Pittsburgh professor sees Russia through lens of religion, not politics | TribLIVE.com

Pittsburgh professor sees Russia through lens of religion, not politics

Stephen Huba
Stephen Huba | Tribune-Review
Professor John Burgess in his office at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Stephen Huba | Tribune-Review
Professor John Burgess in his office at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

At a time of intense interest in Russia — driven mostly by concerns over Russian meddling in American politics and Russian manipulation of social media — a true understanding of Russian society is harder to come by.

John Burgess’ curiosity got the best of him in 2004, when he made his first trip to Russia and spent time in St. Petersburg. A professor of systematic theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, he returned in 2011-12 as a Fulbright Scholar and used his research to write “Holy Rus’: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia” (2017, Yale University Press). He also is the author of “Encounters with Orthodoxy: How Protestant Churches Can Reform Themselves Again” (2013, Westminster/John Knox Press).

A Presbyterian, he is interested in Russian Orthodoxy and its role in Russian society. He recently returned from a year-long trip to Russia and is working on a new book. He sat down with the Tribune-Review to talk about his initial impressions.

What was the purpose of your most recent trip to Russia?

I received a couple of grants. One was from the Fulbright Program. The Fulbright Fellowship was for nine months in the town of Belgorod, which is about 400 miles south of Moscow. It means the “white city” because there are chalk hills in that part of Russia. Then I had a second grant that enabled me to stay in Moscow for the summer — June, July and August. That was really interesting having both experiences — both the capital city and being out in what Russians call the provinces. Belgorod is a town of about 400,000. You have to imagine — when you’re in Moscow, it’s a little like being in Manhattan, and when you’re in Belgorod, it’s like being in Peoria, Ill. It’s quite a contrast. It was interesting to get to see Russia through the eyes of the provinces.

The grants were to conduct research about how believers, Orthodox Christians specifically, managed to preserve their faith in the last decades of the Soviet Union. After the period of active persecution, people were no longer being sent to the (Gulag), but in a period where religion was effectively pushed to the margins. I was trying to talk to people … about how they sustained their faith. How did they preserve it? What were their strategies inside the church, outside the church? Did they have icons at home? Did they pray? All kinds of questions related to religious practice.

Are we talking in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s?

Yes, after (Nikita) Khrushchev (who was removed from power in 1964). That was really the last active persecution of the church. Then came the years that the Russians call the years of stagnation, where things just were kind of frozen. So there wasn’t active persecution of the church, but marginalization. If you belonged actively to the church, you couldn’t work in certain professions. Your children couldn’t go to university. You were regarded as odd, strange. Not the danger of losing your life, but you just didn’t fit anymore in Soviet society.

What was the age range of the people you talked to?

These were people who grew up mostly in the 1960s or ’70s or ’80s, a little bit.

What did you find? What did you come away with?

It’s a big topic, so I focused in on a particular phenomenon in Orthodoxy. In Russia, at times there have been what people call holy elders — people renowned for their deep faith, their prayers, their spiritual wisdom. And it turns out that in the ’60s and ’70s, there was this flowering of spiritual eldership in Russia. That made me really interested because here you have these conditions of religious marginalization, and the official church is very much under the thumb of the state and the KGB. But at the same time, you have this appearance of these holy people, and they’re attracting pilgrims and spiritual children. It’s almost as though they represented an island of freedom in the midst of this sea of Soviet anti-religious propaganda. So I began to focus in on who these holy elders were, why they were so important during that time. None of them are still living, but I was able to read their memoirs and interview their spiritual children.

Were any of these the places historically associated with eldership in Russia?

No, because the places historically associated with eldership were monasteries, and they were all closed. They’d been closed down by the Bolsheviks. … So these holy elders are typically in remote areas, often they’re in a parish, they’re serving as a priest, but they’re far away from Moscow and St. Petersburg. They don’t present any kind of threat, so they’re able to do their work relatively in peace.

Would Fr. Alexander Men (a popular Orthodox priest who was murdered in 1990) be an example of this?

Close, but not quite the same. Men himself considered himself to be a disciple of several spiritual elders. I was looking more at other figures who are not so well-known in the West. In Belgorod province, there was a holy elder in the ’60s and ’70s, a man named Serafim Tiapochkin. He’s pretty well-known in Orthodox circles in Russia. I was able to visit the church where he served.

I guess in a way I was trying to understand how, under conditions of marginalization, people hold on to their faith.

Where do people go to find spiritual guidance? So sometimes you might find it with your parish priest. There were extraordinary parish priests like Alexander Men close to Moscow. But in many cases, the church hierarchy, the bishops especially, were under the thumb of the communist state, so you had to get away from Moscow and these big urban centers.

Are you able to make any comparisons between what you studied from that era and religious practice in Russia today?

Yes, I’m looking at a couple things. It was because of the faithfulness of believers in the late Soviet period that religion survived at all and has been able to come back to life. They were keeping the faith under very difficult circumstances, so when communism fell, that seed was there and it could sprout again. That is very interesting to me, to see how the church in Russia today rose out of that legacy of those faithful believers under the conditions of communism.

