Common Wisdom: The Third Rome?

A cold downpour soaked Moscow. Three weeks   of unrelenting rain had not improved the spirits of Muscovites trudging through grimy streets or standing in endless lines. The dreary task simply of living from day to day in Moscow, when carried out with dripping umbrellas and poorly shod feet, reminded people already despondent that this year’s winter would be even grimmer than usual.

In the window of Detski Mir, a children’s store, there were displays of toy trucks and Barbie dolls. These displays, however, were merely for show. Inside the store, lit by sparse fluorescent bulbs, the air stuffy and the floors gritty with dirt, crowds of irritable, would-be shoppers queued up in front of booths nearly empty of goods. The few toys for sale were reminiscent of the 1930s. In the clothing section the meager supply of garments dangling from metal rods looked faded and would have been rejected in any American discount store.

Moscow is a city meant to be modern but antiquated in every way, bleak, crumbling, and broken. It is a failed city, rendered sterile and ugly by Stalin’s socialist worker architecture and his grotesque attempt at a Gothic style, and now utterly demoralized in the decay of socialist ideology.

Leningrad is hardly better. Designed in eighteenth-century Baroque style by Peter the Great, Leningrad may be even sadder than Moscow, its collapse more poignant because it was once so elegantly beautiful. As rain drives so ferociously that it rattles the windows, one Leningrader acknowledges the hardship of living at high latitude on the Baltic, where winters are long and summers very short. According to dark Russian humor, he says, Leningrad is a city where people live in nine months of expectation and three months of disappointment.

The Soviet Union is a land sunk in disappointment, even despair. On the eve of a session of the Supreme Soviet, designated to choose between Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzkhov’s economic plan and the free market-oriented 500 Day Plan of Yeltsin and Gorbachev, some 70,000 Muscovites gathered in front of the Moskva Hotel near Red Square to hear Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov, a free market economist, call for the resignation of the Ryzhkov government. Among the signs held aloft by the crowd of demonstrators were such slogans as “Gorbachev, Ryzhkov, and Co.: We Don’t Believe in Any of Them,” and “Communists! You wrecked the country and robbed the people!”

Scarcely anyone encountered by an outsider denies that Soviet society must and will move toward a market economy, bumpy and painful though that road will be. That realization strikes terror in Russians who only three or four years ago awakened to the fearful discovery that for 70 years their faith had been placed in a lie. Such a stark revelation only magnifies their embarrassment and shame about their backward condition.

“This is our last chance,” says Masha, a woman of the intelligentsia who is in her late thirties. “And I think our generation may have to be sacrificed.” There is an air of tragedy that hangs over everyone in Moscow and Leningrad, but perhaps especially over these young intellectuals, for whom the realization of the Soviet lie has been exceptionally agonizing and who assume continual physical and spiritual suffering to be inseparable from Russian history.

They know there cannot be any resurrection of the Communist Party corpse. Yet they are under no illusions that the Soviet Union is experiencing a democratic miracle; they know it is not. The wisest of them know that it indeed will take a miracle, however, to bring into modern civilization their collapsed feudal society which has no tradition or understanding of constitutionalism and the rule of law; which has not a shred of even a primitive market system; and which is plagued by fierce ethnic divisions. And they know, too, that the KGB and the military still wield power. With the heavy walls of the KGB’S Lubyanka prison rising behind her, a young woman named Kyra says, “We are still afraid of them.” She, like everyone else, has a tale to tell of the KGB sending relatives to Siberia or to psychiatric hospitals.

But for all the fear and despondency, there is still a touch of excitement, an air of expectancy that this is an historic moment which, if people use it, can inch Soviet society toward freedom and order. One of the most impressive figures in Moscow, 36-year-old Deputy Mayor Sergei Stankevich, stood in a paneled room of the Dom Literaturov, where Tolstoy is said to have written part of War and Peace, and described how he and his colleagues of the Moscow Popular Front took part in the convention of the semi-free, semi-democratic elections of 1989.

“Of course,” he said, “we had no illusions about the Communist Party apparatus behavior. We really knew that they still were in power; they still controlled the mass media; they still had enough strength to stop us. But we decided to make attempts, at least to have experience, the first experience of organizing a campaign. And only in the course of the campaign did we feel suddenly that victory was possible. It surprised us. They could stop us, but from the very beginning they didn’t take us seriously. And when they took us seriously and tried to stop us, it was already too late.”

Stankevich spoke of the best strategy being truth itself. “We tried to say the truth; we tried to criticize communist rule, the socialist regime, a totally controlled economy. It was a kind of shock for the public. It was nationally televised, and for millions of our people it was the first moment of truth after decades of lies. It was historic.”

