Tag Archives: Russia

Letter from the editor IC69

Ukraine Crisis: Truth the First Casualty

guest editorial by Jim Forest
Wars are fought not only with weapons but with words and propaganda. Charge and counter-charge are exchanged as Kiev, Moscow and Washington assert, accuse, and deny. Are the armed “green men” in Ukraine’s Donboss region in fact Russian military, as Kiev and Washington allege, or are they Ukrainians merely replicating locally what was done on the Euromaidan in Kiev a few months earlier, as Moscow asserts? Who had ordered snipers to open fire back then on the people on the Euromaidan? Who distributed leaflets ordering Jews to register with authorities? Was it the new government of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, as Kiev claims, or was it a provocation aimed at discrediting pro-Russian separatists? Who killed three men at a checkpoint in Slovyansk in late April, Russian military intelligence or Ukrainian nationalists? Who is to blame for the blaze in Odessa on the 2nd of May that trapped and killed so many on the pro-Russian side? Day-by-day such questions multiply.

Spend an hour or two on the web reading texts about the conflict in Ukraine. It’s impressive how much bluster, hyperbole, exaggeration, conspiracy theorizing, overheated rhetoric, and plain lying have come from every side: Kiev, Moscow, Washington, London and other European capitals. Hour-by-hour the ancient Greek proverb—“In war, truth is the first casualty”—is being amply demonstrated.

No one would deny that the former Yanukovych government was corrupt, as was the government that preceded it. That many Ukrainians were fed up with such leadership is understandable. It’s no less understandable that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority is outraged and, after being treated for years as second-class citizens, that many of them might prefer either a high degree of regional autonomy or even being part of Russia. Only free elections, not only at the national level but oblast-by-oblast, can demonstrate the will of the people. Meanwhile the Ukrainians have a right to sort out their own affairs without outside interference. Regardless of the outcome in Ukraine, the US, NATO, and Russia should stand back.

But of course they are not standing back. It is reasonable to assume that much that is happening in Ukraine is encouraged if not choreographed by strategists in the US and Russia plus various European capitals. In the western press, the fact that the CIA has been quietly meddling in the affairs of Ukraine has been regarded as a detail of minor significance, even though the CIA has so often in the past played a decisive role in arranging “regime change.” White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed that CIA Director John Brennan visited Kiev in mid-April and met with principal Ukrainian officials. With a straight face Carney said that it was absurd to imply that US officials meeting with their counterparts in Kiev was anything other than routine. The claim would be laughable if the consequences of enmity were not so disastrous.

Certainly the major powers have their special interests and goals. Western European countries see an opportunity to include Ukraine in the NATO alliance and to bring Ukraine into the European Union while in the process “reforming” Ukraine’s economy as is being done, for example, in Greece. Russia seeks to keep NATO at a distance and, having reclaimed Crimea, may also see an opportunity to reabsorb the more Russian-speaking oblasts in eastern Ukraine that were lost when the USSR collapsed. Even if Russia does not seek to expand its borders, it may want to force any future elected Kiev government to grant a considerable degree of autonomy to oblasts in which the majority of the population are Russian speakers.

A major factor in the conflict is ultra-nationalism, which infects not only a large part of the overall population but also the membership of churches. There are three Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine whose borders are drawn in part along lines of language and nationality (Ukrainian or Russian). There are also both Eastern rite and Western rite jurisdictions in communion with Rome, especially in western Ukraine.

It is not a situation in which Christians on the outside can embrace one side and denounce the other. All sides have legitimate claims—and each side has its fanatics and thugs. The only hope for a peaceful solution is dialogue and free elections. Perhaps it is by stressing a deeper unity that Orthodox Christians working for peace can best help remind our fellow Christians in the midst of this conflict of a communion that transcends national and linguistic identity. While deep divisions are obvious and unhealed wounds many, all Christians, no matter of what jurisdictional segment, would respond to the exclamation “Christ is risen!” with the immediate and unified response, “He is risen indeed!”

That Paschal affirmation should shape our response to the world we live in, but often it doesn’t. Not only in Ukraine and Russia but in every Orthodox jurisdiction, national identity often influences our sense of self and our public identity more than the fact of being baptized Christians among whom “there is neither Greek nor Jew”—a Christ-centered community in which all national labels are secondary.

As Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople recently said, while on a visit to The Netherlands, “The concept of the nation cannot become a determining factor of Church life or an axis of Church organization. Whenever an Orthodox Church succumbs to nationalist rhetoric and lends support to racial tendencies, it loses sight of the authentic theological principles and gives in to a fallen mindset, totally alien to the core of Orthodoxy.”  IC

A damaged dome in the yard of an Orthodox church damaged by shelling in Kuibyshevski district in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
A damaged dome in the yard of an Orthodox church damaged by shelling in Kuibyshevski district in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
Resources for parish and private prayer as well as various relevant texts can be found on the Ukraine Crisis page posted on the OPF’s In Communion web site: www.incommunion.org/2014/03/17/pray-for-peace/

Recommended Reading- Believing in Russia: Religious Policy after Communism by Geraldine Fagan

Believing in Russia: Religious Policy after Communism

by Geraldine Fagan
Routledge, 2013, 291 pp.
Reviewed by Fr. Stephen Headley

The altar of the tiny stone church of the parish of St. Stephen and St. Germain in Vezelay, France where Fr. Stephen serves as priest.
The altar of the tiny stone church of the parish
of St. Stephen and St. Germain in Vezelay,
France where Fr. Stephen serves as priest.

The following article is an expanded review, relevant to this issue’s theme, as we continue to also explore the Russian Church’s role in Russian society and politics.

The title of this new publication Believing in Russia captures the ambiguity the author is studying. On the one hand, there is the question of nationalism: How do politicians encourage belief in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union? On the other, the question of the plural expressions of religious belief as they have blossomed over the last twenty-five years: How does Russian society “share” common spaces in the Russian Federation? For general readers interested in the subject of religion in Russian public and political life, the book provides a “comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime,” written in an easily accessible, journalistic style. For someone like myself who has published a book on Orthodox parish life in Moscow, and other scholars, this book provides an indispensable complement to any detailed study of what Russians “believe in.” Fagan examines the pursuit of privilege of the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s relation to national culture, its courtship of the State, and its indis-putable place in Russian history juxta-posed against a pluralistic, “secularized” society mostly nominally religious, with a diverse cultural heritage. The docu-mentation provided by 82 pages of notes gathered over the author’s ten years reporting from all over the vast Russian Federation for the Forum 18 News Service is invaluable. She draws an arrow through history and tradition, all inclusive empire, Soviet homogeniza-tion, and a fractured modern State—not entirely lost but looking for its way—that points to a conclusion that “Russian society’s continuing failure to reach a consensus on the role of religion in public life is destabilizing the nation.”

