2016-06-30
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Dr. Edward Roslof is the author of "Red Priests: Renovationism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Revolution, 1905-1946." Here, he talks about the men who strove to keep Russian Orthodoxy alive during the oppressive Soviet years--men usually considered traitors to the faith.

Your book talks about Russian priests who tried to integrate Soviet ideals--Bolshevism--with Orthodox Christianity. What was going on, especially in the early 1920s?

This was an attempt by this group of priests I call "Red Priests" because of their affiliation or their contacts with the Soviet Government. Their concern was that their church seemed to be missing the revolution. The revolution was changing Russian society in so many ways, and the new Soviet society was emerging. They were convinced that Russian Orthodoxy as it has existed before the revolution was on the verge of extinction, so they adopted various platforms for church change. They called the new church "The Living Church"--they took that name on purpose to indicate the "old church" was dying and they were living.

Some of them even embraced Communist methods for dealing with their enemies, which made them very unpopular among the many Orthodox believers who felt -and rightly so-that Christian clergymen should not be using terrorist tactics and other things against their enemies. Basically, they got into an untenable position.

Why did they think that the church was on the verge of extinction?

Part of it was all the trends that had emerged in the Church in the 19th century into the early 20th century, where the Church seemed to be fragmenting. The bishops were sort of at odds with the parish clergy. There was tension between laity and clergy, usually over issues like money. The seminaries seemed not to be working. Many sons of priests were not entering the priesthood. Large numbers of people were embracing revolutionary movements that the traditional church had ignored or even opposed. The government seemed not to have the Church's interests at heart. So, everything that was happening seemed to indicate that, just as Russian society was fragmenting, the church was fragmenting, and had nothing to say to this new revolutionary society. One of the things that the Bolsheviks promised when they came to power was that they would sweep away all the old culture. They thought that the Church seemed to be a prime candidate for such housecleaning.

What were some of the platforms of the Red Priests?

Some of them simply wanted liturgical reforms, such as using the vernacular Russian in the Divine Liturgy as opposed to Old Church Slavonic. Some even tried to change the way the churches were laid out. They thought that there was too much emphasis on mystery by having the altar behind the iconostasis, so they wanted to move the altar out among the people. This didn't last very long because the people would have none of it. It was too opposed to tradition.

Others wanted to change the service to make it shorter and more comprehensible to the ordinary layperson. Still others were much more radical in their demands, their beliefs and their programs. For example, some said "we have to actually be 'Bolshevik Christians' and have a faith that is based on the ideals of radical socialism."

Like shared property?

Shared property, and the church opposing the capitalists. Being for democracy, as being for the workers and the poorer peasantry. Solidarity with the downtrodden masses.

And surely they could find a lot of scriptural support for that.

Indeed. Opponents argue that Soviet Communism was a Christian heresy in many ways. It was sort of Christian utopian thought without God or Christ. You take God out and what you're left with is a social program that, at least on paper, advocates caring for the poor, caring for the needy. But it also is non-Christian in terms of its advocating violence against of those who own property.

Some the Red Priests just wanted the Church to be more democratic in general. That is, they wanted laypeople to have a greater say in the running of the Church and not to be quite so clerically oriented. Although some of these were also very traditional in upholding traditional Orthodox doctrine and belief. So it's a range.

Money was a big issue--as it always is in every church, right? The opportunity to give parishes greater say in spending their own funds in the parish had long been a sore point. It always is, whenever the authorities higher up say you have to give so much of your income to support the diocese, or to support some project outside the parish.

In the book you indicate that many of these Red priests were sincere and motivated by genuine religious conviction. But at the same time you implied that other priests just wanted to make sure that the Bolsheviks didn't obliterate Orthodoxy. Those clergy members seemed a bit more politically motivated.

Yes, that's fair to say. The traditional way of seeing this group - at least for decades - has been that they basically were betrayers of Orthodoxy. They collaborated with the government. They weren't real Orthodox Christians, they had just sold out.

My argument is that if they wanted to just sell out, they would have given up Orthodoxy entirely. There was no future for religion in the Bolshevik state, and I think it was obvious early on.

So, I think most of them were true believers. They just had some serious reservations about what the traditions of the Church were and how they should be lived out in the Soviet Era. I think some accommodated.

One priest quoted in the book is saying, "By joining with this movement I'll ensure that my church is here 50, 75, 100 years from now." The irony was that his church building was destroyed in the 1930s and a statue of Lenin put in its place.

