Standing on Cracking Ice

Standing on Cracking Ice:  A chapter from Writing Straight with Crooked Lines by Jim Forest

Standing on Cracking Ice IA chapter from Writing Straight with Crooked Lines by Jim Forest.

Standing on Cracking Ice
: A chapter from Writing Straight with Crooked Lines by Jim Forest.

IN MARCH 1985 a political event occurred in the USSR that was to make the world a less dangerous place: Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party and thus head of state of the Soviet Union.

He was seen from the start as a reformer, but at the time of his appointment few imagined how radical a reformer Gorbachev would prove to be. He was convinced that major change was needed and also that relations with the US and western Europe had to become constructive rather than confrontational.

Gorbachev began using the words perestroika, meaning restructuring, and glasnost, meaning openness and frankness in government affairs, a favorable climate for political debate in the press and greatly reduced censorship. What used to be unsaid was being said. Books that had been banned began appearing in bookshops. Films that had been locked in vaults were suddenly on cinema screens. What used to be thought hopeless was being eagerly awaited. The jamming of radio broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America was stopped. Despite all the blows religious believers had received in the past, a remarkable sense of expectation had begun to flourish within churches. Anti-religious repression ground to a halt. Outspoken radical Christians who had been imprisoned were freed. While Gorbachev had as yet said nothing about a new religious policy, the weather was changing. One smelled it rather than touched it.

In December 1986, I received an unexpected invitation from Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, head of the Church’s External Affairs Department, to come to Moscow in mid-February to participate in a three-day conference, “For a World without Nuclear Weapons, for Mankind’s Survival,” at which Gorbachev was to give an address.

Upon arriving in Moscow six weeks later, I was welcomed with the astonishing news that the obstacles to my writing a book on the Russian Orthodox Church — no doubt KGB-imposed — had been removed. After the conference ended, I could stay on in Russia to begin the travel and interviews I had proposed. An Oxford-educated priest from Kiev, Father Boris Udovenko, had been assigned to travel with me.

Meanwhile a thousand people, all prominent in their fields, had come to Moscow for the conference. We were divided up into various sections — religious, scientific, medical, literary, artistic, business, ecological and military.

That first afternoon, the conference not having begun, I waded through the snow to a multi-floored bookshop on Kalinin Prospekt. While in the arts section, I got into conversation with an English-speaking economist who, I told him, had a striking resemblance to Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II. “Yes, people say that,” he laughed, “but I hope my life will not end the way his did.” We talked about art books — I had just bought a handsome volume on Ilya Repin’s paintings. I asked him about glasnost, wondering whether he would dare to talk politics in a crowded shop in central Moscow. Without hesitation he did some quick pantomimes of the last few Soviet leaders prior to Gorbachev. He showed Brezhnev as a man with head tilted heavily to one side, eyes half-closed, snoring. “Corruption prospered,” he said. “It was worse than you can imagine. And then came Brezhnev’s successors, corpses even while still in office, and nothing changed.” He played the part of one dead body, then another, eyes now entirely closed. Then, springing back to life, “But Gorbachev, now he is alive and he is a clever man. Finally, we have someone who is alive and can think.”

He talked about the impending publication of Pasternak’s long-suppressed novel, Doctor Zhivago, and mentioned various films I should see, especially Repentance, which had escaped from a long hibernation in the vaults of the censors and was now showing in cinemas all over the country, including seventeen screens in Moscow. “It’s a black-comedy, a parody,” the economist said. “It’s the first time that the Stalin era has been the object of a critical movie. For decades Stalin simply disappeared. For years his picture had been on every wall — and the next day it was gone. Until Khrushchev, nothing was said about Stalin or what he did or how many died or where they died, and after Khrushchev, the silence returned. Now research into the Stalin period is finally being allowed.” Our conversation drifted on to the topic of used bookshops in Moscow. We parted company after exchanging addresses.

There is a Russian phrase — bytovoe blagochestie — which means “the art of ritual living.” Stopping to visit a church on a busy Moscow street, I thought of the art of ritual living while noticing how some of the people walking by paused, bowed and crossed themselves. I had not seen such public gestures of piety before. Change was in the air.

The next morning the conference was off and running. Metropolitan Yuvenali, the bishop of Moscow in all but title, was chairing the religious section. About two hundred people were taking part, mainly Christians but also a good many Jews as well as Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists and Moslems. Most of the speeches were made off-the-cuff and, on the whole, either interesting or mercifully brief. Several speakers touched on hot subjects, including Afghanistan, where what the USSR was doing was compared to what America had done in Vietnam.

