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). He also is the author of “Encounters with Orthodoxy: How Protestant Churches Can Reform Themselves Again” (2013).
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?
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. 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.
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. I was trying to talk to people … about how they sustained their faith.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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. 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.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .