Holy Rus’: The rebirth of Orthodoxy in the new Russia
John P. Burgess
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
AN AMERICAN professor in a respected Protestant seminary, with no academic or family background in the Orthodox Church, is bowled over in middle age by his Russian experience. John Burgess writes ecstatically of this transformation in his life (though he stops short of changing his denominational allegiance).
He grappled with learning Russian, and brings resulting insights to almost every page. Travelling widely during several extended visits, he focuses on what he experienced in the parish, and reports engagingly on the vast new possibilities for the Russian Orthodox Church since the collapse of communism. He writes with insight on religious education, the social ministry of the Church, the development of parish life, and the current emphasis on the “New Martyrs”, which meant of the Stalin period only.
Burgess records the extensive building programme of new churches, monasteries, and seminaries in a brief quarter of a century, but his emphasis, rightly, is more on the dedicated people who work in them. He records in-depth conversations and brings his characters, male and female, alive in a variety of settings.
It is gratifying to read the many references to Fr Aleksandr Men, who was murdered in 1990, as possibly a last act of revenge of the old atheist regime, and was long ignored or even criticised by the church leaders who had made a compromise with communism.
Burgess, for many chapters, leaves on one side the politics of the Russian Church, particularly its position as a favoured player in its support of Putin. This deserves a weightier analysis than the brief sketch in the final chapter.
This brings me to an odd feature of the book, one that is perhaps explained by the late arrival of Russia on Burgess’s career path. He mentions the compromise which Metropolitan Sergii made with the regime in 1927, from which, ultimately, today’s “symphonia” between Church and State derives. He dismisses, however, the tragic second wave of persecution under Khrushchev (1959-64), after an improvement in the post-war decade, in a single paragraph. Yet this period developed the Sergii line and dictated the current views of the Moscow Patriarchate in its unconditional support for the government, even Patriarch Kirill’s impassioned call on his people to vote for Putin.
The Moscow Patriarchate has never examined its conscience in its maltreatment of the “confessors” of those times, and yet these persecuted believers sacrificed careers, often liberty, and sometimes life itself to initiate the religious revival, to which Burgess attributes a later date.
There is, therefore, a missing chapter in the book, and he does not mention the wealth of information that Keston College produced during the final years of communism. This leads him, again, to underreport the profound changes that took place under Gorbachev rather than subsequently. The last leader of the Soviet Union, while not a believer himself, challenged the Church to aid his reform programme and passed new laws granting freedom of religion, which believers embraced ecstatically in 1988, when the Orthodox celebrated the millennium of the “Baptism of Rus’”.
Sceptics publicise the fact that only a tiny proportion of nominal believers attend worship, but this book clothes the religious revival with rich substance.
Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.