My reading of their documents tells me that these people were sincere believers. I mean, they might have been more willing to go beyond the boundaries of some traditional Orthodox practices, but they really were sincere in that belief in attempting to live out their understanding of Christian faith in this very very difficult revolutionary situation.

What's an example of something written by a Red Priest that makes you think he was sincere?

One of their leaders, Boyarsky, was a priest who went to seminary and then went to work with the workers. He really was a father to working people. He would take the Christian understanding of being part of the Body of Christ and applied it to the everyday worker-"we're hands, feet, arms, legs, but part of the same group."

You say other Red Priests saw no need for saints and icons. These were the most radical priests-those who were attempting a reformation, which was a common theme. They were willing to embrace Communist ideals as social ideals-Christianity is a religion that should address human needs and not be so concerned with liturgical function, with hierarchy. They thought saints and icons would not be necessary-after all, they were in a society that was talking about forming the new Soviet man. This new culture would produce new people who would no longer need icons and saints, but rather would trust in one another and support one another. During the Soviet area, were there any places where the core of Orthodoxy was maintained, where there was a vibrant Christian community? The Orthodox don't like to do what we Westerners are much more comfortable with--that is, decide what's essential and concentrate on the essentials. There's an Orthodox sense that everything works together. And so no one was able to maintain the fullness of Orthodoxy as it had been experienced before the revolution because political and societal structures didn't allow that to happen. What you have to find are clergy and laity who maintained Orthodoxy in its true sense of being a spiritual expression of Christianity-one that incorporates, especially, incarnation and theosis--all the great Orthodox foundational pieces. They had to build on that where they were. You could find it in parishes in Moscow or in clergy who are off in the concentration camps. Not just what people would call "catacomb" churches.

But the true Orthodox church found itself in difficulties as well, making sure sacraments were properly conducted and ordinations were valid. This was hard to do as an underground organization.

Looking toward the future, what do you think of the resurgence of religiosity in Russia?

It's an incredible story of church growth and rebirth not seen in the modern era. But it also shows the difficulties of opening thousands of churches in a short time. There's the need for clergy, for seminaries, for fixing the buildings themselves. And then there's the challenge of foreigners coming in and saying, "We have to convert the godless Communists," and then being surprised that Christianity is there. The Russian Orthodox Church and other groups say "we were here, we suffered, we kept the faith and now you're saying all we did was nothing."

Is this resentment driving legislation against Western missionaries?

It's clearly part of it. You just have to read what Russian Orthodox clergy and laity are writing. They feel they were betrayed.

I visited with church leaders before the collapse of the USSR; I would go with various groups. We would embrace each other and talk about being brothers and sisters. We Westerners would talk about supporting the Russian Orthodox and other Russian Christians in the face of persecution and repression by the government. And when the persecution ended, we then go in...

The sheep stealers.

Yes. They feel we weren't true, we weren't trustworthy. One minute we embrace them, the next minute we say, "You're on your own, we have all this money and all these people and we'll establish our own churches."

What would churches in Russia like to see from Western churches? Well, what the Episcopal church is doing, for example. They're not trying to set up Episcopal churches in Russia, but are finding ways to work together--helping the West learn more about Orthodox spirituality and its liturgy, which is so rich. So sharing information and dialogue between the two groups is important. The Russian church looks the church in the West and says, "How have you dealt with this rampant, materialistic capitalism that threatens to undermine Christianity as much as Soviet communism ever did?" Are you worried about the connection between today's Russian Orthodox and Russian nationalism? I'm not so worried, though it's a trend we have to keep an eye on. I understand the resurgence of nationalism as a way for people to reclaim-and try to defend-what they see as being under attack from American cultural imperialism. I see that, but I've talked to too many clergy and laity to think they're really nationalists in terms of wanting to attack foreigners and drive them away. There's still an openness, a sense that if a foreigner goes to Russia and shows the slightest amount of respect for their traditions and a willingness to be with them-to stand with them and pray with them and not say "you're doing everything wrong"--all sorts of doors open. There's a warmth in the Russian soul that nationalism as a force could never overcome. So you don't see a tendency for Russian Orthodox people in Russia to say, "This nation is holy--more holy than other countries"?

I think that's part of the Russian national identity, a sense that they have a special calling in the world. I suspect the Russian church and people will find a new way to express their understanding of being chosen by God to have a different way of approaching Christianity. I'm hopeful that will appear as a very positive force.

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