Billy Graham launches yearlong revival in Russia

FILLING THE VOID IN THE LAND OF FALLEN IDOLS

October 26, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- After more than 70 years of worshiping Marx and Lenin, the people of the former Soviet Union are desperately trying to find replacements for their fallen idols.

Whether he loved or loathed communism, the average person was left by its collapse with a deep emptiness inside. Politicians, economists and religious leaders have all tried to offer new reasons to get up every morning and go to work.

None is as highly organized or as well-financed as the Rev. Billy Graham, who this weekend preached to perhaps 100,000 people in Moscow.

Mr. Graham has organized an extraordinary yearlong revival here, trying to persuade a generation that grew up under militant atheism to believe in God. He came for this weekend's opening.

Over the last weeks in Moscow, there were 1,500 billboards; ads on thousands of buses and subway cars; and hundreds of newspaper, radio and television ads; and 3.2 million leaflets were sent through the mails.

Mr. Graham's organization, which is headquartered in Minneapolis, chartered 12 trains to bring about 8,500 people in from outlying cities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. A group from Georgia was flown in, to avoid the bandits and civil wars between here and there.

For three nights this weekend, Mr. Graham preached at the Olympic Stadium. Last night, about 50,000 people heard him in 26-degree weatjer. about 10,000 of them standing raptly outside watching his face loom above them on a giant television monitor.

The Graham mission organized a choir of 5,000 people; it enrolled 4,000 young people in a five-day school to teach them how to evangelize.

Everywhere in Moscow, it seemed, was a picture of Mr. Graham, his face softly lighted against the black background of the ad, with one big word standing out in white type: "Why?"

Why, Mr. Graham was asking, do men live? Why do they suffer? Is there a God? Does he love us?

At the stadium, Mr. Graham spoke in his down-home Baptist prayer-meeting style, earnest rather than emotional and startlingly informal for Russia, where the Orthodox Church tends toward the stern and formal, toward the mysterious rather than the easily explained.

An Orthodox churchgoer who did not attend Mr. Graham's services said many Russians find Mr. Graham strange indeed.

"He calls God a friend," said Masha Rizhak. "We don't see God as a friend. He is distant from us. It's not because of God -- it's our fault."

Mrs. Rizhak also criticized all the money spent to promote Mr. Graham's visit. His spokesmen said they had not yet arrived at a figure for the cost, but it clearly was considerable.

"We don't like seeing so much money spent advertising Billy Graham's face when there are so many needs here," Mrs. Rizhak said.

But the stadium was crammed with people who were quite grateful to hear Mr. Graham -- though the crowds listened without showing obvious emotion.

"Even if it was only a few hours," Ludmilla Yegorshina, 46, said yesterday, "this has given peace to my soul."

Mrs. Yegorshina is too ill with cancer to work. Her husband left her a month ago. She is now supporting her 8-year-old son on 1,700 rubles a month -- a little over $5 at current exchange rates.

"There is a discomfort in my heart," she said, "but I'm trying to believe in God, I'm trying very hard."

Geologist Nina Koshkhadze, 52, came from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, in a plane arranged by the Graham organization.

"I found great happiness here," she said. "Only this helps me live."

In Georgia, one of her sons is fighting for the government, and one is fighting for the opposition. A third has fled to Canada.

She blames the turmoil on 70 years of godlessness under communism. "For 70 years they abandoned God," she said. "You can see how people suffer because of it."

She is fearful of the trip back today -- only a train could be arranged and it must make its way through war zones and other no-man's lands. "We bought butter and sugar and other food to take back with us," she said. "Maybe they'll take it all away from us. But I can go back with a new feeling in my heart."

Mrs. Koshkhadze is a Baptist, converted by a mission that was established long ago and that survived even though persecuted during the years of communism. There are perhaps a million Baptists in the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Graham's message, however, was steadfastly non-denominational. It emphasized, he said, everything that the Russian Orthodox liturgy emphasizes.

The Russian Orthodox patriarch, Alexi II, warned Mr. Graham through a spokesman not to try to convert Russians.

"If your desire to help the Russian Orthodox Church is sincere, then you [will] tell the people who have gone through the heaviest spiritual captivity they ought to go back to their spiritual roots," the patriarch said.

Mr. Graham's visit comes at a difficult time for the Russian Orthodox church. Although church attendance soared in the late pTC 1980s as religious freedom was permitted, it has waned somewhat in the last two years, according to Viktor Popkov, a church activist.

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