“The Russian Orthodox Church During the Soviet Era”
From 1990 to 2002, I visited Russia over twenty times, and the entire
time I spent there totals around a year and a half. Based on everything
I have seen and heard, and also what I have read, I will touch upon
matters which are being discussed with such anxiety here.
Events in the life of the Church in the 1920's and 1930's occurred
long ago and far away. In complete safety here and now, we cannot
comprehend the enormity of that terror, it is difficult for us to
grasp its reality. In order to understand it more fully, let us
transport ourselves through time and space to the office of an NKVD
prosecutor, where a priest is being interrogated, pressured to sign
a rejection of the Orthodox Church and join the Living Church. Neither
coaxing nor threats persuade this loyal servant of Christ. And then,
the truly demonic torture begins. The small son of the priest runs
into the room, joyfully throwing himself into the arms of his father,
who is given one more opportunity to sign the renunciation. He refuses,
and his son is taken to the next room, where his gut-wrenching cry
is heard: "Oh, Papa, Papa, it hurts... Papa, they are breaking
my hands!" And the poor father cannot bear it and signs the
document. This story was tearfully told to me many times by Vladyka
Nektarii (Kontzevich) of blessed memory, adding that those who did
not experience this have no moral right to judge those who broke
under torture. We have only to thank God that this cup has passed
us by... so far.
As we know, the wounds inflicted upon the body of the Russian Church
during the Soviet era, which even now are an obstacle to our reconciliation,
are Sergianism and Ecumenism. Let us briefly visit each.
And so, Sergianism. What is it? Our Supreme Church Authorities have
not yet defined this clearly for us, but it seems that no one would
argue if we were to describe it as weak-willed cooperation of the
clergy with the atheist state in the face of danger. Yesterday,
the word "servility" was tossed about. Today the term
"accommodation" comes to mind. And despite the fact that
some unfortunate writers, following Metropolitan Vitaly's example,
write about the "heresy of Sergianism," this does not
exist in nature, for Sergianism lacks a dogma or teaching. Sergianism
is not a teaching, but a mode of behavior, as Vladyka Peter said
yesterday. We believe, together with Metropolitan Anastassy (as
was mentioned yesterday), that the personal sin of the weakness
of Metropolitan Sergius does not extend to the clergymen who, as
a matter of ecclesiastical discipline, commemorated him; many of
these very same clerics, who displayed no weakness in spirit, who
did not depart into the Living Church and did not reject Christ,
accepted the crown of martyrdom. Bold is the accusation made in
polemical fervor that the murdered clergymen who commemorated Metropolitan
Sergius are deprived of the crown of martyrdom. At the same time,
the words of St. Apostle Paul are recalled: "And if a man also
strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully"
(2 Tim 2:5). Such a cruel and distorted interpretation of the Apostleís
words sounds monstrous, yet such judgments have been heard.
Now a few words on the Russian Church and ecumenism. A tree is known
by its fruits. The fruits of ecumenism as they are seen in the West,
in so-called Orthodox "jurisdictions" are: the weakening
of the personal Christian labors of prayer and fasting, enfeeblement
in the discipline of divine service, departure into modernist theology
(besides individual personal opinions): these I have not seen in
the Russian Church. On the contrary, in the churches of the Moscow
Patriarchate I have seen a much greater adherence to church rule
than in our church life here.
I wish to recall an incident which occurred within the walls of
the Moscow Theological Academy some five years ago. I am certain
that Protopriest Maksim Kozlov knows this better than I, and if
I miss something, I ask to be corrected. A meeting was held of the
Academy's students with the President of the World Council of Churches,
Pastor Konrad Reiser, and the Parisian theology professor Nikolai
Lossky (there is an audio recording of this meeting). After speeches
by the two, there was a question-and-answer period, during which
the students, in a firm and abrupt manner, declared that the lecturers'
presentations have nothing in common with Christian teaching, and
that the participation of the Russian Church in the WCC was unjustifiable.
It was also stated that the priests who attend the assemblies of
the World Council of Churches represent not the Russian Church but
only themselves personally. I recall that Nezavisimaya Gazeta [“Independent
Newspaper”] reacted to this statement by saying that "the Russian
Church once again showed its beastly face." Still, we are far
more interested in the declaration of the Rector of the Academy,
Archbishop Evgenii, which resounded at the end of this meeting.
Vladyka stated that the voice of the future pastors of the Russian
Orthodox Chuch were heard at this meeting, that they are the future
of our Church, and that one could draw the appropriate conclusions
from these declarations. In other words, "Who hath ears to
hear, let him hear."
In the matter of our relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate,
the position of Bishop Afanasii (Sakharov) is of interest. For those
who do not know his biography, I will refer to some numbers from
the notes he left not long before his death:
Of his 33 years as a bishop, he spent:
- 2 years,
9 months on his cathedra
- 2 years
and 8 months free, but not occupying his position
- 6 years
and 7 months in exile
- 22 years
in prison and hard labor
Despite his sufferings, this giant of the spirit always abided in
spiritual joy and constantly displayed God's love for his neighbor.
Moreover, the strength of his spirit was expressed in the fact that
even under the worst circumstances he did not cease to labor over
liturgical work, including the constant editing of the service for
All Russian Saints, feeling that this obedience, laid upon him by
the Moscow Sobor [Council] of 1917-18 was not lifted even in prison
and concentration camp. Vladyka Afanasii condemned the actions of
Metropolitan Sergius, distanced himself from him and never returned,
considering him a usurper of Metropolitan Peter's authority. When
Patriarch Alexii I was elected in 1945, Bishop Afanasii recognized
him as the lawful head of the Russian Church and began to commemorate
him. This recognition, however, was not a condition of his release.
Vladyka Afanasii was in fact released from camp 10 years later,
in 1955. In recognizing the patriarch, he wrote: “There is no other
First Hierarch in the Russian Church besides Patriarch Alexii. He
was recognized by all the Eastern Patriarchs... I dare not reject
This statement is almost identical to the Ukase No. 650 of 1945
by Saint John of Shanghai, in which he uses the same expressions.
Bishop Afanasii gave a spiritual evaluation inconsistent with the
zealous detractors of the Moscow hierarchy:
crude accusations against the so-called Sergianist churches and
the divine services performed in them, I feel, are blasphemies against
the Holy Spirit... True zealousness for the faith cannot unite with
malice. Where there is malice, Christ is absent... this is a great
sin, an unforgivable sin, this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,
the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Blessedness."
In conclusion, I wish to recall one little-known matter which binds
the themes of Sergianism and ecumenism, something I learned at St.
Tikhon Theological Institute in Moscow. The pressure exerted by
the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union
upon the Russian Church in the matter of its joining the World Council
of Churches began in 1955. And only in 1961, after the death of
Metropolitan Nikolai, the Moscow Patriarchate joined this organization.
What of the 6 years in between? It turns out that a silent but desperate
battle was being fought between the powerful godless state apparatus
and two elderly archpastors on the other; Patriarch Alexii I and
Metropolitan Nikolai. I cannot bring myself to call this anything
other than a podvig [spiritual struggle].