While most human rights organizations take the moral high ground and blame the politicians for the unfortunate policies and lobbying that characterize contemporary Russia, Fagan does not bring to her analysis a preconceived opinion about who is a devil and who is an angel. She describes in detail different individual’s political posturing, time and again showing that the same person changes positions over the same issues, revealing that no neat classification into fundamentalist, conservative, and liberal works in describing the Russian reality. Fagan seeks out this broader understanding of the country Russians grew up in and live in; although one assumes she is Orthodox, she never makes the mistake of thinking she is a Russian Orthodox. She is always alert for elements of the puzzle she hasn’t yet grasped. All the authors of books written in English which I have previously read about contemporary Russia––some forty volumes worth––never seem to recover after discovering the appalling lack of legal culture in the Russia Federation. Non-Russian authors are invariably content to point out how the Russian government is violating its own constitution. In the United States, violations of constitutional law do not go unpunished, but in the Russian Federation one is pleasantly surprised if such a contradiction is even noticed. Fagan does not fall into these traps.

Fagan concedes that while many are trumpeting that Russia without Orthodoxy is not Russia, she subscribes to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s claim that the days of homogenous mono-religious nationhood are past and today pluralism is the best policy for the common good of all believers. Such freedom of conscience, the ability to practice one’s own beliefs, is foundational to any authentic practice of a belief, be it Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. In the past, Russian non-conformity (i.e. the Old Believers) has tended to take an eschatological turn, but in 2013 how does one deal with the Slavophile conviction that “their native land is protected by God”? If Russian Orthodox Christians are ready to admit that the millions who died under Stalin suffered so horribly because of the collective treason of their church, what is left of the notion of Holy Russia?

While “the Kremlin is growing ever more reliant upon cynical identification with national values in order to protect the elite,” Putin’s state functions more or less incoherently in terms of its own priorities legislating (half-heartedly) communality and obligation for the Russian Church in order to heighten its own sagging national prestige. It is away from the national stage where “the Kremlim’s fundamental indifference to religious freedom has allowed junior and regional state officials to pursue an Orthodox-centered religious policy in defiance of federal standards.” This fits uncomfortably with the lobbying of the Russian Orthodox Church as it tries to co-opt Russian public space where “the Russian Orthodox Church asserts itself as the definitive expression of Russian nationhood.” For Fagan any identification of Orthodoxy with so-called national values on the part of the elite, who are “oblivious to religious freedom concerns,” is a cynical maneuver to protect their own interests.

Fagan claims that individuality is a “central concern to Orthodoxy,” but only rarely does she point out how readily this same individualism is a potent tool of state secularism. She concedes that the Church is appalled by the practices of “laicite” in France, but if the Russian bishops were to give up on the collective salvation of the Rus, they believe they would be opening the door to a modern religious market for personal salvation rather than maintaining a vision of salvation as a sacrament. The Patriarchate is looking for a way to resist turning religion from a social to a private affair of individual persons each representing his own faith. As the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church entered the 1990’s, they had already decided that they were not prepared to indifferently share spaces with Catholics, or Lutherans, let alone Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. From outside this is viewed as sectarian! The last two patriarchs lobbied for historical pride of place in a hierarchy of traditional Russia religions. This has had legal repercussions restricting public space for Protestants, who, predictably, “protested.”

In fact most people are agnostics or atheists. The fact that one is Kalmyk, for instance, does not make one more Buddhist any more than the fact that one is Russian makes one Orthodox. Seen from the perspective of the Patriarchate however, religious freedom contributes to a much sought after blurring of theological borders in just the way the secular European Union has tried to foster pluralism through secularization elsewhere in Eastern Europe. So how does one undo, deny, or go beyond Russia’s Orthodox past? Should all the churches in the Kremlin be re-made into museums, and liturgical services be banned there? Forced arrangements for salvation have always proved catastrophic, but so have forced efforts to secularize. Finally Fagan fears that the future of Christianity in Russia will be compromised by the Orthodox inability in the last twenty-five years to adapt a genuinely pluralistic attitude faced with what was an aggressive Protestant proselytism. Does the one excuse the other?

But who is this Orthodox church that is lobbying for primacy in the Russian Federation? The Russian Orthodox Church is not monolithic. It is in doctrinal unity with all the other synods of Orthodox bishops who define doctrine conciliarly. What is more, there has always been a decentralizing, “strong lateral authority” arising from the prominent roles of spiritual fathers (startsy) in the practice of the Orthodox faith in Russia, which was reinforced by the Soviet oppression of the official church hierarchy. Fagan states: “Therefore, the current Church state accommodation is once again the outcome of a balance of very modern interests.” In politics this also means that the Holy Synod can only support the Kremlin up to a point in the current atmosphere where the faithful have little good to say about their government.

If for the government an artificial homogeneity of religions facilitates administration, for the Patriarchate genuine freedom of conscience is a purely religious matter. Fagan insists that from within a political science point of view, because the state regards some of its citizens as second class because of their religion, these citizens will at some point revolt. This point is considered notably true of Muslims. Recognizing Muslims as full-fledged members of society means, as Fagan puts it, recognizing a real Islam “not shaped to fit someone’s ‘common human values.’” As can be expected from someone working for Forum 18 News Service, Fagan considers such abuse a legal problem for the State to address: “the post-Soviet deterioration of religious freedom for all, across Russian territory, is contributing to perilous fragmentation of the nation’s single constitution space.”

In section 5, titled “Fight Thine Enemy,” Fagan presents an interesting analysis of extra-legal tools invented to close down Protestant churches and sects. A new terminology was popularized with neologisms such as “totalitarian sects,” “spiritual security,” “canonical territory,” and “traditional religions.” These were used to generate animosity towards non-established religious groups. What lies behind the possibility of creating prejudice against expressions of Christian faith other than Orthodoxy? While Fagan does not deal with the answer, it lies in the space between two realities: the average Orthodox of Russia has an undeniably limited understanding of his/her faith, yet he/she may well have a basic intuition that whatever truth is revealed about God in the New testament, it is not subject to constant reinterpretation the likes of which they imagine the Protestants and Catholics are introducing––theologoumena that relativize the basic truths of the Orthodox faith reducing them to the status of just one more opinion.

