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. Continue reading
The story of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow is a remarkable one, and well known by many Orthodox Christians in our time. Like so many of the stories of the New Martryrdom, however, few Americans know about it. One of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, it was originally built in the nineteenth century. But it was blown up on orders of Joseph Stalin in 1931, and became the site of a remarkable–and almost comic–effort by the Communists to establish a new, post-Christian culture. Rebuilt after the collapse of Communism, it is in some ways a monument to the resilience of Christianity in the modern world and of the durability of Christendom. Continue reading
One of the really remarkable things about the Soviet cult of Vladimir Lenin was its religious character. It is a reminder that strict atheism is rare, even in the modern world.
There is a Psalm verse that speaks of how unusual and even ridiculous atheism is: “The fool says in his heart, there is no god” (Psalm 14:1). The Communists were adherents to the philosophy of Karl Marx and therefore strict atheists. They were convinced religion is an “opiate of the masses” imposed by class oppressors upon the workers and that there is in reality no god whatsoever. The Soviet Union was the first government in world history that committed itself to atheism. And yet, it was also the first government in history to invent a new culture, or system of beliefs and values, that was pseudo-religious. This can be seen in several features of the Lenin cult. Continue reading
When Lenin died of a stroke in 1924 the Communist Party was eager to immortalize him. The cult of Lenin that resulted went further than all earlier efforts in the history of Christendom–Christian or post-Christian–to glorify departed leaders.
The case of the United States is an interesting contrast. On the one hand, there were undoubted similarities. The “apotheosis of George Washington” depicted on the interior of the Capitol dome in a capital city named after the first president drew upon the pagan Roman practice of deifying departed emperors (that is, literally declaring them to be gods). Washington was also glorified by a political culture in the early American republic that sought to create an almost mystical sense of his ongoing presence, expressed later by innumerable sites scattered throughout the eastern United States claiming that “George Washington slept here.”
The difference between the cult of Washington and that of Lenin, however, was not just that the one was committed to individual rights and the other to totalitarian dictatorship. What really made the difference was that while Washington showed relative indifference to traditional Christianity and seems to have favored its Enlightenment alternative of deism, Lenin was an atheist and intended to create a civilization of atheists. And it was this goal that colored the cultural revolution that gave rise to his posthumous cult. Continue reading
It was one thing to kill Russia’s Christians, and another to destroy Russian Christendom.
In a certain sense, of course, the elimination of Christians would achieve this end. In addition to Orthodox lay people such as the New Martyr Daria (whose execution I recounted in my previous post), most of the clergy was killed off or consigned to places such as Solovetsky Monastery, which was converted to a kind of clerical death camp.
Of some fifty thousand parish priests in 1917, only about five thousand existed two decades later. The bishops faced even greater odds against survival.
Without a body of the faithful or the clergy to lead them, the Communists reasoned, Christendom would wither and disappear. But they could not wait for that. They had seized power in the name of an entirely new and post-Christian civilization and intended to usher in its supporting culture as quickly as possible. They were men in a hurry.
And so they launched a cultural revolution on several “fronts.” In this post I will introduce one of them: The notorious cult of Vladimir Lenin. Continue reading
There is no such thing as a typical Christian martyr, for each one is unique in his or her witness to God’s love for the world. At the same time, each martyr was a person living in the age to which God assigned him, and therefore was joined to and served to sanctify the world during that time.
Thanks to modern photography (and the bureaucratic efficiency of totalitarianism), we know what a lot of the Christians who were shot to death for their faith in the Soviet Union looked like. Precisely, vividly, and even in some cases rather artistically. Continue reading
Everyone knows about the old martyrdom, when Roman emperors and angry mobs of pagan citizens put Christians to death by the thousands for their faith. It lives on in the memory of all Christians and helped form the identity of the Church for hundreds of years. But the “new martyrdom” is for some reason less well known.
This new martyrdom is going on now, and in fact has been going on for most of the past five hundred years or so. Continue reading
Yesterday’s news of the killings at Umpqua College in Oregon included a detail that, if true, reminds us that even senseless acts of violence occur within a cultural context.
The murderer was reported to have asked his victims if they were Christians before shooting them in the head. Non-Christians and those that declined to answer were reported to have been shot in non-lethal areas of their bodies. There is no point in speculating about the motives of a psychopath, other than to observe that somewhere he acquired a conviction that Christians are a threat to the world in which he briefly sought to live. That “somewhere” is our post-Christian culture. Continue reading