Orthodox America

  Perestroika: Sic et Non

Archpriest David Lesko

As the year 1988 draws to a close, it does so in the broadening, biphonic echo of exceptional divine praise and extraordinary political propaganda. The condition for these voices, both in their contrast and in their harmony, is one and the same: the Millennium celebration of the Baptism of Rus. There is nothing original in this observation. Yet there is everything necessary in the uninterrupted project of discernment which even the splendor of the Millennium rites would seem to advise.

 Politically and ecclesiastically the anniversary has been appropriated, as an event, in the unfolding of far too many campaigns, intending far too divergent ends. Equivocation in proclaiming its sense has become rampant and, thereby, the very basis upon which discernment must be exercised has become shaken.

To secure this basis, however, is really not difficult. Its effort lies in a constant reminder, summarized in a recent issue of The Orthodox Word, that, "Up to today, Russia has been a triumphant defender of apostolic, catacomb and Byzantine Christianity ..... It is for this defense--during favorable times and times of persecution-that we mean to praise Russia and its 1,000 year Christian history. It is solely on the basis of its stance for Truth, on behalf of all the Russian Saints, that Holy Russia's Millennium has any meaning for us today? [1]

That the celebration of the Millennium has coincided with the introduction in the Soviet Union of political and socio-economic reforms is a fact which no one has ignored. But it is precisely this coincidence, undoubtedly heralding new, refined forms of church-state confusion, which necessitates the most acute discernment. The purpose of this article, which makes no claims to exhaustiveness, is to review various, otherwise scattered assessments of the Millennium, in the context of reform, from the perspective of this need.

      In the April 4 edition of Time magazine, focusing upon preparations for the anniversary observance, local correspondents stated that, "For Westerners, it is a time when they will suddenly see that religion tenaciously endures and is re-flowering despite seven decades of oppressive state atheism. For Mikhail Gorbachev, the Millennium provides a platform from which to promulgate his much touted glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). And for the believers? For believers, the celebration will be stirring, but they are already wondering if the fervor will bring meaningful changes." [2]

      Four months later, in an article which appeared in the August 12 number of the National Catholic Reporter, another correspondent, exuberantly passing over these distinctions, wrote that, "What became stunningly clear to me during three weeks in June in the Soviet Union is that the spring winds are now reaching the Church. Indeed perestroika may presently be having more impact on the Church than any other sector of society except the mass media [3]

      Glasnost. Perestroika. The millennium blossoming of the Russian Orthodox Church. Into what kind of an equation do these elements fit?

      On October 26, 1986 Craig R. Whitney published in "The New York Times Book Review" an evaluation of The Harvest of Sorrow, Robert Conquest’s study of the brutalities of Soviet agricultural collectivization throughout 1929-32 and the consequent "terror famine" of 1932-3,3. In the final paragraph of that review Whitney quoted the author as emphasizing that, “So long as these events cannot be seriously investigated or discussed in the country where they took place, it is clear that they are in no sense part of the past but, on the contrary, a living issue very much to be taken into account when we consider the Soviet Union as it is today? [4]

      Long before Stalin's drive for collectivization, the Bolshevik Revolution claimed its first masses of victims from among the ranks of the Orthodox Church, beginning with the Holy Hieromartyr, Metropolitan Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky) of Kiev, murdered on January 25/February 7, 1918, And, as is also well known, the major historical account of the Soviet persecution of the Church, by Deacon Vladimir Rusak, resulted in 1986 in a sentence of twelve years of strict regime labor camp and internal exile.

    According to the Keston News Service bulletin of July 21, despite all pretensions to glasnost, "Russian Orthodox deacon VLADIMIR RUSAK has been put in the punishment cell (shizo) of Perm Camp 35....Now it has become known that he spent the whole period of the Millennium celebrations in the punishment cell”[5] So long as his research work remains censored, so long as any prisoners of conscience languish in the Gulag, the violence perpetrated against the Church will likewise continue to be a living issue within Soviet society, while the policy of glasnost, as far as the Church is concerned, will remain deadlocked by the ideological intransigence of its promoters.