If the Soviet Union, the very embodiment of this totalitarian century, can be rescued from its morass of difficulties, that feat will surely be tied to one of the most historic and astonishing events of glasnost: On October 2, 73 years after the communist coup known as the Great October Revolution, the Supreme Soviet codified, by a vote of 341-2, religious freedom and the end of official atheism. The new law, which culminates a five- year Gorbachev policy of loosening control of religion, guarantees the right to practice and proselytize any creed. It bars the government from promoting atheism. It allows charitable donations and organized religious instruction.

Patriarch Alexi II recently celebrated in the Uspensky Cathedral of the Kremlin a full Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the first in this glorious Cathedral of the Assumption since 1918. To celebrate the Divine Liturgy here in the principal church of Russia, one of the oldest structures in the Kremlin and center of the Square of Cathedrals, which lies at the very heart of the Kremlin, is to understand the unvanquished power of Christ the Pantocrator as piercing the horrific depths of evil. How ironic that at the very center of atheistic communist power, symbolized in the Kremlin, there lies a cluster of cathedrals — renamed museums and standing dormant, of course, yet undeniable churches filled with holy icons of Christ, His Virgin Mother, and the apostles and saints. In the center of the Kremlin, confronted by the blackest hatred of which human egoism is capable, the irresistible glowing eyes of the Pantocrator still beckon the soul back to its source in the truth. The Pantocrator and His Mother, to whom He gives such honor and glory in His Russian churches, have waited for 73 years. Beneath their golden domes they have waited through blasphemy and persecution, seeing their faithful and priests imprisoned, martyred, and corrupted by the enemy. They have waited, knowing that even the most furiously rebellious soul grows desperate and exhausted with lying.

The Russian soul, however, is inherently religious. And it has suffered immeasurably. Perhaps because of that suffering, the religious impulse is as much a part of Russian history as its blood and terror.

“Russia is like a beautiful body with the spirit torn out,” says our friend Masha, who is in a Dostoevskian mood. “But the spirit is there all the time and will return. It has to return.” She points out that Russia is always Mother Russia, never Fatherland. She sees the last 73 years as a loss of the spiritual, which inevitably means, especially for Russia, a loss of the feminine with a corresponding loss of the particular feminine aptitude for immediate and intuitive understanding of concrete reality. The loss of equilibrium between masculine and feminine, says Masha, with the scales in this violent century weighted heavily toward the masculine, has brought about a fixation upon the abstract and a determination to put aside reality in favor of the forced practice of one man’s manifesto.

The loss of the feminine in Russian culture has necessarily meant a denial of the Virgin. And yet, says Mikhail, a young seminarian at the monastery of Zagorsk, the seat of Russian Orthodoxy which was allowed to remain open during this century, the Russian Church has always been extraordinarily attached to Mary. Faithful Russians have believed their country is under her special protection. Surely no sight in Russia is lovelier than that at Zagorsk, where yet another cathedral is devoted to the Virgin’s Assumption and where, amid yellow birches and maples, the five golden and azure domes of the Assumption, sprinkled with Mary’s gilded stars, press against a brilliant autumn sky. It is not an exaggeration to say that if one were choosing between truth and darkness in this present century of Russian history, one might tell the difference simply by looking at, on the one hand, the wondrous churches of the Assumption at Zagorsk and at the Kremlin, with their splendid iconostases and domes, and, on the other, the socialist worker caverns of Moscow embodied not only in decaying apartment houses but also, most dreadfully, in mammoth bronze sculptures. One of the ugliest of these gargantuan sculptures is a muscle-bound woman and man, agriculture and industry, marching forward together in unity for the state. What better suggests that art is founded in the sacred than the evidence, on the one hand, of a beautiful church, with all its effusions of faith joined to culture, and, on the other, of concrete and bronze ugliness stripped of all reference to the transcendent?

The Soviet Union — in part because it has been brought to such a trough of failure — is at the brink of a religious revival. So extreme is the socialist debacle that there is nothing left of Russian faith and culture but the possibility of a spiritual renaissance. A renaissance can happen. Relieved of persecution inflicted because of public acknowledgment of belief, more and more Soviets, including young people, are seeking baptism. They are sometimes choosing to be married in the church. Priestly vocations are on the rise. Churches that were boarded up or used as museums are being returned to their proper purpose. In Leningrad alone 72 churches are being restored to use.

The Russian people are unquestionably afraid. Yet they realize that their deadening burden of socialist ideology must be lifted. Grounded in falsehood and artificially and forcibly imposed, it has only masqueraded as culture. The culture that will rise now, if it is to be genuine, will have to be inspired by the rebirth of the Orthodox Church that is central to the Russian incarnation in history. There is every reason to hope that the human spirit once again will engage with the truth of the transcendent to produce a new richness of culture. Russian civilization, after all, is young, hardly more than a thousand years old. Once, after Rome itself and after Constantinople, Moscow was known as the Third Rome. It may be again.

  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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