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Russia: Orthodox Church Blossoming

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    Red Easter By Israel Shamir (www.israelshamir.net ) Easter has no fixed abode; this most important movable feast of the Orthodox Christian year flies like a
    Message 1 of 1 , May 7 1:30 PM
      Red Easter
      By Israel Shamir

      (www.israelshamir.net )

      Easter has no fixed abode; this most important movable feast of the
      Orthodox Christian year flies like a shuttle between March and May and
      weaves the diverse important dates into a single metaphysical
      narrative. In the memorable year 2000, it coincided with the Western
      Easter proclaiming Christendom's underlying bedrock unity. Last year,
      Good Friday fell on April 9, the Deir Yassin Massacre Day, when
      apostles' children were slaughtered by Jewish terrorists in the land
      of Christ. This year, Resurrection Sunday comes on May Day, weaving
      back the unnecessary tear between the Reds and the Christ. The
      Russians, amongst whom I celebrate today, christened it Krasnaya
      Pascha, "Red Easter".

      In this unique country – nay, civilisation, - thousands of men and
      women stand up for the all-night-long Easter service and in the
      morning join mass demos under the Red banner. Thus for me, and for
      many Russians, May Day came as a second, unexpected apotheosis of the
      Easter celebration.

      I came to Russia for the last weeks of their Lent and for Easter. The
      Spring was unusually long and cold; until recently, white snow covered
      the eternally green boughs of the pines and the naked white bodies of
      birches in the forest. Thick ice allowed fishermen to drill holes and
      catch fish in the frozen streams until mid-April. It was good: Russia
      is beautiful like a bride in her white dress of snow and ice, while
      rosy-cheeked and blue-eyed Russian girls in their modest fur coats are
      irresistible on frosty days. And the churches with their multicoloured
      onions and domes are embellished with exquisite icons and frescoes.

      In Soviet days they served as coal stores, hardware shops, or at best,
      museums of atheism. Active churches were a rare thing. The rest was so
      run-down that they inspired no interest -- just dirty old structures
      ready to be demolished when a new bypass has to be built. And a lot
      was demolished. Since 1991, the Church embarked on a huge project of
      regaining surviving churches and repairing them. The result is
      mind-boggling – yesterday's Cinderellas became today's Princesses. I
      could not recognise them – their old domes a-blazing with gold
      plating, bells a-ringing, and interiors totally redone. The surviving
      frescoes were lovingly restored, ruined ones were painted anew in the
      traditional Byzantine style. The monasteries turned into soldiers'
      barracks or boarding schools for young delinquents returned to their
      original purpose and many serious young and spiritual Russians take up
      the Orders. Even the long-demolished Cathedral of St Saviour in Moscow
      – a site of a swimming pool in Soviet days – was rebuilt. Thus the
      Russians succeeded where the Jews failed: they did rebuild their Temple.

      The last days of the Holy Week were quite a build up. The churches
      were full day and night; the believers formed long queues to go to
      confession: the Russian church has no booths for this purpose, and
      confession is a face-to-face interview in a nave. Only after a
      three-day fast and confession one may receive the communion done with
      bread and undiluted wine, as in the church of Apostles. Besides the
      Communion, the Orthodox church also practice pre-Paschal unction
      reserved in the West only for the dying.

      On Easter Saturday, Russian ladies baked their delicious Easter cakes
      and brought them to be blessed by the priest in the church, so in the
      afternoon the church compound was scented by spices, raisins and fresh
      dough. It is their custom to break the fast by eating these sweetish
      cakes with cottage cheese.