The next morning, those of us in the religious section were off to the Danilovski Monastery, a few miles south of the Kremlin, to take part in the Holy Liturgy. A community of twenty-one monks was now living there, the youngest monastic community in the USSR. Among those buried in its cemetery in pre-Soviet times was Gogol, author of the comic novel Dead Souls. After the Revolution, the Danilov Monastery became an orphanage, then a prison, and more recently a factory. In an unanticipated gesture by the state, the compound had been returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. The church and the surrounding derelict buildings within the walls were experiencing a resurrection. Tons of rubble and mud had been carted away. The hard labor was mainly being carried out by devout volunteers.

During the Liturgy a nearby family caught my eye. I was enchanted by two young sisters, perhaps five and seven years old, and their young brother, about four. The boy was sitting on the floor, back resting against the iconostasis, sucking his thumb. The girls were deeply absorbed in the service, watching everything attentively, crossing themselves solemnly, all without a trace of self-consciousness. At times the younger girl leaned against her older sister, who in turn had her arms around the younger one. At other times they were holding hands. A short distance away I noticed a lean, bearded man about my age with his wife and their son, about nine. The intelligence in the boy’s face and his attitude of deep devotion were impressive. He often rested against his father. All the while the singing fell on us as if we were standing under a waterfall.

Wanting to buy a few icon cards, I went into a small shop built into the wall surrounding the monastery where I was waited on by a lean, grizzled elder wearing patched clothing, something of a human cactus — a man who had seen many hard years. As he gave me change for a twenty ruble note, he was quietly whispering not numbers, it dawned on me, but a short form of the Jesus Prayer: “Jesus, have mercy, Jesus, have mercy, Jesus, have mercy….” After putting the change in my pocket, I lingered, pretending to look at other items for sale, but really only to see if his whispered prayer ever stopped. If it did, it was not while I was there.

At lunchtime at a restaurant in the city center, I happened to be placed along the path of Patriarch Pimen, a former Gulag prisoner. He had aged since I last saw him two years earlier — now he had difficulty walking. Two people helped him make his painful way to a table, yet his lively eyes were darting around with great attention, not missing a thing.

Participants in the religious section of the conference met in the afternoon to hear the draft text of a proposed common statement. The committee managed to catch the spirit of the meeting, neither accusing nor praising but concentrating on positive steps to be taken. “People of religion have special roles to play, among them: promoting unity among the peoples; increasing contacts across lines of division; helping to eliminate prejudiced enemy images; and intensifying education for peace.” Leaders of the nuclear states were urged to renounce nuclear deterrence and to conclude new treaties leading toward a nuclear-free world. It was a simple text, but not lacking in a sense of urgency: “We appeal to all to commit themselves unalterably to the task of building the basis for common security today. The time has come for us to ask the ancient questions: If not me, who? If not now, when?”

The next and last morning all the conference participants came together for a plenary meeting at the Kremlin. Our first stop was the Palace of Facets in the oldest part of the Kremlin, where we were taken to what had once been the throne room of the czars. It was decorated with biblical scenes depicting the creation of the world as described in Genesis — suitable images for a meeting preoccupied with threats to creation.

After an hour of informal conversations, we were ushered into the Supreme Soviet, a large hall that was the meeting place of the most authoritative legislative body of the USSR. There was nothing hierarchical about seating arrangements. More than half-way back in the hall, I found myself sitting directly in front of a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Georgi Arbatov, a key figure in the Gorbachev inner circle and architect of Soviet foreign policy — he had recently told a Time magazine reporter, “We are going to do something terrible to you. We are going to deprive you of an enemy.” Over to the side I noticed Kris Kristofferson, the American singer, songwriter and actor who had recently played the leading role in a film dramatizing a Soviet take-over of the United States. He looked rather sheepish. Most surprising, a few rows in front of me, was the renowned nuclear physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, around whom the press gathered as if he were Albert Einstein risen from the dead. Truly it was headline news that the country’s most famous dissident, long kept in internal exile, a man who had paid a heavy price for his advocacy of human rights, was now was a guest of honor in the Kremlin.

Sitting at a podium in the front of the hall was a representative from each section of the conference plus Gorbachev.

A highlight of this final session was a speech by Graham Greene, representing the writers’ section. He apologized that he would be speaking just for himself but, he commented, “no writer can possibly represent more than one writer.” Then he explained, without ever mentioning his latest novel, Monsignor Quixote, what that book was all about: religious people opening their ears to Marxists about a more just social order, and Marxists discovering that God not only exists but is far more radical than they are. General Michael Harbottle from Britain spoke, as did Dr. Bernard Lown of Harvard, one of the initiators of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios from India, a president of the World Council of Churches, spoke on behalf of the religious section of the conference. There was an Italian businessman, a political scientist, an ecologist. The speeches, broadcast live on Soviet television and rebroadcast in the evening, were all quite good.

