The changes in the Soviet Union have transformed its churches, says Gary MacEoin
LAST month I returned to the USSR after a 22-year interval. What most impressed me was the change in the atmosphere.
Let me explain. After my previous visit, I commented that the Soviet Union's tragedy was that the Bolsheviks had changed nothing. That was, of course, an oversimplification. Stalin's unspeakable atrocities produced major changes, changes for the worse as we now know. There also had been positive changes — in health, education and other social services.
I think, nevertheless, that the comment was valid. The policestate atmosphere of Czarist Russia enshrined in the classics of Gogol and his contemporaries still dominated life. There was a sense of universal surveillance. One had to show a pass each time to enter the single antediluvian elevator in the Moskva hotel, and again when leaving the elevator to reach one's room. The stairway was locked, and I had nightmares of never emerging from this Stalin Gothic firetrap. (It in fact burned down later with heavy loss of life).
Imagine my surprise last month on finding myself in what could be a typical tourist hotel in the United States or western Europe, a bank of eight fast, self-serviced elevators, no checks entering or leaving, the normal amenities including the miniature refrigerator I first encountered in Japan 25 years ago and now common worldwide. Service was prompt and courteous, a gratuity expected and openly accepted. The view of the snowed-in city from the window was fabulous.
Our guide in Leningrad surprised me when she asked on Sunday if we'd like to attend a
religious service. In Moscow in the late 1960s our guide had found all kinds of reasons for not taking us to any church other than those that had been turned into museums, and he offered descriptions of the 21122.9e21171 exhibits that stressed that we were viewing the relics of an obscurantist past without relevance to the new Soviet Union. the only place I then saw a church service was in Zagorsk, headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. Its many churches with their graceful, onion-shaped domes were packed, but with old people and children exclusively.
Today, however, church going carries no stigma. The guide was well informed about the ritual and described it sympathetically, causing me to suspect that she may herself have been a believer. The more than a thousand worshippers included a considerable number of police and soldiers in uniform.
How much the Orthodox church will benefit from the new openness to religion is a matter of conjecture. Its emotional roots are obviously deep, but so far there is little evidence that it can overcome its other-worldly tradition and play an activist part in creating the new society that Soviet citizens are demanding.
The major beneficiary may well be the second most numerous Christian church, the Baptist. Its more than 15 million adherents, denied official recognition and for long periods openly persecuted, have held together and emerge with a clean record.
In Rome last October, Gorbachev reaffirmed in absolute terms his continuing commitment to socialism. It is by no means certain that the worldwide socioeconomic system that is the objective of the Gorbachevian revolution will resemble the capitalisme sauvage of Presidents Reagan and Bush.