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Orthodoxy Renewed

Russia’s church wrestles with a changing country

text by Victor Sonkin with photographs by Julia Vishnevets

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Kiril Kaleda remembers 1990 as the year of an unusually abundant harvest of apples in the Moscow region. Then a young geologist, Mr. Kaleda was invited by friends to help pick the fruit at a small orchard near their cottage in Butovo, a village five miles south of the city limits. Approaching the village by car, they drove by a long green fence. Pointing to it, a friend turned to Mr. Kaleda and said, “Do you know what it is? It’s a horrible place. Thousands of people were shot and buried here.”

Little did he know the mass grave was intimately linked to the trials of his own family, which mirrored those the Orthodox Church of Russia endured after the abdication of the tsar in 1917.

For three consecutive generations, members of Mr. Kaleda’s family have served as Orthodox priests. His maternal grandfather, Vladimir Ambartsumov, responded to his priestly calling during his student days in Berlin, where he was involved with Christian youth groups. When he returned to Russia just before the outbreak of World War I, he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1927.

At the time of his ordination, Russia’s Orthodox clergy lived precariously. When the Bolsheviks took power in November 1917, they severed ties between the Orthodox Church and the state. The church was stripped of its special legal status and forbidden to exercise its pastoral responsibilities to the military, prisons and schools. All religions, as well as militant atheism, were placed on an equal footing before the law. This did not usher in a Western-style democratic secularism. Instead, the Bolsheviks launched a “Red Terror,” targeting Orthodox religious along with “counterrevolutionaries” suspected of anti-Bolshevik activity.

“We must put down all resistance with such brutality that they will not forget it for several decades,” wrote Lenin in March 1918.

“The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing ... the better.”

From 1918 to 1922, tens of thousands of priests, bishops, monks and nuns were brutally murdered: Near St. Petersburg, henchmen tied one archpriest to a railway car, which dragged him along until he died. Three priests in the Crimea were crucified. Seven nuns in Voronezh were burned in boiling tar. A bishop from Samara was impaled on a stake.

In 1921, Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka, the dreaded secret police of the Bolsheviks, wrote: “The church is falling apart; we should help it fall. ... Our stakes are with Communism, not religion, and the Cheka should concentrate on [its] elimination.”

As the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, they institutionalized their onslaught on the Orthodox Church, which one historian of the period, Dimitry Pospielovsky, calls the “holocaust” of the Russian church. Soviet Russian authorities converted monasteries (such as the famous Solovetsky) into prisons, closed churches, dynamited shrines, confiscated plate and pillaged reliquaries. Clergy and religious simply disappeared, their relatives told they had been tried, sentenced and packed off to a penal colony to serve out their sentences.

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Tags: Russia Russian Orthodox Church Priests Soviet Union Revival/restoration