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HOLY RUSSIA

 

The ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN COMMENT has received the impressions of a Christian tourist visiting Russia. This "tourist" is the priest in charge of the district of Australia of the Society of St. Pius X, the Revd. Fr Edward Black. Fr. Black is Scottish by birth and for quite of number of years was the Superior, or priest in charge, of the British District of the Society. His visit to Russia, as he says was very brief, five days only, but it "turned out to have quite an unexpected interest." 

Russia "has fascination for us all". For some it has been the rising of anti-religion idealism with the hope of establishing a liberal socialism and an atheistic life style of intellectuals; that is, the destruction of the system of government based on aristocracy and divine right. For others it has been the intriguing depth of the Russian culture, its beauty, its religiosity and, perhaps, its gigantic  barbarism. For a minority of us the fascination lies in the Russian Christian orthodoxy. 

 

 

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THE SOCIETY OF ST PlUS X



New South Wales.
12th August 2004



My dear Brethren,


I recently went home to Britain for a holiday with my family and on my way back to Australia I spent five days in Russia. I had always wanted to visit this country since I was quite young but the opportunity never presented itself. Therefore, in view of my grey hairs and the fact that when one travels such a distance it represents only a minor detour, I decided to provide the opportunity myself and set off with. two companions. My main intention was to visit historic monuments and I was certainly not disappointed by what I saw. St. Petersburg is unquestionably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. However, the visit turned out to have a quite unexpected interest which explains this unlikely occasion of my sharing my holiday experiences with you in this letter.

Russia surely has a fascination for us all. Here we have the prime example of a great Christian nation which with shocking suddenness became an atheistic state, not merely for a brief period as has happened elsewhere, but for the space of an entire lifetime during which a systematic effort was made to extirpate every vestige of Christianity. To those of us brought up during the Cold War she had the aspect of a forbidden country which one could only have the va
guest hope of ever being able to visit and so it was quite exciting for me to find myself, at last, in Moscow. .

The greatest sight of Moscow, familiar to everybody through photographs and films is, of course, Red Square which is flanked by the fairy- tale like battlements of the Kremlin and the exotic domes of St. Basil's Cathedral. It appears that "red" has a double meaning in Russian. It refers not only to the colour but also signifies "beautiful". It is in this latter sense that it was named long before the Communists came to power. Imagine our surprise to find that two important religious monuments which were demolished by Stalin in the 1930s have-been re- erected! The Gate of the Resurrection was the main entrance to the Square through which the Tsars would pass on their way to the Kremlin Palace. It was customary for them to descend from their carriage to venerate a miraculous icon of Our Lady which was housed in a little chapel built into the structure. Stalin had the gateway demolished to facilitate the entry of the great communist parades into the Square. Quite surprisingly this monument has been completely re- built to accord so perfectly with the original that one can scarcely believe that it is new. Even more surprising is the fact that Our Lady has returned to her place of honour and her image was surrounded by flowers and candles and people making their devotions. On the Square itself, almost opposite Lenin's tomb, the church of Our Lady of Kazan has also been rebuilt and we likewise found a large number of people inside, lighting candles and saying their private prayers.

Across the Square, Lenin still lies in state in his ponderous tomb for the veneration of the Communist faithful but we omitted to pay our respects. However, it has recently been stripped of its guard of honour and there is talk of the body being laid in a simple grave with the mausoleum being closed altogether. It was certainly striking that throughout our whole visit the Red Flag was nowhere to be seen. It has been replaced by the old tricolour flag of Imperial Russia which was displayed on all public buildings. Within the Kremlin itself the great building where the Supreme Soviet used to meet has had the hammer and sickle removed and replaced by a huge gilded Imperial Eagle of the Tsars complete with its crown, sceptre and orb! This has once again become the national symbol displayed everywhere and the Moscow police force now has a badge representing St. George, the patron of the city, sewn into their uniforms! 