When one combines this suspicion of non-Orthodox with the complete lack of pluralism that characterized the twentieth-century secularized Soviet Union, one can grasp the reasons for Orthodox intolerance. Inversely, one could hardly have expected the Protestant missionary to understand, to take into consideration, the Orthodox mindset which they were trying to displace or even subvert, for Western Christianity is separated at the grass roots by some five hundred years of separate “European” histories, and that is despite the first secularization of Russia under Peter the Great. What is lacking is a culture of dialogue that is based on an understanding of where the other party is coming from. A better educated Russian might try to explain to a Jehovah’s Witness or a Pentecostal why he cannot accept their expression of Christianity, but that is the privilege of those whose faith has been deepened by a real familiarity with the Bible and Church history.

Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill
Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill

The secular mentality which many missionaries bring with them to the Russian Federation, even when they are fundamentalists, leads them to suppose that this highly secularized Russia is like where they came from, a place where one can occupy a “religiously neutral zone open to value-neutral inquiry and deliberation.” But in Russia there is no continuity between a Christian understanding of the good and a modern Western liberal comprehension of the good. The good belongs to Christ as He loves and to mankind, making a commonwealth of faith called the Church; and in Russia for the last thousand years, this has meant the Russian Orthodox Church, which has often failed its faithful but has also accompanied them through all their trials. The fundamentalists’ materialization of the revealed truths of scripture cannot be expected to capture the Russian sense of what sharing spaces means, for the recent and less recent arrivals have a mobility across continents and oceans that the Russian Orthodox do not possess. Raimundo Panikar writing of Indian converts to Christianity some thirty years ago notes that “the problem of pluralism arises only when we feel––we suffer––the incompatibility of differing world views and are at the same time forced by the praxis of our factual co-existence to seek survival.” The issue for some Russian converts from agnosticism to Catholicism or Protestantism, especially those in the northwest of the Russian Federation, the heartland of Orthodoxy, is that their “new” religion means they must separate themselves from a virtual historical cultural matrix to which they in some sense still belong and the incoherence this usually creates in their worldviews.

Fagan diligently, methodically, and with careful analysis chronicles on the one hand how Russia’s long tradition of religious freedom is being eroded despite official policy and because of government neglect; and on the other how the current nationalist project to consolidate an exclusive Orthodox Russia is in the face of Russia’s “remarkable” ethnic and religious diversity and is doomed to fail. Whatever one believes ought to be the role of the Church in Russian society and politics or interprets the current drama on the Russian national stage to mean, Fagan’s book makes a powerful and long overdue contribution to the understanding of those outside Russia of what is real inside Russia.  IC

Fr. Stephen is an anthropologist, and the author of Christ After Communism, a book about lived Orthodoxy in Moscow at the parish level, published by the Orthodox Research Institute. 

In Communion / Winter 2013

Three days in August

Yeltsin on a tank in front of the Parliament Building on August 19th, 1991

On August 19, 1991, two months after Boris Yeltsin’s election as president of Russia, a junta led by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov made a nearly-successful effort to suppress the democratic movement that had emerged during the Gorbachev years. The junta announced formation of a “State Emergency Committee” that was “taking supreme power.”

Gorbachev, still president, was under house arrest, but president-elect Yeltsin remained free, having taken refuge in the Russian Parliament, a modern building on the Moskva River known, because of its white tiles,  as “the White House.” First using fax and telephone, then radio and television, Yeltsin summoned the citizens of Moscow to defend democracy. At 1 PM on the day of the coup, Yeltsin stood on one of the tanks the junta had placed around the White House, calling for public resistance. Muscovites streamed by the thousands to the White House, forming a human shield.

The news that ten of the tanks had gone over to the White House defenders quickly became known “ a defection that encouraged other in the military to side with the democratic movement. Elements of three army divisions sent to storm the White House were now supporting Yeltsin, including the elite Alpha Unit.

Yet the outcome remained in doubt. The junta still had the support of entire armored divisions plus much of the state bureaucracy. If the human shield was attacked, thousands would die.

Part of the credit for preventing a bloodbath that never happened belongs to Patriarch Aleksy, elected in June the year before to lead the Russian Orthodox Church.

One of Yeltsin’s first actions had been to appeal to Aleksy for his support, “The tragic events that have occurred throughout the night have made me turn to you,” Yeltsin said to Aleksy by radio broadcast. “There is lawlessness inside the country “ a group of corrupt Party members has organized an anti-constitutional revolution. Essentially, a state of emergency has been declared inside the country due to the extreme gravity of the situation. The laws and constitution of the USSR and of the sovereign republics of the Union have been grossly violated…

“At this moment of tragedy for our Fatherland, I turn to you, calling on your authority among all religious confessions and believers. The influence of the Church in our society is too great for the Church to stand aside during these events. This duty is directly related to the Church’s mission, to which you have dedicated your life: serving people, caring for their hearts and souls. The Church, which has suffered through the times of totalitarianism, may once again experience disorder and lawlessness.

All believers, the Russian nation, and all Russia await your word!”

Aleksy threw his full weight behind Yeltsin and against the coup.

Father Aleksy

Father Aleksy

As tanks filed into Red Square, Aleksy was on the other side of the Kremlin walls, in the Cathedral of the Assumption, where he was presiding at the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

During the service Aleksy made his first gesture of opposition to the coup. In a litany which ordinarily would have included a prayer for the “authorities” and “the army,” he prayed instead “for our country protected by God and its people.” All those present, noting the changed text, instantly understood its meaning. Patriarch Aleksy had sided with Russia’s infant democracy.

The following morning, Aleksy faxed a letter throughout the country challenging the junta’s legality:

“This situation is troubling the consciences of millions of our fellow citizens, who are concerned about the legality of the newly formed State Emergency Committee. … In this connection we declare that it is essential that we hear without delay the voice of President Gorbachev and learn his attitude toward the events that have just taken place.

“We hope that the Supreme Soviet of the USSR will give careful consideration to what has taken place and will take decisive measures to bring about the stabilization of the situation in the country.

“We call upon all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the whole of our people, and particularly our army at this critical moment, for our nation to show support and not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood. We raise a heartfelt prayer to our Lord and summon all true believers in our Church to join this prayer, begging Him to dispense peace to the peoples of our land so that they can in future build their homeland in accordance with freedom of choice and the accepted norms of morality and law.”

The words “not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood” were understood by all as an appeal to the army not to obey orders to kill their fellow citizens.

By August 21, most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow. Gorbachev was freed and returned to Moscow. Yeltsin was subsequently hailed by his supporters around the world for rallying mass opposition to the coup. On November 6, 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party.

Yeltsin’s role will never be forgotten, and neither should that of Patriarch Aleksy, so often portrayed as a KGB agent.

