Posts Tagged ‘Russian Orthodox Church’

Courage between Rocks and Guns

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

monks1

The following interview with Hieromonk Melchizedeck (Gordenko) and monk Gabriel (Kairasov) appeared in Orthodoxy in Ukraine, a Ukrainian language website on January 30th.

by Lado Gegechkori

HIEROMONK MELCHIZEDECK (GORDENKO) and monk Gabriel (Kairasov), on the night of February 20th, stood risking their lives on Grushevsky Street in Kiev between the police and the demonstrators, and in this way stopped the bloodshed for entire days.

LG: Tell us, fathers, what made you to go out to the street that day?

Fr. M: Once a long time ago I saw a photograph from Serbia, in which one priest was standing between the police and the demonstrators. I was filled with admiration for him—one man with a cross in his hands was able to stop a thousand people on one side, and a thousand on the other!

Our Desyatina Monastery is located very close to the epicenter of these events—even at night in the church we could hear fireworks, shouting from megaphones, and the noise of crowds. When I heard that on Grushevsky Street explosions were causing people to lose their arms, legs, and eyes, I understood that I should be there, so that I would not later be ashamed of myself. For some reason I remembered the example of a priest in Georgia, who ran out with a bench in his hands to route the gay parade. That man saw lawlessness in the streets and did not try to hide or wait it out in the church, but went out to make his position clear to the laity, and to inspire them by his example.

LG: As far as I understand it, you had agreed upon a plan?

Fr. M: No, we had no sort of plan. Early in the morning, Fr. Ephraim, Fr. Gabriel, and I prayed together, and after asking a blessing, we went out to the Maidan. None of us had even the slightest wavering or doubt. There was no plan. There was a goal—to do at least something to stop the violence.

LG: How did the demonstrators react to the appearance of men in vestments?

Fr. M: We were realistic about the fact that it is no longer possible to stop the police or demonstrators, and therefore we were ready to stand under the flying bullets and stones. But when people saw priests in front of them, standing between them and the police cordon, it was as if they had been dashed with boiling water. They calmed down almost immediately. A moment of something like a blessed reasonableness came over them.

Fr. G: The people standing there came up to us and said, “As long as you stand here, we will not throw any stones at the police.” This really inspired us all. We were able to restrain people until nightfall—only then did Molotov cocktails start flying at the police. But even in that moment, many of the demonstrators ran over to the police cordon and shouted to their comrades to cease their aggression. Some of these young fellows even climbed onto the roof of a burnt-out bus in order to pull out the protesters, thus placing themselves in the path of danger.

LG: Did you understand that you were risking your lives? After all, Molotov cocktails and grenades were blowing up around you.

Fr. G: When we were standing between the crowd of protesters and the police behind their shields, and all around us grenades were popping and cocktails were ripping, a hot bottle landed about five meters from me. But it did not explode… Fire was burning all around us, bottles were crashing and machinery was rumbling, but for some reason this cocktail did not explode. It would have scorched me and everyone around me in a moment, but it only hit the ground and fizzled out. Then I felt that the Lord was protecting us.

Later, however, people started using us as human shields—demonstrators walked up to us and threw stones and bottles with flammable mixtures from behind our backs. At that moment I felt a terrible bitterness for these people, whom we were calling to make peace, but who were nevertheless thirsting for blood. I felt that demons were mocking these human souls, inciting them to rage, and dulling their good sense.

LG: At what moment did you understand that it was time for you to leave the demonstration site?

Fr. M: We were not alone there—there were lay people standing next to us, both men and women. We were watching attentively, so that no one would throw stones and bottles at them—after all, we essentially bore responsibility for them at that moment. Therefore, when the situation came to a head, we decided to step back in order to guard those who stood with us shoulder-to-shoulder.

Some have spoken of provocations and aggression from the crowd, others, about the cruelty and brutality of the police. I cannot say anything of the kind. We did not want to find the guilty party; we wanted to make peace between both sides.
LG: Some are inclined to emphasize the cruelty of the police, while others blame the demonstrators for everything. What is your opinion, as eye-witnesses?

Fr. G: At the moment the passions were escalating, a man ran from out of the crowd. Disregarding the cold, he was bare to the waist. The man shouted to the crowd and the police to stop, and then fell to his knees and began to pray fervently. But the police jumped at him, took him by the feet and dragged him to the cars. I tried to stop them, but in vain. I was sincerely sorry for that man—it seemed to me that God’s grace was visiting him at that moment.