      The night-time Easter service was very long, but people did not leave
      early – they felt it was the much-expected culmination of their long
      and hard Lent. Indeed, Orthodox Lent is very strict: even olive oil
      (do not even think of dairy or fish) is permitted on Sundays only,
      while marital joys are banished completely. I went to a church of a
      nearby monastery, a vast structure built in the beginning of the 20th
      century in Art Nouveau style with pre-Raphaelite frescoes, and stood
      all night long, until the dawn, among throngs of smartly dressed
      Russians with lit candles in their hand who answered the priest
      calling out `Christ is Risen!' with their thunderous `Indeed, He is

      And just a few hours later I stood opposite the Bolshoy Grand Opera
      (where I was recently at the premiere of a specially commissioned by
      the theatre new opera Blumenthal's Children, a fascinating and
      provocative treatment of the iconoclast Sorokin's writing by St
      Petersburg composer Desyatnikov) in the May Day demo crowd, listening
      to a Communist leader who repeated just the same call; and from under
      the Red banners came a reply: "Indeed, He is Risen!"

      Paradox? Not really. Even universal faiths have some local colour, and
      Russian Communism and Russian Orthodox Church share the same
      background. On every turn of their development, whether in their old
      Pravoslav Tsardom, or in the Red Republic, the Russians who strove for
      the unity and brotherhood of Man were motivated by compassion and
      acceptance of "losers." They consistently rejected Mammon. The
      Russians despise money and material belongings; for them, poverty is a
      welcome sign of an honest man rather than a mark of social leprosy as
      in the West. They suspect rather than admire a moneybag. The old adage
      of `the Spiritual East' as opposed to `materialistic' West still holds
      true: who does not like East, does not love the Spirit.

      Today, Russian Reds are reconciled with the Church; the Communist
      Party members attend the services and joined the Pravoslav tradition.
      Gennady Zuganov, the CPRF leader, congratulated the demo with the May
      Day – and with Christ's Resurrection as well. Rogozin, the leader of a
      breakaway Rodina faction, now a big party by its own right, was even
      more eloquent in referring to Easter. As various Red and nationalist
      parties and groups represent a clear majority of the Russians, it is
      an important and a positive change from the days when churches were
      dynamited and worshippers discouraged.

      It is a good change, for the Reds' loss of power can't be understood
      but in context of Russian spiritual quest. The Russian Communists
      modernised Russia, they created a society of mutual support. They
      could not give villas and Cadillac cars to everybody, so they gave
      what they could. Everybody had more or less the same: they had their
      safe and assured employment, their free accommodation, free
      electricity, telephone, heating, public transport.

      But they forgot to attend to spiritual needs of the Russians. They
      forgot the teleological `What for'. And people can't live without a
      purpose. This lack of purpose became obvious when the pressing
      material needs of the people were satisfied. The Russians accepted
      Communism – not in order to live better; they had a greater goal of
      spiritual perfection. The trouble began from the top: the
      de-spiritualised Soviet elites of the last decades drifted to the
      right; they loved Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and had
      accepted the neo-liberal world-view a long time before the collapse.

      Indeed, in the West, the neo-liberals solved the problem of "What for"
      by creating massive social insecurity: people are not liable to think
      of spirit if they can be thrown out of their homes by a bank.
      Gorbachev copied their solution when he allowed the Soviet ship to
      capsize. He was supported by the pro-Western reformers.

      The West is full of variety and contains many ideas and paradigms. But
      the Russian Westernisers were a narrow-minded lot; they embraced the
      Chicago school of Milton Friedman with fervour; and despised the
      Russian people, their history and tradition. They privatised Russian
      national property, sold it to the trans-national companies and tried
      to integrate Russia as a supplier of raw materials. However, their
      victory was not as final and conclusive as they thought.

      There are clear signs of Russians reasserting their history after the
      clean break of 1991. It is not only churches lovingly restored and
      filled with worshippers; not only restoration of historic names – thus
      Kalinin Avenue (named after a Soviet leader) became again the
      Invention of the Cross street. It was done by the winners of 1991. But
      the Soviet past is being reintegrated, too. The great celebrations of
      V-day due on May, 9 are a sign of the change. The liberal reformers of
      1991 asserted that there was no difference between the Commies and the
      Nazis, between Hitler and Stalin. They mocked the veterans saying
      "Pity you weren't defeated: we would live like Germans". They forbade
      celebrations of V-day: not out of love to Hitler, but because of their
      hate to the Soviet anti-Mammonite past.