“ Jim Forest (making use of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia by John Garrard & Carol Garrard; Princeton University Press, 2009)


Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

News: Fall 2008

War tests ties between Georgian and Russian Churches

While the leaders of Russia and Georgia exchange recriminations, Christians in the two nations worried about the damage the recent conflict had inflicted on the cherished unity of the Orthodox Church. Both churches have close ties with their national governments, but the prospect of two Orthodox nations at war with each other failed to deter either Russia or Georgia from armed conflict in August.

The two churches expressed dismay. The patriarchs of both the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Churches issued immediate appeals for peace. The strong urgings were all the more striking for the Russian patriarch, Alexei, who rarely differs publicly with the Kremlin.

“Today, blood is being shed and people are perishing in South Ossetia, and my heart deeply grieves over it,” Patriarch Alexei said in a statement on August 8 as the fighting raged. “Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love are in conflict.”

Two days later, in a sermon in Tbilisi, Patriarch Ilya of the Georgian Orthodox Church said that “one thing concerns us very deeply – that Orthodox Russians are bombing Orthodox Georgians.” On the church’s web site, Ilya added: “This is an unprecedented act of relations between our countries. Reinforce your prayer and God will save Georgia.”

The ties between two churches proved strong enough to offer some relief to civilians caught in the conflict. Bringing food and aid, Patriarch Ilya made a pastoral visit to Gori, a central Georgian city, while it was occupied by Russian forces.

According to Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, the Russian church facilitated the visit. He said the Moscow patriarchate also conveyed letters of appeal from Patriarch Ilya of Georgia to President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Both have made much of their Orthodox faith.

Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, of the Moscow Patriarchate, told Soyuz, a Russian TV channel, “Only a madman today can declare all Georgians the enemy, and inflame anti-Georgian sentiment in the country.”

At a vigil service on the eve of the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 19, Archbishop Feofan of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, Russian regions near the war zone, counseled believers to control themselves. “As difficult as it may be for us, under no circumstances must we give way to our emotions,” he said. “We must not address our anger against Georgians, who often live among us. For this is the power of our Christianity: not to be like those who raised arms against peaceful citizens.”

The Russian conflict with Georgia is the first fighting between nations peopled by a majority of Orthodox Christians and not under Communist rule since the Second Balkan War in 1913 pitted Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Romania against Bulgaria in a prelude to World War I.

Georgia has a population of fewer than five million, but it is one of the most ancient Christian countries. Its church dates from the fourth century, much older than the Russian church, whose roots go back only to the Baptism of Rus in 988.

Whatever the tugs of unity, the two churches have tended to side with their national governments.

Patriarch Ilya appealed unsuccessfully to Medvedev and Putin not to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. “This will give rise to separatism in your country, and in the future you will have many more problems than we have in Georgia today,” he said. “This is worth meditating upon.”

The Russian church was tepid about Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“The Moscow Patriarchate must take political realities into account,” said Fr. Nikolai Balashov, the church’s secretary for inter-Orthodox relations. But in resolving canonical jurisdiction over the two disputed territories, he said that Adialogue with the Georgian church” was more important.

Nikolai Mitrokhin, a specialist on the Orthodox Church in the former Soviet Union, noted that the Russian church had little to gain in the current conflict.

“It is the first time in a couple of decades that the foreign policy interests of the Russian Orthodox Church diverged with those of the state.” [Sophia Kishkovsky / New York Times]

Note: A letter from the Orthodox Peace Fellowship sent August 13 to Russian and Georgian Patriarchs is posted on the OPF web site: www.incommunion.org.

Prayers for peace in the Caucasus

With the Blessing of Patriarch Alexei, prayers for the deliverance of the peoples of the Caucasus from Aenmity, disorder and civil strife” were added to divine services in churches of Moscow Patriarchate:

“That Thou mayest bless the nations of the Caucasus with Thy goodness and quell among them enmity, disorders and civil strife; and grant them a peaceful life and length of days, we beseech Thee, O Lord: Hearken, and have mercy!

“That Thou mayest deliver the peoples of the Caucasus from all tribulation, perils, wrath and need, and from all enemies, and mayest surround them with peace and the armies of Thine angels, we beseech Thee, O all-good Lord: Hearken, and have mercy!”

Russia ponders revolutionary past

Russia marked the 90th anniversary of the murder by the Bolsheviks of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children that occurred July 22, 1918, with conferences, concerts, exhibitions, processions and debates about repentance, rehabilitation, and remembrance.

“The evil deed committed in July 1918 marked the beginning of those tragic events that our nation endured in the 20th century,” said Patriarch Alexei.

The canonization in 2000 of the royal family, the Romanovs as Apassion-bearers” for their faith and humility in the face of execution has made Ekaterinburg, the city in Russia’s Urals region where they were slaughtered, a magnet for religious pilgrims. They come to the Church-on-the-Blood, built on the site of Ipatiev House, where the Romanovs were imprisoned. The basement room where they were gunned down has been turned into a crypt surrounded by icons of the family. The pilgrims also visit a modest monastery of log churches built at Ganina Yama just outside the city, in the birch forest from which the remains of the royal family were exhumed.

Services of commemoration on July 16-17 drew more than 30,000 pilgrims. Some had been walking since April in a religious procession from St. Petersburg that retraced the train route of the Romanovs as they were transported across the country to their death.

The Orthodox church has called on the Russian State to officially repent of the murders. “A state that has not condemned the crime committed against the imperial family burdens itself, and to some extent the nation with the consequences of these crimes,” said Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate’s External Relations Department.

“Russia can’t face the future with a free conscience,” he said, Aif we think what the Bolsheviks did is normal. Until the state says the murder of the tsar family was a crime and gives a moral evaluation of the actions of those who gave, approved and executed the command to shoot them, who took the family into custody and kept them under arrest, and until this is done on the level of symbolically important state decisions and of clarifying this question in the public mind, Russia will have difficulty facing the future.” [Sophia Kishkovsky/ENI]

[Note: In a decision announced October 1, the appeals presidium of the Russian Supreme Court ruled that Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their children were victims of “groundless repression” and ordered their rehabilitation.]

Bartholomew and Alexei meet in Kiev

Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Patriarch Alexei of Moscow jointly conducted an open-air divine service in Kiev July 27, marking 1020 years since Christianity was adopted in Kievan Rus’.

Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, Archbishop Hieronymus of Greece, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, and representatives of other local Orthodox Churches concelebrated with the two patriarchs. The service was broadcast by all Ukrainian channels.

Afterward Bartholomew and Alexei had a meeting during which the church situation in the Ukraine was discussed. At a press conference following the meeting, Patriarch Bartholomew said, “Dialogue is even more useful when there are problems between the two fraternal Orthodox Churches.” The two parties agreed to work on improving relations and recognized bilateral responsibility for “Orthodox unity and common Orthodox testimony to the world,” Bartholomew said. He expressed hope that Patriarch Alexei will be able to attend a meeting of the primates of all Orthodox Churches scheduled for this October in Istanbul.

