East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1993, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

The Mission of the Russian Orthodox Church After Communism

Father Leonid Kishkovsky

Orthodox Christian faith permeates every facet of the culture and history of the eastern Slavs: language, art, architecture, literature, customs, habits, values, and hopes.  The term "Holy Rus" suggests this interpenetration.  While such a distinction clearly carries with it the danger of triumphalism, its inner intent and spirit show a yearning for obedience to the Christian Gospel and the Christian way of life.

In the profound connection between the Orthodox faith and the historical experience of the people of Kievan Rus'--who later developed into the Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian national branches--there lies both danger and promise.  Especially in the modern era, church-state connections have burdened and endangered Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  Unfortunately, the secular political agenda came to predominate in this relationship.  The church's voice became silent or muted on too many questions of justice and compassion.  In its relations with the church, the state in the twentieth century reimposed its dominance in the new and totalitarian setting of the Communist system.

For a millennium the image of Christ and the Orthodox message of the Gospel illuminated the vision and values of Russian culture.  But the Communist regime excluded religious faith from the public arena.  Atheist propaganda and derogatory articles about the church and about religion filled the media.  Still, when people read the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, or the poetry of Pushkin, Pasternak, and Akhmatova, they found there Christian images and themes and a Christian understanding of the meaning and purpose of human life.

When people looked at works of art they often drew spiritual insights from the Christian message imbedded in them.  One afternoon in 1978 I visited the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow.  Museum visitors entered the room housing the Vladimir Icon of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) and the Trinity (Hospitality of Abraham) Icon with obvious reverence.  Some stopped before the icons for a long time in an attitude of meditation.  Something of the quiet and attention one associates with a chapel or a church, with prayer, and with listening to the Gospel, filled the air.  Thus, while Bolsheviks excluded the preaching of the Christian message whenever possible, still, the stones of Orthodox churches, the colors and lines of icons and paintings, and the voices of literature preached the Gospel steadily, insistently, and publicly.

To create a new humanity and a new society, to give birth to a utopian future, violence and genocide became Communism's accepted methods for social engineering.  Religious communities, and especially the Russian Orthodox Church, served as objects of planned extermination.  Communists martyred many for their faith in Christ:  dozens of bishops, thousands of priests, monks, and nuns, and tens of thousands of laity.   Protracted and vicious torture, along with unbelievable cruelty, resulted in untold deaths.  By the beginning of World War II, only four Russian Orthodox bishops continued to live outside prisons or concentration camps.  In all of the Soviet Union only several hundred parish churches remained open for worship.

Miraculously, the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as other Christian bodies, faced a decisive turning point in 1988 in the form of a new mission challenge and evangelization opportunity.  As the Russian Orthodox Church responds to this opportunity, it also confronts enormous material and physical devastation.  Reopening churches for worship often means restoring or rebuilding them from a nearly ruined state.  Lack of teachers, books, and classroom space impedes progress in the development of religious education for children and adults.  The new opportunities for publication of newspapers and journals cannot be seized without paper, printing facilities, writers, and journalists.  The rapid expansion of the parish network requires priests, catechists, and choir directors.  This in turn places enormous demands on the theological schools, which themselves lack the necessary teaching staff and theological literature.

Prior to the late 1980s Communists strictly limited existing parishes to worship alone.  Now priests and parishioners strive to recreate a full parish life with educational and charitable dimensions.  The sheer number of people coming for baptisms, confessions, weddings, and funerals overwhelms the clergy, allowing little time to meet other religious needs, such as community-building and outreach activities.

A church in Klin, a town not far from Moscow, exemplifies parochial vitality.  Its young priest, Father Anatoly Frolov, leads the restoration work.  Confiscated decades ago, and used as a reformatory for some years, the church building had declined into a state of nearly total decay and destruction.  Assistance came from West European Christians, primarily Protestants.  Groups of Western young people visited Klin, provided construction tools, donated their time and labor for the reconstruction of the parish church, and developed deep friendships with Orthodox believers.