Most of this first day was spent visiting the treasures of the Kremlin, including the exquisite old churches and the fabulous Russian Crown Jewels so that we scarcely noticed the time passing and evening was fast approaching. I was anxious to visit the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour but I feared that it might be already closed as it was around 6pm on Saturday evening. However, it was here that the greatest surprise of the day awaited us. An enormous number of people -several thousands- were standing in a queue which snaked around the great church and surrounding streets before they could gain entry.....

Before the Revolution the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which stands close to the Kremlin, was the largest and most imposing church in Moscow. After the Communists came to power it was closed and in the 1931, in a hugely symbolic act, Stalin had it blown up and every vestige of it removed. On the site he intended to build a "Palace of Soviets" which was to be capped by a 300 ft statue of Lenin and to rise higher than the Empire State Building in New York, which at that time, of course, was the tallest building in the world. However, because the costs became too great, this edifice was never built and instead the largest swimming pool in the world was constructed! About ten years ago, after the changed political climate in Russia, it was decided, in yet another symbolic act to rebuild the Cathedral exactly according to the original plan and design and return it to worship. This has now been achieved, apparently at the cost of approximately $US200 million. The result is really quite magnificent: a monument of the most exquisite workmanship in stone, marble, woods and metal, frescoes, mosaics, parquetry etc. Was this the reason for the great crowd of people waiting to enter the building? Not quite, they were in fact waiting to give honour to Our Lady........

Our Lady of Tikhvin is one of the great Russian icons on a par with Our Lady of Vladimir or Our Lady of Kazan. It was purportedly painted by St. Luke and many miracles are ascribed to it. During the war it was removed from Russia to the USA for safety with the proviso that it should return if the monastery at Tikhvin, where it was originally kept, should ever be re-opened. This condition now being fulfilled the icon had just been returned to Russia during the time of our visit and this vast concourse of people had gathered to welcome and venerate it. We also learned that the icon was to be carried in Solemn Procession through Red Square on the following day! Once we had discovered this remarkable story we were also anxious to venerate the icon ourselves but it would have taken hours if we had joined the queue and we had to catch the train to St. Petersburg a short time thence. After fruitless attempts to plead with stony faced officials Our Lady of Tikhvin worked a little miracle for us and we were finally admitted to join the head of the queue and push and squeeze our way into the Cathedral with the pilgrims to venerate the icon amid scenes of quite remarkable fervour and devotion.

These unforgettable experiences of our first day in Russia had obviously whetted our appetite and on emerging from the overnight train in St. Petersburg the next morning we were ready for new discoveries. As it happened to be Sunday morning these were not slow in coming.....


After depositing our luggage at the hotel we made our way to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. I was particularly interested to visit this important church. Although it had been spared demolition by Stalin he had nevertheless had it turned into the "Museum of Atheism and Religion" which was designed to demonstrate how religion had brought every evil into the world and atheism every benefit. On arrival it seemed as though the church might still be a museum as there were so few people about but once we entered we had another pleasant surprise. The Orthodox Mass was in progress with beautiful chant, splendid vestments and clouds of incense. There was a very large congregation and people were queueing for Confession. After witnessing this scene for a while I determined that we should visit the Catholic church which was in the same part of town.

It must be remembered that Russia has never been a Catholic country. It was evangelised from Constantinople after Prince Vladimir of Kiev accepted Baptism in 988 but by that time the Eastern Schism was unfortunately about to take place and therefore, although its sacraments are valid and there is a great devotion to Our Lady, the Russian Church has never been in communion with Rome. The result is that there are very few Catholic churches in Russia and even in St. Petersburg, the former capital of the empire, I believe that there is only one. This was the church which we were about to enter. 

