The Kremlin And The Candle

churchA major event took place in the history of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet regime on September 4, 1943. On that day, Stalin invited the last three metropolitans of the time - Sergy, Alexi and Nikolai - to the Kremlin.

The meeting was a complete surprise for the hierarchs, as official relations between the Kremlin and the Church had been severed 30 years prior to that day. The Orthodoxy lay in ruins in Russia, with barely 200 churches standing intact on the vast expanses of the country, which used to have nearly 40,000 churches only ten years before. Absolutely all monasteries and nunneries, seminaries and religious academies were closed down and devastated. Nearly all bishops were shot down or imprisoned. In moments of desperation, Metropolitan Sergy, then Patriarchal Locum Tenens, even though that the Russian Church would be wiped off the face of the earth just as the Carthaginian one had been. In a word, the summons to Stalin was like a thunderbolt to him.

But to Stalin the decision to revive the Church was a political decision. The results of the 1937 census probably shocked the Soviet ruler, as more than a half of Soviet citizens registered as believers.

On the first day of the Great Patriotic War, June 22, 1941, Metropolitan Sergy, mustering courage, called on the believers to stand up in defence of the homeland. He risked his life that day, as hierarchs were prohibited to make any public appearances. Yet his daring action was left unpunished. Moreover, the metropolitan's address was printed on a million leaflets dropped from aircraft over the frontline.

Exploiting the favourable moment, Metropolitan Sergy cautiously requested that the authorities allow to open a patriarchal account for the collection of donations for the armed forces. The permission was granted and the church resumed the virtual life. On the Easter night in 1942, a procession with lit candles, crosses and banners - the first since the 1917 revolution - was held in the capital. The clergy and parishioners wept singing glory to the Saviour.

And now, the summons to the Kremlin. We can safely assume the thoughts of Stalin, who saw the fear and embarrassment of the metropolitans, raised from their beds in Zagorsk (now Sergiyev Posad) and brought to Moscow on the orders of dictator. He had in mind two things: the fact that Germans opened several hundred Orthodox churches in the occupied territories, and the necessity of opening the second front, the sooner the better.

The Anglican Church, which had been asking the Kremlin to allow a meeting with the Orthodox Church since 1941, jumped at the chance. At the same time, the easing of the official pressure on the believers was a clearly expressed desire of the allies before the forthcoming Teheran conference.

And Stalin decided that Teheran was worth the mass. The revival of the Orthodox Church would force the allies to protect Christian Russians. On the other hand, Joseph Dzhugashvili-Stalin had been a true believer as a boy, his voice rang the clearest in the Gori church, and his desire to become a priest was sincere. In fact, it was from the window of the Tiflis (Tbilisi) seminary than he jumped into the revolution.

When Stalin asked the hierarchs about the requirements of the Church, and Metropolitan Sergy, shaking off the mental vision, enumerated the priorities: the convocation of the Assembly and elections of the patriarch, the revival of the Synod, the reopening of seminaries and of at least one monastery for the restoration of the ranks of bishops.

What for? asked Stalin.

We have absolutely no cadres, replied the metropolitan.

Why is that? queried the leader in a show of innocence.

It was impossible to say that the clergy was exterminated nearly to the last man but Sergy cleverly manoeuvred out of that trap. It sometimes happens, he said, that we train a young man for the Church but instead he becomes the head of state.

Well, nearly all requests of the hierarchs were granted that morning, even such a minor one as Kremlin food rations for the emaciated metropolitans. The only things Sergy rejected outright were moving the patriarchal residence to the former German embassy and getting subsidies from the state. It was a very far-sighted decision.

On that day was engendered the state and mystical unity of Russia, where the production of tanks and the overflight of cities with a miracle-making icon on board fused into one anti-fascist thrust. You know the result - the defeat of Nazi Germany.

President Vladimir Putin has recently attended the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the canonisation of St. Seraphim of Sarov, where he prayed together with the patriarch and thousands of pilgrims. It was one more sign of change. Russia is becoming a civilised society and an equal member of the group of Christian powers of the planet. The time for shocks and quakes is past. The view of the Kremlin, with its abundance of golden church cupolas, ruby stars and the Russian tricolour hoisted over the presidential residence clearly signifies that the time of political madness is over.

Anatoly KOROLEV, RIA Novosti analyst