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God, Science, Communism and the Russian Orthodox Church

Mehru Jaffer with Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

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Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev talked to STN about communism, scientific advancements and religion in Russia.

Under communism, Russia achieved many scientific advancements in nuclear science and aeronautics, sending the first man, and dog, into space. At the same time, religious expression was severely restricted. Now, the Eastern Orthodox Church is experiencing a growth in followers and influence. Science and Theology News' Mehru Jaffer talked to Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev in Vienna communism, scientific advancements and religion in Russia.

August 8, 2005

Jaffer: How has the last century shaped the Russian Orthodox Church as it is today?

Bp. Hilarion: The 20th century has gone down as the bloodiest and most tragic chapter in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. Persecutions of unprecedented scale were unleashed against the Church by the militant atheists after they came to power in 1917. By 1939 all monasteries and theological schools were closed, and tens of thousands of churches were either blown up or shut down. Of more than 60,000 pre-revolutionary churches only about 100 remained open; of more than 150 bishops serving before the revolution only four remained free. The overwhelming majority of the clergy and monastics, whose number before the revolution exceeded 200,000, were either shot to death or tortured in concentration camps.

Over the past 20 years, thousands of churches, hundreds of monasteries and dozens of theological schools have been opened. The number of bishops at the present time has more than doubled and has now reached approximately 150, while the number of priests, deacons and their parishes has more than quadrupled and now counts about 27,000. The growth statistics of monasteries and church educational institutions is particularly impressive: in 1988 there were 18 monasteries in the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, while now there are over 600; and the number of theological schools during this period has grown from three to more than 100.

Jaffer: How did this affect the socio-political situation for the church?

Bp. Hilarion: For the first time after more than 70 years, the Church once again became an integral part of society and was recognized as a highly authoritative spiritual and moral power; and for the first time after many centuries the Church acquired the right to independently define its place in society and its relations with the state without any interference from secular authorities.

This change in the Church's status required from it tremendous efforts in overcoming the 'ghetto mentality,' which had been formed during the many years of forced isolation. If clergymen had earlier associated only with their parishioners who thought in the same categories as they did, now they had to confront a great number of people unfamiliar with the Church's teaching and practices, whose knowledge of religion was either rudimentary or non-existent. If earlier priests did not preach outside the walls of their churches, now they had the possibility of appearing on television, radio and in print. If earlier society had lived its own life and the Church its own, now the Church was drawn into society's discussion of the fundamental questions of our times.

Jaffer: What fraction of the Russian population openly confesses to a belief in God today?

Bp. Hilarion: Recent statistics show that about 70 percent of the Russian population claims to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, while less than 60 percent believes in God. This paradox can be explained by the fact that for some people to be a church member means to belong to a cultural tradition rather than to be a practicing believer.

Jaffer: How is the church involved with education and the dissemination of information?

Bp. Hilarion: The recent debate over the teaching of the 'Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture' in secular schools has shown that a certain part of society is still not ready for the direct influence of the Church on their children, fearing that it would violate the secular character of the state or lead to interreligious conflict.

After a long and intense debate the government finally acknowledged the right of schools to teach the 'Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture' as an elective course. An educational standard for teaching theology at institutions of higher education was also worked out simultaneously. All of this opens up new horizons for the Church's educational activities.

Jaffer: The Soviet Union tried to manipulate both science and religion. How did both react to this attempt to manipulate them?

Bp. Hilarion: I am, not surprisingly, much less informed about science than about religion, but I believe that the main characteristic of all scientific research in the Soviet Union was that it had to serve ideological purposes. This had its advantages and its disadvantages. The advantage was that scientific development was sponsored by the government -- huge money, for example, was invested into nuclear research. The disadvantage was that strict government control in many cases prevented scientists from being creative and original, or from competing with one another, which is very often the main driving force behind scientific development. Moreover, secrecy surrounded many scientific projects, in particular, in the area of information technology. This is why the Soviet Union, where even photocopy machines were virtually forbidden, was never able to develop its own computer industry.

As far as religion is concerned, there was a strict government control on all areas of religious life, including the internal life of the Church. For example, each candidate for episcopacy had to be approved by the communist party, each priest's activity was monitored by local authorities, and each student of a theological school was scrutinized for his loyalty to the regime. Some bishops and priests have even collaborated with the KGB, but I do not believe that the percentage of real KGB agents among the clergy was high. Moreover, the vast majority of those clergymen who collaborated with the KGB did this exclusively in order to be able to serve the Church and to protect their dioceses or parishes from being closed.

One example that could be cited here is that of the legendary Nikodim Rotov. There is a whole mythology surrounding this person, some people believing that he was a KGB agent who crept into church hierarchy, others claiming that he was a "secret cardinal" or a Jesuit wearing an Orthodox cassock. At the age of 33, he became the Metropolitan of Leningrad, the second in rank after the Patriarch of Moscow. Once he achieved this position, he began to convince the authorities that the Church could become their ally in the area of international politics. With permission from the communist party, church hierarchs began to travel abroad in order to take part in various peace forums and ecumenical meetings.

Tactically, this was a victory of the state over the Church, since the state was convinced that it received yet another instrument of control over internal life of the Church. Strategically, however, this was an enormous victory of the Church over the state. Having allowed the Church to become internationally visible, the authorities could no longer aim at completely destroying it. In many cases, when the authorities announced that a particular church or a monastery in Russia would be closed, Nikodim would simply arrange a visit of a high delegation from the West to this church or monastery: this eventually prevented authorities from closing it.

Nikodim established several church representations in Western Europe and insisted that the priests and bishops that were sent as representatives should have been young and well educated. For this alleged purpose, he brought up an entire generation of young priests, whom he did indeed send abroad for a few years. Subsequently, however, they returned to Russia and were appointed to the bishop's sees, some of which remained vacant for several decades. In this way he gradually enlarged and rejuvenated the episcopate of the Church, which helped the Church to survive during the most difficult period of persecutions of the 1960-70s.

Jaffer: How do you think believers managed to keep alive faith in their heart when religion was forbidden in Russia?

Bp. Hilarion: Some people continued to go to church regardless of persecutions, but there were also many secret Christians, who practiced their religion in a clandestine way, without attending church services but keeping faith in their heart.

Indeed, people in the Soviet Union had no direct access to Christian literature or to religious education. But Russian culture, including music, painting, literature and poetry, was so imbued with Christian ideas that it continued to become the bearer of religious message even in the times when religious propaganda was officially forbidden. For example, people could not access the works by the Church Fathers, but they could read Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, where many pages are dedicated to the presentation and interpretation of patristic ideas.

Read the entire article on the Bishop Hilarion website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 06-Apr-06

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