Film Review

“Russia” in the series, “Faultlines: The Search for Political and Religious Links.” 2004. $129.95 for VHS or DVD. Reviewed by Mark R. Elliott.

This 37-minute documentary, in DVD and video formats, is one of a series of six case studies of the interaction of faith and politics. (The five companion films examine religion and politics in Israel, Iran, Brazil, India, and the U.S.) Written and produced by former Beirut hostage John McCarthy, “Russia” is an informative and reasonably balanced introduction to four of post-Soviet Russia’s faith traditions: Russian Orthodoxy, Protestantism (as illustrated by the Salvation Army), Catholicism, and Islam.

Given the series’ advocacy for religious tolerance and even-handed treatment of all faiths, it comes as no surprise that Russian state and Orthodox discrimination against Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims would be decried. Ironically, given Islam’s privileged status elsewhere, a Russian Muslim leader speaks for all minority faiths in warning of the dangers of state privileges afforded one religious expression (Orthodox) over others. One of the documentary’s great strengths is its refusal to portray Russian Orthodoxy as monolithic. Viewers come to see that within its expansive fold one finds supporters and opponents of ecumenism, believers tolerant and intolerant of minority faiths, and adherents favorably disposed towards and hostile towards the West.

Still, on the whole, the treatment of Orthodoxy is more negative than positive: Orthodox believers are depicted as too often nominal in their faith, superstitious, antagonistic towards “sects” (which they accuse of stealing souls), and distrustful of democracy. On the other hand, arguably the most attractive believer in the film is Russian Orthodox: Anna Goussova is devoutly Orthodox, yet she is employed by the Protestant Salvation Army, whose charitable work she applauds. In 2002 Anna was among some 800 victims taken hostage by Checken Muslim terrorists in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. She had the courage to pray out loud during her captivity, and, despite injuries requiring hospitalization (not noted in the film), she nevertheless remains charitably disposed towards Muslims as a whole.

The documentary does overlook important groups including Jews, Baptists, and Pentecostals. Also, a few missteps can be noted. The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was completed in the late, not early, 19th century. It also can be argued that the battle for Russian souls is just as intense in some provinces as it is in Moscow. Finally, one person interviewed cautions that Russia should not be judged by Moscow alone, yet the film crew still spends most of its time in the capital. These minor caveats aside, “Russia” does a credible job of introducing faith in Russia and the tensions inherent in Russian church-state relations.

Mark R. Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.