Russian Orthodoxy carries grim past into tense future

November 17, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- After living with deceit and the KGB for more than 70 years, the Russian Orthodox Church is desperately trying to resurrect itself.

A nation caught in a dark moral vacuum is turning to the church, searching for meaning to life. Politicians who have lost their Communist authority are seeking legitimacy in church-inspired nationalism.

This would seem the perfect moment for the church to emerge as a powerful national leader, but these staggering demands are being made upon an institution that was perhaps the most battered and humiliated of all by Communist rule. The church survived the assault, but only barely. Today it is decimated in size and remains more KGB, perhaps, than the KGB.

Reformers are shaking up the KGB, but the church is still controlled by clerics who came to power when church offices could be filled only upon approval of the secret police agency.

As it attempts to emerge from those unhappy days, the church finds itself immersed more in struggles for power, privilege and property than in spiritual renewal.

Those struggles are being played out in often unpleasant ways as the Moscow patriarchy tries to regain buildings seized by the state and as it seeks to fight off the claims of church leaders who fled abroad rather than submit to communism.

"I think it's fair to say the church is run by the same people who ran it in the good old days of the KGB," says Michael Bourdeaux, a British scholar who has made a career of studying Russian Orthodoxy.

Some priests estimate that half of their number have strong connections to the KGB.

While the KGB itself says it intends to give up its control of the church, the connection has left a legacy of suspicion, both at home and abroad.

Even worse, many clerics have been unable to free themselves psychologically from the old ways, says Victor Popkov, a dissident who was imprisoned for religious activity in the '70s.

"The clergy are used to living under control," Mr. Popkov says, "and this habit can't disappear instantly.

"It used to be very easy. You just had to telephone and ask, 'Should I do this or not?' Now it is difficult for those who want to be free and independent and responsible for their deeds. They ** don't know how to do it."

Though many compromised shamefully, the years of persecution and denial generated heroism among some churchmen. The Rev. Gleb Yakunin is one of those revered figures.

In the mid-'60s Father Gleb methodically documented religious persecution in the Soviet Union and sent the evidence abroad, helping to begin the democratic movement in the Soviet Union.

At the behest of the KGB, the church imposed a ban of silence on him. When that expired, the KGB imprisoned him for 8 1/2 years.

Father Gleb remains an active member and reformer of the church. He was recently elected to the Russian Parliament, even though his bishop forbade him to run.

Following his example, young idealistic priests are beginning to assert themselves in the churches that reopen almost daily: Over the last three years the number of working churches has doubled to 12,000, though still nowhere near the 50,000 that thrived before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Priests are in short supply -- the seminaries have few people trained to teach, testimony to the effectiveness of the persecution. After the Revolution, 100 of the church's 120 bishops were killed, along with about 20,000 of the 100,000 priests. Today there are about 12,000 priests.

After decades of repression, people are flocking to church in ever-growing numbers. Catechism classes are formed in secrecy for fear that if the word gets out, too many people would have to be turned away.

"The shortage of priests is catastrophic," says the Rev. George Kochetkov. "The priests are overwhelmed. They have no rest day and night. That's why many can only wave incense and sprinkle water."

Father George, now 40, was a political economist studying at a Leningrad seminary in 1983 when the KGB prevented his ordination because he was attracting too many people to church.

"I spoke up about the KGB to my colleagues at the seminary," Father George says. "But I was not alone. There were many courageous people who didn't compromise and were sent to distant parishes without the possibility of church positions. It was the reality of our life for 70 years. Even in the church building, the priest was prohibited from preaching."

Father George says the church's former accommodation with communism is now being used by enemies to discredit it unfairly.

"It's similar to after the Revolution when the church was persecuted as part of the czarist structure," he says. "Now it is persecuted as part of the KGB structure. There is some truth to it, of course. But I think now we have a historic period when we can create the basis for the church to flourish. . . . The people have to gain confidence in the church."

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