With Gorbachov's 'glasnost', the West is gradually being introduced to a broader and more detailed picture of the Soviet Union than anything offered by his predecessors. It is, however, a selective montage, and after years of little more than touched-up glossies, one wonders just how much of the present exhibit qualifies as honest realism. For this reason first-hand accounts by travelers behind the Iron Curtain find a ready audience among those interested in an accurate portrayal.
But a visitor, no matter how proficient in the language, no matter how objective his intent, returns with a subjective experience. This is especially true in regard to the subject of religious life which demands great sensitivity on the part of the "foreign" observer (i.e. anyone not branded with a Soviet passport). For example, an account by a Russian emigre of the '40's, who visited the USSR a year ago, appeared recently in the Orthodox press. In it a certain monk is categorized as belonging to the "types that serve the government, in many cases by bringing scandal upon the people," while another visitor heard reports of reverent admiration for this same monk, with examples of his clairvoyance! But despite such inaccuracies of judgment which inevitably occur, first-hand accounts remain a valuable source of information. The following impressions were penned by an East European who visited the Soviet Union in the fall of 1986. (Translated from "Possev,"April, 1987.)
I am writing to you because I know this is something which must be written about. After all, there lives Holy Russia which has suffered so much in the course of its history--and even now is suffering...
Leningrad left me with the strongest impressions. Incidentally, all those whom I met call their city Petersburg or Pitr! Currently there are 17 functioning Orthodox churches and one each among other confessions: Catholic, Armenian, Jewish, etc. Aside from those churches which have been transformed into museums or architectural landmarks--as, for example, St. Isaac's Cathedral--there are in the very center of the city closed churches, without crosses. St. Isaac's is a magnificent temple. Everything in it is wondrous to behold; only it is said that there are no icons (apart from the mosaics on the walls), no candle stands, no altar, no Divine Services. Still, the cathedral is standing and to many it serves as a witness to Orthodoxy. During my visit to St. Isaac's I saw that when any man entered wearing a hat, the guard was quick to point out that such behavior was inadmissible.
On the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Sept. 11 n.s.) I attended the Liturgy at St. Nicholas Cathedral, the "Maritime" cathedral, so-called because before the Revolution it was the church of the Russian navy. It is a beautiful, two-story edifice: when the Royal Family attended the Divine Services in years gone by, it stood on the upper level. I was told that this is the only church in the city that has not been pillaged.
That same day I attended the vigil service at St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra. It was the eve of the feast of the translation of the relics of the right-believing Prince Alexander Neysky. A bishop served and two choirs sang: one--a male choir of seminarians and students of the Theological Academy, the other--a mixed choir formed of students of the choir directing faculty (where women are also enrolled). There were about 2,000 people in the church, maybe more. Almost all the women wore scarves. This tradition [women covering their heads in church] is still alive among the Russian people --and it is not the only one.
In Moscow there are 34 functioning churches and 3 house churches. I visited Danilov Monastery which only recently had been used as a detention center for juvenile delinquents, It is in the process of being reconstructed and much has already been accomplished. There are presently 15 monks; there are due to be 90 but for the time being their number is limited by the unfinished condition of the living quarters. The restoration of the monastery is being financed by the Church but it is constantly running up against difficulties. In Petersburg I was told that to hammer in a single nail costs a hundred rubles. The government has its ways of pumping money from the Church. Many people came offering to work without pay in their desire to help with the restoration. But the government would not allow it; work is by contract only.
My most vivid impressions came from conversing with believers. I told them about Orthodoxy in various parts of the world, and they listened with avid interest. They in turn spoke about life in the Soviet Union, particularly about the state of believers. There is a great deal that testifies to the resurgence of religion in the country. Many are joining the Church, many are returning to it. One person with whom I spoke had been baptized as a child on the initiative of his grandmother.' Later, however, he had no contact with the Church at all, until as a student he came back to it on his own. His wife was baptized at the age of 25. He himself is the godfather of one of his friends who is 80 years old, He said that in rural areas there are also many baptisms--both of children and of adults. I gave my new acquaintances a Bible, a New Testament, a Prayer Book, icons, crosses and a commemoration book. They wept on receiving all this. And how they thanked me! For them it is an enormous treasure. They will read them, and not they alone but many others also. It is possible to buy icons and crosses in some churches, but to obtain a Bible-practically impossible. Now I know how much they need our help.
At home they have icons; vigil lamps burn before them, They raise their children in an Orthodox spirit. The children, however, are in a very difficult position. They are not allowed to wear crosses in school--it's forbidden. Then, they are obliged to enter the Pioneers [communist youth organization]. True, if the father has a difficult occupation (fishing, for example) then he can choose to keep his children out of the Pioneers; he won't be fired, he's needed.
When I parted from my new friends, one of them asked that I tell as many people as possible that Holy Russia is alive; that they, too, the believers, are alive; that they are praying and struggling--as much as they are able under the circumstances--for holy Orthodoxy, for Rus'; and that not all in Russia are communist,
Conditions of life there are difficult, but their hearts are open. Never in my life, it seems to me, have I met such people!
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