Christianity is surviving and thriving in the grim conditions of Siberia. Michael Bordeaux, director of Keston College, the centre for the study of religion in Communist countries reports.
SIBERIA. The word strikes terror with its associations of exile and death. But it is also a land of opportunity and it has areas of great natural beauty interspersed among the expanses of the taiga, the conifer forested plain.
I did just find time to see Lake Baikal and other wonders, but people were at the heart of this visit, as of all others I have ever paid to the Soviet Union. One major surprise that Siberia provided was from Intourist. Never before in my experience has a meeting with a priest been included as part of an Intourist excursion.
Our Intourist guide, a Ukrainian now living in Siberia, not only took us into two active Orthodox churches, but she even pre-arranged with the priest of the church in the little village of Listvyanka, on the shore of Lake Baikal, that he would be there to open the church of St. Nicholas for us and to welcome us.
Father Andronik greeted us warmly at the door of his church under a cloudless sky, with the village behind him sparkling in the piercing clarity of the atmosphere, such a contrast to the industrial pollution of Irkutsk, 50 miles away. Our guide invited us to put questions to him and called me forward to interpret.
Father Andronik is only 29, recently ordained as a monk after
starting a career in engineering,
which he eventually combined with studying for a theological degree by correspondence course. He is enthusiastic about his priesthood, which had taken him first of all to the one Orthodox church in Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buryat Mongol autonomous republic, where he had worked "as though a missionary" among the Buddhists in their main stronghold in the Soviet Union.
I could scarcely believe my ears: I was hearing all this in an lntourist context from a young monk, when the official line for decades had been that religion was dying out and no longer played any role in the country. The other official visit was the Znamensky (Sign) Convent, which has long since lost its nuns. but which has now become the cathedral, replacing the beautiful one in the city centre a mile away. The latter is now empty, except for a workman or two restoring the interior.
But the Znamensky Convent has a hive of activity, even in the middle of the afternoon on a working day, two hours before the daily service begins. There must have been 50 old women there, busily engaged in buying candles, praying and crossing themselves.
This was nothing compared with the half-full church for the daily liturgy two days later at eight on a Friday morning, when there must have been at least 15 schoolchildren present, not a single one of whom looked as if he had come for any other reason than to pray.
Unannounced, I was yet received with the warmest hospitality by Bishop Serapion, who lives within the cathedral compound. The Anglican Bishop of the Arctic does not have such a daunting task as that facing the Bishop of Irkutsk. Ile has perhaps thc largest diocese in the world: 29 open churches scattered over an area larger than the whole Pacific coast, from the Bering Straits, 3,000 miles north east, and Vladivostok in the south-east, to the Krasnoyarsk region 600 miles north-west.
The minute number of churches open is a reflection of the most sparsely populated region of the world after Antarctica and Alaska, but is also a legacy of persecution under Stalin and Khruschchev.
One of the victims is still fresh in the memory of tens of thousands of local people. Archbishop Veniamin of Irkutsk was one of the most loved and respected of all post-war leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, a man prepared to face the authorities head-on when believers' rights were being infringed and to suffer the consequences.
In 1961 he was brought to court on the absurd charge of illegally acquiring heating oil for his cathedral — the absence of any other charge virtually proving the total probity of the man. He somehow survived this and several further years of intense pressure at his post before being removed, probably by a political machination, in 1973, three years before his death in October 1976.
Following a man of heroic faith, Bishop Serapion who came from Moscow, cannot have found life easy, either practically or spiritually. Yet he told me that he had consecrated new churches in no less than four towns in the Far East last year, including the important centres of Sovetskaya Gavan and Komsomolsk na Amu re.
The central square of Irkutsk contains the only Gothic building in Siberia, a Roman Catholic cathedral erected by Polish exiles in the nineteenth century. It is now a "concert hall", boasting a fine organ, but there are no signs of a Catholic congregation here or anywhere else. As though to compensate for the loss of one Christian minority, however, others have emerged and show signs of vigorous life, There are two registered Protestant congregations: a Baptist and a Lutheran one, the latter of which not even Moscow and Leningrad have. I could not find the Lutherans, as the only map and information I had were inadequate (perhaps Intourist will eventually provide the traveller with all his varied travel needs and not consider them against the interest of the state?)
Persistence did, however, lead me on the very first morning to the Baptist church, a newly painted green wooden building in a suburb on the other side of the Angara from the town centre. On a Wednesday morning the place was shuttered and barred. There was not even any positive identification that it was a church at all. It could have been a large private house. Several people had been helpful in pointing out the way, though, and it was evidently known in the area. Eventually the caretaker came and she told me there would be a service in the evening.
returned at six. The service followed the usual Soviet Baptist pattern of hymns, prayers and sermons lasting an hour and 40 minutes. Pastor Yevgeni Raevsky, the Senior Presbyter of Eastern Siberia, was in charge, but assisted by a group of' five younger men. There were 14 in the choir, ten of them in their teens or early 20s (seven girls and three boys).
There were about 40 people in the congregation which undoubtedly on a Sunday would have been about 100. Afterwards I was faced with a conflict which I had experienced before. The congregation crowded around and wanted me to talk, while the pastor had issued instructions to one of his deacons to bring me immediately into the vestry. I tried to do both, but was physically pulled towards the vestry.
To my chagrin, after a brief formal conversation the pastor called for a taxi to take me back to the hotel. I protested that I wanted to stay and talk to people. One of his younger assistants interceded for me and I was allowed to remain — for what proved to be one of the highlights of the whole visit.
This was a young people's prayer meeting. Twenty two young men and women crowded into the vestry. For an hour the prayers were fervent and uninterrupted. Six of them took it in turns to read a few sentences from the Bible, reflect and then to lead the group into open prayer. Support for the "suffering" — those persecuted For their faith — and "those in difficult circumstances in the Red Army" (there is compulsory military service) was a keynote of what was said.
Such a meeting is still illegal, according to the strict letter of the law, but recently the registered churches have followed the lead of the unregistered ones in organising special activities for their young people and they have gained new following in doing so. It was wonderful to note that six or seven of those present had Bibles: signs of a definite improvement. If only every tourist would take in the Russian Bible that the Soviet authorities usually allow (and there was a legal import of 25,000 Bibles last year for the first time) the situation could be slowly, but steadily, improved further. Sadly, the majority are afraid to do so or are unaware of the benefit they can bring.