It is not right to bet in this situation on one side or the other. We saw cruelty from both camps—each of them was sick in their own way.

LG: At that moment, people of all different religious confessions were gathered in the center of town. Did you have any confrontations with them?

Fr. M: During those hours that we spent at the Maidan, people from all different confessions came there: Greek-Catholics, clergy from the “Kiev Patriarchate” and the Catholic Church; and what is the most amazing of all—Buddhists!

Fr. G: Even a Jew came up to me in his kippah, and standing next to me, started praying. I listened to him amazed: he was praying Orthodox prayers with us!

Fr. M: To me a young man came up, introduced himself as Seryezha, and asked me whether we accept heretics. “Heretics in what sense?” I asked. “I am a Baptist,” Seryezha smiled. “Of course we accept them. Come on over!”
This place was the borderline of peace, and there could be no talk of “acceptance” or “non-acceptance.”

LG: That is, the common woe united all those who can’t find a common language during peaceful times?

Fr. G: There was no division between confessions or ideology. This was not the time for that. When a mother sees a tree falling over the sandbox, she won’t only grab her own child—she’ll pick up someone else’s as well, be he the neighbor’s or a street kid. At that moment, we were all related.

And do you know what is most amazing? People started calling us from Kiev and other cities—both lay people and clergy—saying that they wanted to stand with us shoulder-to-shoulder when we go out there again. Literally just a few days ago, a man who had been standing in the barricades at that moment came to our church, and said that he no longer wants to stand there, now he wants to pray.

Many protesters who saw us there said the same thing. They had thought that a stone is the weightiest thing there could possibly be. But when they saw us, they recognized that compared to certain spiritual things, a stone is lighter than a feather.

LG: You risked your lives, standing there in those minutes. Tell us, did you remember the New Martyrs then, and were you inspired by their example?

Fr. G: Do you know, when we went to the Maidan, I began to pray silently. And among all the other saints whom I was asking for help, some of the first who came to mind were the Georgian martyrs Shalva, Bidzina, and Elisbara. These were three princes who stirred an uprising in Georgia against the Islamic oppression. Having gathered two thousand warriors under their banners, they defeated the army of the Persian shah, which numbered 10,000 strong. But when hundreds of women and children were taken captive by the shah, the princes surrendered without a second thought. The captives were released, but the princes were executed. Their martyrdom consisted in their living and fighting for the people’s sake, and they were ready to die in order to save innocent lives.

I also recalled the example of one Russian commander who fought in Chechnya—his name was kept secret, but the mujahedin announced a price on his head. When the Chechens took several peaceful citizens captive, he unhesitatingly gave himself up in exchange for the captives’ freedom. He was brutally murdered, but the captives survived.
Who are the New Martyrs? What can we call the feeling that guides them? I would call it “ordinary patriotism.” IC

We Must Refuse to Hate Each Other: Interview with Archpriest Alexey Uminsky

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Interview with Archpriest Alexey Uminsky

Archpriest Alexey Uminsky is dean of a Moscow parish, Holy Trinity Church in Khokhly. He is also a television presenter, a member of the editorial board of the magazine Alpha & Omega, and an author of various publications on Christian education. Formerly he served as director of the St. Vladimir Gymnasium and is now the school’s chaplain and confessor. Since October 2003 he has been the chief of the television program “Orthodox Encyclopedia.” In 2010 he was awarded the St. Seraphim of Sarov medal by the Moscow Patriarchate. A controversial figure at times, he was recently accused by a fellow priest of “confusing pacifism with Christianity.” The interview that follows was made by Mila Dubrovina, reporter for the Russian journal Arguments and Facts, and was originally published August 29, 2012.

Q: Let me start by asking about the Pussy Riot case. What was your first reaction to this event?

I hadn’t known about Pussy Riot’s performance until it stirred up a storm in the media. What do you think my reaction would be? How would you behave if strangers with such intentions burst into your house? What would be your first reaction? Shock, horror, pain. If it had happened in my church, I would try to stop them immediately, to kick them out, only to do so peacefully.

Q: Have you since changed your mind about this case? What do you think would be a proper punishment for these young women?

When the situation changes, your opinion changes too. When the shock is over, you begin to reflect. People start wondering: Will they get off without any punishment?

Q: That was the reaction of Fr. Andrey Kuraev  [a popular figure in Russian cultural life well known through the mass media]. At first he called for leniency, but then he changed his mind.

