In two weeks, Orthodox Christians throughout what was once the Soviet Union will be celebrating the memory of the New Martyrs and Confessors of that land (those following the Western calendar in America and elsewhere celebrated the event yesterday). These people were killed for their faith between the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the collapse of Communism in 1991. Recognized as saints since 1982 by the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, they were eventually canonized in Russia by the Patriarchate of Moscow in 2000. That event itself was a symbolical milestone in the history of Christendom, for it represented the restoration of traditional Christianity to a place of vitality within our culture.
The twentieth century was not kind to this culture, especially in Russia. It opened with a large percentage of intellectuals and artists declaring their rejection of Christianity. Leo Tolstoy (d. 1910) had notoriously abandoned the Orthodox Church, and was even formally excommunicated as a result. Anton Chekhov (d. 1904) was at most an agnostic, though unlike the late Tolstoy he did not proclaim it loudly in his works. Maxim Gorky (d. 1936), on the other hand, was an avowed atheist and made common cause with Stalin and the Communists. The later were, of course, thoroughly committed to destroying Christianity. The Great Terror of the 1930s was only the most extreme period of religious persecution, and it was then that nearly all clergy were arrested and shot, and nearly all churches closed down or blown up.
In 1931, the largest Orthodox church in the world, Christ the Savior Cathedral, was demolished on Stalin’s orders. It became the site of the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool.
The expectation was that as socialism spread throughout a teetering capitalist world religion would be swept into what Trotsky (devoured by Stalin’s terror machine in 1940) had called the “dustbin of history.”
Such was not the outcome of Soviet history. A majority of citizens reported in a census that they still believed in what Marx had called the “opium of the masses”–another occasion for religious bloodletting by the regime. Once the most violent agents of atheism were gone–once Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev had all gone the way of all flesh–Orthodox Christianity and other faiths reemerged to play their own unique role in bringing Communism to its knees. A veritable explosion of interest in the historical faith of Russia occurred under Mikhail Gorbachev. And when he too was finally gone, and Communism with him, the Orthodox Church reemerged from the catacombs to guide Russian civilization and its culture forward.
The canonization ceremony of those persecuted during the seventy-four year experiment in atheistic utopia was notable in three particular ways. Each was representative of the return of Christianity to the culture of a post-Christian Christendom.
The first point of significance was the New Martyrs and Confessors themselves. Once vilified as enemies of progress, they now took their place within public memory as national heroes. The sheer diversity of their personalities (over a thousand were canonized) was an expression of this. They not only included bishops and priests, but laymen, laywomen, and even laychildren.
They–not the discredited agents of revolution (whose overturned statues littered the junkyards)–were now the face of Russia.
Second, the bishops who assembled to canonize them represented a new force in society rivalling the secular leadership. To demonstrate this, they issued a statement called the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church that laid out a series of teachings on everything from care for the poor and the environment to condemnation of ethnic nationalism and abortion. Its intention was not only to provide recent and still unchurched converts to the faith with a religious compass, but to establish a new orientation for Russian civilization.
The final and perhaps most dramatic feature of the canonization was that it was celebrated in a newly rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral. After the collapse of Communism, anti-Christian landmarks and place-names were in many cases overthrown or changed. Leningrad reverted to Saint Petersburg. The town of Sverdlovsk, named for the revolutionary who transmitted Lenin’s order to murder Nicholas II and the royal family in 1918, reverted to Yekaterinburg. And the massive public swimming pool in central Moscow, built on the site of the cathedral Stalin demolished, was filled in. The new Christ the Savior Cathedral was an exact replica of the original–much to the regret of traditional Christians chafing at the Westernized iconography that, popular when it had been built in the nineteenth century, was restored with it.
Nevertheless, the newly commissioned icon of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, “known and unknown,” was painted in the traditional Eastern manner. As Patriarch Alexy II raised it slowly over the heads of the thousands of faithful assembled for the canonization in 2000, it was clear that a new era in the history of Russian Christendom had begun.
Whether traditional Christianity recovers the same influence in the West remains to be seen.