COLUMN ONE : A Russian Force Is Reborn : As religious freedoms expand, the Russian Orthodox Church is again a powerful influence. But others fear a re-emergence of the church-state alliance of the czarist era.


From the tumult in the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has emerged as a visible and powerful force, overcoming seven decades of communism that sought to write God’s obituary.

During the hard-liners’ attempted coup in August, priests handed out the New Testament to resisters and soldiers while affixing icons of Jesus Christ to tanks and barricades in Moscow. When the outcome of the coup was still in doubt, church Patriarch Alexei II demanded that detained Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev be allowed to address the people.

And the popular spiritual leader uttered the final blessing at the funeral for the three young men killed “in the fight for the sacred cause.”

“We needed his support right from the beginning, and we got it,” said Nikolai Arzhannikov, a deputy in the Russian Parliament.


Arzhannikov’s observation underscores a startling shift toward religion and, in particular, the Russian Orthodox Church. As official atheism, mandated under communism, has crumbled along with the Soviet system, people have embraced worship. Churches, mosques and synagogues by the thousands have reopened or sprung up.

In the Soviet Union’s shaky new order, the Russian Orthodox Church stands as the dominant religious influence. “The church will play a great economic and political role now,” said Arzhannikov, vice chairman of the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee.

The re-emergence of the church is cause for celebration among those who value religious freedom. And yet, it is also cause for concern. Some church leaders and Soviet experts worry that church and state could form an alliance so close that the effect would resemble the old state church before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

In that era, the church held official status in the empire and helped preserve Russian culture. Emperors convoked church councils, whose dogmatic formulations and decisions were imposed by law on all Christians. Under official sanction of government and church, virulent anti-Jewish pogroms were launched.


Today, Jews, Protestants, Muslims and other religious minorities fear that leaders of the Soviet republics’ 60 million Russian Orthodox Christians--five to six times as numerous as Roman Catholics, the second-largest Christian body--may now restrict others’ freedom by seeking to deny their right to assemble and worship.

“We must press . . . our campaign to guarantee that religion within the U.S.S.R. does not now become an instrument for new prejudice and repression,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.

The Russian Orthodox Church has “the interests of spiritual development of the people at heart,” said Martin Bailey, communications officer for the New York-based National Council of Churches and an expert on the history of Christianity in the Soviet Union. “But they also have exclusiveness at heart. I’m concerned they are not sharing the power and the glory” of religious freedom with Protestants and others.

A religious research organization has reported that the Georgian Orthodox-Apostolic Church is attempting to become the national church in Georgia. Some Orthodox members, said the Issachar group in Lynnwood, Wash., attempted to keep worshipers out of a Baptist church by blocking the entrance.


Many Orthodox priests dismiss fears that the church seeks greater secular power, noting laws enacted last year that guarantee religious freedom for all.

“Some Russian Orthodox leaders are dreaming of it becoming the state church,” said Father Gleb Yakunin, who was once banished as a priest and imprisoned for his contacts with Western Christians and the media. But Yakunin, who has been restored as an active priest, said the forces of democracy sweeping the country will not allow a state church to develop “ever again. . . . There is a good and warm relationship between the church and state, but we are not pressing for a full union.”

Other Challenges

Meantime, the church faces other challenges. One is its own credibility. Dissidents charge that the senior hierarchy bowed to Communist agendas and played a sycophantic role to the atheist state. The other challenge involves wealthy Western missionaries bent on converting the Orthodox.


Inroads by groups such as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas and the U.S.-style evangelism of television preachers Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson and Paul Crouch are particularly resented.

“They refuse to see the face of Christ in the local Orthodox churches,” complained Peter Mikuliak, a member of an Orthodox Church in America team that worked with Russian Orthodox young adults last month in Smolensk, a western Russia oblast, or administrative subdivision.

“This is pernicious and unchristian.”

With its arcane images and the intrigue of spies, turncoats, saints and martyrs, the history of the Russian Orthodox Church reads like a Kafka novel.