The restoration of community emerged as the most important aspect of the revitalization of the church in Klin.  Parishioners gave their time and labor, worked together, and worshiped together.  This renewed Christian fellowship drew in children and young people, provided religious education, and encouraged worshippers to relate to their church in a living way.  The encouragement of attitudes of compassion and mutual responsibility proved central to this experience of life in community.

In recent years the Russian Orthodox Church has witnessed the rapid development of a wide range of lay associations.  One brotherhood associated with the work of Father Vladimir Vorobyev of St. Nicholas Church in the Kuznetsy district of Moscow, has provided training for some 80 nurses for work in one of the worst city hospitals, is providing instruction for some 300 catechists, has trained some 30 teachers with the hope of establishing an alternative high school, and during the summer sends poor children from Moscow to a summer camp on the Volga River.

The associations and brotherhoods have taken up much of the responsibility for mission work in the Russian Orthodox Church, and have helped the whole society to create an infrastructure of voluntary organizations.  The task at hand involves nothing less than the re-evangelization of Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union.
 Against this positive backdrop conflict today among major Christian confessions should concern us as much as the troublesome influx of cults and new religions.  The West bears responsibility for bringing much of this conflict to Russia and to the rest of the former Communist empire.

The September 16, 1991, issue of Christianity Today carried a full-page advertisement appealing to readers "to help the people of the Soviet Union meet the real Jesus."  The International Bible Society, through its Moscow Project, intended to send four million Russian New Testaments to "the spiritually starved people of the Soviet Union."  Without question the people of the former Soviet Union do suffer from spiritual starvation and do need the New Testament.  Yet I find the message of this advertisement disturbing. The caption under a Russian icon of Christ from the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow reads:  "There was a day when the world's largest nation was called 'Holy Russia.'  Icons of Christ still adorn its ancient churches.  But the people of today's Soviet Union are emerging from seven decades of atheism.  And they want to meet the real Jesus--the Christ revealed in the New Testament."

This  message clearly communicates that one thousand years of Orthodox Christian mission and witness in Russia did not bring the real Jesus to that land.  Up until our day, the message appears to suggest, Russia has known only a false Jesus, a surrogate Jesus; but now scriptures and evangelism from the West finally can bring the real Jesus to Russia.
 I certainly understand the differences between Eastern Orthodox Christianity and conservative Evangelical Protestant Christianity.  Without question, these differences deserve discussion and debate.  However, I would hope that such dialogue could occur in a spirit of Christian faithfulness, mutual respect, and prayer.  And at the end of the day differences still would require the sorting out of difficult choices.

Nevertheless, the plain fact remains that in modern times, under communism, the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, and other Orthodox Churches in the Soviet Union in general, have suffered massive, sustained, and violent assault and persecution.  The martyrdom of bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and laity testifies to the faithfulness of the Orthodox Church to Christ, the Lord and Savior of humanity.  Even if icons and ancient churches do not bear witness to the real Christ in the eyes of some Christians in the West, surely the lives and deaths of countless Orthodox martyrs have given numerous Soviet people the opportunity to meet the real Jesus.

Christians of good will, today more than ever before, face the challenge of seeking in Christ and in the light of the Gospel ways to confess the truth with integrity and in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance.  Orthodox and Evangelicals must engage in many more mutual encounters if we are to achieve the "unity of the spirit in the bond of peace," which Christ surely demands of all those who confess His name. 

Father Leonid Kishkovsky is the Ecumenical Officer of the Orthodox Church in America and editor of The Orthodox Church.

Editor's note:
Just before going to press Fr. Kishkovsky asked the Report to note that the International Bible Society had informed him that its advertisement review policy would preclude statements such as those run in Christianity Today in 1991.

Father Leonid Kishkovsky, "The Mission of the Russian Orthodox Church After Communism," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 1 (Summer 1993), 1-2.

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1993 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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