James Stark, an Orthodox Christian of Russian descent who speaks fluent Russian, visited churches in several cities in the Soviet Union recently. He talked with a large cross-section of the Orthodox Christian community on how they viewed the present situation in their country, and reported his findings in Frontier magazine in late 1987.
Despite 70 years of cultural destruction and religious repression, many Russian Christians are still proud of their churches, he said. It is not hard to notice the colorful church architecture against the drab cityscape. “Many of these churches were locked or abandoned, but where I found an open church the people were so excited to show me the beauty of their church. It is difficult to describe their joy at seeing a church come alive again,” he explained.
Stark said he met with Christians that had just been released from camps and prisons, as well as a number of unofficial Christian activists.“They and others believe their release is due solely to campaigns on their behalf and to economic pressures which have forced [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev to seek improved relations with the West,” Stark continued.
“Everyone is positive about Gorbachev’s leadership and policy direction, but there is an edge of realism to their newfound joy. They attribute the release of some prisoners of conscience, the opening of a few churches, and some positive articles in the newspaper to pressure upon the Soviet government.
“Some Christian activists believe their work is more urgent now than ever before. Real change, they believe, will only be achieved through pressure applied to all levels of government. There are so many people still inside prison and psychiatric hospitals because of their faith. The government needs to allow the church to engage in charitable work, to organize religious education, and to open churches wherever they are wanted.”
The Russian Christians believe they have a role to play in their nation, Stark said. “They believe the nation can only advance as it come to grips with its past. Only through repentance can they come to terms with the millions of victims [of communism] and the destruction of the past seventy years. Many believe the Church is the one body that can lead the way in this process.”
When asked how a Western Christian could best help, many people in the USSR questioned by Stark replied “come to Russia, come and worship with us”. In such a repressive environment, Stark emphasized that Western Christians should never underestimate the value of moral support given by simply coming – as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did in Zagorsk – and lighting a candle for the church.