The church, the world’s largest self-governing Eastern Orthodox body, began when Prince Vladimir of Kiev, following the example of his grandmother, Olga, was baptized in 988. Before his conversion, according to official church records, Vladimir was “a man insatiable in vice.” But later he became known for his care of the sick, poor and orphaned, and--rejecting the example of Orthodox teachers from Greece--he prohibited the torture and execution of criminals.

Vladimir was named a saint, and Orthodox Christianity became the official religion of his state and people. The church was ruled by those appointed from Constantinople (now Istanbul) until 1448, when it became independent.

The formal separation of the Eastern Orthodox churches from Western Christendom in 1054 stemmed from cultural differences, politics and doctrinal disagreements over the supremacy of the Roman Pope and a clause in the Nicene Creed, adopted by the church in 325, in which the Holy Spirit is said to proceed from Jesus the Son as well as God the Father. This doctrine was the major issue in the schism, and it is still rejected by the Orthodox, who believe that the Holy Spirit comes forth from only from the Father.

The Eastern church developed a structure of national autonomous “sees”; each national church has its own patriarch, or leader, but the Patriarch of Constantinople is considered “first among equals.”


Sacred Objects

Worship in the Orthodox and Catholic streams of Christianity is similar. But richly colored images and paintings of Jesus, Mary and the saints, called icons, hold a special place in the Russian Orthodox religion as sacred objects.

In 1721, Czar Peter the Great issued regulations for the Holy Synod which governed the Russian Orthodox Church under the czars, who had absolute veto power. The church thus became an instrument of imperial policy.

One of the best-known examples of misused power was the greedy and dissolute Grigori Rasputin, a Siberian peasant monk who was thought by many to be a saint. In 1907, he was introduced to Nicholas II, the last czar, in order to help heal his son who suffered from hemophilia. Rasputin’s apparent success allowed him to ingratiate himself with the imperial family.


Rasputin swayed political decisions and influenced appointments in the church, stirring widespread hatred that turned to distrust of the czar himself. Rasputin was assassinated in 1916, and revolution broke out within three months.

When the Communists came to power, they saw the church as an enemy of the people. Churches were banned, their property confiscated and clergy jailed. Dictator Josef Stalin forced Ukrainian Catholic parishes to be absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church.

Communist rulers also forbade parents to give religious instruction to their children, closed seminaries and suppressed publication of Bibles and other religious literature.

“The cultural revolution, beginning with (V. I.) Lenin, imposed a genocidal regime in the land,” said Leonid Kishkovsky, president of the National Council of Churches and ecumenical officer of the New York-based Orthodox Church in America. Hundreds of thousands of monks, nuns and clergy were put to death, and at least 60 million lay people were arrested, exiled, disenfranchised or exterminated.


During World War II, Stalin eased up on the assault, believing that the people’s spiritual strength could be harnessed to turn back the German invaders.

But Nikita S. Khrushchev, the party and government leader, inaugurated a new anti-religious campaign in 1959, forcing believers underground.

The Russian Orthodox Church was “compromised and its hierarchy was riddled with KGB” secret police agents, said Harley Balzer, director of the Russian Area Studies Program at Georgetown University in Washington. “But rank-and-file members were able to preserve religious tradition.”

Every decade, Balzer added, Communist leaders figured the church would die out with that generation of old women who typically came to worship. “But every decade, though there was only a handful of official churches, there always seemed to be a new crop of old women,” he said.


An Alternative

Under Gorbachev, people started looking to the church for an alternative to discredited ideology. Most scholars date the rebirth of religious freedom to 1988, when Russian Orthodoxy was allowed to observe the 1,000-year anniversary of the arrival of Christianity on what is now Soviet soil.

Events during the aborted coup, said Russian Parliament member Vera Boiko, “were decisive in developing freedom of conscience and religion. . . . Religious education and the return of (church) buildings and temples will go faster now.”

Soviet churches of all kinds are more heavily attended than at any time since the czarist regime. Young people come in large numbers. Baptisms and church weddings are popular. Bibles and tracts roll off the presses. Church workers provide religious instruction in the public schools as well as chaplain services in hospitals, universities, prisons and the armed forces.


