American Exceptionalism, Race and Culture, Religion, Russia

The Parable of the Grannies

As I’ve mentioned in other contexts, I spent a lot of time in the USSR before it fell, and then both Russia and Ukraine, as well as the Soviet Empire, after it fell, from 1991- through- 2008.

Each of those states I visited had a different relationship with their churches. In Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church had been moribund even before the Russian Revolution, and while the last Romanov’s were a departure by being very pious, most of the ruling class carried the Russian Church around only as a ceremonial garnish. Thus, being neither deep nor wide, when the Bolsheviks came along, it was easy to minimize. Their greater objective was to wipe it out among the peasantry, which made up about 80% of the Russian population in 1918, the world’s last true medieval state.

Of course, the great churches were very popular eye candy for tourists, most of whom were from other parts of the USSR. Red Square’s 10 cathedrals have been iconic images of Russia since they first started printing postcards.

But like how the Ottoman Turks transformed Santa Sophia in Constantinople from a cathedral to a mosque, and from a religion that was built on its iconography to a religion that forbade any graven image of humans or deities of any sort, from saints to angels to any part of the Trinity, the Russian churches were devoid of religiosity once the tourist entered the sanctuary.

But there was Vladimir, a city about 200 km east of Moscow, on the Gorkiy highway, that was considered a Holy shrine even by pagan Communists because legend had it that its cathedrals (several) had all been spared in the 12th Century when the Mongols invaded. I only got to see the city Gate, near midnight, but my host, Valentin Suchkov, that “Famous Soviet I’d colluded with” in 1992, spoke of it with such passion, for a member of the Soviet Central Committee who was not permitted to speak of religion, as to carry some deeper meaning for Russians. Our Lady of Vladimir is one of the most revered of Orthodox ikons, even popular among western Christians.

But I never saw any outward expression of religiosity in Russia. The Bolsheviks had literally wiped it out. Of course, we know when the USSR fell, the Russian Church ramped back up. Dr Billy Graham, I recall, implored Christian missionaries to leave Russia alone in those early days, so as to give their Church a chance to restore itself. But from the Russians I’d dealt with since 1992 I’d say that the values we see in Christianity has not grabbed hold among the Russian culture. The Seven Deadly Sins are still very much in charge. As Mark Twain once spoke of Virginia City during the Silver Rush in the 1860s: “there were thirteen saloons, seven brothels….and some talk of building a church.”

It was the same in Ukraine, who had both the Russian and its own Ukrainian Orthodox Church. I was headquartered almost three months there, in Kharkov and Kiev, and never saw any active religious activity, either before or after the fall of the Hammer & Sickle, which occurred officially in January 1992, but was much anticipated weeks before. “Swoboda Ukraina” (Free Ukraine) was almost a salutation in those early days, but referencing more a passing of the Soviet Russians than the return of their Church.

I visited two in Ukraine. One, a Russian Church, had been converted into a music hall. My interpreter, Irina, had asked me to accompany her to a recital. There were perhaps 200 people there, in an amphitheater, with a stage, where a man stepped on stage, with a lone cellist seated behind him. There were even uniformed soldiers there with what looked like family. The opening song was “Ave Maria” only the Bach-Gounod version. Irina pulled out her hankie and quietly sobbed. A very nice recital, she said the singer was a very famous tenor, and that this song has not been played in Ukraine since 1922 when it was grabbed by the USSR.  “Swoboda Ukraina”. Leaving the church we met a long line of beggars inside the walls of the outer grounds, some holding out cups. It was mid-winter, snowing, and cold. Irina started, spying a college mate of hers in the line, so paused, and I dropped in some loose rubles, which startled her, since everyone of the beggars were only getting coins, kopeks. (The difference between the real value of rubles, which were pennies to me, and the official value, which were closer to par value with USD were insane. Another story.) Walking away Irina said church grounds were the only place beggars could beg without having to pay some mafia (there were several) for the privilege of begging on their turf. (An interesting concept, that the several mafias of the Soviet Empire claimed territorial power over ever square meter of what we call in America, “common ground”…you know, the sidewalks of New York. I saw dozens of examples once I knew what to look for. You had to pay mafia just to beg or sell.

I also attended an Orthodox Christmas service (January, 1992) at a cathedral in Kiev. Apparently it had only been recently re-opened, so this service was largely for gawkers. I never saw anyone cross themselves, and those little poorly dressed “babushkas” who were always flitting about changing candles, were constantly shushing visitors to speak more quietly, show a little respect, and please, sir, would you remove your hat? And I swear, there wasn’t a Japanese tourist among them, although I did see that once in Sofia, Bulgaria…flashing cameras everywhere, while the priest was trying to sing out his liturgy.

Eastern Europe was different…both Eastern Orthodox (don’t ever call it “Greek Orthodox” to anyone in Bulgaria, Macedonia, or Serbia without getting your mouth washed out with soap) and Roman Catholic, for the Communists were unable to even consider shutting down religion as they had in Russia. The churches remained open and the Catholics especially was a thorn in the Communists’ side from the first day the Soviets took power in the days after World War II.

