Let us look first in detail at one man's conversion in Russia.
We who are converts to Orthodoxy in the West can compare and contrast our own
experience of coming to the faith with this typical conversion experience in
Soviet Russia; and those of you who were "born Orthodox" can learn
the more to treasure you faith when you see through what torments a man often
comes to find it. This is the experience of Yury Mashkov,1
an emigrant from Russia
just three years ago, who was invited to speak at the Russian Orthodox
Labor-Day conference in New Jersey
in 1978, just three months after he arrived in America.
I will quote part of his talk at this gathering and make comments on it as I go
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He begins by saying that when he was invited to give a talk,
"I was disturbed. It seemed to me that I had nothing to tell
you. The first half of my life I was a student, and the second half I
spent in prisons and the political concentration camps of the Gulag.
Indeed, what can I say to people who are more educated than I, more erudite,
and even better informed about events in the Soviet Union?"
Here there is already a striking contrast with the
experience of us Western converts to Orthodoxy, and of
most young Russians in the West as well. Usually (if we are very
interested in our faith) we have read many books on Orthodoxy and have a broad
theoretical knowledge of it; and we have had a secure childhood and no
experience of repression or prison. But here is a man who is going to
speak, unwillingly, not out of books and a secure past, but simply out of his
own experience of suffering. Here already we can learn something.
He goes on: "Therefore I decided not to write
down my talk, but to say whatever God would place in my soul. And then,
as we were hurrying away from Bridgeport, Connecticut, in a splendid automobile
along the astonishing freeway in the midst of a luxuriant nature, I understood
that all my spiritually tormenting life in the Communist 'paradise,' my path
from atheism and Marxism to Orthodox faith and Russian nationalism, is the only
valuable information that can be of interest to you. My life is of
interest only inasmuch as it is a drop in the ocean of the Russian religious
and national rebirth."
Here again we in the West can sense a great difference from
our own experience. Some of these points may seem like small details, but
they are very revealing of our spiritual state. We in the West have
learned to take for granted splendid automobiles, freeways, beautiful nature—we
would not even comment on these things. But such things, which represent
the ease of life in our America,
are unheard of in the Soviet Union. Recently I
spoke with a recent emigrant from the USSR, and she spoke of one form of
dishonesty and crime in Russia today which is almost incomprehensible to us in
the free world: when a poet can speak beautifully about flower in a field and
be silent about the fact that this field was a place for the torture and murder
of innocent people. The whole of Russia
is covered with such places today. At one such place, the former
concentration camp of Solovki, the tourists are warned to "stay on the
paths"—because some have wandered off of them and unexpectedly found human
bones sticking out of the earth—remnants of the thousands who perished
there. When this is the experience of your country, you cannot feel at
ease with beautiful cars and freeways and nature; there is a pain in your soul
that is seeking for something deeper.
"I was born (he continues) in the bloody year of 1937
in the village of Klishev,
thirty miles from Moscow (on the
side of Ryazan). My father, a
blacksmith by profession, died in the war, and I do not remember him; my
mother, who worked at various jobs, was, I think, indifferent to
religion. My grandmother, it is true, was religious, but she had no
authority in my eyes because she was totally illiterate. Of course I was
baptized as a child, but in my school years I took off my cross and until the
age of 25 was a convinced atheist. After finishing the seven-year
(primary) school, I had the good fortune to enter the Moscow Higher School of
Art and Industry (the former Stroganov
School), and I studied there five
years out of the seven. Thus, outwardly my life had begun very
successfully… In time, I should have received the diploma of an artist
and would be able to work anywhere I wanted."
This is a typical Soviet life—but how sobering when compared
to our sheltered life in America!
Born in the "bloody" years, not of war with an outside enemy, but of
Stalin's purges and liquidations, he lost his father in the war, grew up in an
atmosphere of atheism (although with reminders of the Orthodox past, especially
his Baptism), and had a good future in store in the highly competitive Soviet
school system. All this is a far different experience from that of the
youth of our Western world. But then something happened to him.
"But the boring Soviet life and spiritual
dissatisfaction gave me no peace, and somewhere at the end of 1955, in my 19th
year, there occurred an event, outwardly unnoticeable, which however overturned
my life and (finally) brought me here. This event occurred in my soul and
consisted of the fact that I understood in what kind of society I was
living. Despite all the naked Soviet propaganda, I understood that
I was living under a regime of absolute rightlessness and absolute
cruelty. Very many students came to the same conclusion at this time, and
in time there appeared those who thought as I did, and we all considered it our
duty to tell the people of our discovery and to somehow act against the triumph
Here, of course, there is something akin to the idealistic
youth of the West, and the awakening of an awareness of truth and higher values
which is universally experienced at this age—with the important exception that
the background of this experience in Russia is a difficult life, suffering, and
terror, while in the West it is usually a full stomach, an easy life, and
plenty of spare time. In the free West, this youthful experience has led
to the numerous demonstrations in the past decades for various causes, some of
them very low and unworthy ones. In the USSR,
however, the result is very different.
"But the KGB very carefully looks after all the
citizens of the USSR, and when on November 7, 1958 (when he was just 21 years
old) we gathered at an organizational meeting to decide the question of an
underground samizdat, six of us were arrested and all who did not repent were
given the highest punishment for anti-Soviet agitation—seven years each in
concentration camp. Thus began a new path in my life."
