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Opinion: Russia and Ukraine need peace

28 July 2023

As he leaves St Andrew’s, Moscow, Malcolm Rogers is convinced that hostilities must end

Malcolm Rogers

An aerial view of St Andrew’s, Moscow

An aerial view of St Andrew’s, Moscow

MY WIFE, Alison, and I walked out of the border control at Narva, Estonia, on Wednesday 28 June, and left Russia. It was an emotional moment.

For the past six years, we have lived in Moscow, where I have had the privilege of serving as the Anglican Chaplain of St Andrew’s. It has not been dull. There was the World Cup, when we saw Russia as Russia could be: open to the world. But we were also in Moscow during the fallout from the Salisbury poisonings, Covid, and the invasion of Ukraine. We thought, on 24 June, that we were going to add a military coup to that list. It has been like living in a Russian fairy tale: at times unbelievably surreal, a bit wild, exciting, occasionally scary, always unpredictable.

We met with incredible kindness from ordinary people. When we took my father round Moscow in a wheelchair (and Moscow is not the most wheelchair-friendly city), whenever we came to steps, several people would gather, unasked, to help to carry the chair up or down. I was embarrassed by the number of times that people would stand up to give me, a 60-year-old white-haired man, a seat on the Metro. Shopkeepers regularly gave us discounts when we were not aware that there were discounts. And, even after the invasion of Ukraine, we continued to meet with kindness.

I have also not known a more obviously spiritually fruitful time than the six years that we spent in Moscow. In Russia, people still do God and church in a way that I have not seen in the UK.

Every Sunday, we had new people come through the door, many of whom appeared to be genuinely seeking God. Of course, people came because we were a bit exotic, and because of the English. Several came because they said that it was easier for them to understand the service in English than in Church Slavonic. Others came because they were unhappy with the Orthodox, although I pointed out that, in the UK, people go to Orthodox churches because they are unhappy with the Church of England.

But we offered something that looked like “church”, and tried to offer a welcoming environment for all. We had several adult baptisms and 45 confirmations, mainly of young adults in their twenties and thirties. A further ten were waiting for confirmation when we left.

AT TIMES, in the earlier days of the war, people would open their hearts to us, and tell us how broken and crushed they felt about what had happened. There was the person who messaged: “We are in shock. Not knowing what to expect and where to run. We pray and pray and feel very bad. We are safe but my soul is truly ruined. Just no words, just only cry. What has he done to our nation and our kids? Put us into fire.”

Overnight, the dreams and hopes of many of our young, bright, English-speaking Russians, who looked to the West and saw a future in partnership with the West, were crushed. It was a bit like a Russian Brexit, only a hundred times worse and far more brutal. It was not only the foreigners who left. Many Russian young people in our congregation left the country, especially after mobilisation began in September 2022.

But, of course, many people do support the so-called special military operations (SMOs), especially those who are older and have access only to government sources of information. Families are divided, especially between the younger and the older. Family members in Ukraine do not speak to family members in Russia, and vice versa. Couples are divided.

But, as the SMOs have continued, fewer speak to us about their feelings. If you say the wrong thing to the wrong person, you can be accused of the very common offence of “discrediting the Russian army”. One friend received the fine of the equivalent of a month’s salary for carrying a bag that bore the message “No war.” Any further offence will mean that she is sent to prison.

There is only one public narrative about the war in Russia, the official version: This is a defensive operation. The enemy is not really Ukraine, but NATO, and a West that is Russophobic, that wishes to impose liberal individualism and that wants to break up Russia and destroy Orthodoxy and the Russian way of life.

One older Russian lady, leaving church one Sunday, said to me: “It is terrible,” and, when I agreed, she added, “It is all the Americans’ fault!” People were delighted to meet us, because they said that it meant that not everyone in the West hated them.

That is one of the reasons that I argued that the sanctioning of Patriarch Kirill by the UK was an own goal (News, 24 June 2022). It certainly was no deterrent: to be sanctioned in Russia is to wear a badge of honour. It was playing to the gallery in the West, and in Russia it was not seen as a sanctioning of the Patriarch, but as a sanctioning of the Orthodox Church. It simply played into the propaganda machine that the West is against the Russian way of life.