Fr. Andrey Kuraev is a very intelligent person. And he hasn’t changed his attitude toward the situation. At first perhaps he responded too kindly, but the main idea of his statements is that the Church should be merciful, not a punitive body.

Q: What do such actions show? What social problems do they reveal?

They do not reveal any particular problem. Their actions however, provoked the same reaction as exploding bombs.

Q: Maybe that the society is somehow out of order…

The society is certainly out of order. There’s no need saying again that it is seriously ill. And it is obvious that the punishment inflicted on the members of the punk-group is unnecessarily severe. But we do not understand the heart of the matter. The events became an excuse for people to hate each other. Hatred lashes out on both sides! On one side, there are ultra-conservative “banner carriers,” on the other people wearing colorful balaclavas with eye slots. You cannot discern human faces. On both sides, we see enmity. This is the most awful aspect.

Q: You’ve mentioned destructive actions. Recently it has been reported that the FEMEN group [from which the Pussy Riot group emerged] is planning to chop down wooden crosses around the country. Should we protect ourselves, recruit vigilante groups, and quickly change the laws?

Journalists take advantage of the situation with FEMEN without giving any moral assessment of it. For them it is just headlines. I was shocked when I saw a picture of an almost naked young woman chopping down a wooden cross [in Kiev]. That cross had been erected in memory of victims of the KGB, people who had been tortured and killed in the Soviet period. The journalists just stood shooting photos! Not one tried to stop the destruction. So on the one hand you have journalists taking pictures of the cross being chopped down and, on the other, Church leaders turning a blind eye toward “Orthodox activists” who are beating up women whom they regard as enemies of the Church. Both situations are similar.

The issue of chopping down the crosses concerns not only FEMEN. The media too is guilty when it portrays such actions as if they were spectacles or even “glamorous” events. They should be seen as acts of unmitigated savagery. I experience the same feeling when I see caricatures of Mohammed.

Now we see certain Russian Orthodox activists forming vigilante groups that are looking forward to incidents when malefactors chop down crosses or behave in an outrageous way. It will simply give them a chance to show off.

Q: When the Patriarch commented on the December events [prior to the Russian general election], he said that an Orthodox Christian would be better off staying at home and praying instead of attending a demonstration. People thought he was in effect opposing protests. 

Well, the Patriarch did not specify which meeting the believers should not attend. There were different meetings in Moscow. Some were pro-Putin and others were against him. The Patriarch opposed all the meetings.

Q: Did the Patriarch demand a harsh punishment for the members of Pussy Riot?

Not at all. He did not comment on this case at all out of principle. Do you remember when and what he said? The only statement was made by the Superior Church Council after the sentencing.…The Church is not guilty of private statements [made by individuals] that are constantly ascribed to it.

Q: Like those made by Fr. Chaplin, for instance? [Archpriest Chaplin is Chairman of the office of Interaction of Church and Society of the Moscow Patriarchate.]

Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin is a notorious figure. I don’t know with whom to compare him. His only counterpart in politics is Zhirinovsky [the Russian politician who often speaks in a confrontational style bordering on farce]. How could Chaplin make statements that justify those who hit women in the face? He said, “I don’t approve of everything they do, but they are good guys.” How could a Church officer approve of such behavior? Instead he should have sharply criticized them, these so-called nationalists, many of whom are anti-Semites. How can a Christian be an anti-Semite if Jesus was a Jew?

Q: People often forget that.

To go back to you earlier question, the general public is disturbed about the harsh sentence given to the girls, and rightly so. But not many people seem worried about the consequences of the stunt on the young women who did it. How will it affect their lives? If hooligans come into my Church and desecrate it, I shall simply clean it up and continue to celebrate Liturgies there. The Church remains a holy place. But what will happen to their lives?

Q: And if they had come to you and repented, would you have accepted them?

Certainly I would take them in! I pray for it. I pray that we would help them, speak to them. We should speak a lot with them. They do not understand, it seems hardly anyone understands, what a huge gift they have given to Vladimir Putin, what a winning card they have presented to the authorities. At the same time they make themselves a target — people whom we should be united against. People are always willing to unite in hatred against a common enemy. The most horrible thing is now there is so much hatred on both sides. That’s much worse than leaving the Church.

Q: Don’t you think that intellectuals are moving away from the Church?

