East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall 2002, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

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Forgiving or Forgetting?
Rethinking the Soviet Past: An Orthodox Christian Perspective

Inna Naletova

The closer man comes to God, the more he sees himself as sinner.
Bishop Kallistos Ware

Today, after more than ten years of reforms, one can see a move in Russian society towards a rethinking of the past, giving rise to a recovery of symbolism from the old order to connect to the new.  The Orthodox Church, the only institution of the Russian Empire that survived the social transformations until the present, plays the role of a bridge, bringing into modernity a nostalgia for the past.  During the Soviet era the Orthodox Church served the regime as an instrument of pressure and control. In spite of this, today it possesses a significant social authority and evokes respect and trust.  In 2001 the All Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion reported an increase in respect for religion in Russia. Since the early 1990s public polls have demonstrated a high level of trust in the church.  The church is trusted more than professional organizations, the intelligentsia, political parties, or the Duma.

How can the church be trusted in light of its previous obedience to the KGB?  How can we accept its claims to authority in the context of current efforts to build democracy and a civil society?  The church's reemergence appears particularly alarming to those observers who view it as a remnant of Russian totalitarianism and a legacy of the old empire.

The Search for Forgiveness
In order to understand this development, let's first remind ourselves that forgiveness has the power to recreate society and heal its distorted moral order.  One can even say that there is a certain mystery in forgiveness.  It can eradicate, or at least soften, the harmful effects of the past by awakening a sense of the mutual bonds between people, a sense of common moral commitments shared by offenders and offended. Forgiveness resolves seemingly irresolvable tensions by appealing to the human core of social life, transforming painful memories of the past--not on the level of material reality, but on a higher level on which religion rather than reason speaks to us.

The transcendent core of forgiveness is visible in the behavior and decisions of many individuals in post-Soviet Russia.  A few years ago, for example, Nezavisimaia gazeta published astonishing material about a group of Orthodox believers from Leningrad who, in the 1970s, secretly gathered in private apartments for prayer and discussion but were discovered and severely persecuted.  For several years they suffered in prisons and labor camps, receiving neither protection nor support from the church. It is striking that, later, those who survived persecution could have used the freedom of perestroika to create an independent Orthodox community separate from the Moscow Patriarchate.  But they chose to return to the mother church.  By returning to the Moscow Patriarchate they forgave the church for turning its back on them and they did so unconditionally.

One can find interesting thoughts about this in the writing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who personally suffered persecution and exile and who strongly disagreed with the church's political submissiveness, but insisted on the importance of the church in modern society.  The church, which he described as "far from unshackled, riddled with informers in official positions, and limited in all forms of civil rights," nevertheless continued to exist. Another Russian thinker, the priest Aleksandr Men, highly valued the wholeness of the Russian church, its continuity and integrity, viewing it as something more important than its politics.  The fact that the church survived the Soviet era, he used to say, proves that the church is not a human but a divine creation.

The peculiar feature of the present situation in Russia lies in its paradoxical duality.  The church is seeking forgiveness from people but, at the same time, people are seeking forgiveness from the church. Society, having rejected religion, now performs this essentially religious act of self-reflection and forgiveness by coming to terms with its past. The truth and respect that the church evokes in Russia can be explained as an articulation of the need to recreate the moral bond that holds society together--to forgive the past.  The church becomes a symbol of this bond, a symbol of a unity beyond worldly circumstances.

A History of State Interference with the Church
To begin with, some historical details are necessary.  It is not a gross exaggeration to say that traditionally the Russian Orthodox Church developed a tendency toward submissiveness to the state.  The Byzantine idea of secular and religious "symphony" encouraged the church's friendly, rather than critical, attitude toward the state.  In January 1918 Patriarch Tikhon issued an encyclical condemning the revolutionaries.  But a few years later he was forced to pledge allegiance to Communist authorities.

Metropolitan Sergei, following Tikhon, also tried to reach a bargain with the atheist government to protect the church from persecution.  Despite all his efforts, the Communist assault on the church continued.  By the beginning of the Second World War only four bishops in Russia remained in office.  By the time of Khrushchev the church had become part of the state apparatus.  Up until perestroika, very few church appointments could be made without KGB permission.  The collaboration seemed unavoidable because the alternative was annihilation and martyrdom, leading scholars to call the Soviet period "the saddest chapter in the history of the Russian Church."  (See Walter Laqueur, "Black Hundred": The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia [New York: HarperCollins, 1993]; and an interview with Fr. Georgi Edelstein, "Chekisti v riasakh," Argumenty i facti, 36, 1991.)

Acceptable and Unacceptable Compromises
The belief in the importance of the church may be undermined by consideration of the price paid for its preservation.  The price may be too high and a line has to be drawn between what are acceptable and unacceptable compromises.  "We sinned," admitted Alexis, "but for the sake of the people."  But what is the limit of acceptable sinfulness?  Who can establish this limit?  Cooperation with Communists is viewed by Orthodox not only as a disgrace to their church, but also as a challenge to preserve what can be preserved and to learn, when faced with hardship, how to compromise and still remain Christians.  "To become a priest [in the Soviet era]," explains Metropolitan Pitirim, "involved considerable personal risk.  You have to have courage to commit yourself to this path."  There were such people in the church.  Admittedly, they failed to do what was expected of them, yet they preserved the church. The latter, according to an Orthodox understanding, is an achievement of greater value than an individual's personal perfection.

One of the most challenging results of perestroika was the necessity for the church to create a commission investigating the details of the church hierarchy's relations with the KGB.  Such a commission was indeed created but, as Gleb Yakunin reports, it did not bring any satisfactory results.  The Moscow Patriarchate explains:

It was indeed difficult to establish whether the actions of its clergy were to be condemned just because of their connection with the KGB.  Thus, one clergyman was known for his attempts to "impress upon religious circles in the West the need for positive action in support of the peaceful initiative of the Soviet Union."  Despite the fact that secular society in Russia and abroad tends to evaluate this and similar acts negatively, the church hesitated to render judgment.

The church of Russia avoids a legalistic approach to its recent past, not because of its inability to evaluate its past, but because it believes there are better instruments for dealing with sin.  These instruments, I would stress, can be found not only inside the church in its beliefs and sacraments, but also outside, in gestures of apology and forgiveness.

It is also important to note that forgiveness is not granted on the promise of reform.  As a matter of fact, we do not see many changes in the contemporary Russian church.  It remains firm in its loyalty to tradition.  The rest of society also remains as "unchurched" as it has been in the past.  Forgiveness does not change the observable social conditions, but it does change something in its past.

Inna Naletova is a doctoral student at Boston University, Boston, MA, and a staff member of the University's Institute on Religion and World Affairs.

Inna Naletova, "Forgiving or Forgetting? Rethinking the Soviet Past: An Orthodox Christian Perspective," East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Fall 2002), 8, 10.

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