“We agreed to resolve all controversies between our churches through discussion and dialog,” said Alexei, adding that an agreement to discuss controversies by delegations of the two churches so that to work out decisions “that would meet our interests” was reached.

A Message from Orthodox Primates

In October, all the primates of the Orthodox Churches met together to inaugurate the Year of Saint Paul. Following a two-day meeting hosted by Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar in Istanbul, a joint statement was issued. Here are extracts:

  • The evangelization of God’s people, but also of those who do not believe in Christ, constitutes the supreme duty of the Church. This duty must not be fulfilled in an aggressive manner, or by various forms of proselytism, but with love, humility and respect for the identity of each individual and the cultural particularity of each people…
  • Conflicts are increasing due to alienation of man from God. No change in social structures or of rules of behavior suffices to heal this condition. Sin can only be conquered through the cooperation of God and humankind.
  • The witness of Orthodoxy for the ever-increasing problems of humanity and of the world becomes imperative, not only in order to point out their causes, but also in order to confront the tragic consequences that follow. The various nationalistic, ethnic, ideological and religious contrasts continuously nurture dangerous confusion, not only in regard to the unquestionable ontological unity of the human race, but also in regard to man’s relationship to sacred creation. … These divisions … introduce an unjust inequality … [and] deprive billions of people of basic goods and lead to the misery for the human person; they cause mass population migration, kindle nationalistic, religious and social discrimination and conflict, threatening traditional internal societal coherence. These consequences are still more abhorrent because they are inextricably linked with the destruction of the natural environment and the ecosystem.
  • Orthodox Christians share responsibility for the contemporary crisis of this planet with others, whether people of faith or not, because they have tolerated and indiscriminately compromised on extreme human choices, without credibly challenging these choices with the word of faith. Therefore, they also have a major obligation to contribute to overcoming the divisions of the world.
  • Efforts to distance religion from societal life constitute [is a tendency in] many modern states. The principle of a secular state can be preserved; however, it is unacceptable to interpret this principle as a radical marginalization of religion from all spheres of public life.
  • The gap between rich and poor is growing dramatically due to the financial crisis, chiefly the result of manic profiteering …. A viable economy is that which combines efficacy with justice and social solidarity.
  • The Orthodox Church believes that technological and economic progress should not lead to the destruction of the environment and the exhaustion of natural resources. Greed to satisfy material desires leads to the impoverishment of the human soul and the environment. We must not forget that the natural riches of the earth are not only man’s property, but primarily God’s creation. … We must remember that not only today’s generation, but also future generations are entitled to have a right to the resources of nature.
  • We salute the Churches of Russia and Georgia for their fraternal cooperation during the recent military conflict. In this way, the two Churches fulfilled the obligation to the ministry of reconciliation. We hope that their mutual ecclesiastical efforts will contribute to overcoming the tragic consequences of military operations and swift reconciliation.
  • We reaffirm … our desire for the swift healing of every canonical anomaly that has arisen from historical circumstances and pastoral requirements, such as in the “Orthodox Diaspora,” with a view to overcoming every possible influence that is foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology. We welcome the proposal by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to convene Pan-Orthodox Consultations within the coming year 2009 on this subject, as well as for the continuation of preparations for the Holy and Great Council.
  • We reaffirm … our desire to continue … theological dialogues with other Christians, as well as interreligious dialogues, especially with Judaism and Islam, given that dialogue constitutes the only way of solving differences among people, especially in a time like today, when every kind of division, including those in the name of religion, threaten people’s peace and unity.
  • We reaffirm … our support for the initiatives … for the protection of the environment. Today’s ecological crisis, which is due to both spiritual and ethical reasons, renders imperative the obligation of the Church to contribute, through the spiritual means at her disposal, to the protection of God’s creation from the consequences of greed. We reaffirm the designation of the 1st of September, the first day of the Ecclesiastical Year, as a day of special prayers for the protection of God’s creation, and we support the introduction of the subject in the catechetical, homiletic, and general pastoral activity of our Churches…

In the Phanar, 12th October 2008:

+Bartholomew of Constantinople +Theodore of Alexandria +Ignatius of Antioch +Theophilos of Jerusalem +Alexey of Moscow +Amphilochios of Montenegro (representing the Church of Serbia) +Laurentiu of Transylvania (representing the Church of Romania) +Dometiyan of Vidin (representing the Church of Bulgaria) +Gerasime of Zugdidi (representing the Church of Georgia) + Chrysostomos of Cyprus + Ieronymos of Athens + Jeremiasz of Wrołcaw (representing of the Church of Poland) +Anastasios of Tirana +Christopher of the Czech Lands and Slovakia

Russian Church protests monument to KGB founder

The Russian Orthodox Church said in August that it was Aappalled” by a proposal to place a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, forerunner to the KGB, in front of the secret service headquarters in central Moscow. When the statue of AIron Felix” was uprooted in 1991, it was for many a sign that the repression he sponsored was forever gone. In 2001 the Orthodox Church canonized thousands of New Martyrs who were victims of Soviet repression.

Human rights activists see the move to reinstate Dzerzhinsky as an indication of the bent of Russian politics back towards authoritarianism under the continuing influence of former president and ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin.

ADzerzhinsky is the demonic enemy of Russian Orthodox Church. His hands are steeped in blood of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. His rehabilitation is contrary to the authorities’ course for the revival of great Russia,” the Union of Orthodox Believers said in a statement.

The campaign to raise the statue anew came from the Union of Veterans of State Security, angered that the statue is lying in ruins outside Moscow.

No national museum exists to commemorate the victims of the Soviet Gulag concentration camps. In the place were the Dzerzhinsky statue once stood and where he would be re-erected now stands a large stone from one of the Gulag Islands.

Partnership’ needed from Jerusalem clergy who had fist fight

Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks who engaged in fist fights at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher in November, following a disagreement about access to the site, need to work as partners to resolve their issues, a senior Armenian bishop has proposed. “We are partners for life,” said Bishop Aris Shirvanian, director of ecumenical and foreign relations of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Bishop Shirvanian was the presiding cleric when the brawl broke out during an annual Armenian procession on November 9. The procession was commemorating the 4th-century discovery of the cross on which Jesus is said to have been crucified.

The Greek Orthodox had demanded the presence of a representative monk inside the Edicule, the building surrounding the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection, during the Armenian-led ceremony. When the Armenians refused, the Greek Orthodox blocked their path and a fight ensued. Israeli police rushed in to separate the two sides and arrested a monk from each group.