           In Zagorsk, it was reported, during the June 6-9 Millennium Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev and Galich did speak publicly about repressions against the Church under Stalin. [6] Even this seemingly firm step toward the application of glasnost to the life of the Church, however, once removed from the isolation of closed conciliar deliberations, manifests itself as no more than in cautions patriotic stride with the controlled movement of historical revaluation currently taking place in Soviet society. Thus, Suzanne Massie's comment in the June 20 issue of Time that, "I'm waiting for the Gorbachev of the church," [7] together with Serge Schmemann's appraisal in the June 19 edition of The New York Times that "the domesticated and timid prelates" of the Church "often seemed more obsequiously loyal in millennial speeches than their handlers from the Government's Council for Religious Affairs.'' [8]

          As it refers to the Church, glasnost is not, as was rather clumsily highlighted in one ecclesiastical publication, a question of the availability of the Bolshoi Theater or the social accessibility of the spouse of General Secretary Gorbachev? [9] Rather, it is a question of truth. "The whole truth," Archpriest John Meyendorf once wrote, "must eventually  ring out from the heights of both the Patriarchal Throne and the episcopal cathedrals! Only then will the complex and tragic history of the   Russian Church during the past decades receive its rightful conclusion."[10]

        In the absence of that truth, it is propaganda which continues to prevail. The summer issue of Cathedral Age, published by the Protestant Episcopal Foundation of Washington, included excerpts from a December, 1987 television interview with Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Byelorussia, according to whom "Our state is not an atheistic one, it is a socialist one, with the leading role belonging to the communist party, which has an officially atheistic ideology. But the State, on the whole, is the union of party and non-party people; and to say that the Soviet Union is an atheistic state, would be a serious misunderstanding and the wrong basis for contemplations or reflections.''[11] Though this tiptoeing clarification left unmentioned the full range of prerogatives which, in its leading role, the Communist Party exercises in governing the Soviet State, to the utter historical humiliation of the Church, the statement itself is noteworthy as yet another high-level example of what Marite Saplets has seen to be "an interesting reversal of a common official accusation formerly used against believers--that they were 'not Soviet people'. [12] Voiced at the highest possible level by Secretary Gorbachev himself, during his April 29 meeting with Patriarch Pmen, this reversal would seem to intend mobilization of the entire community of the Church "in the interests of strengthening the unity of all working people and of our whole nation" through support of the "domestic and foreign policy of the Soviet state.'' [13]

       But, as Alyona Kojevnikov observed in an analysis of Council for Religious Affairs Chairman Konstantine Kharchev's Isvestya article of January 27, '"There seems no reason to doubt the willingness of believers to play a full role in improving the life of their society in all aspects of human endeavor. Paradoxically, it is the State which seems to blow hot and cold in contemplating the possible role of a truly free body of socially active believers in its midst." Thus, under cover of the most attractive propaganda, suggesting full equality of party and non-party people, communists and believers, Soviet authorities must still decide "whether they want free men who cannot be controlled at all times, or whether this challenge proves too frightening, and they revert to arrests and imprisonment of those who refuse to remain slaves.'' [14]

     This decision, of course, remains pending while the propaganda drive to conceal its process would seem, at least in some quarters, to he registering success. It was no Soviet hierarch but, rather, an American Orthodox guest at the Millennium festivities who reported, for example, that, "Here we were in what is believed to be an atheistic country and our eyes and ears were experiencing something quite different (emphasis mine)....Not only did all the events get excellent coverage in the news media and television, but there were even special programs on television throughout the day....Rather than churches being closed, some of those that were previously closed were being returned....Rather than preventing people from entering the church for services, assistance was afforded to accommodate the visitors and the local believers; and much more.'' [15]

      Surely there can he no firmer desire, on every Christian's part, than that the Millennium celebrations inaugurate, for the Russian Orthodox Church, as for all religious communities in the Soviet Union, a future of freedom and peace. But toward the realization of this desire, how far can recent social, administrative and legal measures affecting the Church truly be welcomed as liberating reforms? In other words, how far can the policy of perestroika be understood as seriously applying to the Church?

