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Michael Schrom

Controlled Democracy and Wild Faith

A Journey to Moscow


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 45/2007, P. 375f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz is on the verge of tears. Time and again the voice of the Catholic Archbishop in Moscow fails during his sermon. In the end it bursts out of him: "I will be moved - to Minsk." In the cathedral you could have heard a pin drop, and the journalists who are under the direction of the Austrian news agency "kathpress" on the way in Russia to get a picture of the situation of the churches ask themselves whether they have just become witnesses of a papal change of course and if so, how it is to be classified.

For sixteen years Kondrusiewicz, a White Russian with Polish roots, had been Archbishop in Moscow, appointed and promoted by the Pole on the Holy See, Karol Wojtyla. During that time the "provisional" apostolic administrations in Russia were upgraded to dioceses - under the violent protest of the Orthodox Church. The number of church buildings suddenly increased. 230 parishes, a seminary, a theological institute, two radio programmes and 270 priests, of whom ninety percent were non-Russians, most of them from Poland. The archbishop's balance is impressive - and also as personality the stocky church man looks rather like a doer than a diplomat.

Ten masses are celebrated every Sunday in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, and in 1999 there was even a Catholic ordination to the priesthood, the first in Russia after 81 years. "Have you perhaps been too successful?" one of the group of journalists wants to know that the leaving Archbishop receives after the Sunday Mass. There Kondrusiewicz must briefly laugh, and his politically correct answer in the language of church diplomacy sounds a bit pained. The church in Belarus faced major problems, and Pope Benedict XVI had asked him to take over the vacant bishopric of Minsk. Hence he went in obedience, although he found the parting difficult. After all, the Moscow diocese was something like his baby."

Only one thing Archbishop Kondrusiewicz wants once again to emphasize clearly: "We have neither in the past nor in the present lured away Orthodox believers, and also in the future we will not do that." When someone asked for baptism, he always asked him first why he did not want to be baptized in the Orthodox Church. Besides, one had to have for one year catechism instruction. That in the meantime sixty percent of the annual 600 persons to be baptized are infants, was a further sign that the new recruits of the Catholic Church in Russia does not come from conversions from the Eastern Church but from Catholic families, mainly from the better educated ones. There it is again: The inner-church emotive word "proselytism".


Orthodoxy - Symphony - Harmony

In western eyes the permanent argument over whether the Catholic church gets believers to part with the Orthodox Church or not appears grotesque. Are there in the huge empire not enough people who after almost eighty years of an atheistic state doctrine have never heard of Christianity at all? And are these Seekers really potential Orthodox believers, as it is seen by the Orthodox Church that regards itself as their only legitimate contact? Anyway, can one not profess the church one feels affinity to? So the westerner thinks; and he fails to recognize how deeply the idea of symphonia, which goes back up to the Byzantine era, the harmonious interplay between state, nation and the Orthodox Church is rooted in today's Russian thinking and feeling. And what great importance the territorial awareness has still today - politically as well as religiously.

In summer 2000 the Orthodox Church marked for the time being for the last time its "canonical territory". It includes all the republics of the former USSR, with the exception of Armenia and Georgia where there are Orthodox Churches of their own. In Belarus there is an "exarchate," and in the Ukraine the dioceses of the Russian Church in a certain way administer themselves, but without being autonomous by Canon Law (see CiG No. 42). In that canonical territory, so the view of the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church is only entitled to the pastoral care of those Catholics who were once deported by Stalin to whichever corners of the giant empire.


The Slavic Counter-Draft

"For many centuries the Russian Orthodoxy in principle held those state ideas that also shaped the respective Russian state. That implies that it accompanied Russia's imperial development and was therefore the Orthodox Church in the Russian empire," writes Thomas Bremer, the Münster expert on the Eastern Church in his book "Cross and Kremlin." To the historically grown close interconnection between state and church, which already characterized the tzardom and comes into bloom again under the conditions of modern Russia, a theological idea from the anti-western oriented Russian philosophy of religion of the 19th century is added. According to it the western culture gave up old and important Christian principles in favour of an over-emphasis of the individual. In this view the modern concept of freedom in a rational and humanistic world view is suspicious, if not in contradiction with faith. "According to it, the Orthodox counter-draft," so Thomas Bremer, "consisted in the community that was realized as church community in the Orthodoxy. The Slav did not know individualism, he was a being in community that did not give up its true destination by entering into this community but just found it there...