The main problem is not that anyone is leaving the Church* but rather that those who could have come, don’t. This is much more important. No one can leave the Church completely. The Church changes a person forever. Even if you leave it for a while, you return later. The real problem is that those who were almost ready, who need to come, do not.

As for conservatives, the so-called “banner carriers,” they don’t need the Church. They need a get-together, a kind of narrow circle. They pretend to be Christians, but

their belief has nothing to do with Christianity. If they had really come into the Church, it would have changed them, and they would be cured from nationalism. They would become Christians with a Russophile [a 19th century movement critical of westernization] bias, like Khomyakov and Aksakov, who outlined a particular path for Russia. And if modern oppositionists had come into the Church, they would have become Westernizers, like Chaadaev or Solovyev. Don’t forget that there have been similar disputes within Russian society in the past, but the climate of argument was quite different. It never degraded itself to the level we see today.

Q: What is the main lesson that we should take from these events?

As the proverb goes: “The devil is laughing at us.” People are happy when they can hate each other and this hatred increases every day. The antagonism is telling. We should struggle only to overcome enmity and nothing else. We should never ever lose our human dignity. We should refuse to wear masks and also refuse to merge with the hatred-infected crowd. Most of all, we should always remember Christ who suffered for every human being. The Church, first and foremost, recognizes not the crowd, but the person.  IC

*On the web site of Fr. Uminsky’s parish is this brief message: A word to those thinking about leaving the Church: We should be with the Church not only in the time of its glory.

In Communion thanks Anna Kurt for her translation of the interview with Fr. Uminsky.

Quotes Related to Fr. Uminsky’s Interview:

If I were the keeper of the church’s key, I would treat them to pancakes and a cup of mead and would invite them to come again on the Sunday of Forgive-ness…. What the young women did was an outrage, but a “legal” outrage…after all, it’s Shrovetide, a season of clowning, buffoonery, and hoaxes.  —Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev (Shrovetide is a Bacchanalian festival season dating back centuries in Russian culture during which time all manner of foolery was overlooked by the Church and civil authorities).

The tragedy of the church is that it has always grown too close to the state, and then it pays for it. Now the church is trying to prove to the Kremlin it is a serious and useful player…. We are at a crossroads: either the church starts to stand up for conscience or it will get blamed for all the Kremlin’s faults. But for that we need to abandon our old illusions: the “Third Rome” dreams of an Orthodox superpower.  —Archpriest Alexei Uminsky

The enemies of Holy Russia are everywhere….We must protect holy places from liberals and their satanic ideology. —Ivan Ostrakovsky, leader of a group of Russian Orthodox vigilantes who patrol the streets of nighttime Moscow, dressed in all-black clothing emblazoned with skulls and crosses and the slogan “Orthodoxy or Death.” (A collective of such groups from across Russia is organized under the name the “Banner Bearers.”)

That’s the ironic thing. If they had made a sincere prayer—there’s a long history of Christians praying sincerely for the Lord to deliver them from rulers that they believed to be unjust—instead of a mocking prayer, they might have gotten people on their side. Sincerity is always better than mockery; mockery only has the aim of wounding and hurting people.  —Frederica Mathewes-Green

 

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

A Sermon From Moscow: A Parish Priest Speaks to His Flock

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

by Fr. Alexander Borisov

Dear friends, our short summer is over. It was, as our poet Alexander Pushkin put it, “a parody of southern winters.” On the whole, the weather wasn’t bad: we had it hot and we had it raining. Now it is getting cold. Fall and winter lie ahead with the liturgical year and the school year starting at the same time. During the summer not only our regular work, but also the church activities slowed down. Now we have to catch up and to get into the rhythm of the congregational and spiritual life.

In fact, the current situation offers us plenty of new—or rather recurring— challenges. The whole situation around the Pussy Riot affair, with all of its absurdity and shame, is telling. It reveals the moral state of our society, both of the church and the world. We are seeing a horrible polarity of viewpoints—from harsh, Soviet-Stalinist mythologies to extreme permissiveness. We have clearly seen who we are. We have seen that religiosity coexists with intolerance, reverencing church sanctuaries while hating those of unpopular views.

But didn’t our Lord Jesus Christ say about Himself: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6)? Then in order to live like Christians don’t we need to reflect which of our Lord’s precepts applies to these particular challenges?

There are many relevant passages in the Gospel. Take the episode where Jesus and his disciples on their way to Jerusalem were not accepted in a Samaritan village. “And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them even as Elias did?’ But he turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’ And they went on to another village” (Luke 9:54-56).