PERSONALLY, there have been difficult moments. If you are paranoid, then Russia is the country of your dreams. At one of our more memorable early-Sunday-morning Prayer Book services, we had — among the very small congregation — members of MI5, the FBI, and their FSB (Federal Security Service) minders.

We did not think that we were ever followed. In our final week, however, we went to a café for a farewell breakfast with our neighbours; when we came to pay, we were told that the bill had been paid for by the man (whom I had not noticed) sitting at the next table to us. Someone in the know told us that it was a classic FSB “signing-off” routine. The non-paranoid interpretation is that it was a stranger being very kind. But we did have to assume that everything that we said, wrote, or did was potentially listenable by algorithms, and we knew that people came to the congregation to report back to the authorities. But we had nothing to hide, and our only defence was complete openness.

There was also a protest of about 30 people outside St Andrew’s last Remembrance Sunday, waving banners and chanting slogans such as “Defeat to Anglo-Saxon vampires.” The best was “Freedom to Scotland!” It was very ordered and very illegal, but nobody was going to stop them. I went over to speak with them. They asked me why the NATO ambassadors were gathering to celebrate the victory of England over Russia in the First World War. I had to check that I had understood correctly what they were saying, and I have no idea where it was coming from.

But, despite everything — the paralysing bureaucracy, the times of fear and uncertainty, the difficulties of getting visas (for the past year, we have been able to get only three-month visas, which need to be renewed in the UK), and an ever- tightening of the political screw — I am immensely grateful for the privilege that we have had of living in Moscow among the Russian people, of being alongside members of the expat community, and of sharing in the wonderful community that is St Andrew’s.

Malcolm RogersCanon Malcolm Rogers and his wife, Alison

We have left not because of the situation, although that has not helped, but for family reasons. We are going to miss the place and the people dreadfully.

On the evening before we left, I was speaking with one of our more hawkish diplomats. We have had several conversations about God; he would not call himself a Christian. I was saying how powerless St Andrew’s was, and how powerless I felt vis-à-vis the war. We have no influence, no contacts, and we are dependent on others. We cannot do anything to change the situation. And he challenged me: “But you can pray, and you can speak for peace.”

I know that speaking for peace in the current climate is not popular, either in Russia or in the West. In Russia, it can get you put in prison; in the West, it can lead to social disapproval. For both sides, there is a clear right and wrong in this war. For Russians, there is the right to defend yourself; for us, whatever your grievance with your neighbour, you do not invade them without legitimate international sanction (as Western powers we also need to remember that).

Ukraine is a sovereign nation that has a right to defend itself. Awful atrocities have been committed, and people need to be held responsible. And how can we give ground to naked aggression that is backed up by the threat to use nuclear weapons, without opening the door to future aggression by the powerful? It is not surprising that there is no movement for peace.

BUT I will speak for peace, because we have heard, at first hand, of the destruction that the war is causing in Ukraine, and I have seen the devastation that it has caused countless people in Russia. I am not prepared to settle for a situation in which thousands of people — Ukrainians and Russians — are still going to die; in which millions of people are forced to live as refugees; and in which further millions might starve because grain is not going to reach them. The fighting has to stop. People have to sit down and talk.

Churches do have a part to play. First, we are more intricately bound up in this conflict than we might wish to be. Religion is a significant factor in this war. We need to work with the world ecumenical bodies to somehow bring the different parties together, showing that what we have in common in our Lord Jesus Christ is greater than anything that separates us.

Second, Churches can pray. As Christians, we follow a crucified Lord Jesus Christ. He chose, in love, to die for his enemies, so that we might be reconciled to God. As he hangs on the cross, he identifies with the victims, and he takes on to himself the sins of the perpetrators (many of whom are victims themselves), on both sides of the conflict.

But we also believe in the resurrection, that Jesus rose from the dead, that there is no death situation that God cannot transform, and that Jesus is Lord of all. And, as Christians, we have the freedom to look for the compromise, because we know the end of the story, and we can play the long game. An apparent crucifixion, or apparent surrender or defeat today, will look very different in 40 years’ time; and it will look even more different on the day that we pray for, when Christ will return, and God will bring to light all things, and establish his Kingdom of rightness, justice, and peace. It is in that hope that we can speak for, and work and pray for, peace.

Canon Malcolm Rogers was the Chaplain of St Andrew’s, Moscow from 2017 to 2023.

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