According to it the church community is no giving up of the individual's identity but its fulfilment. Central category of that idea is the later developed word 'sobornost' ... Within the church it means the conviction that the whole church is to co-operate in important decisions and also in finding the truth."

How topical that attitude, which is strongly coined by the Romanesque period and Idealism, is, can be gathered from a statement of the Metropolitan Bishop Kyrill, director of the church Foreign Office in the Moscow Patriarchate. In a basic declaration he said two years ago that "unity and agreement" were the foundations of Russian democracy. One can hardly more clearly formulate the demarcation to western ideas, for which "pluralism" and "competition of ideas" are the decisive slogans. And gradually one begins to guess what President Vladimir Putin might have meant with his often quoted mysterious word "guided democracy".


What Moscow appreciates in Benedict

Kyrill's deputy in the Moscow Foreign Office, Archimandrite Vsevolod Tschaplin points then also with sharp words to the still tense relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Church: "It is very difficult for us to understand that Rome offers us one hand for dialogue and hits us with the other one." What Tschaplin feels to be beatings are the mission efforts of the Roman Church in areas where it historically has never been active, and the existence and growth of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, which "nationalistically infiltrated" in a "core country of Orthodox spirituality" pursues an Away-from-Russia-Policy. But Tschaplin also says clearly: "We are not the Church of the Russian Federation." One does not want to become the agent of the state but to recruit anew for Christianity.

In Moscow the policy of Pope Benedict XVI is attentively followed. One appreciates his love for the liturgy, his philosophical disputes regarding reason and faith, the allegorical interpretation of the Scripture orientated towards the Church Fathers, and his sensitivity for the concerns of Orthodox Christians. Tschaplin did not want to comment on the change of the Catholic Bishop in Moscow - "an internal affair of the Catholic Church." But one needs not be a psychologist to recognize that this personnel decision is likewise assessed positive. But that Benedict XVI laid down the title "Patriarch of the Occident" has in Moscow not - as in the West often misinterpreted - been regarded as a gesture to the Orthodox Church but as abolition of the territorial principle, i.e. as an act of derestriction, of expansion of the papal claim to power. Nevertheless a meeting between the Pope and the Moscow Patriarch was "not impossible", particularly since one sees in Benedict an ally in the spiritual fight against all kinds of abortive developments of the modern age: against liberalism, individualism, and subjectivism.

But it remains questionable whether and at what price this fight can be won. For also faith is looking for new ways in the new world of Old Russia, sometimes in a wild, anarchical and very subjective way.


688 New Monasteries in Twenty Years

The press attaché of the Austrian ambassador in Moscow, Hannes Schreiber has cleared out his apartment in the twelfth floor of a high-rise-building in the so-called "German Corner" of the city and gives a dinner to which also many church personalities are invited. Among the younger Orthodox clergy many have studied abroad. They know that the process of secularization will some time reach Russia, although at present everywhere in the country new churches are being built and a great hunger for spiritual guidance exists. Many speak fluently English or even German, so e.g. Archimandrite Vassian, the vice-rector and manager of the theological seminary of Sergiev Posad, the leading training centre for priests in the whole of Russia. The beautiful monastery at the tomb of St Sergius has the honorary title "Lavra" and is a popular place of pilgrimage, which from 1946 to 1988 also served as seat of the patriarch. Here Andrej Rubljew painted his famous icons, here the priest, scientist and regime critic Pawel Florenskij, who today is regarded as one of the most influential Russian theologians, wrote his Orthodox doctrine on Trinity and treatises on Theodicy before he in 1937 was shot in a Soviet prison camp. Today Sergiev Posad accommodates about 800 seminarians who prepare themselves for the spiritual office. Lack of new recruits is a foreign word. There are more candidates than places. On the wide area is also a school for domestic science where the aspiring priests ought to find their wives, because secular priests who remain celibate are in the Russian Orthodox Church neither usual nor wanted. Only monks and nuns remain celibate. But the monasteries too experience an awakening. When in 1987 there were only seven monasteries and thirteen nunneries in the whole of Russia, today, twenty years later one counts 335 monasteries and 373 nunneries. Archimandrite Vassian, who has studied in Erlangen, ensured that his seminarians study also the development of the western churches; admittedly the ecumenical appreciation for the Catholic Church is in general significantly higher than for the concerns of the Protestants.

