Prejudices of a Heretic
I can no longer precisely recall which East German spy film it was where I saw that militarist priest. It was a classic scene of an unmistakable kind: a spy in the services of the camp of peace and socialism skilfully manoeuvres himself into the midst of a group of Nazis who escaped after the war (with the help of the CIA) into the pleasant subtropical atmosphere of some South American dictatorial regime. A smart blond (the daughter of an SS man, whom the card-carrying spy seduces) introduces the newcomer to a particularly unlikable character: "This is Father Wolf. He used to bless the (Luftwaffe) bombers during the war". It's been a long time since I saw this Invisible Sights or the Mystery of the Andes (or was it Light of a Black Candle?) but I'll never forget this scene, which presented a clearly unappealing image of a hypocritical priest who ignored all the divine commands to forgive and love your neighbour in favour of a cosy stipend, succumbing to violent evil notions of one nation wielding power over another. He haughtily blesses Junkers and Heinkels preparing to sow death in the name of the F?hrer over Guernica, Rotterdam, London (and especially, of course, in the spirit of that time) Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad, Smolensk and Stalingrad.
This stereotype from memory of a patriotic, militarist bible-thumper has a direct association with the Russian Orthodox Church. It suddenly came to my mind in all its detail once when I had been living in Russia for some time and I knew the lie of the land perhaps more than is customary for the average foreigner – and I had from time to time come across Orthodoxy. It was a time when the political and civil realities of Russia in the mid-1990s were being moulded by the first stage of the Chechen war, which started on 10th December 1994.
A quite significant number of Russians at that time still believed that it was a needless war, expensive and blasphemously bloody, and that the whole vexed affair could be resolved in a different way to that devised by the gloomy clique of thugs surrounding the ageing President Yeltsin and the hedonistic Minister of Defence, Pavel Grachev. Only the Orthodox Church – or rather those who primarily represented it – did not seem to think so. They carefully and loyally kept silent or restricted themselves to vague appeals that could possibly be interpreted as careful appeals for reason (the main thing was not to offend the President) as much as: "Give those Chechens a good hiding – they pray to Mecca, the pagans!".
Then one day I saw a television report about how the heads of Russian Orthodoxy met up with the generals of the Russian Army, those half-baked heroes of the Chechen war, to wish good fortune on their weapons. I can no longer remember exactly if the Minister of Defence and the Patriarch of All Russia themselves were slapping each other on the back but I do know for absolute certain what I recalled during that display of friendship between the representatives of war and of God: Father Wolf blessing the bombers in the name of the glorious Reich. It was just a different faith and different uniforms. The anointed Orthodox patriarchs were blessing the Russian weapons for victory over the Caucasian bandits.
If the truth be told it is not surprising that the most influential representatives of Russian Orthodoxy at that time stood loyally alongside the state – like lambs, without a hint of disagreement or of their own opinion. Perhaps they had one, but the idea of a strong, united and powerful Russia, a great state, an empire, was of greater interest to them than the disconsolately lost lives of ordinary little citizens. The patriarchs subordinated the commandments of the faith quite openly to the momentary interests of the leadership of the state at the time. The only Mother Russia that was acceptable to them was a sufficiently "large" one – in that imperial mould which is so suspect to us citizens of small nations who are so marked by history. As if the only thing that could be almighty for them was mighty in the superficial sense of the might of muscle and munitions. As if the only thing that was of importance to them was exemplary glitter, preferably gilded, and it is all the same to them whether or not it is promised by a Tsar, a Generalissimo or a President.
I do not intend here to judge Russian Orthodoxy for blessing bombers although as one who has visited the flattened Chechen towns and villages, I would truly recommend more sobriety and humility – particularly if one makes a living from defence of these values. Nor do I intend to analyse the stance of the Orthodox Church towards what was then a strange lack of conciliation on both sides, which culminated in war. Those who are interested will find enough material on Russian Orthodox Church web sites to make up their own mind. Such a "church militant" does not, of course, come as such a great surprise. The Orhtodox cross always reposes upon a subjugated crescent.
Too harsh a judgement? As far as Orthodoxy is concerned, perhaps I simply had bad luck with some unexemplary experiences. For example, a meeting with mafia-style brawlers with shaved heads and gold chains around their bullnecks, who evicted us from one Moscow monastery in the name of the church and fortunately with no more than vicious words. And we only wanted to ask for permission to film a couple of shots of the Easter mass.