While some Russian Orthodox churches are rich with gilded altars and treasured icons, others, recently returned by the government, are in disrepair. All are short on funds and leadership.

The main seminary in Moscow could accept only half of its 400 applicants this year although priests are desperately needed.

“Religious life is being rebuilt from almost ground zero,” said Mikuliak of the Orthodox Church in America team that recently worked with young adults in Smolensk. “There is an exhilaration and explosion of energy. . . .”

But in the post-Communist era, it’s as difficult to predict how the pieces of the church puzzle will fit together as it is to anticipate realignments among Soviet republics.


The awakening of historic nationalism and renascent religion portends a clash of great magnitude, according to Mark Elliott, director of the Institute for East-West Christian Studies at Wheaton College in Illinois.

“We’re in between the collapse of communism and the re-emergence of state churches,” he said. “The breakup of the republics also breaks up the monolithic (Russian Orthodox) church.”

A duel for control is already being waged in the Ukraine, birthplace of Russian Christianity, where the Slavs were converted in the 10th Century. The Ukrainian Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholic churches--both banned under former Soviet rule--are locked in a struggle with the Russian Orthodox over jurisdiction and property.

The Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches are virtually identical in doctrine and liturgy. But the nationalistic Ukrainian Orthodox Church, though still a part of the Moscow Patriarchate, enjoys semi-autonomy through its own synod and leader.


Breakaway notions are rumbling through the Baltic states and the predominantly Muslim republics. In the Muslim-dominated republic of Uzbekistan, a new law prohibits missions, missionaries and public meetings for evangelism. Islam is the second-largest religious group in the Soviet republics, with perhaps 50 million followers.

A recent poll found that although some within the church would like to return to a state church, the vast majority of the public would oppose it, said Kent Hill, executive director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington.

“Yet,” he said, “the people still trust the Russian Orthodox Church and see it as a repository of truth and the best of culture--a tremendous source of opportunity for moral recovery and getting back to spiritual roots.”

Suspicions and hostilities toward the church, however, linger. Some believe the Russian Orthodox hierarchy is too flawed from its compromise with the Communist Party to retain credibility.


“It must undergo its own perestroika (restructuring),” said Father Anthony Ugolnik of Lancaster, Pa., a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in America who is closely involved with the Russian Orthodox.

Even Father Vyacheslav Polosin, the Russian Orthodox priest who chairs the Supreme Soviet Committee on Freedom of Conscience, Religion, Philanthropy and Charity, admitted in a 1990 interview that “a lot of bad persons” in charge of the church had “compromised for money and personal reasons. . . . These people are (still) trying to keep power. That is a problem.”

Other observers say church leaders became Communist Party mouthpieces only because there was no other way to keep the church from annihilation.

“Westerners don’t understand Orthodoxy,” said Father George Stephanides, pastor of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine. “Worship was the mainstay of the church. . . . The masses kept the faith alive. So they acquiesced. What were they supposed to do? How could they revolt?”


The Patriarch

The future of Russian Orthodoxy in the emerging federation of republics appears to rest largely on one man: Patriarch Alexei.

Born and reared in Estonia, he was head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Leningrad until his elevation last year--the first free election of a patriarch since 1917. The 62-year-old, white-bearded leader, elected by a church council of 300 priests and laymen, has since publicly apologized for his complicity with Communist agendas.

In recent weeks, he has shown strong mettle.


At the July inauguration service that appeared to cast a mantle of Russian heritage and legitimacy upon Boris N. Yeltsin, Alexei faced the new Russian Federation president, blessed him with the sign of the cross and delivered this challenge:

“You have assumed responsibility for a country that is gravely ill. Seventy years of destruction of its spirituality and internal unity were accompanied by the strengthening of external bonds of excessive statehood.

“At first,” the prelate continued, “people were dissuaded from spiritual labor, from prayer; then they were dissuaded from thought, from yearning to independently discern the truth. And finally, deliberately or accidentally, people were dissuaded from work, diligence and initiative.”

Patriarch Alexei, says Mikuliak, “seems to be staking out a position where the church says that whatever the form of government. . . people must be able to focus on an ethical framework.”