It seems even his closest disciples were ready to release their “righteous” wrath. They even found a precedent worthy of imitation: “even as Elias did.” But Jesus “rebuked them, and said, ‘You know not what manner of spirit ye are of.’”

We Christians possess a great source of wisdom. Why guess how to act in this or that case if we have a clear word from the Gospel? Follow it, and you will never regret. The Gospel may not give a direct answer to every question important to us, but in this case, there is plenty of advice, more than we will ever need.

But when we yield to our sinful passions, especially when political factors get involved, our reaction becomes inadequate, resulting in absurd and tangled consequences.

It would have been enough to reprimand the girls and to let them go, as Deacon Andrey Kuraev suggested, or at most to sentence them to 15 days of imprisonment. Instead we have a grand trial. The scale of the prosecution and the sentence are clearly out of proportion to the persons and their mis-behavior, with the sentence turning stupid young hooligans into “heroines of our time.”

I recall an episode from the early years of Ivan Bunin, the Nobel Prize laureate in litera-ture. He was eating in a restaurant with some friends. Suddenly Vladimir Mayakovsky, then a young radical poet, appeared. He took Bunin’s glass, started drinking from it and then began eating from his plate. Bunin watched him without saying a word. Finally Mayakovsky asked “Why don’t you react?” Ivan Bunin quietly answered “It would do you too much honor.” This seems to be applicable to the current scandal.

Certainly, every Christian should have his or her own moral stand on these events and on personal moral standards. But obviously we should not be carried away by endless disputes and discussions on the Internet and in the media.

Soon after the Pussy Riot sentencing, there was a scandal in a Moscow café called Mu-Mu. A group of “Orthodox zealots” saw a girl with words from the Pussy Riot “punk prayer” on her T-shirt. They demanded that she remove the shirt. Apparently, the severe condemnation by the state court provided some people with a license to attack anyone who finds the sentence unjust or simply thinks differently.

An annual liturgy is held for the homeless at Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which includes a commemoration of those who have died on the streets of Moscow during the winter.

An annual liturgy is held for the homeless at Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which includes a
commemoration of those who have died on the streets of Moscow during the winter.

As a protest against the harsh sentence, some people—fortunately, not many— expressed their intention to leave the Russian Orthodox Church. Yes, in some difficult situations we may have a temptation to leave and “slam the door.” I think, though, that radical decisions such as “I’ll leave the Church” are the result of spiritual immaturity. In such cases, I strongly recommend that parishioners read the book The Church of the Faithful by Sergey Fudel. It has been recently published with an excellent preface by Archpriest Nikolay Balashov.

This book discusses the same issues as we face today, but it gives the answers based on the experience of the Russian Church history of the first half of the twentieth century, specifically of the “renovationist” schism that occurred within the Church in the twenties. Sergey Fudel was the son of Joseph Fudel, a famous Moscow priest who was dean of the Byturka prison church. The views of Sergey Fudel were born in suffering, in far harsher conditions than the present ones. He was arrested several times, exiled, and persecuted. In his book, he argued that even the errors made by the hierarchy cannot be an excuse for a split within a church.

Recently there was yet another reaction to the Pussy Riot trial. In some areas of Russia, some people have cut down Orthodox crosses erected in public places. (The three condemned girls, I must note, have publicly protested against these acts.) Some lawmakers immediately proposed severe punishment for such actions. However I doubt that these legislative proposals, if adopted, would add sympathy to the Church and to us Christians.

Something similar took place in Crimea in the early nineteen-nineties. The authorities in Crimea did not respond to this—Christians just erected new crosses. Soon the malefactors stopped cutting them down and Orthodoxy was only strengthened. Striving to severely punish offenders is completely opposite to St. Paul’s advice in his epistles. As he wrote:  “See that none of you repays evil for evil” (I Thess. 5:15), and “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19–21).

I’d like to finish this long epistle on a lyrical note. Our wonderful poet and bard Bulat Okudzhava speaks about dignity as an important aspect of human spirit:

Human dignity is a mysterious instrument:

Created for ages but lost in a moment.

Attacked by the noise of bellows, bombing, or babbling

It’s easily dried out or blasted down at the root.

So don’t waste yourself, brother, damn the vain chase

Or you’ll lose your primeval beauty and forsake your divine face.

Why risk all for nothing? Have you no higher cares?