Perhaps I should not have even looked at how money that is needed elsewhere disappears with the blessing of the holy fathers into the entrails of the pompous, architecturally abortive ferroconcrete monstrosity for religious snobs called the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. What if historically valuable tabernacles all over the country turn into heaps of ruins? Unlike the Moscow Cathedral, they don't stand within sight of the Kremlin, fraudulent banks and bankrupt investment funds so there is no reason to magnanimously provide them with gold bricks to make their onion-shaped domes glitter. And no (blessed) top brass had any reason to build them or protect them as a monument to his own grandeur, as Yuri Luzhkov did in Moscow.
Nor should I perhaps have so carefully counted the great powerful glittering expensive cars so popular amongst the criminal fraternity, standing in front of the fashionable churches. Codeword "shoot" and I'll dispose of your business rival and then codeword "church donor" and I'll receive absolution. I can't say for certain if it is true that at one Moscow church there was a bell with the inscription "From the Solncevsky Brotherhood". But the fact is that with the fall of Communism, piety has come to be worn in certain circles with the same ostentation and delight as Hugo Bosse suits and crocodile skin shoes.
Perhaps I should also confess that I would characterize the attitude I have noted of Russian Orthodoxy towards other confessions and towards any hint of ecumenism as being at least "touchy", basically because I am a heretic. If I weren't, perhaps I would concede that Catholics in particular are just rubbish who do not appreciate the role of the Third Rome.
And as a person from a religiously incorrect part of the world, I have possibly been too biased in my assessment of the tug-of-war over the genuineness of the remains of the last Romanovs, dug out of a muddy pit not far from Yekaterinburg. For a long time the Synod could not agree whether or not the Tsar's family fell victim at Ipatiyevov's house in 1918 to the "heterodox" (read "Jews") and whether by chance they were ritually murdered.
Perhaps I should have shown more tolerance to the reports that in various parts of Russia the church earns a little extra by importing alcohol and cigarettes. All with state customs duty allowances.
I could use a number of episodes which I tend to think of as characteristic to convince myself that in Russian Orthodoxy I have come up against a religious institution which has not yet redressed the injustices committed by the Crimean Khanate and which has not yet paid the world back for the fall of Constantinople. But then there is Father Stefani.
I met him at Lake Valdaj, a short distance from Novgorod. This Orthodox priest, who is not yet middle-aged, took over the Church of the Holy Trinity from the state in the name of the church in the early nineties: it is a group of domes, campaniles and monasterial buildings which stands on an island in the middle of the lake and looks grandiose from afar. But what appeared grand and romantic in the distance turned out at close quarters to be a sad nest of cracked, dilapidated walls, ransacked rooms with broken windows and recesses overgrown with weeds.
More than the hand of time, it was the hands of the Soviets that had left their mark on this late 17th century church: Bolshevik revolutionaries had evicted the monks in charge in the 1920s and plundered the valuables from the monastery. During the war it was a military hospital and afterwards a turb?za or tourist centre. Eventually the complex was returned to the church, which appointed Stefani to restore the island ruin to its original use. The priest started in the church. He would alternately wield a saw and a trowel and from time to time got into his battered orange Moskvich and took off to negotiate another load of wood from the authorities. It was clear that he did not have money to throw around. A couple of helpers came at weekends and the priest ate with them in the former common room of the tourist centre. Under the wall on which an amateur Soviet artist had painted a lake with swans, frogs and rushes, Stefani's helpers prayed and then sat down to their bowls of potatoes and pickled vegetables.
On Sundays and church holidays, the monastery achieved a fine symbiosis with similarly poor worshippers from the villages on the banks of the lake. The local hydrogeological institute in Valdaj lived off beggarly subsidies and there was no money left for any proper work. However, the institute owned a motor boat, which was something of a modest floating laboratory. So the monastery and the churchgoing grandmothers saved up for fuel and once a week, on Sunday at daybreak, they set off in the institute's boat across the lake to the island church for the word of God. A procession of singing grandmothers then moved from the wooden jetty at the wharf up to the church, where Father Stefani with a solemn face awaited them in his cassocks, holding a censer now instead of a trowel.
This tale, which some may find tawdry, but which I saw unfolding with my own eyes, has a quite worldly ending. At that time it was not clear to me why the church did not give Stefani any money, which it evidently did not lack (see above). My Russian guide, who knew the local conditions, put on a rather sour expression and waved his hand in distaste. Stafani would have to go to his superior patriarch in the hierarchy – and he is "ne choro?ij ?elov?k". In Soviet times, he was evidently a KGB officer at least.
But Stefani is Stefani – in spite of the kitsch glitter of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and in spite of the patriarchs who go blessing the bombers. I only quietly hope that over the years the monastery does not turn into a dacha for some local bratva.
Фирсов С. Л., Русская Церковь накануне перемен (конец 1890-х – 1918 гг.). Круглый стол по религиозному образованию и диаконии, Mосква 2002. |
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