      This year, every street in Russia bears some congratulatory poster
      blessing the vets for their great victory. Here again, it is not a
      sign of hate to Germany or to National Socialism, but of
      reconciliation with the Soviet past. At the May Day demo, Stalin was
      acclaimed by Zuganov and other Communist leaders as `the father of the
      great victory'. There were his portraits a-plenty. It's not that the
      Russians miss the Gulag or industrialisation; but Stalin and his rule
      are part and parcel of Russian history. Likewise, the French
      Restoration regime of Louis the Eighteenth called Napoleon `the
      Corsican Monster', but just a few years later, by 1840s, the late
      Emperor regained his place in the Pantheon of France.

      The struggle for Russia's future is far from over; it has just
      started. Some people may think that this great country became an
      irrelevancy, a rusty oil pipeline and a consumer of Chinese goods and
      American ideas. But Russia is alive: Russians write great books still
      unknown in the West. Three books of the last decade, The Last Soldier
      of the Empire by Alexander Prochanov, The Blue Lard by Vladimir
      Sorokin and The Sacred Book of Werewolf by Victor Pelevin are as
      enjoyable, challenging and uplifting as Hundred Years of Solitude by
      Marquez. There are no contemporary writers or books in the West of a
      similar stature. In a properly arranged world, these treasures of
      spirit would be considered among great achievements of mankind.
      Indeed, who cares for oil – it is Russian writing that we should import!

      Russians do read a lot. Another positive change since the Soviet days
      is freedom of creativity and publishing. In Soviet days, stifling
      Party control blocked incoming ideas and books and stopped their
      creation in Russia. Even revolutionary Marxist books were banned,
      unless written in boring Sovietese. Now, in a tiny bookshop in a
      Moscow Underground for a few roubles one can buy new editions of
      Guenon and Joyce, Murakami and Pavic, St Augustine and Chesterton –
      and certainly, the Russian writers and philosophers old and new, with
      their fusion of metaphysics, theology and politics: from
      pre-revolutionary Bulgakov, Florensky, Rozanov to contemporary
      Alexander Dugin, Serge Averintsev and Alexander Panarin. I felt myself
      as Gulliver in Brobdingnegg, the Land of Giants: there are hundreds of
      Russians one can discuss most complicated questions with and find
      oneself out of one's depth.

      Russians are aware of their problems and think of new solutions. Their
      problems are our problems, too: the Soviet collapse coincided with (or
      ushered in) the global Ice Age of social deep-freezing. More and more
      people in the once-protected West find themselves marginalised; the
      Third World outpoured unto New York and London; compassion is
      outlawed; spiritual search is non-existent.

      The recently demised Russian thinker Alexander Panarin believed that
      the Orthodox Christian paradigm has a way to deal with the coming
      neo-liberal Ice Age by bringing in the Christian Eros as the force to
      revitalise the Universe. Russia may yet raise again the banner to
      summon the defeated, the outcast, the disenfranchised, the discarded
      against the new Masters of the World, he wrote.

      In his view, Orthodox Russian Christianity is different and can offer
      a solution to perplexed mankind because it is centred on the Lady.
      Indeed, Her image occupies the place usually preserved for the Cross
      in the Western churches. She is often presented as the Queen sitting
      on the throne with the crowned Child on Her lap. For the Russians, the
      Mother of God represents Nature. She is divine, connected with the
      Spirit and bears Him in Her womb. The Russians' love to Christ who is
      Spirit is not divorced from their love to the Lady who is Mother Earth
      and their Compassionate Intercessor. God the Father, the God of Old
      Testament, the God of Justice has very little presence in the Russian

