I have been asked to write my impressions of Russia, the Russian people and the Russian Church. There is no space to write of all the impressions packed into an intensely concentrated two weeks’ visit. I must pick some and leave others.
The first thing which impressed me was the country itself. As we flew in over Riga there was a sudden break in the clouds, and I looked down and there below us was a green meadow and little wooden houses dotted about and a little village church. This was my first sight of my country as I always had known it from Russian literature, Russian art, and from what I had heard people talk about. This remained with me throughout my visit. I arrived in ‘golden autumn’ and I left in winter with snow already in the streets of Moscow, on the Russian plains, in the Russian forests. I travelled by car from Moscow to the Troitsky Lavra amidst brilliant autumn colouring and falling leaves. And again a six hours’ drive of indescribable beauty from Petersburgh to the Monastery at Pskov, and to Vladimir. There were the ravines, the great stretches of country, the wide open skies, the fir forests and the birch trees, perennial Russia.
That was the first thing which impressed me. The second thing was how much remains the same since pre-revolution Russia. At a meeting with one of the State Representatives for Church Affairs he asked me what were my impressions of Soviet Russia, and I replied that one of the things which impresses me is that so much survives of Eternal Russia. The country is the same, many of the buildings, the wooden houses, the wells with women carrying two buckets on a yoke, the little girls running with long sticks behind the geese, the goat eating herbs close to the door of the house, the cow grazing, the peasant sitting sideways as he drives his. horse and cart along the road. Of course there are other things. As you drive through the country you see the marks of revolution and of war. There are places which have been completely blotted out and no longer exist. There is the post-revolution Russian with immense new blocks of flats, factories, hospitals and schools. But fundamentally so much remains the same.
I went to Russia with the firm intention of meeting and talking with these State Representatives and of seeing for myself what kind of men are these whom the Church has to work with. The first meeting was a rather formal one. We met at the Monastery of S. Sergius at the invitation of the Patriarch. On this occasion one of them said to me that if I was in need of any help during my visit I was to turn to them. I decided to make use of this and I asked my Angel Guardian (the priest who was appointed to look after me and make all arrangements for me during my stay) whether I could see these people. He said that it could be arranged, it could not do any harm; as to the good it might do — it would depend on my wisdom. So it was arranged for me to go and see them at their place. It is a little house, quite near the Patriarchate, and about twenty people are at work in different corners.
The chief of the State Representatives for Church Affairs is a man called Kuroyedov — he has replaced Karpov, and him I did not see. Under him are three more and of these I saw two. The first is a young man, whom I liked very much. He is intelligent and aware of things about the Church both inside and outside Russia with a good knowledge of people, places and things. The second one that I saw is more concerned with inside affairs. In a State planned and centralized society, nothing can be done by private initiative. Only the State can deal with other State organizations and departments. Whatever the Church needs — be it passports, visas, materials such as wood, metal, oil, charcoal or wine, it all has to go through the accredited State channels.
I was anxious to find out what is the attitude of the State, the Party and the Society for Promoting Scientific Knowledge towards the Church. How is it that the Church is allowed to exist? I was told that in principle nothing has changed. But there are facts in the shape of Believers, and facts are resistant bodies which have to be taken into account. There must be a legislation which allows Church people to be normal citizens with freedom from injustice. How freedom from injustice, I said, when there is no freedom of religious propaganda but freedom for atheistic and anti-religious propaganda? His answer was: You have a cult. We have no cult; we have only propaganda. If you had cult and propaganda you would have two things against our one. Cult must balance propaganda.
I asked about anti-religious propaganda and was told that anti-religious propaganda is fading out. Not I said if you read the press, and books and listen to the Soviet radio. Yes, he said, but we do not count on that to irradicate Faith. That may do something in Moscow but not in the villages. What then do you count on? We count on the complete absence of all religious teaching. With time Faith must cease to exist because a generation will have grown up who have never heard of it. But that is not honest, I said. And the reply was, We consider all religion to be a lie so why print it in textbooks? I asked how they explained the great personalities of history : the princes and the Church leaders who had made Russia. He explained that their lives are recounted and their activities accounted for by purely human motives but that no mention was to be made of their foolish religious prejudices.
