"Gorbachev's new attitude towards religion,'' "Soviet
reforms bring steady rise in worshippers," "Historic Kremlin
meeting: Gorbachev vows tolerance for religion",.. These and similar
headlines, which have appeared recently in the American press, suggest
that a new and happier era has begun for believers in the Soviet Union.
Optimistic speculation, however, concerning substantive change, must be tempered by a sober perspective that is not blind to historical precedent. When Gorbachev admits that "a new attitude towards the Church [is] important for strengthening national unity during a period of change," he echoes his predecessor, Josef Stalin, who enlisted the Church for mobilizing popular support in the war against Hitler. In return, the Church was restored to good standing, and thousands of churches were re-opened. These gains, however, were severely diminished in the virulent anti-religious campaign of 1959-64 (which largely escaped notice by the West): an estimated 22,000 churches open in 1957 was reduced to 7,000 by 1967, and by 1982 even this figure had been cut in half (Konstantinow, Stations of the Cross).
But while this gloomy comparison suggests that one cannot trust the current changes to endure, most believers are deeply grateful for any concessions--however temporary-that Gorbacbev may offer in the interest of enlisting their support for his program of 'perestroika'.
Among the most 'spectacular' of these concessions has been the return in recent months of four more monasteries  to the Church: the famous Optina 'Poustin' in the Kaluga region, the Tolga Convent in the Yaroslav region, the Anzersk Skete in the Solovetsk monastery archipelago in the White Sea, and finally, after incessant demands, the Kiev Caves Lavra in Ukraine. Considering the prominent role of monasticism in the history of Russian spirituality and its potential as a beacon of true Christianity in an atheist wasteland, considering also the tremendous attraction that monasteries have among a spiritually deprived populace (an estimated 15,000 crowd the, Trinity-St. Setgins Lavra on its principal feast days), and the fact that only 17 monastic communities are functioning today--as compared to over a thousand in 1917, one can well understand the enthusiasm with which believers have greeted the return of these four monasteries to the Church.
Sensitive and experienced observers, however, caution against crediting the atheist state with a change of heart. Dissident Anatole Scharansky commented recently in a radio interview: "one should not confuse 'new leader' with 'new system'." And history shows that nothing the Soviets do is without self-interest. For example, the Tolga Convent is to operate a home for elderly clergy. This has been hailed as another breakthrough inasmuch as the Church has thus far been forbidden to conduct any charitable activity. But recent emigre Priest Vladimir Shibayev had this to say about it:
"At first glance, it might appear that the right to charitable activity is being restored to the Church. In fact, what is happening is the following. Priests, who can no longer serve in churches, by remaining in their own homes, could receive people in need of spiritual nourishment. Now, by the blessing of their diocesan bishops, they will be retired to the convent where they will be deprived of the possibility of meeting with Orthodox Christians without coming under the surveillance of the authorities who constantly monitor and keep watch over every step taken by priests of the official Church." ('Possev', May, 1988)
Similar reservations concerning the "new attitude towards religion" have been voiced by Zoya Krakhmalnikova, a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy, who returned not long ago to the Moscow area from exile in Siberia:
"While atheism remains the State religion. while all means of mass communication belong to atheism, while the Church is afflicted by an absence of 'glasnost' and her ambos are silent, appreciable changes are not possible. They can lead only to insignificant formal and quantitative changes. Let's say there's an increase in the number of open churches--which, of course, is very important; of registered communities; a few monasteries are opened... But in Christianity, what is important is not so much form and quantity, as essence; not the letter, but the spirit.