      It is possible to base an optimistic response to these questions on the quoted, more or less philosophical opinion of one Russian Orthodox priest, that it is not accidental "that perestroika .... coincides with the Millennium. In fact I think it is out of the spiritual life of our country that perestroika was born, and that the anticipation of the Millennium gave the country an inspiration to look at every thing from the point of view of spiritual values." That such optimism demands favorable conditions for development, however, the same priest himself made clear: "We are very far from realizing what we now dare to imagine. There are still thousands of officials who don't want to change and don't want to step down, who like being little tsars.'' [16]

      Since it is such officials, though, upon whose pleasure the local functioning of the Church depends, true reform, true "democratization" of ecclesiastical life requires, first, total elimination of their influence, together with rectification, within the Church, of the spirit which decades of their influence have created. That the pervasiveness of this spirit long ago reached crisis level in the Church is discussed in the following way in a Catacomb Epistle initially circulated in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1971:

      "It is absolutely clear that the general church awareness in Soviet Russia stands in sharp contradiction to the declarations of the Patriarchate concerning the 'freedom' and 'flourishing' of the Russian Church. It is essential to remark on this because in actual fact it does not manifest itself....No: a church which is directed in its life by an agreement with the State and its direct orders, is, naturally, a State church. And here there is no help from hypocritical citations of the separation of the church from the State in the USSR, because the real condition of affairs is evident to all. This is not merely the church of the Soviet period, but the church of the Soviet State, precisely the Soviet church..."[17]

      As if by restatement of this crisis assessment, in anticipation of the Millennium, Time correspondents quoted Father Gleb Yakunin's observation that, at present, "The general atmosphere has changed a lot, but when it comes to actual church life, it’s like it was 30 years ago” and Alexander Ogorodnikov’s even more lapidarian remark: “The authorities allow the church to exist, but it's their church." [18]

     What then, practically, of perestroika? Keston News Service reported on February 18 that, nine days earlier, at what was a veritable command performance in the Moscow Palace of Culture, which "all the priests and church-wardens of Moscow city churches were ordered to attend," Metropolitan Yuvenali of Krutitsy and Kolomna declared that perestroika has had "a beneficial effect on the life of the Church and all religious communities, creating conditions in which the Church can 'fulfill its mission': this mission Metropolitan Yuvenali defined as 'working for peace, participating in humanitarian initiatives and social organizations. '"[19]

      The ludicrousness of this statement requires no commentary. But the situation changes as soon as other, more concrete effects of the alleged beneficence of perestroika begin to be listed. First among these is the restoration by the Church of Moscow's Danilov Monastery, the propaganda value of which, for the Soviet state, comes into full focus in the interview with Father Vladimir Shibayev published in June in Orthodox America: on the government's part, the Danilov complex was never intended to be a liturgically functioning monastery; only an administrative-bureaucratic center, [20] so a similar divergence of opinions seems to have occurred in Leningrad too, regarding the newly reopened Saint Xenia's Chapel, consecrated in August of 1987. According to Father Demetrios Serfes, writing in St. Xenia's Bi-Monthly Bulletin (April - May, 1988), "Although the church had been consecrated...no services have been held in this church since the consecration. Tourists as well as faithful still cannot always enter the chapel....'' [21]

      Among other properties returned to the Church there is, of course, the Tolga Monastery, promoted as the site where a home for the elderly clergy will be established but where, in the judgment of Father Shibayev, it is really the following which is happening. "Priests, who can no longer serve in churches, by remaining in their own homes, could receive people in need of spiritual nourishment. Now...they will he 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 priest of the official Church.” [22]

    Because of such duplicity it is still, in the end, as all sober commentators have stressed, what is written into law that will count. But laws must be implemented and their implementation, in totalitarian societies, is one with their intention and their interpretation. Thus, regarding the restoration of the right of juridical personality to religious organizations in the Soviet Union, John Dunlop was able to note that, "Some Western analysts believe that the chief purpose...was to allow the Soviet government to seize Russian ecclesiastical holdings presently under the jurisdiction of the Russian Church Abroad....And it goes without saying that the Soviet courts would have to be independent of the Party and State before this reform could have any real meaning.' [23] Also, concerning the reinstatement of priests as heads of their respective parish communities by the revised statute of the Russian Orthodox Church, Chairman Kharchev's advance views, formulated in March, deserve attention: "According to Lenin, the Party must keep control over all the spheres of a citizen's life, and since you can't just get rid of the believers...it is better for the Party to make a sincere believer believe also in communism. And so, here is our challenge: the education of a new type of priest...' [24]


