A LATE-NIGHT TALK ABOUT RELIGION
WE sat in one of Leningrad's late night cafés Valery, the blonde Russian girl — industrial designer by profession — two Frenchmen
If luxurious night clubs exist in Russia for the privileged few, this was not one of them. The whole place, tables, chairs, waitresses and patrons, had an air of suburbia, although it was in the centre of the city.
The purpose of our jaunt was not romance—in spite of the Frenchmen in the party — but learning about life in Russia. The simplest way of doing that with the current etiquette in Russia was by "'dating" girls and pumping them for information, with or without the trimmings of a flirtation.
Valery and one of the Frenchmen plunged into an amicable conversation in Pidgin German. The other Frenchman suggested that he and I look for information elsewhere.
A good-looking brunette was sitting at the other table. We walked over and invited her to join our company. But at that very moment her boy friend arrived, Unperturbed, we extended the invitation to him. Although they declined it, the incident passed peacefully. However. it was about 10 o'clock and we could not let the evening go to waste. The unwritten rules — or rather the absence of rules — allowed us to talk to any unattached girl. and my French friend knew how to make the best of it.
As a result of his, by Western standards, unconventional diplomacy, we sat a few minutes later On two neighbouring benches in the public 'park in front of St. Kazan's Cathedral, each in the company of a girl.
A FAILURE ON our way we had already learned the life-story of both of them. They seemed to be rather below than above 20.
One, an Estonian, was a student of English at Leningrad University and spoke English with scarcely a trace of an accent. The other was a Russian who had wanted to study medicine but failed the university entrance examination. Her English, too, was remarkably good.
Both of the girls were blonde, simply dressed, but heavily made up—particularly the Russian.
The Russian girl blamed her failure to enter the university upon the presence of Polish, Hungarian and Rumanian students in Russia who, in her view, took away places from the genuine Russians. She did not hide her xenophobia from her Estonian friend. May be she considered the Baltic States as integral parts of the Soviet Union and the Baltic people as good as Russians.
The Russian girt became my paytner. The Estonian remained with the Frenchman.
My companion was the daughter of a colonel stationed in the Far East and she had a brother studying for a military career. " To be an officer is the best paid job' that's why," she explained.
Nor did she claim any idealism for herself for having attempted to study medicine. There was no military career for girls in peacetime, she told me; apparently, medicine would have financially been the next best.
Entrance to the university by way of a scholarship would have solved her problem not only for the future but also for the present. Her failure was therefore all the more disastrous. In the absence of her parents in the Far East she was staying with her grandmother, who had probably no means of controlling her.
When I asked what she was doing for her living. she answered with a look in the eyes which left nothing to the imagination.
As we sat on the bench, the instinct acquired in her sad profession told her that I was not after an adventure in the ordinary sense. Bearing in mind that I was a foreign visitor, she sensed my real intentions and let me have it my way. ' What do you think of Stalin ? " she asked, to give me an opening.
THAT was a good question. Ever since Krushchev's revelations there has been a free season of Stalin in the broadest possible sense. One was allowed to praise him or to curse him to one's heart's content, " It is the case of your Czar Ivan inter
polating over again," I answered, nter polating the problem into a historic analogy. "Some call him Ivan the Terrible, some call him Ivan the Great."
'I understand." she nodded. adding : " I think he was great. Now 'they' (the famous Russian 'they,' meaning the Government) like everybody, but Stalin liked only the Russians."
" Your new leaders are pure Russians." I said, " while Stalin was a member of a minority group. That's why he wanted to be more Russian than the Russians."
" Oh no, that's not it !" she pro tested. Apparently she did not like to be reminded that Stalin was of non-Russian origin — just like those foreign students who had crowded her out of the university.
It became colder and colder, but there was nothing to be done about it. She refused to come and have a cup of coffee somewhere. Although she was visibly cold in her light costume with a thin pullover but without an overcoat, she would not accept my scarf when 1
offered it to her. Neither as a souvenir, nor even as a loan. However, conversation proved to be a good means of diverting attention from the temperature.
As she was candid with me about herself, r had to be candid with her about myself, if only to keep the dialogue going.
" Had I gone back to my native Hungary after the war," I boasted in ortlei to work my way up to a climax. " I might now hold a high position there. But, being a churchgoer, 1 could not accept the present regime."
But my carefully prepared climax fell flat. While the girl understood everything I was saying, she could not gel the meaning of the word " church " (or may be that was a climax in itself 7). had to draw a Russian-style " double " across before she realised that I was talking about religion.
" Do you despise me for that 7 " 1 demanded, almost aggressively.
" I must be going," she said, and got up.
NEED OF GOD
SHE walked over to the other bench, where my French friend was conducting his social research with the Estonian girl, applying a charm with which, no doubt, 1 could not compete.
