07 December 2010

Russian religious revival

During the Bolshevik era the Russian government was officially atheist and actually promoted atheism through quangos like the League of Militant Atheists. The number of working Orthodox Churches had dwindled to 7000. Now there has been a quite spectacular revival. Interfax-Religion:
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia cited the statistics that 23,000 Orthodox churches have been restored in Russia over the past two decades...

Patriarch Kirill emphasized that this had been done against the backdrop of economic, political and social confrontation, rather than at a time of economic and political security and social well-being.

The religious revival actually began before the end of the Bolshevik era, and was in no small measure responsible for the collapse of Bolshevism.

Back when that was just beginning a Russian bishop and some diplomats met with some leaders of the NG Kerk in Pretoria, and it became clear that just as some people were feeling their way uncertainly into the new South Africa, so Russians were feeling their way uncertainly into a new Russia. They were uncertain because in both cases the rules had changed, and freedom was beginning to appear on the horizon, and the old certainties of a world in which whatever was not forbidden was compulsory no longer applied. Here's an excerpt from my diary for Sunday 5 July 1992:

We went to the Liturgy at Brixton. Bishop Victor of Podolsk was there. He had come to bless the offices of the Russian Federation Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He spoke briefly on the church in Russia, and said that the church buildings and monasteries were being handed back by the government, but the church had no money to maintain them. He came to tea afterwards, but had to rush off to another engagement.

In the evening went to Prof Johan Heyns's house, and bishop Victor was there, together with the ambassador, Alexei Makarov, and three others from the Russian Chamber of Commerce - the Vice President, Alexey Leonidovich Kolomeichuk, the public relations officer, Vladimir Michaelovich Korostelev, and the local representative, Vadim A. Mejnikov. Johan Heyns asked how I had become Orthodox, so I explained that I had originally been Anglican. The bishop said that the Russian Orthodox Church had had dialogue with the Anglicans for many years, and felt some theological affinity, but that they had broken off the dialogue when the Anglicans ordained women.

After we had supper the bishop explained the position of the church, and said there had been a spiritual hunger in Russia in recent years, and millions of people were
flocking to the church, but the church did not have resources to minister to them. They were ignorant of the rudiments of the faith - they were seeking God, but did not know why they were seeking, or in many cases they did not know what they were seeking. Henno Cronje asked why this spiritual hunger had appeared so suddenly now - had political changes caused it. The bishop replied that it might have been partly responsible for the political changes, and Dr Makarov said something similar. Henno Cronje also asked if the bishops had been appointed by the government under the communist regime, and bishop Victor said he had only been a bishop for two years, so he could not speak from personal experience, but he knew the government had had the power of veto on the election of bishops.

The DRC people said that they thought there were a lot of affinities between South Africa and Russia - but the ones they gave, even Piet Meiring, were different from what I expected. I thought the most obvious similarity was that both were beginning to emerge from decades of oppression under totalitarian governments, and that they were both discovering that freedom is not without its problems. But they spoke of the mystical identification of the church with the soul of the people, the patriotism, and the love that Russians and South Africans had for their country.

Henno Cronje asked about the meaning of ikons, and the bishop explained how they differed from Western religious painting - that they were not representations of physical objects, but that they had a spiritual meaning. Vadim Mejnikov translated, but obviously had some difficulty with theological terms. At the end all the
Russians, except the bishop, said they were not members of the church, but it seemed that even as the bishop spoke, some kind of spiritual hunger was being awakened in them. As the bishop spoke about the longing for God, it seemed that they were hearing new things, and responding.

One thing that amused me, though I didn't record it at the time, was that all the solemn DRC dominees giggled like naughty schoolboys whenever the Russians said "kak", which means "how" in Russian but "shit" in Afrikaans.

The Russian Ambassador, Makrelov, was quite emphatic about the religious revival leading to people's disillusionment with Bolshevism and contributing to its fall.

It is rather sad to think that both Alexei Makrelov and Prof Johan Heyns died in tragic circumstances not long afterwards. Alexei Makrelov died in a domestic accident, when his wife, who was carrying a tub of hot water, slipped and spilt it on him. Johan Heyns was murdered by an unknown assassin on 5 November 1994.

1 comment:

James Higham said...

For years now though they've been attending services and rebuilding, e.g. Raifa but I think you mean official recognition and that is certainly moving to a new phase.


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