So get up and go, a servant, climbing only upstairs.  IC

In Communion thanks Anna Kurt for her translation of Fr. Borisov’s sermon.

Fr. Borisov is the rector of the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian at Shubino in Moscow. Fr. Borisov is in the spiritual lineage of Fr. Alexander Men. His church is active in youth work, social services, and ministries to the poor and homeless. He has instituted an encompassing catechetical ministry in the belief that the path out of despair—the chief sin responsible for 98% of Russia’s problems, according to Fr. Borisov—is a firm grounding in the truths of the Church and the Gospel, the only path that will lead the Russian Church away from ignorance, superstition, xenophobia, Nationalism, and fundamentalism.

  ❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

 

Capital Punishment: Points to Consider

Monday, March 28th, 2005

detail from a St Nicholas icon (early 16th century, The Hermitage, St Petersburg)

from a letter by Jim Forest to a friend in the United States

We are followers of Christ, who killed no one nor blessed anyone to kill and who on one occasion prevented a legal execution, saying to those who intended to take part, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The Savior taught us a way of life that centers on love and forgiveness and which seeks the conversion rather than the destruction of our enemies.

It is chiefly through the love and care of others that each of us gradually comes to know the love of God. Can we not hope that people who have committed serious crimes, even murder, might also change for the better and even reach repentance and conversion? Consider the story Dostoevsky tells in Crime and Punishment of how a murderer, Raskolnikov, is led to repentance.

Many people cannot afford capable lawyers and, if indigent, may be assigned lawyers who invest little time or care in their defense. To favor capital punishment is to support a system that of its nature discriminates against the poor. As Sister Helen Prejean has written, “The death penalty is a poor person’s issue… After all the rhetoric that goes on in the legislative assemblies, in the end, when the deck is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country.”

Mistakes happen. Again and again cases come to light of innocent people who have been executed. We easily make mistakes — based on circumstantial evidence, what seem to us good guesses based on what we think we know about other people and other “types” of people. The film “Twelve Angry Men” is about a jury that comes within a hair’s breath of convicting an innocent man but, thanks to the resistance of thoughtful juror, realizes a mistake has been made and so finds the accused not guilty. In real life, unfortunately, the story could easily have had a different ending: the ritual killing of a man who happens to resemble a murderer, who belongs to a racial minority, has no money, is without effective legal defense, and isn’t articulate.

Consider two events in Russian history.

After the baptism of Rus’, Saint Vladimir abolished executions as being incompatible with the Gospel. It is one of several indications we have of how profound was his conversion.

One of the most impressive reforms that happened in Russia in the 19th century was the effective abolition of capital punishment. Instead convicts were sent to do hard labor, mainly in Siberia. It is striking that Russians usually call those in prison, no matter what their crime, not “crooks” or villains,” but “the unfortunate.” There is an attitude of compassion suggested in this that is missing in American culture. Perhaps this lack of compassion is itself a factor in the rising rate of crime.

painting by Ilya Repin: St Nicholas preventing an execution (Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

One of the most loved saints in the Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, bishop of Myra, intervened to prevent three executions. In icons of St. Nicholas in which biographical panels are included, you always find the scene of Nicholas in his episcopal vestments putting his restraining hand on the raised executioner’s sword.

To this day priests are forbidden to kill, a law which comes down from the prohibition within the early Church of killing for all baptized persons. Consider why such a canon exists.

Consider also the words of an early Greek convert to Christianity, the philosopher Athenagoras of Athens (ca. 133-190): “We see little difference between watching a man being put to death and killing him.” He reminds us that to be implicated in murder, one does not have to commit murder. We can become accomplices in the violent death of others through the words we utter or through passivity.

“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation.” (Psalm 50)

* * *

Merciful stories

Thursday, October 14th, 2004

A Patriarch Calls on Soldiers in the Soviet Army Not to Shed Blood

On August 19, 1991, Soviet KGB and party hard-liners returned from their dachas and summer vacations to Moscow, determined to suppress the democratic movement born when Boris Yeltsin had been elected president of the Russian Republic just two months earlier…. The junta, led by Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, seized television and radio stations and, with the majestic music of Swan Lake as background, announced on the airwaves that it had formed a “State Emergency Committee” and was “taking supreme power in the USSR.”