“Regrettably it doesn’t leave a good impression since two Christian denominations were involved in the fight in the most holy place,” said Bishop Shirvanian. “But unfortunately that is not something new in holy places. In history even worse things have happened.”

In addition to the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholics, the Coptic Orthodox, the Syrian Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox churches share rights within the church.

A 19th century agreement regulates their rights. Any changes in the structure of the church, and even cleaning of the area, must be agreed upon by all the religious communities concerned.

The last incident between followers of different traditions occurred on Palm Sunday when Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests and pilgrims were caught in another altercation at the same site.

Some four years ago Greek Orthodox members were involved in a fight with Franciscans involving the positioning of the door of the Franciscan chapel during a Greek Orthodox procession.

Bishop Shirvanian said the Greek Orthodox failed to honor an 1829 edict during Ottoman rule prohibiting Greek Orthodox interference in Armenian ceremonies. He said the decision is included as part of the 19th century Status Quo agreement.

“I’m sorry that these events happened within the most sacred religious monument of Christianity,” said Greek Orthodox Archbishop Aristarchos, chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

USA: More Orthodox converts

A study of Orthodox Christians in America released in October found a larger-than-expected number of converts, mostly from Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant backgrounds. The study was carried out by the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, California.

The report surveyed 1,000 members of Greek Orthodox or Orthodox Church in America congregations, which represent about 60 percent of America’s estimated 1.2 million Orthodox Christians.

Although Orthodox churches were historically immigrant communities, the study found that nine out of ten parishioners are now American-born and that thousands of members had converted to the faith as adults: 29 percent of Greek Orthodox are converts, as are 51 percent of the OCA.

The study also found high numbers of converts among clergy C 56 percent in the OCA, 14 percent in the Greek Orthodox church. In both cases, the higher OCA numbers reflect that group’s use of English in its worship services.

The study’s other findings showed a majority of Orthodox Christians support allowing married bishops. They also favor efforts to coordinate a common date for Easter, which typically falls several weeks later for the Orthodox due to their use of an older liturgical calendar.

Europeans more religious than was thought

While fewer Europeans are going to church than in the past, a large majority still regard themselves religious, according to a study released in October by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, Germany’s largest privately-operating foundation.

“Although everyone has been talking about religion, there has been no reliable information about what people actually believe and its consequences for everyday life,” said Martin Jaeger of the Gütersloh-based foundation. This survey looked for the first time at religiosity, rather than just institutional affiliations and self-perceptions. It shows the situation is highly complex; Europeans are much more religious than is often assumed.”

A total of 21,000 respondents from 21 countries took part in the Areligion monitor” survey that included 100 detailed questions about belief in a divine being, faith experiences and interest in religion. 74 percent of people described themselves as religious and a quarter as Avery religious.”

The highest levels were in Italy and Poland, the lowest in France. Church attendance remained part of normal life for 90 percent of Poles and 75 percent of Italians, with attendance figures of 45 percent for the French and 44 percent for Germans. Only 27 percent of Europeans said they did not belong to any church.

Roman Catholics were more likely to be devout than Protestants, with 42 percent of Catholics stating that they attended church, compared to 15 percent of Protestants, although a large proportion of all ages also saw their beliefs as embracing only certain aspects of their tradition. (Figures for Orthodox Christians were not included in the press report.)

EU politicians have been accused of ignoring the role of churches and faiths, unmentioned in EU documents until the late 1990s.

Although a new Europe treaty acknowledges the continent’s Acultural, religious and humanist inheritance,” some church leaders have warned that the EU’s narrowly secular emphasis fails to reflect social and cultural attitudes. [ENI]

Global warming opens a waterway around the North Pole

Open water now stretches all the way round the Arctic, making it possible for the first time in human history for ships to circumnavigate the North Pole, it was announced in August. For the past 125,000 years ice has sealed the route. Satellite images show that melting ice had opened up both the fabled Northwest and Northeast passages. It is the most important geographical landmark to date to signal the rapid progress of global warming.

The opening of the passages has been eagerly awaited by shipping companies who hope to cut thousands of miles off their routes by sailing round the north of Canada and Russia, but environmental scientists see it as an ominous sign.

In July nine stranded polar bears were seen off Alaska attempting to swim 400 miles north to the retreating icecap edge. Massive cracking of the Petermann glacier in the far north of Greenland, an area apparently previously unaffected by global warming, has been reported.

In 2005, the Northeast passage opened, while the western one remained closed, and last year their positions were reversed.

But the new images, gathered by NASA using microwave sensors that penetrate clouds, show that the Northwest passage opened last weekend and that the last blockage on the north- eastern one a tongue of ice stretching down to Russia across Siberia’s Laptev Sea dissolved a few days later.

The Bremen-based Beluga Group says next year it will send the first ship through the Northeast passage cutting 4,000 nautical miles off the voyage from Germany to Japan.

Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, announced that all foreign ships entering the Northwest passage should report to his government – a move bound to be resisted by the US, which regards it as an international waterway.

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51

Calling Governments to Account

an interview with Fr. Meletios Webber


[Photo: Fr. Meletios witnessing the confession of a young member of the parish of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.]

Archimandrite Meletios Webber was born in London and received his Masters degree in theology from Oxford University in England and the Thessalonica School of Theology in Greece. He also holds a doctorate in psychotherapy from the University of Montana. He is the author of Steps of Transformation and Bread and Water, Wine and Oil: an Orthodox Christian Experience of God. He has served as parish priest in England, Greece, and the United States, and for a year was a guest priest at St. Nicholas Church in Amsterdam. He has recently been elected abbot of the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai in California. He is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

This is an extract from a longer interview done by a Russian correspondent for the Russian Orthodox web journal, Pravoslavie.ru.

o you have any comment on the decision by the European Union to deny the Christian origin of European culture? And, in contrast, on the recent attempt in the United States Congress to affirm and value this origin, and the essential role Christianity has played in the development of Western civilization? What is the portent of this statement for the European Community?

One of the most important factors in the modern world is that, perhaps for the first time, the Church has become free to criticize any political leader. I think that the Gospel is, and always will be, at odds with the social systems we have developed. And it is the Church’s task to call government to account whenever governments are behaving in ways that are at odds with the Gospel.

It is interesting that America, in which the notion of the separation of Church and state really originated, or partially originated, is now wanting to affirm some Christian roots; whereas, in Europe, where Christianity is so much part of the life blood that it hardly needs to be talked about, such a statement is deemed unnecessary.

The high points in the life of the Church, spiritually speaking, have usually been the times when the Church has been heavily persecuted, and the low points, spiritually speaking, have been times when the Church has been allied with political power. Not always, but sometimes. So, I think it is largely irrelevant as to whether political powers seek to have their roots in Christianity or in other religions, if they use that religion to justify whatever it is they are doing. So, the freer the Church is to comment on political life in the light of the Gospel, the better the situation is, everything else notwithstanding.

