(The author lectured in Moscow and Belarus and visited Ukraine and Lithuania in June, 1993. What follows are some of his impressions.)
Pentecost is known to Russian folk by another name--Zelenye Svyatki (Green Holidays). While Easter arrives amid snow or mud, Pentecost brings the first real breath of spring. Greenery is everywhere, but nowhere more visible than inside Moscow's churches. Walls and floors are decorated with leafy birch branches and strewn with flowers and grass. Something of the primeval Slavonic forest invades the sanctuary and brings with it an echo of Pushkin's oft-quoted rejoinder: Zdes'
Rus'yu pachnet! (Here it even smells like Russia!). At the vigil service celebrated at Zagorsk, birches poked through windows left ajar, letting the forest scent mix with incense. Like many another landmark, the town is known today by its "old-new" name, a significant one, since it honors the monastery's first abbot: Sergiev Posad--Sergei's village.
On Pentecost Sunday evening, the director of the Patriarchate of Moscow's youth movement spoke at a concert held in a sparsely filled, state funded auditorium built for the Komsomol. The Orthodox archpriest deplored the loss of moral authority in modem society, when ordinary citizens are forced to barter with the omnipresent Mafia, and hotel restaurants seethe with criminals and prostitutes. He evoked a safer, more pious yesteryear--the dreamy age of pompous weddings and funerals, lustily sung by thunderous choirs amid clouds of incense in the fairy tale realm of the tsars.
Suddenly, a gusty breeze straight from the primeval forest wafted onto the stage. A few sectarians jumped on the platform and began chanting their strangely modern kanty (spiritual songs). They were youthful cultists--bogorodichniki (mother of godders). Named for their eccentric devotion to the Blessed Virgin, their teachings are a strange blend of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, with tinges of Gnosticism and Krishna Consciousness. Shouted down as heretics and the Antichrist's disciples by the more orthodox fringe of the audience, they soon found themselves on the doorstep. The bogorodichniki, as well as their more eccentric cousins, the belye bratstva (white brotherhoods), are quite the rage in drab, workaday Moscow. Like many a toiling Muscovite, they too are busy--gluing their posters to metro car windows and over theater listings. Their posters proclaim an imminent parousia and salvation through their just-revealed Messiah-goddess, a figure shrouded in a white sari. Evidence of their activity exceeds Moscow's wide boundaries. The likeness of Ma-Devi in her white robes peeked from a dirty post in Nesvizh--a town well off the beaten track in already provincial Belarus. Cults like these, as well as the more mainstream sects, are tailor-made to the esoterically-inclined, novelty-seeking fringe of Soviet youth, nauseated by Soviet rhetoric and wary of compromised Orthodoxy. Their popularity is part of the reason why the Patriarchate is so intent on banning foreign religious activity from Russian soil.
Back at the concert, its very unconventional conclusion was starting. People's artist Zhanna Bichevskaya announced that she would perform the songs of Priestmonk Roman. The young musician-monk and quasi-solitary is fast becoming a cult figure, evidently with the blessing of the Patriarchate. His lyrics, aglow with love for the motherland and hatred of the Soviet system, reverberate to the beat of Western pop with overtones of the Slavonic liturgy. But there was still more. A new band calling itself "New Jerusalem" hit the drums and the inconceivable became reality--Orthodox rock! Apparently, even the Orthodox establishment is becoming more tolerant of the musical taste of urban youth in order to make traditional religion more palatable, a path already trod by Christians in the West.
Moscow's rapid face change, demolished monuments to the Soviet past and renamed streets, causes even non-communist intellectuals concern. An entire period of Russian history is vanishing, its glory together with its more weighty guilt. Lenin still stands guard on Oktyaberskaya square in central Moscow, as well as in Ukraine and Belarus. Neo-communists still gather before his still functioning museum but the-mausoleum is closed and soon to lose its sole occupant. Leninists must share Moscow with democrats, capitalists, fascists, anarchists and monarchists.
The Manezh, located a few steps from the Kremlin, was once the royal stables and today serves as the central exhibition gallery. In June, it was dedicated to the last Romanovs, probably soon to be canonized by the Patriarchate. A few years ago, news of such an exhibition would have sounded like sighting aliens in midtown Moscow or, to borrow a Russian expression, sheer fantastika! Clergymen and Russia's newly formed "Assembly of the Nobility" prepared the exhibit, together with more dubious elements. A few Nazi symbols peered from under the piles of brochures sold by very un-Soviet looking young people. What prompted Muscovites, after years of ideological brainwashing, to regard the portraits of Nicholas and Alexandra, veiled in black crepe, with something approaching awe? Visitors stopped to read the names of long forgotten delicacies listed on the coronation menu--victuals far beyond the pocketbook of their own grandparents, many of whom slaved in the factories of the tsar. My Russian companion was struck by the words of Olga, Nicholas' daughter, printed in oversized letters near the exit. She asked her father's friends not to avenge him, predicting that "the evil, already in the world, would get worse and that love was the only solution."