Earlier on the previous evening of August 18, just before 5:00 p.m., it had taken captive, in the government dacha in Yalta on the Black Sea, the president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. His chief of staff played the Judas, accompanied by Politburo member Oleg Shenin and a small clutch of party myrmidons. They demanded he either sign a decree declaring a state of emergency or resign. Courageously, Gorbachev refused to do either. Nevertheless, the traitors confiscated the codes needed to launch the Soviet nuclear arsenal and confined him and his family to house arrest. He was now nowhere to be seen.

The KGB plotters made just one mistake: they missed taking prisoner Boris Yeltsin….

With Gorbachev safely tucked away at Yalta, the plotters wrestled with the problem of Yeltsin, now holed up in the Russian Parliament, a multistory office building called the “Russian White House.” He and his staff still had access to fax and telephone, and later to radio and television. He summoned the ordinary citizens of Moscow to defend the democracy that is, his election that had just been born. He stood on one of the tanks at 1:00 p.m., August 19, audaciously defying the junta. In a few hours, a loudspeaker announced to the Muscovites forming human shields around the building that ten of the tanks had gone over to the defenders of the Russian White House.

Yeltsin used the media to make a tough speech claiming that elements of three divisions of the troops sent to storm and occupy the Parliament had crossed over and were now supporting him. Then the elite Alpha Unit, paratroopers commanded by General Alexander Lebed, a hero of Afghanistan, refused to storm the White House. Yeltsin spoke from a podium where now Major General Kobiets stood in full uniform, acknowledging Yeltsin’s pronouncement that he had been appointed the new defense minister. The defection of just ten tanks had pulled the thumb out of the KGB’s dike, and the momentum was sucking others up the chain of command over to Yeltsin’s side.

But the outcome was still very much in doubt. Yes, the rings of human shields around the Russian Parliament were increasing by the hour. But the defenders had ten tanks, whereas the party and the KGB commanded whole armored divisions. If they attacked, thousands would die in the carnage.

Yeltsin fully expected a bloodbath and tried to get help….

Yeltisn appealed to the new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the former Aleksey Ridiger, who had been elected in June the previous year by a meeting of bishops. He had taken the official name of Aleksy II. Yeltsin’s words went out over the national radio, defying the junta’s orders to silence him:

“The tragic events that have occurred throughout the night made me turn to you, to reach the nation through you.

“There is lawlessness inside the country a group of corrupt Party members has organized an anti-constitutional revolution. Essentially, a state of emergency has been declared inside the country due to the extreme gravity of the situation, and the laws and constitution of the USSR and of the sovereign republics of the Union have been grossly violated.

“It is no coincidence that these events have taken place on the eve of the signing of a new Union Treaty, which would have paved the way to freedom, democracy, and progress and a resolution of the recent crisis.

“Our State has been violated and along with it the newly emerging democracy, and freedom of choice for the electorate. There is once again the shadow of disorder and chaos hanging over our country.

“At this moment of tragedy for our Fatherland I turn to you, calling on your authority among all religious confessions and believers. The influence of the Church in our society is too great for the Church to stand aside during these events. This duty is directly related to the Church’s mission, to which you have dedicated your life: serving people, caring for their hearts and souls. The Church, which has suffered through the times of totalitarianism, may once again experience disorder and lawlessness.

“All believers, the Russian nation, and all Russia await your word!”

They did not have long to wait. Within hours of this appeal, the patriarch demonstrated that he would not remain a bystander but would throw the full weight of his position as patriarch against the coup.

On August 19, as the tanks moved ominously into their staging area in Red Square, Aleksy was physically only yards away (see figure 1.1). Inside the redbrick walls of the Kremlin, he was presiding at the liturgy of the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Cathedral of the Assumption (Uspensky Sobor), not only the oldest cathedral within the Kremlin but also the most important Orthodox church in Russia, having been begun in 1326-28 at the behest of Metropolitan Peter, whose move of the Orthodox see from Kiev to Moscow ended Kiev’s status as the center of the faith. Still unfinished, it collapsed in 1472. As with other Kremin cathedrals, architects imported from Italy, in part from the Ticino (an area in northern Italy and southern Switzerland), rebuilt it in its present form.

During the service Aleksy said nothing about the outside events but made an interesting change in the closing litany. Instead of remembering the “authorities” and “the army” as was customary, he prayed “for our country protected by God and its people.”