A big problem was still that many Orthodox believers knew nothing of Catholicism, apart from the constantly repeated historical concepts of the enemy. In addition one experienced in the last 25 years Catholicism only in its Polish expression, what rather intensified the resentments, says Sergei Chapnin, chief editor of the renowned Orthodox newspaper "Tserkovny vestnik". "What are the great theological debates and problems treated in your magazine?" Chapnin deliberates for a moment, then he says: "How far does the Social Word of the Orthodox churches get through to the basis? And: How can the Eucharistic piety, particularly a frequent Communion take root in the minds of the faithful?"


"Only with you Putin comes off badly"

When one asks the most different church personalities in the colourfully mixed round whether they had after the long period of persecution again confidence in the state one hears almost without exception one name: Vladimir Putin. He was honest, he was a Christian, and he took part in the services not only for show. But one does not really trust the political apparatus. That can already be seen in the dogged struggle for the religious instruction, which the Orthodox Church would like to see shaped as compulsory subject "Introduction to the Orthodox culture". Also the little man in the street, the taxi driver or the souvenir sellers in front of the Gum department store at the Red Square praise Putin. Not necessarily because he was a Christian, but because he kept the country together, strengthened the self-esteem, and also the "ordinary citizens" got a share in the upswing - quite in contrast to the time of the Mafia Wild West capitalism under President Yeltsin. "Only with you in the west Putin always comes off so badly."

The uneasiness in the West regarding Russia, Sonja Zekri writes in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung", has not only to do with the fact that the West has suddenly realized how much it depends on Russian natural resources and the Kremlin makes most of every opportunity to remember it about it. This shivering is only the opposite reaction to the romantic illusions after the end of the Soviet era. That the Russians did just not or not only make out the nineties as a setting out for democracy but as a traumatic time of poverty and disgrace, that most people see themselves today less as oppressed ones than as survivors, that press freedom can be eaten neither in the East nor the West has - in the satisfaction about the end of Bolshevism and about the German reunification - hardly been noticed by anybody."

One needs not approve of the System Putin; one should also not underestimate the dangers for opponents of the regime or even hush up the Chechen war - but to a realistic view of modern Russia belongs also to recognize that the overwhelming majority of citizens estimates the long missed feeling of a (relative) political and economic stability higher than a "flawless" party democracy after the western-liberal model. Because of that Moscow is not yet a dark city. On the contrary: It is full of zest for life, a friendly, confident and in many corners also very beautiful metropolis.


Icon for the martyrs of the Soviet time

That finds nowhere better expression than around the Red Square. Before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Alexander Garden in front of the Kremlin wall a Russian military band plays a relaxed American Dixie, while families unpack their picnic baskets. A few steps further one can be photographed either with Putin, Lenin or Stalin who pose as amateur actors for souvenir photos. At the north end of the Red Square in 1996 the Resurrection Gate was rebuilt accurate in every detail. Together with the also reconstructed adjacent Iwerskaja-Chapel, which in 1931 had to give way to a public latrine, it is a dignified closure of the place. Today in the always well-attended church many believers worship a copy of the of Mother of God icon of Kazan, whereas a hundred meters further passers-by and convinced old-communists pay Lenin in his mausoleum their respect. In the bookshops one finds the critical works of Anna Politkovskaya. But who she was or even where the courageous journalist lived none of the passers-by knows. A colourful, fascinating juxtaposition, a strange concurrence can be noticed - even in the churches


As an example the Christ the Saviour Cathedral may serve, the largest Russian-Orthodox church in the world, which rises west of the Kremlin right at the banks of the Moskva River. This church too was at the instigation of Stalin blown up in 1931, at the height of the persecution of the church. But the Palace of the Soviets that was to be built in its place was never built. There was only enough money for a dilapidated pool that in turn in 1992 had to give way to the new building of the cathedral for which countless believers donated more than 200 million dollars. In this cathedral, which was consecrated seven years ago, a dramatic icon of its own is dedicated to the martyrs of the Soviet time: A large number of believers meets the firing squads. Strictly speaking, this is a contradiction to icon-theological principles according to which only motifs of the biblical history of salvation are allowed to be depicted. On the other hand this is a very vivid continuation of the history of faith where divine and human actions mesh together. And another thing catches the eye of the observer: Diagonally opposite the iconostasis the tsar throne has been rebuilt in accordance to the original. We want to know why it has been rebuilt, whether the Russian Church is waiting for the return of the Tsar - or who is once sit down here. That he did not know, says our guide, a young monk and smiles meaningfully. "That only God knows."


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'