Orthodox America

  The Cry of the New Martyrs – “Glasnost” and the Church

“We want to believe in the reality of the forthcoming reconstruction…Is it possible that such a might and civilized government as ours cannot allow believers not only the right to confess their faith in church but also to live according to this faith? – A. Ogorodnikov


    In an essay titled "Will There Be Changes?” author Boris Modem writing from Moscow last month poses a question many Orthodox Christians are asking: "Is the situation of the Orthodox Church changing in light of the ' perestroika' (restructuring) which the Soviet regime is implementing for the 'nth' time in Russia?" Welcome news of the release of more than 60 religious prisoners over the past several months has brought a ray of optimism, heightened by Western media reports commending Gorbachov's determined efforts to flush out corruption, increase efficiency, promote personal initiative and greater openness in recognizing and attacking the critical problems which have been allowed to fester there for so many decades unattended. But if radical surgery is being proposed to treat the economic sphere, are there any signs that an equally pressing need for changes in state policy towards the Church will be given due attention under 'perestroika'?

    Late last month a group of nine Orthodox Christians--including former prisoners Fr. Gleb Yakunin, Alexander Ogorodnikov, Vladimir Poresh and Victor Burdyug--addressed letters to Patriarch Pimen and Gorbachov appealing for a fundamental revision of the 1929 legislation which since that time has defined State-Church relationship in the Soviet Union. As Keston notes: "A key theme in the petition is that believer s are not permitted to live out their faith to the full. They may worship, but they may not fully obey Christ's command to 'love your neighbor as yourself.' They write:

    "'Wherever love of one's neighbor could express itself as a concrete moral action, it runs up against the horns of the law which persecutes it. Of course, the right to love one's neighbor cannot be taken away from an individual, but by what sophistry is it possible to justify the fact that this right is taken away from a Church community or from the Church as an institution?'"

     Specifically, the authors of this letter call for the swift release of "all people who find themselves in captivity for their desire to live in conformity with their religious and moral convictions." They also petition for the return to the Church of the Kiev Caves Monastery in conjunction with the 1988 Millennium.

    In trying to widen his base of support and enlist the help of believers, Gorbachov appears willing to grant some concessions. For example, he said nothing against the proposal for a 15-minute excerpt of the Paschal midnight service to be broadcast over Moscow TV and radio. This would have been a first in Soviet history were it not for the last minute intervention of the Second Secretary of the CPSU. Ligachov, who personally called Moscow TV and banned the broadcast.

      Obviously, there are many in the Party apparatus and also in the Church hierarchy who are nervous and even fearful of the challenge which Gorbachov' s 'glasnost' presents. Too much enthusiasm, at least in the religious sphere, is discouraged. Fr. Gleb was reprimanded by his superior, Metropolitan Jurenaif, for signing the above quoted letter. His participation was interpreted as a "political act," something which Fr. Gleb was forbidden to engage in as a condition of having his priestly duties restored.

     At the same time, many wonder how much substance lies behind Gorbachov' s view of the Church as a potential ally. Is he wooing the Church, like Stalin, only to throw it to the lions once it has outserved its desired purpose of helping to consolidate his power and nurse the country back to health? Among believers hope is fueled by positive developments which recently include the release of Orthodox Christians Leonid Borodin, Zoya Krakhmalnikova and her husband Felix Svetoy, the return to the Church of a convent north of Moscow, an easing (unofficial) of admission restrictions for those wishing to enter monasteries, the lifting (in some Moscow churches) of the compulsory registration of baptism s and marriages. Entering into the spirit of 'glasnost', one of the nine signatories of the above cited letter, Alexander Bessmertny, announced at a press conference on May 27 that he intends to publish an independent newspaper for Christians. And Alexander Ogorodnikov, who continues to be fearlessly outspoken, met with Metropolitan Jurenmi and urged that the Church rescind Metropolitan Sergius' Declaration of 1927 (which essentially brought the Church under State control).

     Without touching on the subject of the Church, the recent CBS broadcast "Seven Days in May" gave a rather rosy picture of 'perestroika.' Those who have a living experience with the system, however, offer a different prognosis. Even among optimistic analysts, the general assessment of 'glasnost,' as it affects the Church, is dominated by a tone of caution--even pessimism--as they wisely seek to balance the euphoria expressed by more naive observers in the West. In answering the question "Will there be changes?" Boris Medem replies that on the whole one would have to say, No.

    "Just as before, [the Church today] wears the yoke of complete subjugation and cruel control by state atheists. Minor changes are connected either with greater pragmatism or with the approaching Millennium jubilee of the Baptism when once again foreigners will have dust thrown in their eyes. The persistent atheist propaganda continues its operation, it is as difficult as ever to open churches, the voice of the Church is still silenced in the land. The 'Babylonian captivity' continues.

    "If there are some weak gleams of light in the darkness, it is thanks to the zeal of laymen who have taken spirit on this eve of the glorious Millennium. They have begun to pester the authorities with greater boldness, to demand the fulfillment of existing laws. So far success has been limited: the prison in which the Church languishes still holds fast, the bureaucrat-guardsmen are still hardhearted..."

    "It appears that state atheism is not yet inclined to relinquish its position and opposes even minor changes. And why should it yield if the genera l policy remains , as in the past, directed at the annihilation of faith? It can be changed only by a clear realization: the country stands at the brink of a moral abyss and without the Church it will fall into it headlong."

    Is Gerbachov sincere enough, courageous enough to admit the failure of communist atheism to provide a raison d'etre? Will he allow the Church the freedom required to effectively heal the wounds which 70 years of atheism have inflicted upon the nation's soul? As remote as this possibility may seem, let us cling to the hope that with God "all things are possible." And pray.