A Russian priest has caused controversy by putting up an ikon depicting the Bolshevik dictator Stalin (hat-tip to Fr Milovan in Again and again):
One of the most widely covered stories in the Russian Federation this week concerns not the actions of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or even the impact of the economic crisis but rather the decision of a priest to put up an icon portraying Stalin and the efforts of some to canonize him.
The priest of St. Olga’s Church in Strel’na, Father Yevstafiy, recently put up an icon there to the Blessed Matrona of Moscow, on which Stalin was portrayed, without any of the attributes of sainthood but simply standing next to her. Thus, technically, it was not an icon of Stalin at all.
But that distinction was quickly lost. Yevstafiy’s own parishioners demanded he put the icon with Stalin in a less prominent place and stop referring to the late Soviet dictator in prayers – even though the Strel’na priest has a long history of provocative actions, including putting up another icon portraying a Russian soldier who died in Chechnya as a “new martyr.”
There are several interesting things here. One is the source: Fr Milovan attributes the story to The Georgian Daily. Stalin was, of course, a Georgian, a Caucasian. But the Chechens are also Caucasians, and there is a move to canonise a Russian soldier who died fighting Caucasians, going alongside the move to canonise a Caucasian dictator of Russia at a time when Russian-Georgian relations are strained.
But there are also economic implications.
The fall of Bolshevism in the early 1990s was a cause of rejoicing for many, but it also had several bad effects. There was an invasion of Western evangelists preaching the gospel of Mammon. The free-market would be the salvation of Russa, after years of enslavement to “socialism”. One immediate result of this was a dramatic drop in the life-expectancy of the average Russian, as the asset strippers moved in to make the rich obsenely rich and the poor poorer. No wonder many people looked back to the time of Stalin as the “good old days”.
Western Christian proselytisers also moved in, many of them with the tainted Western contextualised gospel — there is no God but Mammon, and Jesus Christ is his prophet. They don’t say so, of course, but that is the bottom line of the “prosperity gospel” that has been Western Christianity’s main export to the Second and Third Worlds over the last couple of decades as they preach their Tashlan Jesus.
The story is told that when Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Stalin sought the support of the Church to boost national morale, and he invited the Metropolitan (later Patriarch) of Moscow, Sergius, to see him, and asked him what problems the church was facing.
The Patriarch replied that many churches were closed and there was a great shortage of priests (many of whom had been imprisoned or put to death on Stalin’s orders), and there were no seminary students ro replace them.
Stalin is said to have asked “What has happened to all the seminary students, why are there so few?”
And the Patriarch is said to have replied, “Well one of them became the Marshal of the Soviet Union.”
He was refering to the fact that Stalin had himself at one stage been a theological student. The story may be apocryphal, but it hints at some of the complexities of church-state relations, and the irony of the fact that some speak of a heresy called Sergianism, named after Sergius, while others want to venerate Stalin as a saint.
Stalin was undoubtedly one of the greatest persecutors of the Christian faith in the twenty centuries of its history. Is it therefore unthinkable that he could be a saint? St Paul was likewise a persecutor, and yet he is venerated as a saint. But it is known that St Paul repented, there is no evidence that Stalin ever did so. At best he eased the persecution somewhat to enable to the Church to improve the morale of the people in the Great Patriotic War against Germany. Then again, Constantine ended the persecution of the Church (though, unlike Stalin, he didn’t initiate it) but at one level his motives for tolerating Christianity seem to have been similar to Stalin’s, to promote imperial unity. And he too is venerated as a saint, though the evidence of his repentance is not incontrovertible.
So is the idea of Stalin as a Christian saint all that far-fetched after all?
The ikon illustrating the story does not show Stalin with a halo, and so clearly it does not depict him as a saint.
But it is quite possible that some people may come to see him as such, especially those who were hurt by the god that failed — capitalism and the free-market system, which was touted in the early 1990s as the potential saviour of Russia.
People will point out, quite correctly, that it was not really a “free market”. But then one must also recognise that the system it replaced wasn’t exactly “socialist” either. In both cases the reality fell far short of the ideal.
The problem of the Cold War was that is was based on rival idolatries — the worshipping of economic powers. They were two denominations of the same false religion, because whether you call the deity “the dialectical forces of history” or “the free rein of the market mechanism” it remains an idol. Like the Sabbath, economic powers were made for man, not man for the economic powers.