American Orthodox, Dana and Sue Talley, interview Father Georgi Edelstein
at his home in Karabanovo, Kostroma Region, Russia.
Father Georgi: I know people suffer everywhere, but it's impossible for me to help them. I think it is my duty to do as much as I can for these whom I can reach. My congregation is one of the poorest in our diocese and still we manage to do something and I'm very thankful for people in other countries who very often give me money on Christmas or Easter to do something. I was in the United States and received money and now again I can do something in my church, make a new iconostasis [icon screen], and I can help orphans.
Dana Talley: I don't know how your little parish is able to do what it does [for orphans].
Father Georgi: There are many problems. However, I think it would be very easy to "adopt" these 25 children. Let the children stay here in this village, in this orphanage. Let them know they have a godfather or a godmother in the United States who will send two or three letters a year, congratulating them on Christmas, Easter, or their birthday. Send the letter to me and I will go to the orphanage and give the kids any present the 'parent' tells me to give--chocolates, anything. Even if they don't send money, let them send a card or letter to the kids, letting them know that they have somebody who cares for them, who remembers them in prayer on Easter or Christmas. I'll be thankful for money, but if it is not possible, it is more important to have contact. Let him know there is somebody else who loves him, cares for him--that's all.
Dana Talley: You are always mentioning such positive things that we can do pragmatically in fulfilling the commands of Matthew 25. I think the most telling thing you have said is that we need not sit in the church and wait for people to come to us. We need to go to them.
Father Georgi: Why are you quoting me? It's Jesus that told us so. He sent His apostles--His disciples--and He sent every Christian to do it--didn't He? If you open the gospel, read what Jesus told you and me, and all priests, and do it. There is only one way to be a Christian and we read it on the Sunday of the Last Judgment. He didn't ask what confession you belonged to and what language you speak and how high the iconostasis is. He asked only, "What did you do? How did you help your neighbor?"
Dana Talley: We speak a lot about building the church physically, but not much about building the Church spiritually.
Father Georgi: We must do both. If there is no building here, people don't come; if they don't participate in the service, if they don't confess, if they don't take Holy Communion, they can't be Christians. I can teach them only when they are together, when they are members of this church, so it was absolutely important to me to restore the building. For me, as a priest, I was very proud to restore the building, but I began to realize that it was far more difficult to restore souls.
Dana Talley: What do you think about this  law concerning religious freedom? Many are confused about it. Some think it is a good thing because they say that so many Protestant missionaries seem to come who have greater financial resources and feel the new law "levels the playing field" so to speak. Others oppose. Unfortunately, there is a confrontational kind of thing, resulting in disrespect between Protestants and Orthodox. Do you think Russia should have this law?
Father Georgi: I think the best decision is to make the law as short as possible. I do not object to this particular law. During the years I have been here in this village I have invited all denominations and will allow any missionary to speak to my congregation.
Dana Talley: Why are you for the law?
Father Georgi: I am not for this law. This law is aimed against the Russian Orthodox Church more than against any foreign missionaries.
Dana Talley: That's quite a sentence!
Father Georgi: I insist it is directed against us, Orthodox believers. It is an admission that our church is weak and cannot oppose those missionaries.
Dana Talley: However, this law makes it more difficult for some people to come to Russia.
Father Georgi: Well, you either rely on the Spirit or on legislation. I am obedient to my bishop and to my patriarch, but that does not deprive me of my right to criticize my patriarch and my bishop; and I tell them about it openly and I write about it in my articles.
I am ready to invite any missionary to this or neighboring villages--to the orphanage, to the prison, anywhere--and if they want to speak or give Bibles to people, I will only be there to approve, to interpret. We can cooperate in anything, but we cannot participate in the same service because the regulations of my church do not allow me to do so. We prayed together today and took Communion together because we are Orthodox Christians, but I can't do it with an Anglican or a Baptist. They invited me to do it, but I can't; it is not my personal decision. It is the decision of the Councils. I can't do it and call myself an Orthodox Christian.
Sue Talley: The participation in your parish in the Divine Liturgy was excellent, even though everything but the sermon was in Slavonic.
Father Georgi: Most of the people take Communion either once every two weeks or once a week. I don't insist on this; it is not obligatory for everyone, nor is it prohibited. To me this is between you and Jesus; it is for you to decide and nobody has the right to interfere. Only, I explain to them what Communion is, what confession is, and then tell them to decide; there can't be any more regulation than that.
Dana Talley: There has been a lot of difficulty with absenteeism in Russian Orthodox Churches. I'm not sure why. There seemed to be a great rush when the Millennium  happened. I don't see the same rush to the church now that I saw years ago.
Father Georgi: I think there is more than one reason for that, but the main one is this: How did Christ begin His ministry? What was His first word? "Repent." What did John the Baptist and the disciples say? "Repent!" Did we repent? No, we didn't. Who will repent in our society? The Communists? Well, some did repent; they did say they had been wrong. But my church did not repent. We cooperated with the Communists for so long; we have been deceiving the whole world.
I'm not blaming anyone. Most of our bishops were compelled to do it, one way or another. You know, Communists were very clever in their propaganda, and the state machine was very hard on people. But the time came to speak up, when we received freedom and suddenly found out we were devoted to this Communist system, with all our bodies and souls. We are simply unable to tell the truth. We are unable to repent. One must be very courageous to repent. We can't do it. We haven't done it. What is required, to my mind, is "We did this, this, and that. We cooperated with the KGB." We went all over the world to pro-Communist meetings, we organized them here, and we blamed those American warmongers, you know, Ronald Reagan or someone else for every war everywhere, but we never noticed what was taking place in our own country.
