Word Magazine February 1990 Page 8-9


by Father Andrew L.J. James, Ph.D.

Some Orthodox Christians, including me, have wondered if all the changes in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe are not, somehow, connected to the fact that Mikail S. Gorbachev, the president of the USSR, was baptized, chrismated, and given first Holy Communion in the Russian Orthodox Church, when he was about 40 days old. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not given in vain.

In 1920, St. Patriarch Tikhon, the first patriarch of the Russian Church since Tsar Peter the Great, after his incarceration by the Communist regime, after he was forced to take positions which he did not hold, pronounced an all-encompassing excommunication upon anyone who calls himself an Orthodox Christian, and who also professes belief in Marxist/Leninist dialectic materialism (AKA: Communism).

Where does that leave us? If Tovarish Mikail was once a Christian, something he said was normal when he was questioned in Paris, but is excommunicated from the Church by reason of his Marxism (at least his adolescent Marxism, for he now says Marxists have changed their attitude about religion, which formerly was treated “simplistically”), does that negate the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

Besides, if we say that Mikail Gorbachev is doing what he is doing because of the Holy Spirit, what are we to make of his predecessor, who may also have been baptized/chrismated/communicated in the Orthodox Church? What, pray, does one say of the unlamented Josef Stalin, who was not only given the same gifts, but was an Orthodox seminarian? Stalin was on his way to being a priest, before he got caught up in Communist thought. After that, and perhaps one might use this as a means of demonstrating just how desolate one can become when he is bereft of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Stalin became one of the world’s leading mass murderers. His killings surpass even those of Hitler (if we do not include those who perished as a direct result of Hitler’s war, rather than his war against minorities in Deutschland).

If the Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit was conferred upon Stalin (and it was, since every parish priest, using oil blessed by his patriarch, anoints each infant baptized, and says as he anoints the organs of the senses “The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit”), are we then to conclude that, owing to his crimes, the Holy Spirit left him? That seems probable.

If the Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit was extirpated in Stalin, does it mean likely (given Jesus’ parable on the subject) that, when the Devil came and found that vessel empty He filled it with many demons? The man’s crimes are horrible even to remember: 7,000,000 to 14,000,000 Ukrainians deliberately starved to death; an estimated 10,000 bishops and priests slaughtered; approximately one-fifth of the population in and out of the gulag, etc., etc. The man was a certifiable monster.

Of course, one may look to at least one of his successors, Giorgi Malenkov, who, having been a Communist, turned to the Orthodox Church, and died an Orthodox Christian. He was even the elected chief layperson in his parish community, after having been the leader of the whole nation. Malenkov is the only Communist leader known to me who, having been a leader of a Communist government, was baptized/chrismated, and given Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church.

Yes, it is true there is a Russification of Soviet culture; it has been going on for sometime, quite without reference to Gorbachev or perestroika. Intellectuals in the Soviet Union have arrived at the interesting proposition that Russia’s soul is an Orthodox Christian soul, that what made Russia Russia was not the struggling peasants, was not the Tsars (though ask yourself why Tsarist flags are now being sold by vendors in Moscow), not the melancholy of a superfluity of alcohol. It was ever Holy Orthodoxy that made Russia what she is.

As a descendant of St. Vladimir, I have often (facetiously) said Russia became a Christian nation, when St. Vladimir took an Orthodox bishop by his left hand and a sword in his right hand and asked: “Do you want to become Orthodox or die?” To a man, the nation answered: “Pravoslavnie!” (which is Slavonic for “Orthodox!”)

Therefore, in a sense, the very soul of Russia was imposed upon her by her rulers, if we say that Orthodox Christianity is the soul, the heart beat of that great nation, because that is in fact how it happened. Only the details may differ, slightly.

Analogously, glasnost (“openness”) is being imposed upon a reluctant people. How can a nation that has been the toady for one terrorist after another, find its way to “openness,” if the whole history of the people has been formed by blind obedience?

St. Vladimir, whose grandmother St. Olga was a Christian, may have become a Christian in order to marry Prophyrogeneta Anna, the sister of the Emperor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer. It was unseemly for a Byzantine princess to marry a pagan. St. Vladimir allegedly refused Judaism, saying the Jews were always in exile; he refused Islam, because Muslims (allegedly) refuse alcohol, and “drinking is too important to the Rus.”

Vladimir sent ambassadors to Constantinople. They returned to him saying: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. But we know that there

[in the Hagia Sophia] God dwells among men.”

For generations after the forced baptism of the Rus, doubtless the people knew little more about Holy Orthodoxy than how to make the Sign of the Cross (backward from the pope’s way), how to light candles in front of the icons, to kiss the priest’s hand, and to receive Holy Communion. To some, that must remain the substance of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, at the center of that is the Eucharist, the life of Christ in the midst of His people.

Notwithstanding the horrors of Stalinism, the people of the Soviet Union have held onto Orthodoxy. Approximately twenty-seven (27%)percent are still Orthodox. This, at great personal sacrifice. Closing churches and killing priests did not stop Orthodox Christians from maintaining their faith, even if membership in the Church was punishable by loss of jobs, of prestige, lack of an education and/or social advancement.

It is said that members of the Communist Party bring their children to the church to be baptized, late at night. I once heard the bishop of Odessa say that perhaps fifty percent of the children born in his diocese are baptized in the Orthodox Church. One has to wonder how that can be, if it is forbidden for a priest to baptize any child whose parents are not Orthodox. How can a Communist’s child become a Christian?

It is pointless to speculate on that subject. Obviously, the priests, for what the Orthodox call economia (“household management”), for the salvation of souls (without regard to canonical requirements) are baptizing the children of the Communists, regardless of what St. Tikhon taught. However, one has to ask how Communists came to have such regard for baptism, if one-half the population in some dioceses bring their children to the Church for baptism. Do they do it just in case it’s all true? Maybe.

Who is to say the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (via chrismation in the Orthodox Church) has not brought about the changes in Soviet society? The Gift, given secretly, manifests itself openly. Having changed the baptized from the center and core of their being, changing them existentially from the inside out, the Gift of the Holy Spirit wells up to change the society of those who deny there is any possibility of any such manifestation?

Why not? “He hath scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts . . .”

Father Andrew is pastor of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Mission in Athens, Ohio.