The experience of the Byzantine Empire, which remains somewhere in the consciousness of Christian society, has as its symbol the double-headed eagle signifying the harmonious functions of two heads in one body – the Church as the conscience of the government, and the government as the protector of the Church. Does this have any meaning for Europeans today?

Of course, the Byzantine ideal depends upon Christian emperors. That is a great deal more than emperors who happen to be Christian. In the good examples which Byzantium gives us, we see people who are of great spiritual depth, and under those circumstances it is possible for such a thing to exist.

I don’t see that the way modern democracy works is likely to bring people who are more than nominally Christian into positions of leadership. People who are too demonstratively Christian are going to be wiped out in the primaries. That is the nature of the modern political machine. People with strong views about anything are likely to be wiped out. The people you are left with are those who are good at balancing, pleasing all sides.

The Church is not like that. The Church should not be like that. The Church has a mission which hasn’t changed from the day that Jesus was physically amongst us on earth. It is the call to repentance, the call to bring people back to God. Very few states can be seen to have been successful in doing that same thing.

You are speaking of states in the Western world, or states in general?

In general. I know that Byzantium is a beautiful idea for many, many people. Holy Russia is a beautiful idea for many other people. Yet both the Russian political system and the Byzantine political system fell short of the Gospel in many ways, at least during certain periods of history, and sometimes markedly so. Neither one was of the mold of modern democracy.

Unless things change dramatically in the future, I don’t see that the sort of government that existed in Russia, and in Byzantium, is going to be a possibility at all. So I would see the future being where the Church and the state might be amicable, but the Church always needs to reserve the right to criticize. And many governments don’t particularly care for that part of the Church’s mission.

Do you think that this might be the underlying cause for this statement by the European Union?

To be honest, the people who seem to be making the rules in Europe at the moment baffle me entirely. I have no idea why they say anything. Or even who they are.

But you do not see this as setting the stage for more strictures on Church activities?

No, absolutely not.

They have fallen away from the Church, so they assume that all of Europe has fallen away from the Church?

Pretty much. In some ways, that is good for the Church. Wherever, for example, Catholicism has been hand-in-hand with a particular government in a particular country, you haven’t always seen Catholicism at its finest.

Being hand-in-hand with the government did not bring out its finest?

Precisely. On the contrary.

It brings out its worst?

Well, the Spanish Inquisition leaps to one’s mind, but there are other examples.

So, do you think that this decision could also have sprung from the Western European historical consciousness of abuses springing from a unity between Church and state?

The Christian background of Western Europe is so vast, and so omnipresent, that nobody could actually eradicate it. It is an historical fact, there to stay. That is the basis of what’s going on. Given the arrival of Islam into Spain and parts of Eastern Europe, it has always been one variety of Christianity or another which has dominated this area for 1200 years, in some places even longer.

And the new wave of Moslem immigration – are you feeling any pressure from this in Amsterdam?

I am almost certain that there is a solution waiting to be found to what appears to be a problem. Most Moslem people here in Holland are very happy to lead their own lives, doing what they usually do peacefully with what are usually post-Christian neighbors. There will always be layers of fanaticism in every society, but on the whole, the Moslem presence in Holland is something that most people can live with.

However, when people turn to religion to provide themselves with what one might want to call “ego identity,” simply because that identity is not present anywhere else, it transforms the religion into something which is rather distasteful, and also makes their own psychological make-up somewhat suspect.

This isn’t the best way of finding an identity. That is the problem. If people only find some sort of living identity in their religious affiliation, then we’ve got a lot of work to do. Because in the end, religions aren’t made to coexist.

Religions, by definition, tend to be at odds, and this has always been historically true for Christianity as well as Islam. There has always been a tendency for one to want to wipe out the other. They don’t live side by side naturally. Quite how we can get them to live side by side with some sort of friendliness, I am not quite sure, but that is the work that needs to be done.

Finally, do you have any words for our readers? Some wishes for the people of Russia, and her relationship to Europe?

I suppose my view is that the Communists who took over Russian society at the time of the revolution were – and I think this is true – genuinely trying to improve society. But I also believe that the way they went about it, particularly becoming adversarial towards Orthodoxy, meant that their labors were in vain. Russia is Orthodox to the marrow.

I see it in the people who come to Church, who have no real academic or book knowledge of what Orthodoxy is all about, but who have a deep, deep reverence for Orthodoxy, and the life of Christ that Orthodoxy exhibits.

Russia without Orthodoxy is, and has been, impoverished. It might be splendid in some ways, but there is something desperately lacking. And I am fairly certain that in God’s time the roots will be connected with the leaves. Then, what is in the depths of Russian history – what you might want to call the depths of the Russian soul (but perhaps that’s a little more dangerous) – will begin to manifest itself once again in positive ways, through growth, outreach, and commitment to the words of Jesus. That future is very bright indeed.

Links for the complete interview:

part 1: www.pravoslavie.ru/enarticles/080205103442

part 2: www.pravoslavie.ru/enarticles/080206153355

part 3: www.pravoslavie.ru/enarticles/080207170014

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50

A Pascha greeting in Stalin’s Russia

Nicholas Arseniev recounts an event that occurred in Russia, one that is quite characteristic of the faith of the Russian people.

During a public conference held in Moscow at the Polytechnic Museum during the fierce repression of believers, a Bolshevik commissioner in charge of education violently attacked the “out-dated faith” of the people, crying out that it bore the mark of capitalism and was not believable.

At the conclusion of his presentation, the orator invited his hearers to engage in a brief

dialogue. No one was to speak for more than five minutes and, of course, only after having properly identified himself.

A priest from a rural background timidly stepped forward and was greeted by the orator with obvious contempt.

“Remember, no more than five minutes.”

“Yes, very well. I’ll be brief,” the priest replied.

Climbing toward the podium, the priest turned toward the audience and declared:

“Brothers and sisters, Christos voskresse!” [Christ is risen!]

They all answered with one voice, “Voistinu voskresse!” [Truly he is risen!]

“I’m done,” added the priest. “That’s all I wanted to say.”

– from Michael Quenot’s book, The Resurrection and the Icon

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997

Cover: Christ Pantocrator, photo taken at the Monastery of St. Anthony in Egypt, the oldest inhabited Christian monastery in the world, built about 356 AD on the burial site of St. Anthony. Photo by Chris Tse.

