"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Religious Freedom in Russia

I know several Christians who, even before the Olympics shone the light on Russia, have been willfully indulging in what I can only regard as a certain kind of historically myopic romanticism about the country for its stance on certain moral questions, chiefly "homosexuality." They think they have found in Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian Orthodox Church perhaps the last remaining powerful Christian bulwarks against trends that seem irreversible in the rest of Europe, North America, and elsewhere (at least outside the Islamic world). As tempting as it is to think in these terms, I find it untenable to do so for several reasons, not least recent Russian history, much of which is within very recent memory. This is a country with too long a track record of destroying its own citizens in the name of various ideologies and totalitarian thugs, some with crowns on their heads. To assume that all traces of this libido dominandi have been wiped out, that all perpetrators of various forms of torture, persecution, and execution have been extirpated from every inch of the country--or even modest sections of it--is, it seems to me, absurdly naive and a gross violation of the psalmist's counsel to "put not your trust in princes and in a son of man in whom there is no help."

My unease with seeing Russia today as an unadulterated incarnation of "Holy Russia" or the "Third Rome" or a new model of Christian "symphonia" or other pious rubbish is only magnified after having just finished reading Koenraad De Wolf's fascinating and moving new book, Dissident for Life: Alexander Ogorodnikov and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in Russia (Eerdmans, 2013), xii+303pp. About this book we are told:

This gripping book tells the largely unknown story of longtime Russian dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov -- from Communist youth to religious dissident, in the Gulag and back again. Ogorodnikov's courage has touched people from every walk of life, including world leaders such as Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.
In the 1970s Ogorodnikov performed a feat without precedent in the Soviet Union: he organized thousands of Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians in an underground group called the Christian Seminar. When the KGB gave him the option to leave the Soviet Union rather than face the Gulag, he firmly declined because he wanted to change "his" Russia from the inside out. His willingness to sacrifice himself and be imprisoned meant leaving behind his wife and newborn child.

Ogorodnikov spent nine years in the Gulag, barely surviving the horrors he encountered there. Despite KGB harassment and persecution after his release, he refused to compromise his convictions and went on to found the first free school in the Soviet Union, the first soup kitchen, and the first private shelter for orphans, among other accomplishments.

Today this man continues to carry on his struggle against government detainments and atrocities, often alone. Readers will be amazed and inspired by Koenraad De Wolf's authoritative account of Ogorodnikov's life and work.
Though having read works on the Gulag, the de-Kulakization and collectivization campaigns of mass starvation, the NKVD/KGB, the Russian Revolution, the state of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church under communism, and biographies of figures such as Stalin, Khrushchev, and Solzhenitsyn--as well as wider works on imperial policy, the tsars, the Romanovs, Russian spirituality and iconography, Russian theologians, and Russian wars, including the Crimean War, and World War I and II--I was still repeatedly taken aback by the descriptions of the abuse suffered by Ogorodnikov for simply being a Christian. I was well aware of what communism did to Christians, and the millions of martyrs it created. But perhaps my memory has gone a bit soft after two decades since the collapse of the evil empire. This book is a fresh reminder of all those horrors, and not just in the dark days of the Brezhnev era, but even well after the USSR officially collapsed and ended. Even through the 1990s, and into the last decade, Ogorodnikov was still being severely harassed by various Russian officials for the "crime" of running a shelter and soup-kitchen near Moscow. How he has survived all this can only be seen as a miracle and gift of God.

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