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Emerging church in Russia

8 October 2009

The Russian Orthodox Church’s emerging role – Telegraph:

In the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet system, the Russian Church has been rebuilt from ruins inhabited by shuffling old women and somewhat eccentric zealots into the most powerful body on the post-Soviet stage.

No other Russian social institution has experienced such a rising from the ashes. And no other country has seen such an obvious revival of faith as has occurred in Russia.

Hat-tip to Ad Orientem: The Daily Telegraph on the Russian Orthodox Church

Twenty years ago South Africa was also beginning to experience a taste of freedom, and in 1992 a Russian bishop visited South Africa. Here’s what I wrote in my diary at the time:

Sunday 5 July 1992

We went to the Liturgy at Brixton. Bishop Victor of Podolsk was there. He had come to bless the offices of the Russian Federation Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He spoke briefly on the church in Russia, and said that the church buildings and monasteries were being handed back by the government, but the church had no money to maintain them. He came to tea afterwards, but had to rush off to another engagement.

In the evening went to Prof Johan Heyns’s house, and bishop Victor was there, together with the ambassador, Alexei Makarov, and three others from the Russian Chamber of Commerce – the Vice President, Alexey Leonidovich Kolomeichuk, the public relations officer, Vladimir Michaelovich Korostelev, and the local representative, Vadim A. Mejnikov. Johan Heyns asked how I had become Orthodox, so I explained that I had originally been Anglican. The bishop said that the Russian Orthodox Church had had dialogue with the Anglicans for many years, and felt some theological affinity, but that they had broken off the dialogue when the Anglicans ordained women.

After we had supper the bishop explained the position of the church, and said there had been a spiritual hunger in Russia in recent years, and millions of people were flocking to the church, but the church did not have resources to minister to them. They were ignorant of the rudiments of the faith – they were seeking God, but did not know why they were seeking, or in many cases they did not know what they were seeking.

Henno Cronje asked why this spiritual hunger had appeared so suddenly now – had political changes caused it. The bishop replied that it might have been partly responsible for the political changes, and Dr Makarov said something similar. Henno Cronje also asked if the bishops had been appointed by the government under the communist regime, and bishop Victor said he had only been a bishop for two years, so he could not speak from personal experience, but he knew the government had had the power of veto on the election of bishops.

The DRC people said that they thought there were a lot of affinities between South Africa and Russia – but the ones they gave, even Piet Meiring, were different from what I expected. I thought the most obvious similarity was that both were beginning to emerge from decades of oppression under totalitarian governments, and that they were both discovering that freedom is not without its problems. But they spoke of the mystical identification of the church with the soul of the people, the patriotism, and the love that Russians and South Africans had for their country.

Henno Cronje asked about the meaning of ikons, and the bishop explained how they differed from Western religious painting – that they were not representations of physical objects, but that they had a spiritual meaning. Vadim Mejnikov translated, but obviously had some difficulty with theological terms. At the end all the Russians, except the bishop, said they were not members of the church, but it seemed that even as the bishop spoke, some kind of spiritual hunger was being awakened in them. As the bishop spoke about the longing for God, it seemed that they were hearing new things, and responding.

There were some things that I didn’t record in my diary, or could perhaps put more strongly, or clarify.

Alexei Makharov, the Russian ambassador, was not a Christian, but his wife was, and they used to attend St Nicholas Church in Brixton quite frequently. At this particular meeting he was quite emphatic about the fact that that a spiritual revival had been largely responsible for the fall of the Bolshevik regime in Russia. The celebrations to mark the millennium of Christianity in Russia in 1988 also gave a boost to that revival.

I later learnt that Alexei Makharov had died in a rather tragic way — he was sitting in a chair and his wife was carrying a bowl of hot water, and stumbled, and spilt the water over him. He was badly scalded, and died a few days later. Professor Heyns also died tragically a few years later. An unknown gunman shot him through the window of his house one night, and the crime has never been solved.

Another similarity I noticed between South Africa and Russia was that the Russian bureaucrats sat there looking as bewildered as the apparatchiks of the apartheid regime in South Africa at all the changes taking place. And while on the surface the bishop was answering the questions put to him by the Dutch Reformed dominees, below the surface we was evangelising the Russian bureaucrats.

Another observation was that the dominees all giggled like naughty schoolboys whenever the Russians said “kak”.[1]

Perhaps the most interesting thing was why the Russian Chamber of Commerce should go to the expense of flying a bishop all the way from Russia to bless their offices in Johannesburg, because that can throw some light on the emerging role of the Russian Orthodox Church. As I’ve pointed out, none of the officials were Christians. But they wanted some of the magic pixie dust that they saw adhering to the church.

Three years later I visited Russia to do some research for my doctoral thesis (there’s a description of that visit here) and one of the things I discovered then was that public opinion polls had shown that the most trusted public institution in Russia was the church — politicians, the army, the media and business came a long way behind. As a result politicians were always looking for photo-ops to be seen with church leaders.

This kind of kudos gives the church great opportunities, but also great dangers. It gave Bishop Victor the opportunity to evangelise the bureaucrats at the meeting in a Dutch Reformed dominee’s house in Pretoria. But it can also give politicians a desire to manipulate or even control the church. Knowledge of that desire can also give church leaders ambitions for worldly power. But, as one can see from the article quoted above, the church has generally been aware of that temptation, and tried to resist it.