When I was a young man at the height of the Cold War in the early sixties I read an article about religion in Russia and in particular about the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan having been made a museum of atheism. This seemed particularly shocking to the author as the Cathedral (on a much smaller scale, of course) resembles the design of St. Peters in Rome. However, all was not lost as a small Catholic church a short distance away was still open with Mass being celebrated mainly for foreigners working in (erstwhile) Leningrad. Remembering this article I thought that we should visit this church. In fact it was not difficult to find being only a short distance away. It has an elegant baroque facade and looks quite inviting. As I opened the door and stepped inside a bishop was giving a sermon in French and the first thing I heard on entering was "La liberté est un droit" (Freedom is a right!) The church was quite bare. All of the altars etc had recently been removed and one could have mistaken it for a Calvinist church. There were only about thirty people in the congregation. The contrast with the former "Museum of Atheism" could hardly have been more striking! 

Our visit was marked by other events of a minor nature. It was particularly interesting to me as a confirmed monarchist to visit the tombs of the Tsars in the church of the Saints Peter and Paul Fortress. There I found the grave of the last Tsar, Nicholas II and his family, who were so brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks, was the centre of attention of the hundreds of visitors who were filing in and out of the church. Even the tombs of notable figures such as Peter the Great himself were given scant attention in comparison. The reputation of the Imperial family now appears to have been completely rehabilitated. Pictures and books about them are to be found on every tourist bookstall. The Russian Church regards them as martyrs and not without reason for it is not hard to discern the hand of the Evil One in all of the events surrounding the Russian Revolution and the unspeakable horrors which followed it.

The institution of monarchy is a very powerful symbol of God's governance of society and this remains so even in countries where it no longer exercises effective political power. This, to a great extent, I believe, explains the current assault on our own monarchy by the secular liberal politicians and reflects the godless philosophy which governs present day thinking. It was very interesting to visit the truly magnificent palaces of the Tsars which, in the minds of many people, represent all that was worst about pre-revolutionary Russia i.e. extravagant opulence in the midst of abject poverty. How ironical, therefore, to find that the greatest of them e.g. Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo etc were completely destroyed by the Germans during the last War but were meticulously restored at fabulous expense by a Communist government brought to power supposedly in opposition to all such display. Furthermore, this restoration was begun immediately after the War at a time when Russia was totally devastated and its people in a state of misery never seen before or since. No doubt it was a comfort to the starving and homeless populace to know that these buildings were now designated "Palaces of the People" and that no king would ever live in them.

One day while travelling on public transport (where, incidentally, the sight of a priest reading his breviary evoked no surprise or interest amongst the other passengers) I overheard a conversation between an American and a Russian. The former was explaining that people in America are now becoming more and more concerned that public displays of religion such as prayers in school etc are, in fact, contrary to the American Constitution and should be eliminated to ensure a truly secular state. He observed that the world would be "quite a different (i.e. better) place if there was no religion". No doubt he was quite as disheartened by the re-emergence of religion in Russia as I was encouraged by it for it is certainly very ironical that at this very time the West is becoming increasingly secular and anti-Christian. No communist dictator is now necessary to close down churches. The dream of Stalin to see them transformed into pubs, restaurants and dance halls is now everywhere far advanced. This was particularly striking while I was at home in Scotland a few days earlier.

A visit of five days hardly makes one an expert on a country. I simply recount my experiences and observations for what they are worth. The true and ultimate significance of all these remarkable events is yet to be seen and the situation in Russia, as elsewhere in the world is clearly in a state of flux. Unfortunately, it seems that together with the apparent religious revival the materialistic values with which we are so familiar in the West are growing apace in Russia. There is doubtless a confident hope amongst the Russians that the material paradise promised, but not delivered, by the Communists might yet be realised by the Capitalists! The various changes in Russia may thus represent merely the use of different means in pursuit of the same end i.e. an earthly Paradise of material comfort. For this reason we must continue constantly to pray for the conversion of Russia and the conversion of ourselves.

Salvator Mundi, Salva Russiam !

Saviour of the World, Save Russia.!

With every good wish and blessing,

Yours sincerely in Christ,



Copyright © Father Edward Black. Superior.

 

Drawing "December Morning" with permission of artist, © Grace Meeking, and publisher, © ORTHODOX NEWS of Saint George Orthodox Information Service, The White House, Mettingham, Bungay, Suffolk, NR35 1TP



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