There’s also the interesting question about: If you’re a religious believer and society is stacked against you — there’s political repression or social marginalization — how do you keep your inner freedom? How do you keep your integrity? When there’s so much pressure to conform, there’s so much pressure to abandon faith and go along with the rest of society, what is it that gives people the strength to be free spiritually inside themselves, when they don’t feel free in society around them? These holy elders seem to exemplify that kind of spiritual freedom, that ability to stay firm in what you believe, not be afraid, keep your integrity, hold on to what you take to be true and right — not in a spirit of bitterness but with love and openness to others. That just really interests me, that phenomenon of spiritual freedom and how people cultivate that.

The generations that have followed, what has been the situation with them? Are we seeing with them anything like what we’re seeing in the West, or in the United States, with lack of religious affiliation?

Very much, yes. Especially over the last 10 years. There’s been a huge rebirth of Orthodoxy in terms of new churches, new monasteries, pilgrimages and so on. But active church membership is very low, especially among young people. When I was in Moscow this time, they were saying less than 1% of Moscow regularly goes to church. … People may call themselves Orthodox, but they’re not getting involved in church life. This is so much the situation everywhere in the West. It’s not that people are necessarily atheists, but they are not affiliating with churches, they’re not going to churches, they don’t see any reason to.

The thing is: Russia is not the West. Russia prides itself on defining itself over against the West.

Sometimes, it depends on the topic. If you look at the standard of living that people want, they will often say, “We want a European standard of living.” They want a nice apartment, they want a car, they want to be able to travel. In that sense, their aspiration is very much oriented by the West. But when it comes to politics, they can be quite suspicious of the West.

Is the Russian Orthodox Church in a position to speak prophetically to President Vladimir Putin in any way right now?

I think it’s hard because, right now, it’s hard for anyone to speak out against President Putin and his policies.

So in very few places in society do you see people speaking out, even if they’re discontented. Often the attitude that I’ve found in the church was — priests or bishops would say, “It just doesn’t get you anywhere to try to speak out publicly.” So it’s better to try to find places where you can cooperate and influence, rather than to take an oppositional stance.

And yet there were protests even in the past month.

Yes, there were protests almost every week in July when I was there in Moscow. Just yesterday or the day before, there was news that a group of Orthodox clergy in Russia are signing a petition, asking the state to drop its charges against demonstrators who were arrested this summer. That’s very interesting and unusual, that Orthodox clergy publicly are signing a petition asking for the state to release these people who were arrested.

So some of those folks are still in jail?

Some of the demonstrators are either in jail, have already been sentenced or are awaiting trial.

Did you witness any of these protests yourself?

No, because this year the police presence was very large, and at times the police were very heavy-handed. So you didn’t want to be very close to them, especially as a foreigner. It would not have been a safe thing to do.

Is there any church support for the pro-democracy protests of the last month?

It’s not really support of the movement, but it’s just saying – many of these demonstrators are young people. They’re in their early 20s. Some of them have been sentenced to three or four or five years in prison. That just has seemed excessive to not only priests but other intellectuals who have spoken out, other very small political parties that have spoken out against these sentences.

In a couple instances, when these demonstrators were being pursued by the police, they actually sought sanctuary in Orthodox churches. A couple of the priests who signed this petition are priests of churches that gave refuge to the demonstrators.

Given the church’s understanding of symphonia (where church and state cooperate), how do you think the Russian Orthodox Church would fare in a truly pluralistic society?

Would a North American model of religious freedom work in Russia? It’s a good question. It does seem to me that because of Russian history, Orthodoxy will always have a special place in the Russian national story. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. Just as Christianity has helped to shape the United States, especially Protestant Christianity, Orthodoxy has over centuries helped to shape what Russia is. But at the same time, while recognizing the special role that Orthodoxy has played, from an American point of view, we’ve tried out a different model where there is religious pluralism. The United States has been a place where different religious confessions could learn to live peaceably with each other. That’s not so much in the Russian experience, but I think will be what Russia needs to think about now as its society changes.

This is a big question in Ukraine right now too — Ukraine, now that it’s orienting itself more toward the West. How will Ukraine balance having this new national church, the church that (Ecumenical) Patriarch Bartholomew recognized, with being a religiously pluralistic society? There are also very active Protestant, Baptist and Adventist churches in Ukraine that are more active than their counterparts in Russia.

How is Orthodoxy’s role as a civil religion in Russia different from the American understanding of civil religion?

I actually think there are a lot of similarities. In both cases, Christianity has given identity to the nation, has shaped its literature, its music, its art. I think religious ideals can be good for a nation — ideals of justice, of compassion, of equity, of remembering that we stand beneath God. That can help a nation to be humble, to be compassionate, to remember that we shouldn’t idolize the state but that the state always has higher responsibilities to these religious ideals. In that sense, civil religion is not entirely bad. Civil religion helps people to think about these higher humanitarian ideals. Where civil religion gets bad is if it just incites nationalism and suspicion of foreigners, of other countries. Religions can go both directions — it can stoke narrow-minded nationalism, but it can also stoke a sense of the higher ideals to which a nation is responsible.