With the fall of Bolshevism there was a huge influx of Protestant missionaries from the West into Russia and other parts of the Second World, come to convert the godless commies to Christ and (in some cases) capitalism. One of the ironies is that quite a significant number of these missionaries ended up being converted to Orthodoxy themselves. Western institutions, like McDonalds, opened branches in Russia, and they were accompanied by purveyors of spiritual fast-food as well, promising a spiritual quick fix. The Orthodox Church was then a bit like the man who went from Jerusalem to Jericho and was mugged on the way. The Western missionaries, like the priest and the Levite in the parable, passed by on the other side, though some went through his pockets in case there were a few coins the Bolshevik thieves had overlooked.

Most of the Russians who looked to the West bought into the more powerful Western deity, Mammon. But, as the article points out:

There are more people in the Church than in the powerful corporations.

True, the majority of believers are not well-off: in fact, most of them are rather poor.

The Russian Church reveres the beauty of the church building and the majesty of the service. That’s why you are more likely to see a church as pretty as a picture surrounded by ramshackle hovels than a crooked little church next to the fine villas of the nouveaux riches.

The crisis has wiped out worldly riches. Yesterday’s moneybags do not know how to live in simplicity and fear prison, ruin and destitution.

The Church has priceless experience. It has seen not only luxury, the golden decorations and rich brocade of bishops, but also ditches, executions, martyrdom and total destruction. The Church has emerged from this desecration even more powerful.

Those who worshipped the economic powers, whether their religion was Bolshevism or capitalism, worshipped a god that failed. And though it all the Orthodox sing:

He has shown strength with his arm
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

More honorable than the cherubim
And more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim
Without defilement you gave birth to God the Word
True Theotokos we magnify you.

He has filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he has sent empty away.

More honorable than the cherubim
And more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim
Without defilement you gave birth to God the Word
True Theotokos we magnify you.

I think about the similarities between Russia and South Africa today, and, like Russia, South Africa has its nouveaux riches, and the poor still live in hovels.


1. “Kak” means “how” in Russian, and “shit” in Afrikaans.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 October 2009 9:33 am

    Steve, this brings back good memories. I’ve been to Russia (Samara mostly, but also to smaller villages as well as Moscow and St Petersburg) on eight occasions. Evangelical Christians are extremely negative towards the Orthodox church (and they may have reason for their feelings) but it seems to me that God has somehow been able to keep Christianity going in Russia through all the years of Communism.

  2. 8 October 2009 8:59 pm

    Interesting: But here is an observation – I’ve met Russian immigrants here in Canada. One of the dangers associated with this position in the Church is that I found that their is a tendency to indulge in, excuse the term, a pissing contest. Comparing a somewhat fictional account of the Church in Russia with the worst of evan”jelly”calism they can find here. I say somewhat fictional, because they gloss over the realities (like the total unbelieving bureaucrats and their desire for pixie dust, as in your post above). Now I’m all for a beleiving, confessing, practicing Orthodoxy. But then it needs to believe, confess and practice, not use Orthodoxy as a tool for a new Russian Nationalism – that would be akin to the saying “Hellinism is Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy is Hellinism). Of course, I’m not saying that the individual in question was falling into this trap, but the apparent tmeptation was crystal clear. I know, I grew up in the Christian-National Afrikaner world, and went through that educational mill. As the saying goes, in the end it was much more National than Christian…

    I also see the same thing evident in Canada’s Southern neighbour. Actually, it can be quite extreme there, what with the American Patriot’s Bible or whatever the abomination is called….

    • 8 October 2009 11:07 pm


      Well yes, and, as I pointed out in another post a couple of weeks ago, there ia Pamyat, the Orthodox version of Christianism.

      When Frank Schaeffer was trying to enlist Orthodoxy to fight American culture wars a few years ago and called for “An Orthodoxy with teeth” a Russian bishop who heard him said “You should be careful that the people you want to bite don’t grow bigger teeth and bite you back. We have people like you in Russia, and we call them ‘Orthodox Bolsheviks'”.

      And here’s an article on the Western evangelical proselytisers from a Russian evangelical: Mission in post-perestroika Russia — but you’d better read it soon, as Yahoo! is terminating it on 26 October, and it will not be available after that date.

      • 9 October 2009 12:30 am

        Interesting article that, Stephen. One problem of course is the mere existence of parachurch missionary boards – with no ecclesiastical, or better magesterial oversight. These organisations typically devolve to the “Four Spiritual Laws” spirituality you mentioned. An example with a difference, for your interest, is the LCC (Lutheran Church Canada) mission work in Nicaragua where, after a little over a decade of work, a self-governing, indigenous synod has been established. Interestingly enough, of their own volition, these new churches took up a collection for the LCC back here in Canada. In some sense, I think this proclaims their independence of Western (ie First World) finances etc.

        But one point in the article is very important: Do not force a new culture on the new Church – this is especially a temptation for our American bretheren. As a missiologist, I think you have often said this in various contexts…

  3. 14 October 2009 8:30 pm

    “Authenticity” is a term that one must treat as one would a bouquet of roses: enjoy the scent, but keep it in water and mind the thorns. The Church in America is chock-a-block with different sorts, bent on saving the Church: people who see the “real church” as being that which is most consonant with its times and the surrounding culture, those who see the roots of Orthodoxy as being mainly nurtured by Russian, or Greek or Syrian culture and tradition, those who wish to promote its scriptural foundation and divorce the faith from traditional practices. Each of them seeks, perhaps, authenticity, but find it in different places.
    In Russia, I have felt deep spirituality, and also seen an entanglement with ore-Revolutionary Cossack nationalism. In Greece, one can find simple believers and angry, anti-ecumenical Pharisees.
    We can only pray and listen, pray and listen. And then, love.

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