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49

Two Soldiers of Christ: Boris and Gleb

by Father Sergei Hackel

It seems remote, the Russian steppe on that July evening of 1015. Tents were being pitched. A prince, Boris, Vladimir’s son, was camping for the night with his retinue of a few hand-picked men. They were particularly conscious that evening of their limited numbers since earlier that same day a whole army had been marching with them. Now it had gone: the army had deserted its prince. The enemy, moreover, was on its way.

When Boris had ridden out earlier in the month to face the nomad enemies of Kiev, it had been Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, who had sent him. Now he was dead, and the first step toward the settlement of the disputed succession had already been taken in Boris’s absence. His brother Svyatopolk, had been conveniently placed at Vyshgorod, a few miles along the river from Kiev, under his father’s surveillance, having only two years earlier been imprisoned for conspiring with the Prince of Poland, his father-in-law, against Vladimir. He had not hesitated to seize the throne.

Boris, it was felt, was not going to accept this coup d’etat and withdraw. There was certainly no need to. The people of Kiev, it seems, were more in his favor; a fair-sized army was at his disposal, eager to be of service.

The astonishing fact is that Boris refused to fight his brother for the throne. A recent study of these events finds this “absurd” and “inexplicable.” Indeed it seemed so to Boris’s army, for it was at this point that it deserted him.

Boris’s decision was in no way strategic; it made no sense in the eyes of the world. He was resigning his chances as a Grand Prince: more than that, he was putting his life in danger. For “I believe my brother [Svyatopolk] is obsessed by worldly cares,” he says in the Tale of his life, “and thinks of killing me.” It was true enough; Svyatopolk had already despatched men of Vyshgorod with orders to kill him. Yet Boris was well aware of what his course of action ought to be. “If he attempts to kill me” continues the Tale “I shall be a martyr to my Lord, since I shall not resist… For the Apostle says: ‘If any man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar’.” (Three accounts of the lives of Boris and Gleb have come down to us: the Tale; the Chronicle account; and the Reading by the monk Saint Nestor. It is disputed which text is the earliest. Quotations used here are from the Tale unless otherwise stated.)

It is all very well for him, we may say. That is the way for a saint to talk in his life, it is natural for him. But the Tale is a welcome corrective to this attitude. It shows us that the decision was by no means easy for Boris, no easier than it would be for us. It shows us Boris in tears, full of regret for the lost pleasures of life, full of sorrow for his own fine body that was soon to be cut down. Concern for the pleasures of life, for his physical self was nothing out of the ordinary.

But Boris did not stop at that: he combated his sorrow by considering the ephemeral nature of the “glory of this world,” of “rich food and swift horses, great possessions and honors innumerable.” After all, his ancestors had all these, “yet for them already these things are now as if they never existed.”

To this reappraisal of what the world has to offer he added contemplation of his own eternal destiny.

Though he lay down to sleep after Vespers, his thoughts gave him little rest. He thought of “how to surrender himself to suffering; how to suffer, and so end the race, so sustain the faith, as to receive the prepared crown from the hands of the Almighty.”

The murderers arrived when it was still dark: but Boris, as they could hear, was already up and at prayer. “O Lord Jesus Christ, who in this form didst come down to us on earth” (he was praying before an icon) “and who of thine own free will didst deign to be nailed upon the cross and endure suffering for our sins: vouchsafe me also to end suffering.”

He had not long to wait. The murderers broke in and he was wounded but they granted him a last few minutes for prayer. From prayer he turned to them in tears. “Brethren, approach and complete your work; and peace be with my brother and with you, brethren.”

He was cut down and carted off, apparently dead. When later he showed signs of life, he was given a final stab in the heart. They took him to Vyshgorod and buried him.

Svyatopolk now turned his attention to Boris’s younger brother, Gleb. A message was sent to him, inviting him to Kiev. Gleb set out for the capital from a distant province where he ruled. Another message reached him en route, warning him of Svyatopolk’s treachery. He was none the less completely unprepared for the murderers when he saw them, coming in their boat to meet his. In his innocence, he had not the slightest suspicion that anything was amiss. The murderers “when they saw him grew morose and rowed toward him: yet he hoped to receive a friendly embrace from them. [But] when [their boat] was level the villains began to jump into his boat, with naked swords in their hands which glittered like the water.”

Boris had prepared for his death and attained a certain calm before he had come face to face with his murderers. Gleb was granted no such opportunity. None the less, in miniature, he passed through the same stages as his brother.

At first, like Boris, he prayed for life. This was the period of the greatest upheaval and the greatest frailty. In his distress he turned to prayer, and it was through prayer that Gleb, like his brother, gained increasing confidence and strength. “I am being slain,” was his prayer, “and I do not know the reason… But this I know: O Lord, my Lord, Thou knowest.” At the end he was able to submit calmly. “Cursed Goriaser ordered his throat to be cut quickly. And Gleb’s cook, Torchin by name, drew his knife and with it slaughtered the blessed one, a meek lamb… And be was brought to the Lord a pure and fragrant sacrifice.” His body was thrown onto the river bank and left to the beasts. (Six years later the body, found uncorrupted and unharmed, was taken to Vyshgorod and buried by the side of Boris.)

I suggested earlier that these events seem remote. Do they not concern us at all then?

There are different ways of looking at the lives of saints. We may deny they ever happened. We may admit they happened yet deny their relevance for us. Or we may accept their relevance and learn from them. What can we learn from the lives of Boris and Gleb?

We see them facing death. Are not we, with them, awaiting death? How do they face it? At first, alone and — like us — afraid. There is no one at hand to help them. They are not immediately willing to submit. There is no cheap victory when it comes. The agony of Gethsemane precedes the submission of Gethsemane.

Yet no sooner have they submitted than they find they are no longer alone in their agony, they are under Christ’s yoke, he is lifting the weight off their shoulders. He is their partner under the yoke; they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and they fear no evil: His rod and His staff comfort them.

Under this yoke, it is not for them to fight: “I am a soldier of Christ,” in the words of St. Martin of Tours, “I am not allowed to fight.” But Svyatopolk is evil, says the world. Oppose him; you have the force, use it, your cause is just. You will live and rule your people wisely. Even the justice of their cause does not provoke them: was not the most just of causes defended by Peter in Gethsemane, and was he not rebuked? Could not the Son of God have called down more than twelve legions of angels to His defense? Yet He submitted.

Boris and Gleb, in these last moments, link their lives with Christ’s, and, with Thomas the Apostle, they are able to say: “Let us also go with Him, that we may die with Him”

Let us go then, to die, for as Fr. Lev Gillet remarked, “even if there be no prospect of immediate death, we should die in detail for others.”

Father Serge Hackel is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of Sobornost. His essay is reprinted from the Cathedral Newsletter, November 1994, publication of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, 67 Ennismere Gardens, London SW 7 1NH, England.