      If Dan Brown were to visit Russia, he would never write his Da Vinci
      Code, for the female divinity is not suppressed or replaced here. In
      his very American bestseller, the Catholic Church tries to suppress
      the cult of Mary Magdalene as it is afraid of femininity; while the
      Jews (of all people) protect and guard Mary's remains. In real life,
      Jews have no female saints and dislike Our Lady even more than they
      dislike Her Son, while the Church venerates the Lady and adores the
      female saints. But Dan Brown had to fit his perfectly normal, true and
      justified longing for the Earth-bound and Spirit-connected Mediatrix
      into the Judaeo-American neo-Calvinist picture of the world, where
      Jews are always right and the church is always wrong. That is why he
      turned everything upside down; the New York Times spread its fame and
      the public bought it. In Russia, he wouldn't be able to misrepresent:
      here, the Lady reigns supreme, and the ideas of Compassion and
      Connection to nature and spirit wait to be unleashed.


      Will it happen? Russia is at the crossroads. While new-found freedom
      of creativity, publications and religious freedom are very important
      achievements, probably they could have been had without the great
      social cost the Russians were forced to pay. Their national assets –
      from oil and gas to land and factories – were privatised and taken
      over by a small group of extremely well-connected oligarchs. Now
      Western companies try and buy these assets. Russian industry is in
      poor shape; de-industrialisation proceeds unhindered. Once an advanced
      country of great science and modern industry, Russia is being
      converted into a raw materials' supplier. Though oil money makes this
      decline relatively comfortable for many Russians, in case of economic
      downturn catastrophe is inevitable.

      Russians feel themselves threatened by the aggressive US drive to
      acquire military bases and political influence in the ex-USSR
      republics. The Orange revolution in the Ukraine and the possibility of
      NATO forces entering this Slav hinterland made the threat acute.
      Russian James Bonds, Putin's ex-colleagues from St Petersburg branch
      of the State Security, are strongly represented in the state
      apparatus; usually such people – like George Bush the Senior – are
      considered patriotic chaps, but now the Russians are worried not only
      by their lack of liberalism and corruption, but also by their
      inability to meet the American challenge and their readiness to give
      in to American demands, including the much discussed question of a US
      presence at Russian nuclear facilities. The media is concentrated in a
      few hands; though as opposed to the West, there is a prominent
      state-owned media, but it is also quite pro-Western or provides
      poor-quality entertainment.

      At the May Day demo, the Reds demanded just one hour a day on the
      state TV to be devoted to their programmes: this exceedingly humble
      request is not likely to be met. Meanwhile, TV broadcasts Swan Lake
      and concerts of rock groups, while political discussion is kept under
      wraps. The Reds and the Nationalists are unhappy with the regime, for
      it is not doing enough to stop embezzlement, corruption,
      privatisation, de-industrialisation and impoverishment of the people.
      Though the regime took up some of their slogans, their words remain
      words only and are not accompanied by action.

      But the Reds and the Nationalists are not in fighting shape. They were
      defeated in 1993, when Yeltsin shelled the Parliament and took
      dictatorial powers. In 1996, the Red leader Zuganov actually won the
      presidential election, but the results were falsified, and Zuganov did
      not dare `to do a Yushchenko' and forcibly take what was his by right.
      Since then, the Reds suffer from a certain weakness. This could change
      because of an alliance with two outsider groups.

      A new force, National Bolsheviks led by Edward Limonov, a charismatic
      poet, are anything but vegetarian. Very young, practically teenagers
      or in their early twenties, the NBP made a few spectacular actions:
      takeovers of ministries and even of the President public reception
      office. They carry out an unusual form of `terror' – instead of bombs,
      they throw eggs, rotten tomatoes and pies, slapstick-comedy-style,
      into politicians and officials' faces. The authorities were duly
      terrified and meted out a five-year jail sentence for a well-aimed
      pie. Some forty NBP young men and women are now in jail, but their
      readiness to go into action where others just talk made them the
      cutting edge of the opposition. They are courted now by Communists and
      Liberals alike. At the May Day demo, Limonov was standing next to
      Zuganov and Rogozin, leaders of much bigger parliamentary parties.