It should be noted that there is nothing said yet about any religious
conversion; this is still only youthful idealism, about to be tested in the
"All of us ten were atheists and Marxists of the
'Euro-Communist' camp. That is, we believed that Marxism in itself was a true teaching which lead the people to a bright future, to
the kingdom of freedom and justice, and the Moscow
criminals for some reason did not want to realize this teaching in life.
In the concentration camp this idea completely and forever died in all of
And now begins his spiritual rebirth.
"I would like to reveal a little of the process of
spiritual rebirth so that you can see how unfailingly it is proceeding in the
Russian people. It is not only I and those who were with me who have gone
through the spiritual path from Marxism to religious faith… This is a
typical manifestation for the Soviet political concentration camps."
(He mentions Vladimir Osipov and Deacon Barsanufy Haibulin as examples of those
who entered the camps as atheists and left as Orthodox believers.)
"What is happening with the Russian people? The process of spiritual
rebirth has two stages. At first we discern the essence of Marxism and
are freed from any illusions with regard to it. Under a profound and
thoughtful analysis we discover that Marxism in its essence is a complete teaching
of totalitarianism, that is, an absolute Communist slavery, and any Communist
Party in any country, once having undertaken the realization of the Marxist
program, will be compelled to repeat what the Moscow Communists have done and
are doing, or else renounce Marxism and liquidate themselves. Having
understood this simple truth, we lose the ideological basis on which we had
opposed Marxist slavery. We fall into a spiritual vacuum which draws
after it an ever profounder crisis."
This experience is not too different from what happens in
the West when a young person becomes thoroughly disillusioned with the ideals
of democracy and progress, although this is usually a less extreme experience
than what happens in Russia,
where Communism is virtually the "state religion." But the next
stage of "spiritual rebirth" occurs in Russia
under quite different circumstances.
"Coming to camp, we Russians are surrounded by enemies,
because the nationalists of all colors (Ukrainians, those from the Baltic countries,
Armenians, Uzbekis, and others), not understanding the historical uniqueness of
the Marxist dictatorship have gone the way of least mental effort and identify
the international power (of Communism) with the Orthodox Monarchy and accuse us
Russians of chauvinism. Thus, there is no salvation anywhere: on one side
the Communists annihilate us, on the other the
nationalists prepare the same thing for us. After being freed from camp,
our outlook is one that we could not wish for an enemy: either to go back to
camp and remain there for the rest of our lives, or dies in a psychiatric
prison, or be murdered by Chekists without trial or investigation.
"In these conditions of spiritual crises, with no way
out, there inevitably comes up the chief question of a world-view: what am I
living for if there is no salvation? And when this frightful moment
comes, each of us feels that death has really caught him by the throat: if some
kind of a spiritual answer does not come, life comes to an end, because without
God not only is 'everything permitted,' but life itself has no value and no
meaning. I saw in the camp how people went out of their minds or ended
with suicide. And I myself clearly felt that if, after all, I came to the
firm and final conclusion that there is no God, I
would simply be obliged to end with suicide, since it is shameful and
belittling for a rational creature to drag out a senseless and tormenting
life. Thus, at the second stage of spiritual rebirth we discover that
atheism, thought out to its logical end, inevitably brings a man to perdition,
because it is a complete teaching of immorality, evil, and death."
This experience is also similar to what some Western
converts have experienced; but the urgency of the life-or-death situation in
which he found himself, face to face with the Soviet apparatus of terror, is on
a deeper level than most of us here have experienced.
"A tragic end (suicide or madness) would have been my
lot too it, to my good fortune, there had not occurred on September 1, 1962, the greatest miracle in my
life. No event occurred on that day, there were no suggestions from
outside; in solitude I was reflecting on my problem: 'to be or not to
be?' At this time I already realized thoroughly the savingness of faith
in God. I very much wanted to believe in Him; but I could not deceive
myself: I had no faith.
"And suddenly there came a second, when somehow for the
first time I saw (as if a door had opened from a dark room into the sunny
street), and in the next second I already knew for sure that God exists and
that God is the Jesus Christ of Orthodoxy, and not some kind of Hindu,
Buddhist, Jewish, or other God. I call this moment the greatest miracle
because this precise knowledge came to me not through reason (I know this for
sure) but by some other way, and I am unable to explain this moment rationally…
And so by such a miracle my new spiritual life began, which has helped me to
endure another thirteen years o life in concentration camps and prisons, a forced
emigration, and, I hope, will help me to endure all the difficulties of
"And this 'moment of faith,' this greatest miracle, is being experienced now in Russia
by thousands of people, and not only in the concentration camps and prisons.
Igor Ogurtsov, the founder of the Social-Christian Union, came to faith not in
the camps but in the university. Religious rebirth is a typical
phenomenon of contemporary Russia.
Everything spiritually alive inevitably returns to God. And it is absolutely
evident that such a saving miracle, despite the whole might of Communist
politics, can be performed only by the Almighty God, Who has not left the
Russian people in terrible sufferings and in a seemingly complete
defenselessness before many enemies."2
This detailed look at one main's spiritual experience gives
us something of a feel for what is happening in Russia
today. Let us look now at the more general picture of the Orthodox
revival in Russia
today, in particular through the observations of two of its best-known
representatives, in order to see what specifically we can learn from this
phenomenon for our own Orthodox life.