Today's Kiev calls to mind Michail Bulgakov's novel The White Guard, Bulgakov described Kiev in 1917, tossed by revolution. Whites, reds and nationalist Ukrainians battled for its soul. Little has changed. As in 1917, Kievans have still not learned Ukrainian. Border guards, police, shopkepers and street people chatter in Russian, although signs, posters and street names proclaim an independent Ukraine. One Kievan told me that Ukrainian is spoken more in Kiev by Canadian entrepreneurs of Ukrainian descent, eager to cash in on the benefits of a newly capitalist society, than by the Kievans themselves, although the Canadians seldom speak Ukrainian correctly, and often with an accent betraying their Anglo-Saxon schooling. Rising inflation and a new currency worth less than the Russian ruble prompt criticism of newly-won independence. Especially do housewives become impatient who are condemned to long hours of waiting for produce at exorbitant prices, with nothing to spend but worthless kupony--the new Ukrainian currency printed in Canada.
Ukrainians will tell you, "The Lord is merciful. We're only human. But the schism dividing our church is a very grave sin indeed." Actually, the current "schism" troubling Orthodox church life in Ukraine divides believers into four or five hostile camps. Fed by religious fundamentalism and politics--religious orientation may be Russian or Ukrainian, church liturgy may be Slavonic or modern Ukrainian, there may be collaboration or independence vis-a-vis the civil authority--it often severs family lines. One girl's parents attend the Cathedral of St. Vladimir, controlled by Metropolitan Filaret, while she prefers the Lavra--a bastion of the Moscow Patriarchate. Perhaps no hierarch is so controversial as Filaret of Kiev, who just missed being elected patriarch. After perestroika revealed his "family connections"--a wife and children--Moscow deposed him. In Soviet days a staunch supporter of officialdom and russification, Filaret embraced the Ukrainian cause and quickly gained support--not least from Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian president, whose career which began as head party ideologue and sworn enemy of "Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism" parallels that of the Metropolitan. Nationalism and chauvinism, its mischievous offspring, rampage through the Commonwealth of Independent States--and not only in their more familiar Russian guise.
Religious fundamentalism, present not only in Kiev, is more disturbing." Chernobyl is near. The water supply is infected, so trace a cross over every glass you drink!" "The last times are upon us! Satan has put his mark on every product in the shops, so make do with homegrown produce!" The object of the speaker's wrath, a caretaker at Serafim of Sarov's newly opened monastery of Optino, were the mysteriously patterned cashier codes which just appeared in Russia. "Roman Catholics cross themselves differently than Russian Orthodox. How can they be Christians?" A categorical statement coming from a lady whose parents were both atheists and who was recently baptized. In spite of such apparent harshness, she extended traditional Russian hospitality to a number of Catholics, this Jesuit author included.
Many are baptized without any instruction in the faith. Christian customs, so characteristic of nineteenth century Russia, have been forgotten by the majority. Many resort to pamphlets, radio broadcasts and the omnipresent television when preparing their holiday celebrations.
Some temper their apocalyptic vision with old-fashioned anti-semitism. A Russian Orthodox hierarch confessed that "my hands tremble every time I ordain a Jew." The seminarian in charge of explaining Belarus's monastery of Zhirovicy to pilgrims could not resist including the story of how a Christian boy was murdered by local cabbalists in order to mix Christian blood into the Passover matzah.
Not all Russian Christians are blinded by prejudice. Some seek to better understand all believers, especially other Christians, and to invite both Protestants and Roman Catholics to discussion encounters. Some adopt western innovations such as the "third order" and "secular institute" to Russian spirituality, and continue their own ecumenical tradition. Orthodox lay people, often better educated than clerics, and busily restoring churches, feel discouraged when they must ask their spiritual father's permission or "blessing" for the slightest trifle.
Kiev in early summer seemed timeless and oblivious to pettiness. After years of functioning as a museum, the Pecherskaya Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, is once again open for services. Just as in tsarist days, pilgrims purchase a wax candle from the caretaker mohk at the door. It lights their way through dark galleries where the corpses of mantled monks lie incorrupt in their glass coffins, and then is left at the door. At the Lavra's bell tower a ragged old woman stepped out of the pages of Gogol's Ukrainian tales to tell us, in Russian, the old story of the belfry, built without scaffolding by twelve brothers in twelve days, which sprang from the earth on the last day, miraculously sturdy and tall.
