In 1988, during my family business‘ first trip to the then Soviet Union, my brother Pem and I were given the chance to visit the Monastery of Trinity-St. Sergius, which was the administrative centre of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is located in the town of Sergeiev Posad, which was called Zagorsk during Soviet times. The trip was arranged by our Russian business hosts (V/O Machinoexport) and our Russian agent at the time, A.A. Titov. The article below was written 20:15:01 4/20/1988 (the day of the visit) with a few corrections in the text and updates at the end.
Christianity was first introduced to Russia from Byzantium (Greek Orthodox) between 860 and 867. At this time Kiev — south of the Chernobyl site — was the capital of Russia. In 957 the regent Olga was baptised in Constantinople; her grandson Vladimir made Christianity the state religion in 988. This is being celebrated this year as the 1000th anniversary of the “Baptism of Russia” and extensive celebrations are being made plans for as a result.
The Russian Orthodox Church is an Orthodox Church, and until 1448 was subordinate to the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople. At this time, as the Byzantine Empire was coming to an end with its conquest by the Ottoman Turks, the Russian church took the step of electing its own leader; in 1589 this leader, now residing in Moscow, took the title of Patriarch, making him in theory the equal of the Patriarch in Constantinople and also of the Pope in Rome.
In 1721 the Russian Tsar Peter the Great abolished the Patriarchate and replaced same with the Holy Synod to run the Orthodox Church. This was a council, with its head — a lay official — appointed by the Tsar. This effectively made the Orthodox Church a department of the government, a position it found itself in until the Tsar was overthrown in 1917.
With that overthrow the Church re-established the Patriarchate, but now the greater threat came of course from the Communists, who, following Marx, believe that religion of all kinds is the “opiate of the people” to dull their revolutionary drive, and which will wither away under the advance of “scientific” socialism such as their claims to be. The church’s property was nationalized and many of its clergy was jailed and killed, and parts of the church made themselves into a pro-Soviet type of church, a process that has been repeated with the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. Matters became especially desperate under Stalin, who attempted to destroy all opposition through liquidation in his purges in the 1930’s.
Matters were at their nadir when the Second World War broke out, and when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union the demoralization of the nation was so complete that Hitler nearly succeeded in conquering the country. In its desperation Stalin’s war effort turned to the Orthodox Church and other Christian groups to help with the war effort, to revitalize the people for the war effort. This they did, and in return the Soviet government has granted the Orthodox Church and some other Christian groups limited freedom of existence and activity. The Orthodox Church today runs a precarious balance today; on the one hand it attempts to carry on its liturgical and spiritual activities to nurture the flock in the Orthodox faith, on the other it must to secure its existence meet Soviet regulation and to assist the Soviet government in various activities, such as the promotion of the peace movement in the West, which is a major project of the Soviet regime today.
Outline of the Trip
Arrived about 1130 with Pem, Alex Titov, and Alexander Tikhanov and assistant Natasha from V/O Machinoexport. Were greeted at Monastery office.
We were first given tour by Father Alexander of several of the churches in the compound. Zagorsk is the administrative centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, founded by St. Sergius in 1337. The Orthodox complex is within the town itself, being a walled fortress, a format dictated by military considerations in past times, similar in concept to missions in our own Southwest such as the Alamo. The last time it was used for military purposes was against a siege by the Poles in the 15th century. These churches, such as the Trinity Cathedral (which contains St. Sergius’ relics), the Dormition Cathedral, the Church of the Holy Spirit, were very impressive. When not in liturgical use, these churches are the site for all kinds of devotions, such as prayers, adorations, and Bible reading, and, in the case of Trinity Cathedral, singing which has an ethereal quality beyond words to describe. Then we returned to office where we signed the guest register, and I wrote congratulations to them for the 1000th anniversary of what they call the “Baptism of Russia”.
After this, we were given tour of the seminary museum by a seminarian. This contains historical articles of the Orthodox church of all kinds and a special section on the life and work of the Patriarch Alexis, who helped bring the Orthodox Church back to life after its near extinction by Stalin. There was a scale model of a large cathedral in Moscow built to commemorate the victory over Napoleon in 1812. Titov asked what happened to it and the seminarian replied “What happened to thousands of other churches in Russia? There is a swimming pool where that one was.”
We then went to the seminary office, where we were greeted warmly by Father Vladamir Kucherjavy, Assistant Rector of the seminary, who then fed us snack. He gave us description of the work of the seminary, and in the process told that full course in seminary was a four year course followed by two year course, similar to our own BA/MA system; however, some went directly to the field after the first four years. This reminded me of our church’s internship program, so I asked Father Kucherjavy if the two were alike. He said yes, and then asked what church I belonged to. I told him that I belonged to the Church of God, that it was started in 1886, that it was the oldest Pentecostal church in North America, but that Russian Orthodox people had had the Pentecostal experience earlier. His first question was whether we were a member of the National Council of Churches or not, and I replied that we were not. I then explained that I knew about the Orthodox people because the founder of the FGBMFI, Demos Shakarian, an Armenian, had had grandparents and parents brought to it by these believers coming to Turkey from Russia. He then reminded us that this year was the 1000th anniversary; I replied that I was appreciative of this event. He said that they were more than that; they were working hard to make the actual celebration a reality this summer, including having to rebuild the seminary’s church after a disastrous fire two years ago. Having seen the restoration, I said that I was impressed with the speed of the work. He said, in effect, that I didn’t know the half of it! He went on to describe his travels in the U.S., which he makes mostly for Soviet sponsored peace groups. We then finished our session and he wished us good bye. I told him that I would tell those officials and such in our church of my visit, as I live in the denominational headquarters city and attend church with these people.
Note: the “large cathedral” was of course the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, dynamited in 1931 under Stalin. It was in fact rebuilt during the 1990’s, which I discuss in my Easter piece Rising From the Pool. I did present this account to Church of God officials; the church eventually established a legal presence in Russia which it has to the present day.