'[Optina Hermitage, whose ruins have been returned to the Russian Orthodox Church, was the center of [Russia's] spiritual and cultural life in the 19th century; it published books, it enlightened tile world, it gave it the Light of Christ's Truth. Optina drew that part of Russia which sought and found the spiritual treasures of Orthodoxy. Today a monastery--such as, for example, the Pskow, Caves monastery-can become a place of deception--not only for the world but also for Orthodox believers. The unspeakable crudeness and cruelty of the monastery superior, Gabriel--not only towards the monastery's inhabitants but also towards pilgrims-ha s become a "sermon in favor of heathenism'': he considers the only welcome guests of the monastery to be plenipotentiaries of the Council for Religious Affairs,
"It's not enough to open monasteries and churches; the spiritual treasures of Orthodoxy must be returned to the faithful; not only Optina, but also its printing press. Then one can hope that eventually, by God' s mercy, there will come to the Church pastors similar to those who settled Optina and other Russian monasteries which, in the course of the thousand year history of Russian Christianity, have endowed Russian society and Russian culture with their spiritual pearls..." ("Russkaya Misl," May 27, 1988)
It is interesting that concern for the spiritual content of current developments in the sphere of Church life, has also found its way into the official press, although such articles, keeping to the limits of 'glasnost', tend toward a more positive evaluation than the opinions expressed above.
On the subject of Optina, the 'progressive' journal "Moscow News" (Dec. 20, 1987), carried an article which combines praise of the decision to return the monastery to the Church, with criticism of a degenerate cultural awareness and an appeal for a revived spiritual consciousness. The author, Alexander Nezhni begins by establishing for the reader Optina' significance as a "spiritual treasure-house whose power of attraction rested with its elders, those who in 1821 settled in the Skete  not far from the monastery. Its most outstanding elders are briefly highlighted: Leonid-misunderstood and maligned by his superior,' Makary--whose fruitful collaboration with the Slavophile Kireyevsky initiated Optina' s extensive publishing activity; and Ambrose--who shone with a supreme empathy for his fellow man. Among those drawn to visit Optina were Russia' s literary giants: Gogol, who thought Optina as "an incarnation of what should be the Promised Land"; Dostoevsky, whom Elder Ambrose characterized as "a man repenting' and Tolstoy--"terribly proud". (He was ex communicated by the Church for his heretical beliefs.)
Against this background of Optina' s ' golden years, the author recalls a recent trip to the monastery:
"...The sight of the surrounding neglect evoked feelings of indignation and sorrow; the heart ached with bewilderment. Everything there was either in a state of collapse or barely holding together. Steam was issuing from one building, black heaps of coal stood visible; the church of St. Mary of Egypt looked as if it had just been bombed; of the once carefully tended sepulchers there remained only the slabs on the naves of the Kireyevskies and Elder Ambrose.
"...On a bench near the former guesthouse now a dormitory of the technical school which has occupied the monastery for nearly 30 years sat two girls and a fellow. When they finish their studies the girls will become cooks and the fellow a driver. They spend a year here. The Church of the Entrance was nearby...and we decided to ask: "What's the name of this lurch?" The girl with the earrings shrugged her shoulders: "Who knows.' What sort of place is this Optina Hermitage, anyway? .... Optina is Optina ," the other girl answered huskily.
The fellow, disconcerted, was silent.
"The destruction of forms and profound ignorance-these are links in the same chain; it is the rejection of a cultural heritage; it is emptiness in the past which threatens us with the same emptiness in the present, and in the future..." [The author goes on to say that what is important here is not restoration work, but social consciousness]:
"... Who are we ? Have we finally developed within ourselves a spiritual breadth, patience , an awareness of the unsurpassing value of the varied manifestations of our native culture? Has reverence been born in our hearts, or does the passion for destruction blind our gaze as before? And are we aware that by returning a monument to its natural life, we root ourselves more firmly, more lastingly in the historic and national soil?...
"...We have barely entered upon the work of mending broken ties, and ahead--lies an untouched expanse of difficult and noble labors, of which our society is in crying need."
 St. Daniel' s Monastery in Moscow, returned to the Church in 1983, functions as a showplace of religious 'freedom'.
 Skete of the Forerunner; here the fasting rule was stricter, and women were allowed only into the ante-room built into the outside wall.
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