Gorbachev came last and gave a major address. He argued that the fact that we had survived forty years with nuclear weapons is not something to count on forever. “We are,” he said, “the lucky survivors of many war-risking games of chance. Nuclear deterrence is a policy based on intimidation and threat. It must always be backed up with definite action, and this actually increases the chances of military conflict. If we continue in the direction we are going, living in a constant state of high alert with enormous stocks of such weapons, then catastrophe is highly likely.... Eventually we will terminate our own existence, and there will be no second Noahs.” He didn’t agree with those who argue that war is part of human nature. “Many say so. If so we are doomed. I cannot accept such a dogma.” His basic message was that the responsibility is in our hands to make an unprecedented break not only with weapons of mass destruction but with militarism. Everything that matters depends on this. Gorbachev was no pacifist but he seemed to be an abolitionist: someone who believes in a future without doomsday weaponry and even a future in which war is as unthinkable as slavery. “The immortality of the human race,” he said, “has been lost and can only be regained by the elimination of nuclear weapons. The nuclear guillotine must be broken and with it the alienation of politics from ethics.”

He spoke about democratization and the “revolution now in progress” in the USSR, which he said was unstoppable and which shouldn’t be seen as simply a response to western pressures or criticisms but as an event with local roots. “We want a democratic society. We want more socialism and more democracy.” The main problem with politics, he said, “is that it has become soul-less.” Gorbachev’s own view seemed to be summed up in the words, “Life will have its way.”

Outside the hall, an American journalist asked me what I thought of Gorbachev’s speech. I said that words on a page or a face on a television screen just aren’t the same as hearing someone speaking at length, unedited, and in the same room. I hoped she could find a way to communicate the possibility that what he said isn’t a propaganda charade. His speech reminded me, I said, of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris.

Sandwiched between two old enemies, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, I made my way to a buffet lunch on the top floor of the Palace of Congresses, one of the few modern buildings within the walls of the Kremlin. For the first time that week, we had wine with our meal. Given the small crowd gathered around him, I wasn’t able to speak with Gorbachev but was close enough to take a photo of him, as requested by two of my daughters.

I sought out Graham Greene, now 82, who recalled we had occasionally exchanged letters. He had watery, pale blue eyes and a ghost-like handshake, but there was a strong pulse in his words. He worried that he had let rhetoric get the best of him during his speech. I also talked with actor Gregory Peck. We spoke about Dan Berrigan’s play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, the movie version of which had been produced by Peck. It was a box-office disaster, he said, but had won a film prize. Peck predicted that one day it would come into its own. I noticed Yoko Ono standing quietly by herself and saw Marcello Mastroianni, looking venerable and tired, cheerfully signing autographs.

In the afternoon I was one of several people accompanying Metropolitan Yuvenali to the US Embassy. We were received in a small room on the ground floor. I was impressed by how warm and unpretentious Yuvenali was. He asked the embassy staff to forward to President Reagan a copy of the final statement of the religious section of the conference as well as the same medal that had been presented to Gorbachev in the morning: an enameled medallion with a view of the earth from space.

To be in Moscow in 1987 was to hear the loud crack of cold war ice breaking under our feet. Who would believe that former cold warrior Ronald Reagan, of all people, would embrace the moment? To his undying credit, Reagan played a decisive role in greatly reducing the number of US and Soviet nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. In December 1987 Reagan and Gorbachev signed the proposed treaty and six months later, again in Moscow, signed the final text, now ratified by the US Senate, of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Reagan told reporters that he no longer considered the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” a phrase he had often used in his first term as president. The climate between the two superpowers had changed so dramatically that Reagan described his relationship with Gorbachev as one of friendship.

While Reagan and Gorbachev were shaking hands in the Kremlin for another treaty signing ceremony in June 1988, I was also in Moscow and nearly crossed paths with First Lady Nancy Reagan. My translator and  I had gone to Peredelkino, a village on the edge of Moscow made famous by the writers who had lived there, most notably Boris Pasternak, whose burial place is next to the Transfiguration Church. Three older women were sitting on a stone bench at the foot of Pasternak’s grave. One of them pointed to a branch of pale lavender orchids lying in front of the tombstone. “Nancy Reagan put them there! I saw her do it with my own eyes,” one of them told me. What surprised the women as much as meeting so famous a person was that she came only with her driver — “She was alone. There were no journalists, no photographers!” Apparently I was not the only pilgrim that day. On my return to Holland, I sent Mrs. Reagan a photo of Pasternak’s grave and her orchids. She responded with a note of thanks.



Jim Forest is an author and peace activist and is the International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship