In 1995 I visited Russia. The main purpose of my visit was to do research for my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods. It was a good time to do that. As Serge Schmemann writes in the current (April 2009) issue of National Geographic magazine:
Thousands of ruined churches—including those the Soviets had used as warehouses, factories, or barns—were being restored to their original function, and eventually to their former splendor. The monumental Cathedral of Christ the Savior, destroyed on Stalin’s orders in 1931, rose anew on the banks of the Moscow River. Believers who had gone underground during Soviet times emerged and began energetically establishing parishes, orphanages, halfway houses, and schools. Thousands of men were ordained to the priesthood, and thousands more—men and women—took monastic vows, all yearning to recover a guiding faith.
It was an exciting time for the Church in Russia, and a very interesting time to visit. The Church and the country were emerging from 70 years of Bolshevik persecution and oppression, and I found many interesting parallels with South Africa, which at that time was also emerging from the oppressive apartheid regime.
At the time of my visit I wrote some reflections about it, and it is interesting to read Serge Schmemann’s description 15 years later, to see how some of the incipient trends of 15 years ago have developed in the mean time. For my thesis I was particularly interested how the Russian Orthodox Church was going about re-evangelising Russia after the Bolshevik period.
One of the reasons for the fall of Bolshevism was a religious revival that began even before freedom was restored to the Church. It began in the Brezhnev years, which were years of stagnation. The idealism and vision had gone out of communism, and it had turned into a bureaucratic system that was kept going just for the sake of keeping it going. For many people it had lost its meaning and purpose, and so many people embarked on a spiritual search. Not all were led to Orthodoxy; some tried east Asian religions and philosophies, some tried New Age and neopaganism. But for over 1000 years Orthodoxy had become embedded in Russian culture. The Bolsheviks banned many things, but they did not ban the novels of Dostoevsky, for example.
I spoke to one professor and asked what he thought the Church should do to re-evangelise Russia, and his answer was to revive and promote Russian Orthodox culture.
I had my doubts.
That was a good thing to do when it was the most obvious alternative to Bolshevism, and when Russia was largely insulated from cultural currents in the outside world. But in 1995 there were hundreds and thousands of cultural currents, and suddenly Russians were being faced with a bewildering variety of choice. Bookstalls outside Metro stations were stocked with the novels of Stephen King. In the Bolshevik days, Stephen King’s works were not available, but Dostoevsky was. It seemed to me that simply promoting “Russian Orthodox culture” would not be enough, unless it was coupled with a retreat into chauvinism and xenophobia. And that has according, to Schmemann’s article, become quite a significant streem of Russian Orthodoxy today.
For almost a thousand years the Orthodox Church, with its magnificent liturgy and iconography, had been an integral part of Russian identity and history. I was Russian enough to feel profoundly moved that the faith of my ancestors was coming alive again. At the same time, as a Western reporter, I wondered where this plunge into the past, often idealized and dimly perceived, could lead. Would the Orthodox Church become a potent force for reform, speaking truth to the Kremlin’s power? Or would it resume the role it had played over centuries of tsarist rule and again become an ornament and tool of an authoritarian state?
But there is another side to Russian Orthodoxy, revealed, for example, in the film Ostrov (The Island). I think that is where the future of Orthodoxy, and indeed the future of Christianity lies. But look out for the April issue of National Geographic, and read Serge Schmemann’s article. It might even be as significant for the future of Christianity as Time’s recent article on the New Calvinism.