      The second force is quite different. These are a mixture of liberals
      and neo-liberals. Their numbers are tiny, their two parties could not
      even make it to the Parliament. They also had a demonstration on May
      Day at some distance from the main event; it was attended by two or
      three dozen people. But they have a lot of money and strong positions
      in the media, business and power structures. They are also
      dissatisfied with Putin; they want to speed up privatisation, open the
      country for foreign investors, privatise social housing, bring in
      immigrants, remove limitations of free movement within Russia,
      withdraw from Chechnya and win release of UKOS boss Hodorkovsky.

      Though their demands are the very opposite to those of the Reds and
      the Nationalists, there is a tentative coalition of these groups
      against the President. The Reds and the Nationalists feel they can use
      some of the Liberals' media access and money to advance their agenda;
      the Liberals need the masses mobilised by the Reds and the active
      fighters of NBP. In return, NBP dropped its more radical slogans and
      now speaks for greater freedom and democracy, for amnesty and general
      softening of oppressive policing.

      All sides in the new setup believe in their ability to come out the
      top dog. The liberals are certain they will eventually get the power
      in the land; but so do the Reds and the Nationalists. The liberals
      have a precedent of the Ukraine to go by. There, Communists and
      Nationalists supported Yushchenko and installed pro-American
      neo-liberal regime. In case of a revolution, the liberals will rely
      upon their connection with the West, their media power and political

      That is why some opposition forces in Russia prefer to support the
      President as the lesser evil. These supporters of the President
      include Left.ru, our Moscow friends, a very good left group, and the
      "Eurasia" of Alexander Dugin, an important and much admired Russian
      Orthodox thinker. They feel that the revolution will be utilised by
      their enemies, and the enemies of Russia. They say that they already
      tried to support the liberal agenda in 1991, and this experience cured
      them from entering such alliances.

      Their opponents say that the President is under American control
      anyway; he gave up the Russian positions in Cuba and Ukraine, Georgia
      and Vietnam. He carries on privatisation. Though he speaks like a Red
      nationalist, his actions follow the liberal blueprint. They also feel
      that an `Orange' revolution is inevitable: the Americans are fomenting
      it, and ordinary people are dissatisfied with the regime. With the
      support of the liberals, they can create instability and hope for the
      best. "Let us enter the melee," as Lenin used to say, "and sort out
      our strategy later".

      Their slogan is `After February, October' – a reference to the events
      of fateful 1917. The Bolsheviks did not overthrow the Tsar as is
      sometimes claimed; it was achieved by the liberal Westernisers who
      seized power in February 1917 in order to introduce full-blown
      capitalism in Russia; but the Russian soul had a very strong
      faith-based rejection of Mammon. Thus a few months later, in October
      1917, the Bolsheviks kicked the Mammonite liberals out. While now the
      liberals intend to replicate their Ukrainian success, their tactical
      partners hope to repeat the 1917 feat. It is not impossible: Even a
      few months before it occurred, nobody expected the Bolshevik victory
      of October 1917. Indeed, the liberal revolutionaries, the victors of
      the February revolution, were well-positioned to rule. In order to
      win, the Bolsheviks cooperated with the German General Staff, with New
      York Jewish bankers and even with British Intelligence – but in the
      end they dispatched their yesteryear supporters without a thank you.

      It is a dangerous game, but revolutions usually are. Should we be
      satisfied with the `lesser evil' or may we try and gain the whole lot?
      I have no clear-cut answer. While a return to Soviet Communism is as
      unlikely as restoration of the Pravoslav Empire, the creative forces
      of the Russians may still move mankind forward, out of its present
      impasse. The divine spark in Man's soul is not easy to extinguish, the
      Spirit will win as sure as Christ is Risen.

      Resurrection Sunday 2005, Moscow



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