Both the USSR and Ukraine had lived under Atheism-as-and-anti-religion-as Law for around 80 years, three full generations, maybe four, since the life-span of Soviet citizens were shorter than the West. They have now lived for a full generation, 30 years, another full generation, since the Fall, still without any real, meaningful moral compass in their universe.

Eastern Europe was different. Of course, modern history’s longest-standing (and greatest) Pope was John Paul (1978-2005) and now a saint. He was a Pole, and his elevation to that seat was very much a statement of world Christianity that it would not surrender to the atheism of Marx easily. The Roman Church was so imbedded at every level of society in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Croatia and Slovenia, that if the Communists attempted to crush the Roman Church as they had crushed the Russian Church they would have despoiled those counties entirely. And there was a strong “underground church” where the Faith was taught more intimately outside the formal church services, and I suspect Father Karol had much to do with that, for the tom-tom network had made him known even in Eastern Orthodox countries, such as Bulgaria, where he was also revered.

Orthodox were less strong in resisting Marx than the Catholics, but still were sufficiently strong so as to cause their governments to take the longer, generational view of eradicating the reach of religion in their countries. Central planning.

So they adopted a 3-generation approach, much like they’ve adopted in our school systems in America. Just teach (brainwash) secularism, devoid of all values based on religious laws, and in three generations what had been morally routine would be replaced by new “modernist” thinking. About 50 years.

The plan went something like this:

All church schools would be closed and all state schools would only teach that those churches were bad, and part of the reason the Party had come into rescue them. This began as early as 1946.

Churches could remain open, but with enough snitches to report who the regulars were. Mostly women. List were made. If workers or their families they would be first warned, then counseled, then reprimanded, maybe even losing their jobs…and that special ID card that entitled them to all the benefits of “membership”.

 

 

The wearing of any amulet of the Church, such as crucifixes, or displays of ikons, or passing around of religious cards, were prohibited. So in Generation One, they were all stashed in the back of drawer in the bedroom. Even the icons were hidden away. But as mothers in 1946, and then grandmothers in ’75, and even great-grandmothers by 2000, slowly neither their children of ’45, nor their children of ’75, had been taught a word about God except at home, so that by the time the Communists fell in 1992, when they were freed, two generations had passed that no idea what went on inside those churches, witness the giant sell-off in the markets of those silver crosses in the bureau, sold for the value of the silver. Or what those silver crosses meant. Except that they were silver, which meant cash. From 1992 thru 2000 there was one seller of old crucifixes  in the flea market, selling at under $10 which were worth $50, and as religious relics, much more. Then suddenly they disappeared in the market place. Maybe middlemen took over the market, selling in Europe. But also maybe Bulgarians started treating them as heirlooms, and objects of worship, once again.

But on every visit there, sometimes twice a year, my first visit was always to St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and then to the nearby flea market. (I wrote about Kuko, if you’ll recall.) It was my standard routine.  I lit candles for friends back home, my wife’s mother and father, and my son with leukemia, and I’d listen to their great choir, whose music I find above even the Russian choirs.

I usually visited that Cathedral two-three times every visit, just to see if things had changed since my first visit in the ’90s, when almost no one but old women came to light candles and pray. The occasional bus tour group came through, but as years passed there were more middle-aged and middle class adults, more respectful, even men who even prayed. It was nice to see.

But one sight will always stand out above the others.

I always stand in the back, near the candles, where people come and go, to bow and cross themselves and to move from various ikonned pillars to say prayers. There are no chairs or pews. Everyone stood, although in the later years they had provided chairs for the elderly. In any case, I was with my friend, Dr Shanov, Vesko, and in front of us stood a bent old woman, poorly dressed, with three small boys, ages 8 down to 5, I’d say. She was clearly instructing them. First how to genuflect, then how to prostate themselves on the floor, and finally how to cross themselves. She would take each boy’s hand and place the fingers where they belonged (not the same as Catholics), then hold their arm on a trial run, then let them do a solo. Then, when all was tried, she then moved them a few steps forward, but still near the rear, and then, on the priest’s prompt this time, they all crossed themselves and bowed in unison along with everyone else in the congregation. Very proud, I’m sure, they turned and walked past us toward the door.

As I’ve said many time, how can you see something like that and not be changed?

Dr Shanov said she was likely a great-grandmother, and neither her child nor grandchild had ever been in a church, and this woman’s experiences in this church would go back at least 50 years.  She was the last living memory of church worship in their family. The last lifeline.

Just in time.

Lesson for America: Bulgaria, not to mention all of Eastern Europe had dodged a silver bullet, for had they gone another generation, I wonder if it would not all be lost, as the Russias had lost, all because of those thirty or-so extra years they Russians needed to erase cultural memory. How long will be their road back? Russia’s not doing so well.

America is entering its third generation now. Same plan. So how long will be our road back?

 

 

 

 

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