Welcome to Belarus--the most archaic of the former Soviet republics! Located next to Poland, the small, rural republic lives more in the past than its larger eastern neighbor. Government authorities felt obliged to officially recognize not one but two memorial days commemorating departed ancestors: Orthodox radonica (joyful festival), with its lunches eaten in the spring on the graves of loved ones, and the autumnal dzedy (forefathers' eve) of Roman Catholic or Uniate origin, with its candlelight supper at which the spirits of dead relatives are said to dine with the living. Eyewitnesses reported full buses heading for Minsk cemeteries on both occasions. Any visitor to city churches can wonder at the supplies of bread and other ritual foodstuffs brought by the faithful commissioning their never-ending requiems--the cereal offerings of the New Testament. Both memorial festivals, of pre-Christian origin, were later "baptized." They bear the mark of either the Orthodox East or Catholic West: antipodes of Christianity often at loggerheads in this land which was stamped by both.
Belarusian Catholics call their churches kostely and priests ksendzy, using Polish expressions rather than Russian equivalents, but often affirm a non-Polish identity. Still, priests hold services in Polish and preach sermons in Polish and Russian, for the sake of older parishioners, made more comfortable with these languages because of habit.
One young Catholic priest, a native of the republic, deplored the possible imminent disappearance of Russian from independent Belarus, citing its advantages as a medium of international communication. It is unclear whether Russian will indeed be supplanted by Belarusian, its country cousin. Belarusian intellectuals are adamant but not as ruthless as their Ukrainian counterparts. A recent survey showed that Russian continued to be used in daily life by a solid majority of the population. Catholic admiration of Russian culture rarely extends to the religious sphere in Belarus. One sore point involves the ownership of newly opened churches, which, built by Catholics, passed to the Orthodox until they were shut by the Communists. Catholics tend to consider the Orthodox boorish, chaotic and lax. Orthodox portray Catholics as aggressive, Polish toadies who are intruders on their territory. But controversy fades in everyday life. Families are often mixed; some members attend both Orthodox and Catholic services simultaneously, or at different times of their lives.
Between Catholics and Orthodox stands the tiny group of Uniates. Many were disgruntled Orthodox intellectuals who longed for the restoration of the Union of Brest, which was already suppressed in the Belarusian lands during the first half of the nineteenth century. Their church, a few steps from the Orthodox cathedral in Minsk, was sparsely attended at evening Mass, but the priest insisted that it was full on Sundays and that the movement was flourishing, even in traditionally Orthodox eastern Belarus. Critical of both Latin Catholics and Russian Orthodox, their church elder had little praise for their Uniate cousins, the Ukrainian Greek Catholics, although their priest was incardinated in a Ukrainian diocese. The Uniate church in Vilnius, today's Lithuanian capital and an early center of what Belarusians consider the cradle of their own culture, sports Ukrainian emblems and signs, and is being restored by western Ukrainians and their immigrant co-nationals.
Many neo-Uniates are ardent Belarusian nationalists. An eccentric fringe of the latter prefers to associate with the neo-pagan cults, which stress the common roots of Belarusians and Balts and desire the renewal of nature worship and festivals such as Ligo--the Baltic solar celebration.
Before World War II, in the forests of western Belarus near Slonim, Jesuits of the eastern rite ran a mission. Disbanded when it fell to the Soviets, the buildings were used as an orphanage. Both the Latin and eastern rite church still stand, the latter used by the Orthodox. On the sunny June morning when I visited, the Latin altar was being cleaned. When I asked the caretaker if she remembered the funny Jesuits, long bearded and dressed like Orthodox batyushki, she said she did. When I asked if it was true that they tricked Orthodox into Catholicism, she replied that she remembered them only trying to help the local poor with food and money. When I asked if there was anything left of Albertyn--the Jesuit mission--she took me to the grave of Vladimir Piatkiewicz, the mission's first superior or "igumen." The cyrillic inscription on the grave was almost illegible, a victim of wind and rain, but it still stood--a memorial to a Pole who loved the Russian religious experience so much that he became a part of it. It gave one hope for the future. That, and the green leaves of Moscow.
Constantin Simon, born in New Jersey, is a member of the South Belgian Province of the Society of Jesus. He studied in Rome (at the Gregorian Pontifical University and the Pontifical Oriental Institute), and in Belgium and Munich, Germany. In 1986 he returned to Rome to teach at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, where he is an associate professor. Father Simon's special interest lies in the field of Russian and Balkan history.…