Then he took a momentous decision. On August 20, only a day after Yeltsin’s appeal to him, Aleksy faxed to the country and to selected sites around the world an “announcement” (zayavlenie), which challenged the junta’s legality. Aleksy had already identified this as the key weakness of the coup:

“This situation [i.e., the departure of Gorbachev from power, and his disappearance] is troubling the consciences of millions of our fellow citizens, who are concerned about the legality of the newly formed State Emergency Committee. . . . In this connection we declare that it is essential that we hear without delay the voice of President Gorbachev and learn his attitude toward the events that have just taken place.”

Notably, the patriarch made no mention of Yeltsin. Instead, he referred to Gorbachev, a reformer with whom he believed the church could do business, the same attitude once expressed by Margaret Thatcher. Now Aleksy repaid the ROC’s debts to Gorbachev’s reforms by calling for Gorbachev to be allowed to speak to the country. But this would not be the limit of his help.

The remainder of Aleksy’s “announcement” demonstrated his political savvy: “We hope that the Supreme Soviet of the USSR will give careful consideration to what has taken place and will take decisive measures to bring about the stabilization of the situation in the country.” That is, he called politely for action from the top government body in the country, notably not the party apparatus.

Next, he sought to isolate the plotters from two other national institutions, the church and the army:

“We call upon all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the whole of our people, and particularly our army at this critical moment for our nation to show support and not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood. We raise the heartfelt prayer to our Lord and summon all true believers in our Church to join this prayer begging Him to dispense peace to the peoples of our land so that they can in future build their homeland in accordance with freedom of choice and the accepted norms of morality and law.”

Again, the patriarch touched delicately on the Achilles’ heel of the coup, as he alluded to the “accepted norms of morality and law.” Yeltsin had begun his radio appeal to the patriarch by referring to “lawlessness.” Now the patriarch was reiterating the same idea to the nation, but associating legality with a “heartfelt prayer to our Lord” studded with the familiar language of the peace campaign “peace” and “freedom” turned back on the KGB.

– an extract from the first chapter of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia by John Garrard & Carol Garrard (Princeton Universoty Press)

* * *

St. Cosmas of Aetolia, who toured occupied Greece around 1750 establishing schools, gives us the price of heaven. Starting with perfect love, he says:

“If you want to find perfect love, go sell all your belongings, give them to the poor, go where you find a master and become a slave. Can you do this and be perfect?

“You say this is too heavy? Then do something else. Don’t sell yourself as a slave. Just sell your belongings and give them all to the poor. Can you do it? Or do you find this too heavy a task?”

“All right, you cannot give away all your belongings. Then give half, or a third, or a fifth. Is even this too heavy? Then give one tenth. Can you do that? Is it still too heavy?

“How about this. Don’t sell yourself as slave. Don’t give a penny to the poor. Only do this. Don’t take your poor brother’s coat, don’t take his bread, don’t persecute him, don’t eat him alive. If you don’t want to do him any good, at least do him no harm. Just leave him alone. Is this also too heavy?”

“You say you want to be saved. But how? How can we be saved if everything we are called to do is too heavy? We descend and descend until there is no place further down. God is merciful, yes, but he also has an iron rod.”

– St. Cosmas of Aetolia

The only prominent public figure to condemn the [anti-semetic] pogroms [during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution] openly and unequivocally was the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Tikhon.

– Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime (Harville Press, 1994)

“The Fools Theodore and Nicholas lived in Novgorod. A great bridge joined two sections of the city, Torgova and Sofia. On this bridge many horrible fights broke out between the rival families of either side of the river. The bishop often had to rush to the bridge and put a stop to the violence. Then the Holy Fools Theodore and Nicholas began to fight on the bridge, to demonstrate, as only Fools can, the stupidity of violence. Theodore would not let Nicholas cross over, and vice versa. Then a nobleman invited Theodore to cross over and visit him. And Theodore, after much begging, agreed. He crossed over, and suddenly Nicholas appeared. Nicholas chased Theodore along the bank of the Volkhov River, then Theodore ran right onto the river. Nicholas rushed into a nearby garden and grabbed a head of cabbage, and then he too ran onto the river. And Nick hurled the cabbage at Ted. Many people witnessed this event. And Blessed Nicholas was given the name ‘Kochanov’ meaning ‘cabbage head’.”

In 1944, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s mother took him from Siberia to Moscow. They were among those who witnessed a procession of twenty-thousand German war prisoners marching through the streets of Moscow:

The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.

At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebian victors.

“They smell of perfume, the bastards,” someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.

All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.

Then I saw an elderly women in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, “Let me through.” There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.

– A Precocious Autobiography, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Collins, London