Following the 2007 reconciliation of 90% of the Russian Orthodox world outside Russia and the much larger Russian Orthodox world inside Russia, some wondered how the two parts would converge. After all, the two parts had distinctive identities, and little wonder, given the ninety years of mutual separation. That separation had been forced on the faithful by the 1917 overthrow of the old, Faith-based, Imperial Orthodox Civilisation by power-seeking Westernised aristocrats and money-loving bourgeois. The main part of the Church inside the Soviet Union had been cruelly persecuted and its organisation taken hostage by the atheist State for three generations of captivity. As for the much smaller part in exile, it had suffered from those who had little interest in the Gospel of Christ, of Orthodox Civilisation, but much interest in the Gospel of Mammon, of the unprincipled Capitalist West.
The Two Sides of the Past
Both parts shared in ideologies which at times were totally irrational, and dominated by reflexes which were certainly not theological, but emotional, folkloric, psychological and even, in some cases, pathological.
On the one hand, the post-Soviet part could display immense nationalism – to the incredible point of admiring its persecutor, Stalin – and had a centralised and bureaucratic State mentality, reflected in the indifferent attitudes of some careerist paid clergy who perhaps did not even believe in God. Certainly these showed little visible signs of faith. This went hand in hand with the attitudes of secularist Westernisers who admired the power and wealth of the Vatican (another State-Church, or rather Church-State). Among the post-Soviet people, deprived of Church education for 75 years, could be found an incredible range of absurd extremes and phariseeism, superstitions based on extraordinary ignorance, resulting in misunderstandings and false problems, which had long ago been solved by Orthodox living in the Western world, from whom they refused to learn, blinkered by their nationalism.
On the other hand, the émigré part could also display immense nationalism, only an anti-Soviet nationalism, with a cultural nostalgia for a disappeared past and phariseeism. It refused to understand mass Orthodoxy, rejecting it, isolating itself in the cosy, inward-looking clubbiness of tiny ghettos. It would refuse any non-Russians, making absurd demands of them. To quote many real examples, there were those who preferred to see their church close rather than see non-Russians there. ‘After us, the deluge’. Others said: Let the church close, we will be dead soon and no-one will need it’. One elderly priest told his parishioners that there was no point in his baptising their children, as soon he would be dead and no-one would replace him. Indeed, he soon died and no-one did replace him. I also heard 35 years ago: ‘I would sooner see our church close than hear a word that is not Russian inside it’.
In the Here and Now
Today we live in a world which is both post-Soviet and post-émigré. Both died out and are buried. Those aged under thirty scarcely understand what the words Soviet and émigré mean. They live in the real world.
In the real Orthodox world we see small, provincial, Balkanised churches, in other words, mere nationalist clubs. In the words of members of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (including priests): ‘You cannot join us, you are not dark enough to be Orthodox’ (= Greek). Or: ‘Romanians only’. Or, in one Ukrainian church: ‘If you are not Ukrainian, go away’. Or in one Serbian church: ‘If you are not Serb, you may come in, but you may not kiss the icon of St Sava, as you are not Serb’. Or, as one Georgian priest told me: ‘God only speaks Georgian’. And an elderly Russian woman, sunk in her dark and unrebuked ignorance, told me that ‘God only understands Slavonic’. Such churches have no spiritual relevance and will, as they deserve, die out as most of them already have. Their disappearance is no loss, as their museum existence has no spiritual significance or justification.
The only Local Orthodox Church which is large enough and has the spiritual and intellectual breadth to overcome such petty and divisive nationalism, the curse of the small Local Churches, is the Russian Church. Three-quarters of the whole Church of God, the multinational Russian Church alone has the potential to overcome such provincial narrowness. Its imperial past, its double-headed eagle looking and uniting east and west, is the point around which both groups, inside Russia and outside Russia, and other Local Churches, can converge. For the Soviet period is just as much in the past as is that of the Russian emigration. We do not live in history books, we read them. We live, and are saved, in the here and now. Today, as never before, the Church faces a global challenge and it can only meet this by showing Her catholicity, Her unity in diversity, Her unity of faith at all times and in all places.
In order to overcome the nationalism, provincialism and parochial narrowness of many and to be relevant in today’s global world, the Russian Orthodox Church has to show Her multinationalism. In order to overcome Her former division, She has to show that She is above all provincial variations. The convergence of all requires the courage of purification. And there is no greater example of this than the courage and purification of the one figure who unites us unanimously, the Emperor and Saint, Tsar Nicholas II. He was of international origin, his mother Danish, he spoke five languages and intended to build a church in every European capital and translate the service books into the European languages. And his Tsarina was an Anglo-German convert. They, their five children and their servants, are saints. We need no greater example of multinational Churchliness for our future.