I said you count on science to kill belief. And he said that is so. Well, I said, I was trained as a scientist and it made me a believer. What about you? He said that he was trained as an engineer and he had become an unbeliever. After this we turned to Church affairs, I said to him, you are aware that I have a very definite policy concerning Church work abroad, and I am non-political? He said, that is right. I then said you must understand that abroad one must keep right outside politics and take no part whatever in Soviet affairs? Again he said, quite right. But I said every churchman has the right to have individual political views and to act according to his personal convictions. And again he agreed.
After this he in his turn asked straight and direct questions about the Church abroad, the way things are done, relations with non-Orthodox Churches, and so on.
The meeting lasted an hour and a half. At the beginning it was cold and slow, and at the end it became quick and alive.
On the last night of my visit to Russia there was a farewell dinner for me and I again had an opportunity of speaking to one of the State Representatives whom I had met before. What a pity, he said, you leave to-morrow, I should like to have had a conversation with you. At once I replied, it is half past eight. Come to my place and we can talk. And so we settled in my room in the hotel and had a conversation lasting three hours. He asked me, are you satisfied with your visit? I said I have been able to see all that I wanted to see in the Church; but if I come back I want to see the other side. I want to see atheistic work and anti-religious propaganda. I want to go to anti-religious meetings. I will go in civilian clothes if you do not like to take me in a cassock. He was doubtful about this and said that the meetings are very rare and not worth going to. Then I said I am interested in youth work and am involved in it. I should like to see Communist Youth Groups and Pioneers. This, he thought, could be managed.
And then I said I would like to see a good cross section of your atheistic intellectuals. But you have been to the university, he said. Yes, I have been to the university, and I was shown the geological department which is magnificent but means nothing to me. I thought the medical school was in the same building. I saw no students with whom I have a common background of training and discourse. I want to talk science and religion with both teachers and students. He said if I came back they would see what could be done about that.
He asked me what I thought of life in Russia and I said that I had the impression of an extremely complicated life, a life which involves too much thinking, planning and reporting before the simplest thing can be done. In London a thing can be settled by one telephone conversation, in Moscow it has to go backwards and forwards through so many people and so many departments. He said, yes, things are not always as smooth as we should like, but then we are a vast organization and everything is being planned in connection with the whole.
I went on to say that I had never before been in a country which has a completely proletarian culture; a society from which, for better or worse, the top has been taken away, where everything is factory and on the level of factory and farm worker, and everything is meant to satisfy one class of society. There may be something besides this but this is choking and difficult to stand. One must either remain in the present or go back into the past. There is no integration of past and present. He said this was an acute problem of which they are aware, but for which they have not found the solution. They have lost a whole section of the population in the revolution and now they have to lift up the cultural level of society above a purely factory one.
The next thing he asked me was what I thought of freedom in Soviet Russia, and I replied that from the impressions I had gathered freedom as understood in the West — freedom to use one’s own initiative as an individual, to develop along one’s own lines and plan one’s own life as one chooses, to think and to express one’s thoughts openly and freely — simply does not exist in Soviet Russia. He agreed that that is true. But, he said, we are building a new world. I asked him if he would interpret freedom, in the way I had it interpreted once to me by a Nazi German soldier. ‘Freedom is the right to fulfill one’s duty unhampered’. And he said that he would agree with that interpretation.
We spoke again of the position of the Church abroad and I stressed again the necessity of taking a definite stand abroad and keeping off any relationship with any political party, but for people to remain free individually, and he accepted this.
I then thanked him for having arranged my visit and obtaining a visa for me. He seemed surprised by this and I said, well every one knows how much to the right I am and that I have a very deep veneration for imperial Russia and for the late Emperor. I must be something of an embarrassment to you. He said, yes we are aware of that. But come again, come for three months and we will show you more things.
By now it was past midnight and though I was too excited to feel any fatigue, he, poor man, was white and wilting with exhaustion. I looked at him pityingly and said, have some mineral water? No, he said. Some fruit juice? No. Some vodka? Yes, that is good Russian drink. So we drank to our friendship that it might be strong and truthful.
I will now say something about the Church. I celebrated or was present in a different church morning and evening every day, except for one or two days when travelling made it impossible. I celebrated in Moscow, Petersburgh, Pskov, Vladimir, twice at the Monastery of S. Sergius and twice in the Monastery of Petsheri, near Pskov.