His romance, however, was interrupted as the two girls entered into a lengthy discussion in Russian. My companion was apparently relating our conversation to her friend. Her voice conveyed irony, but not without an undercurrent of amazement at thc exotic "mystic from the West."
At any rate, after we had had a brief chat with a few other young Russians of both sexes in the park. I had little difficulty in persuading her to resume our talk on the bench.
" You are a materialist of course ?" I continued to press for a show-down.
" Lenin was a materialist, wasn't he ? " she said in way of an swer.
" Young people are all materialists here, aren't they ?" I asked.
" Perhaps not quite all," she said, " but most of them."
" I am not an outright antimaterialist myself," I declared with a sudden twist. " I wish your Government all the success in providing for your material welfare."
" When you are hungry, you want to eat," I continued, conscious that she was lending me her ears. " When you have had enough to eat, you want better clothes. Once well-clad, you want a decent home. But—human nature being as it is—once you have food, clothing and a home, you want something more. Something that materialism can no longer satisfy. Then you may feel in need of Someone whom your grandfather used to call God.
Her initial aversion from the subject was dispelled and she listened with sympathetic atten tion. My theological arguments were neither deep nor particularly good, but it was the first time that she had heard religion discussed in terms of a world she knew and understood.
" say ' au revoir,'" I said when we parted, " although it is unlikely that we shall ever meet again."
"Can't you see me tomorrow ? " she asked.
With my short time and crowded programme in Leningrad I could not tie myself down. The fraternal kiss on her cheek was the only " souvenir " she accepted.
N another occasion I talked to Russian workers in the restaurant of the " Finlandsky " railway terminus in Leningrad. The price of this conversation was half a glass of vodka. An amicable Russian worker paid for it--but I had to drink it.
As a reward for my suffering I learned—with the aid of the few odd words I had managed to pick up in Russian– that my host earned 84 roubles (about £8 10s.) a
week and was, apparently. satisfied with his lot.
Another worker at my table—a handsome, serious fellow — was interested in the way foreign tourists managed with the various currencies in the course of their
bourney. 1 delivered in my very asic Russian a brief lecture on the system of travellers' cheques.
When we changed to a lighter subject and I remarked on the prettiness of Russian girls, he, with a sadly wise smile, summed up in one word his own verdict of them : " Moshna !" That meant, in free translation: " You can have anything from them." The opinion of a young member of the Russian working class on the result of 40 years of Communist youth education . • You could, however. hear criticism of the regime taking a more direct form. A young girl, annoyed that " they " did not allow her to wait for her sailor boy friend at the quayside, did not try to hide her feelings : " Nie charasho !" " No good !" That was all she said. Rightly enough, she did not credit me with understanding a more elaborate form of grumbling in Russian. However, the way she said it made it sound very much like the famous Orwellien " Big Brother is ungood 1 "
2%.MAN who spoke good English unburdened himself completely to members of our party. Although he earned more than four times the amount of the friendly worker's wages at " Finlandsky," he was staunchly opposed to the regime. He implored us not to be misled by the " window dressing" we were shown by our guides, and to believe him when he said that the masses of the people were miserable and dissatisfied.
" Should a war break out." he assured his listeners, " the people would rise like one man against the Government."
That was a wishful thinking on his part, no doubt. In 1941 the broad masses wore certainly not better off than today when the Germans stood at the gates of Leningrad and Moscow, and yet there was no sign of a mutiny in unoccupied Russia. The speaker's mood of unmitigated bitterness was best revealed, when he uttered his metaphysical outlook. " I don't believe in God," he said with a wry smile. " I believe in the devil."
There is still religious fervour in Russia today. The Mass in St. Nicholas' Catholic Cathedral in Leningrad is said to attract 20,000 people each Sunday, and there are well attended Orthodox and Protestant services.
However, we must not entertain any illusions : materialism has taken deep root all over the Soviet Union, even among those who appose the regime on political or economic grounds,
At the same time we must bear it in mind that Russia has never been thoroughly Christian during her history. While in the rest of Europe the nations were free to make their own mistakes in embracing the true or the heretic form of Christianity, in Russia the schismatic Church established itself by almost purely political means for almost purely political cads. It was not the true Church of Christ but a Christianity reduced to idolatry and superstition which was overthrown by the revival of the Heathen. The Pagan West of Athens and Rome was converted to Christianity by slaves. My journeys to the non-Christian East have convinced me that there is no short cut to a Christian triumph in the East either. The Pagans of the Orient will not be won over by Czarist Popas or Missionary Sahibs, but only by apostles working their way up from below within a society initially
hostile towards them. This will not he accomplished for many more centuries.
Meanwhile all we can do is to offer our prayers for the " rnoshna girls " in front of St. Kazan's Cathedral, the materialistic vodka drinkers, and the " devilworshipping " intellectuals, with the words of St. Stephan the Martyr " My Lord. forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing."
(To be continued)