I think often in Russia, the church is very nationalistic. It stokes Russian pride. But I would like to hope that it can also remind Russians of these higher religious ideals, that are higher than the nation. That the nation is at its best when it rises above its own national interest. So that’s the struggle, in the United States, in Ukraine, in Russia — how can religion, how can the Christian faith, help the nations rise to transcend narrow-minded, nationalistic interests.

As a Western observer of Russia, what do you believe is the biggest misperception that Americans have about Russia?

I think that many Americans view Russia just in political terms: Russia has tried to hack our elections, tried to influence our politicians, is working against democracy in the world. I think many Americans don’t have any sense of what’s happening among ordinary people in Russia. If you get away from the politicians and the political tensions, Russians are — we’ve experienced so much hospitality, so much kindness to us, as Americans.

And I think that many Russians want to have good relations with Americans. They will often say to me, “It’s your government that we don’t agree with, but we think highly of many aspects of America.” I was amazed at the number of people in Russia who watch and really like American movies. They say, “American movies are so much better than the movies we produce in Russia.” So they are attracted to American innovation, American technology, aspects of American culture, despite the political tensions.

What you’re describing sounds a lot like what was in play during the Cold War — mutual suspicion along with attempts toward mutual understanding.

I think that continues to be important today, that Americans and Russians get to know each other as people, and not just through the mass media. I think also many Americans would be amazed at how much religion has come back to life in Russia. That doesn’t mean people necessarily go to church often. But I think Russians are proud of their new churches, and even though they don’t regularly attend worship, they go into a church for a few minutes to pray or to light a candle. They feel some kind of spiritual connection, even if they don’t regularly participate. I think that would surprise many Americans, that there’s this deep spirituality in the Russian soul. We hear about this historically, and it’s still somehow true today.

To the extent that modern, liberal, Western societies are becoming more hostile to traditional religious belief and believers, what does the Russian Orthodox Church’s experience under atheistic communism have to teach us about the proper response to such hostility?

It’s really what my project is trying to figure out — at a time when, in the United States, it’s no longer necessarily socially advantageous to participate in church. Fifty years ago, if you were a good American, you went to church. You can be a good American today without going to church. There’s not the same connection between society and church. And there’s even growing hostility in parts of American society against the church. So how do Christians stay free, spiritually, free inside themselves, free in the sense of not being resentful, not being angry, not complaining, “All our rights are being taken away from us”? But to know that even when it’s not advantageous in society to be a believer, you still can have this sense of being free through your faith. It sustains you, even on the margins, even when you feel like you’re pushed away. To keep that sense of joy, freedom, because of your faith.

It sounds a little like Vaclav Havel’s 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” where you choose not to “live in the lie” personally, even though there’s maybe not a whole lot you can do about it.

Yes, I think it’s not limited to Christianity. There were people like Havel and others who were able to cultivate that kind of inner freedom. But I think it’s also very much a part of Christianity, very much a part of Orthodoxy, that, when you can’t change anything and the world seems stacked against you, you can still live with integrity and with a sense that, through your faith, you are free. The world can’t control you, the world can’t manipulate you. That’s what these holy elders exemplified. They were marginalized, they were in these remote areas, they were trying to live the Christian faith in a time when the official church was controlled by the KGB. And yet people went to them because people saw in these holy elders this Christian spirit, this amazing love, this sense of freedom, this sense of joy, even when so much of Soviet society was gray and dark and depressed. Everything seemed stagnant, but here were these people who had something special about them.

People were drawn to that.

Absolutely, they were drawn to that because there’s a hunger for that kind of freedom. It’s a freedom — often in the United States, freedom means I have certain political rights, I can say what I want to say, I can assemble where I want to assemble. But I think these holy elders and their experience during the Soviet era was — even when those rights are taken away from you, you can still be free. Not in a political sense, but there’s still a freedom you can cultivate in your heart.

I’m wondering how you can explain your own attraction to Russia.

It really is the grace of God because the first time I went to Russia, it was just sort of curiosity.

When was that?

That was 2004-2005. My family and I went to St. Petersburg. It was just curiosity: What’s it like to be a Christian after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Doors began to open when people saw that we were interested in learning about Russia, learning about Orthodoxy. They welcomed us, and I began to know monks and priests and parishioners, and the doors just kept opening to learn more, to visit more parishes, more monasteries.

This past year, I think I conducted something like 120 interviews. I visited numerous monasteries and parishes in different parts of the country. This gets back to what Americans don’t know about Russia. Yes, there are problems politically, there are problems with the church hierarchy. But I know parishes where they’re doing amazing drug rehabilitation work or where they are organizing camps for disabled children. Work with disabled people is still very much in its infancy in Russia — to integrate disabled people into society. There are church parishes that are taking the lead in that kind of integrative work with disabled people. Monasteries that are doing work to help parents with autistic children or to help people who are caring for aging people at home because there are very few retirement centers in Russia, so usually it’s the children who care for parents as they grow older. They need help, they need support, they need strategies. There’s a women’s monastery in Moscow that provides this kind of training. I just find that so amazing to learn about these really good projects that are taking place and are really helping Russia be a better place.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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