Our Patriarch Alexei insisted--15 years ago, maybe 13--that there were no political prisoners in our country. Who can believe it today? Metropolitan, and now Patriarch, Alexii praised our previous constitution. To my mind his duty is to say, "Excuse me; I will not do it anymore." And none of us will ever blame him for what he did.
Let me tell you a story: About ten years ago I was invited to teach Latin in our school in Kostroma. I taught for three months, maybe four, and then found out there also was a teacher of religion there. I asked my pupils, "Who is the teacher of religion?" and I found out that he was the former teacher of atheism! We were in the same building, but in different departments. So I asked the principal of the school if we could have a round-table discussion and suggested we sit and discuss religion with the students. He said, "No." So I suggested that one semester I teach Latin and the religion teacher teach religion, and the next semester, I teach religion and he teach Latin. The principal said, "Impossible! He doesn't know Latin!" I said, "Does he know religion?"
Sometimes people think that religion is something you go to school and learn. In fact, it is very easy to teach someone to be a Christian. People came to Jesus and asked, "What shall I do to be saved?" What is Christianity? What should I do? Love God and love your neighbor. That's all. If you want to be a Christian I can tell you how in five minutes. All the law and the prophets are contained in this simple statement: Love God and love your neighbor. If you say you love God and not your neighbor, you are an atheist. And if you love only your neighbor and not God, you are also an atheist! Did anyone ask Jesus, "What do you mean by loving God?" No, they asked Him, "Who is my neighbor?" For the rest of your life you will learn the details, the commentary on these two commandments. I don't think 100 years is enough. It's very simple and very complicated at the same time.
Dana Talley: The Secretary of External Affairs of the Office of the Patriarch said that the way an American can help is to pray for and send money to the Office of the Patriarch so we can help the people.
Father Georgi: It's much easier to bring a container and just unload it in Moscow and caress yourself and say you did a good deed.
Dana Talley: You are saying that the Soviet system is, in fact, living and doing well within the Church.
Father Georgi: Isn't it? I'm still convinced that my church today is the only [remaining] island of Communist society. It's a "reservation" where this system organized by Stalin exists just as it was 20 or 30 years ago. I think Father Alexander Schmemann was one of those courageous people who spoke up and told the truth about Patriarch Pimen when he spoke in the United Nations and said, "In the Soviet Union there are no poor, there are no needy, and therefore the Church does not go in for social welfare activities. The system takes care of us here. It is quite enough."
Dana Talley: I believe we have enough of an interview to write a book!
Father Georgi: It can be reduced to five minutes--all of it. The essential message is this: "Tell the truth." That's all.
Dana Talley: But if you do that, very likely, on your way to church, someone with an axe will get you in the back of the head. (Editor's Note: Reference here is to the unsolved murder of Father Alexander Men on the outskirts of Moscow in September 1990.)
Father Georgi: That's right. It's very dangerous to be a Christian. Really. Rather than kill, let's have a conversation. Let's discuss things. Let's see what is positive and what is negative about Father Men's books, for example. I invite anyone to discuss it. Invite anyone in the Father Men camp and I am ready to speak to them. Why? That's the only way to obtain any results. Or there can be another way. The other way is, "Let's kill Father Men. Let's go burn his books. Let's annihilate him." You call that Christianity?
Sue Talley: Actually Father Men's death has generated a lot more interest in his books than there ever was before.
Dana Talley: Young non-Orthodox Russian Christians say to us, "We know Father Men's books."
Father Georgi: Well, there are a lot of things he said that I disagree with. Very often we argued. I can't say we quarreled, because he had a very good sense of humor. It was very difficult to quarrel with Father Men! We disagreed on many points, but we were personal friends. I think one of the best preachers and perhaps the best teacher of Orthodoxy--of Christianity--in Russia at that time [late 1980s] was Father Men. But the organizers of theological academies--why didn't they invite him to teach? Only because they were afraid that he could be the best professor, the most beloved, the most educated, the most brilliant professor, and the pupils would immediately see how intellectually poor the other teachers were.
Dana Talley: So you think it is primarily jealousy that caused his death?
Father Georgi: No, not quite that. For 21 years they didn't allow me to become a priest. Do you think that is jealousy? No. They were not allowed to ordain certain people, were not allowed to invite really gifted or talented professors to the theological academy. Why? It is very easy to grasp that the state wanted to reduce the role of religion in our country. Therefore, they separated the priest and the people, ordained only the worst, and promoted only the worst of our bishops. This was one of the means of this anti-religious propaganda.
Dana Talley: How do you stop this cycle that seems to be ongoing even today? What can be done to reverse this problem?
Father Georgi: What was the cry of the Baptist in the wilderness? "Repent." That was his cry. "Repent." Don't think we are the sons of "Holy Mother Russia" and we belong to the "most Orthodox" church in the world. [Instead,] repent and tell the church: "Stop deceiving people, telling lies."
Dana Talley: God sends you people to help--you didn't ask them to come, but God sends them to you. Yesterday in church you said one shouldn't stay home and wait for people to come, but here you are in this remote place and people are just showing up! What a mystery it is.
Father Georgi: It is not a mystery; it is a movement in both directions. If you go toward God, He will come more than halfway to meet you.
Dana and Sue Talley are professional musicians and members of the Orthodox Church in America. They both hold the position of assistant professor of music at Nyack College and the Alliance Theological Seminary, New York City campus.
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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report