must also face this universal anti-Christian phenomenon of state atheism and its Gulag. This is the message Solzhenitsyn has given in his American addresses, such as that at the Harvard commencement in 1978, where he castigated America for its loss of will, its love of pleasure, its satisfaction with legalism in human relations. Let me quote here a few passages from another address he gave in 1975, before the meeting of the AFL-CIO in New York City:
"Is it possible or impossible to transmit the experience of those who have suffered to those who have yet to suffer? Can one part of humanity learn from the bitter experience of another or can it not? Is it possible or impossible to warn someone of danger?… The proud skyscrapers stand on, point to the sky and say: it will never happen here. This will never come to us. It's not possible here… Humanity acts in such a way is if it didn't understand what Communism is, and doesn't want to understand, is not capable of understanding… The essence of Communism is quite beyond the limits of human understanding. Its hard to believe that people could actually plan such things and carry them out…
"Communism has infected the whole world with the belief in the relativity of good and evil… Among enlightened people it is considered rather awkward to use seriously such words as 'good' and 'evil.' Communism has managed to instill in all of us that these concepts are old-fashioned concepts and laughable. But if we are to be deprived of the concepts of good and evil, what will be left? Nothing but the manipulation of one another. We will decline to the status of animals.
"That which is against Communism is for humanity. To reject this inhuman Communist ideology is simply to be a human being… It's a protest of our souls against those who tell us to forget the concepts of good a evil…
"I understand that you love freedom, but in our crowded world you have to pay a tax for freedom. You cannot love freedom just for yourself and quietly agree to a situation where the majority of humanity over the greater part of the globe is being subjected to violence and oppression.
"Yet when one travels in your country and sees your free and independent life, all the dangers which I talked about today indeed seem imaginary. I've come a talked to people, and I see this is so. In your wide open spaces even I get a little infected. The dangers seem a little imaginary. On this continent it is hard to believe all the things that are happening in the world. But gentlemen, this carefree life cannot continue in your country or in ours. The fates of our two countries are going to be extremely difficult, and it is better to prepare for this beforehand…
"Two processes are occurring in the world today. One is a process of spiritual liberation in the USSR and the other Communist countries. The second is the assistance being extended by the West to the Communist rulers, a process of concessions, of détente, of yielding whole countries.
"We are slaves there from birth, but we are striving for freedom. You however, were born free. If so, then why do you help our slave owners?"
The message of Solzhenitsyn, then, is addressed directly to America: wake up, learn from those who have suffered, return to the religious and moral roots of humanity, stand firmly in the good and against evil. This is all very correct and very important, but it is not yet the heart of what contemporary Orthodox Russia has to say to the Orthodox of America and the West. To get to this heart of the matter, I will now turn to another central figure of Russia's Orthodox revival.
Reprinted from The Orthodox Word
Vol. 24, No. 1 (138) January-Febuary, 1988
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