I think my basic impression is of the extreme beauty of the churches, especially in Moscow where they are very old indeed. All the churches in the Kremlin are closed for worship but open and beautifully cared for as museums. There are sixty churches open in Moscow and fifteen in St. Petersburgh. I went with certain prejudices. I had been told that the churches are too rich and brilliant and magnificent, and the ceremonial too elaborate and perfect; and I was prepared to dislike this. But the third time that I went to church the whole thing crystallized and I saw the point. It is a revelation of another world. People come from the factory tiredness and drabness of everyday life into the churches and see the beauty of another world.
The congregations are big. In the mornings on weekdays the churches are not packed, which is to be expected because every one is at work and only the old people, housewives, pensioners and the sick can be in church. But in the evenings and on Sundays they are enormous. In Petersburgh where the churches are vast, built to hold from three to eight thousand people, they are crammed.
One of the things that impressed me most was the Akathists. These are celebrated constantly. The priest begins the prayer and then the people take it up and the whole congregation sings by heart. I celebrated an Akathist in the cathedral of S. Nicholas in Petersburgh when there were about five thousand people present. The first impression is of the immense power and volume of the prayer. Then I began to listen to individual voices here and there, and to each one the prayer meant something which was their life and their death. When we pray for instance for those who love the beauty of Thy house we think mildly of the choir and the cleaners and the people who light the lampadas. But here they prayed with such a depth which is beyond our experience, because they prayed as people who have risked their lives for the Church of God, who have worked for it with such love and sacrifice and, for whom it is the only beauty.
And again when they pray to the Mother of God, ‘the hope of them who are without other hope’, they do indeed pray to her because they have no other hope in life. When you hear five thousand people praying from the very depth of their soul’s experience it has such a profound power and solidity which we here have never experienced.
Another thing which impressed me profoundly were the Miraculous Icons. It is not that they are all so very old or particular works of art. Some are of course but many of them are not. But they have such power. When we turn to an Icon to pray it is usually we who make the first move. But when you come to these Icons to pray it is they who make the first move and call out of you such a wealth of prayer and response and a sense of Presence which is almost a physical presence. There is a person there before whom you are standing. They are so worn by kisses that not only the paint has been worn away but the wood itself has been worn into a curve.
Everywhere I went I preached. I preached on the church as a place of refuge not only for us but for God; the place where God can be at home in a world where He is a stranger. On S. Nicholas. On the place of believers in a Godless world. On the youngsters in the West who fall away from Church. And on the Prayer before Communion, ‘I will not tell the secret to thine enemies nor give thee a kiss like Judas, but like the thief will I acknowledge thee’.
And everywhere I went I blessed. This might take anything from an hour and a half to two hours after the service was over. It was a moment, however brief, of personal contact with people and a chance to look into faces. In spite of the fact that all were dressed alike it was easy to see from the faces of the younger ones what their life was, whether they were factory workers, teachers, farm workers or intellectuals. But the faces of the older ones were not so much suffering as worn and withdrawn, as if all that they had gone through and experienced had driven all emotion deep inside them.
And all the time that the blessing was going on every single person remained in church. As soon as the service ends people begin to sing amongst themselves spontaneously. Some one would begin the Creed and every one else would take it up, and the Our Father and the Prayer to the Mother of God. And this would go on until the last priest had left the church and people were satisfied that nothing more was going to happen until the next service!
There is no space to write of the clergy. The young ones are magnificent, and what impressed me in the old ones was not only their fortitude and endurance, but above all their power of prayer. One church that I went to has an unusual number of young people who go to it. And this is rather surprising because the priest is an old man of over eighty with no great gifts or eloquence as a preacher. But the young people go to church because of his prayer. Because they say he starts the Proscomedia hours before the Liturgy so as to have time to pray for each one of us.
Opinions vary about the future of the Church in Russia. Some are pessimistic and say that though there is no active persecution things are becoming increasingly tight and difficult and that in the course of years the policy of complete absence of any kind of religious teaching or mention of God must take effect and that nothing but a miracle of God can save the Church from dying out.
In the Patriarchate they take a totally different view. There they say that we are living in such exciting times that in these days you must be daring if you want to be a believer, you cannot just hide behind the law. But that everything is possible if we are not cowardly and do not give way.
I think that all are agreed, even those who are pessimistic from the human point of view, that the miracle rests with God and the Lord Christ has said, This is my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Published: Sobornost. 1961. Series 4: N. 4. P. 180-186.