      Glasnost. Perestroika. The flowering of the Russian Orthodox Church. To answer the pivotal question of this article, the only equation into which these elements fit is, as yet, an equation of hope. Speaking before the White House Human Rights Seminar on December 3, 1987, Archpriest Victor Potapov stated clearly that, as yet, "the Church is not a part of perestroika and has no chance at true Glasnost and must continue to follow the degrading path of subservience to an atheistic state....The sad fact is that the churches in the Soviet Union are being used and exploited for propagandistic purposes by the Gorbachev regime just as they were used by Stalin and by all other Soviet dictators.'' [25]

      Propaganda, however, is no vehicle for hope, No one needs be reminded of that fact. On the contrary, as Richard Davies recently advised, "we need to be aware that the relationship between reform in the USSR and religious liberty is not necessarily that of an equals sign. Reform does not necessarily equal a relaxation of religious suppression and an increase in religious liberty.'' [26]

Archpriest David Lesko
(Orthodox Church in America:
Duquesne, Pennsylvania)


1. Abbot Herman, '1,000 Years of Russian Sanctity,' in The Orthodox Word, January-February, 1988, p. 6. 

2. Richard N. Ostling, "Will Bells Chimes Again?' in Time, April 4, 1988, p. 62. 

3. Jim Forest, "Soviet Union," in National Catholic Reporter, August I2, 1988, p. 23.

4. Craig R. Whitney, "Starving the Hands That Fed Them,” in The New York Times Book Review, October 26, 1986, p. 12. 

5. 'Deacon Rusak in punishment cell,' in Kesten News Service, July 21, 1988, p. 14. 

6. "Millennium Celebrations in the USSR,” in The Truth. The Russian Brotherhood Organization of the USA, September, 1988, p. 1 

7.    Richard N. Ostling, "Giddy Days for the Russian Church", in Time, June 20,1988, p. 58.

8. Serge Schmemann, "The Place of God-Fearing People in a Godless State,' in The New York Times/The Week in Review, June 19, 1988, p. 1.

9. Thousands Commemorate the Anniversary of Christianity in Rus," in The Orthodox Church, August, 1988 p. 4. 

10. Archpriest John Meyendorff, "The Russian Church After Patriarch Tikhon," in St. Viadimir's Theological Quarterly, Number 1, 1975, p. 48.

11.   Leonard Freeman, "Religious Life in the Soviet Union: An Interview with Metropolitan Filaret,' in Cathedral Age, Summer, 1988, p. 8.

12. Marite Sapiets, "Gorbachev Talks to the Orthodox church;" in Keston News Service, May 12, 1988, p. 16.'

13. Ibid, p. 18.

14. Alyona Kojenikov, "Old Sins Cast Long Shadows: A Look at K. Karchev's Article in Izvestiya," in Keston News Service, February 18, 1988, pp. 15-16

15. Bishop Herman, "Sharing the Joy of the Millennium Celebration," in Alive in Christ, Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania, Orthodox church in America, Summer, 1988, p. 12

16. Jim Forest, op. cit., p. 24. The same philosophical position was announced in December of 1987 by Archbishop Kirill of Smoleask as reported in "'Theology of Peace' Seminar in Budapest,' in Kesten News Service, January 7, 1988, p. 11.

17.   "Russia and the church Today, Two Contemporary Documents of the Catacomb church in the USSR,' in Ivan Andreyev, Russia's Catacomb Saints, Platina, CA, 1982, pp. 531-2. 

18.   Richard N. Ostllng "Will Bells Chime Again?" p. 64. 

19.   "'Believers' Meeting' in Moscow," in Keston News Service, February 18, 1988, p. 9. 

20. "A Moscow Emigre Priest Speaks Out," in Orthodox America, June, 1988, p. 5. 

21. Father Demetrins Serfes, 'Editor's Notes,' in St. Xenia's Bi-Monthly Bulletin, April-May, 1988, p. 8 

22.   "Monasteries Returned!" in Orthodox America, April-May, 1988, p. 3. 

23. John B. Dunlop, "The Moscow Patriarchate on the Eve of the Thousandth Anniversary of the Baptism of Russia," in Orthodox Life, January-February, 1988, pp. 34-5. 

24. "Views From Within," in Orthodox America, July, 198, p. 3. 

25. Archpriest Victor Potapov, 'Christianity and the Soviet State," in Orthodox Life, January-February, 1988, Pp. 19-20. 

26. Richard T. Davies, "Gorbachevism and Religious Freedom in the Soviet Union," in Religion in Communist Dominated Areas, Winter, 1988, p. 3,

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