Last night my wife and I decided to watch a movie together. Not a small mission with three kids! We chose to watch “The Priest,” a Russian movie from 2009 (with English subtitles) that we downloaded from YouTube. The main character is the Russian Orthodox priest Alexander, and the setting is 1941 when the Nazis invaded the USSR. Father Alexander is the priest of a small town in Latvia at the opening of the movie. He is sent to a mission in the region of Pskov in Russia.
The Nazis successfully invade the region and take over the town. They allow Fr Alexander to restore the church that the Soviets had turned into a community center, where they played movies, held dances, etc. The relationship with the Nazis is ambiguous in that they let him conduct the Liturgy, minister to the members of the community and even be involved in some limited ministry to the POWs in the small concentration camp nearby. One particular poingnant moment in the movie is when the Nazis allow the prisoners to come to the Pascha (Easter) service and participate in the Procession of the Cross. The leader of the Nazis is Orthodox. On the other hand, the Nazis are cruel and one young teen girl is senselessly murdered in the very beginning of the movie. There are other acts of violence committed against the citizens by the mocking Nazis. Fr Alexander tries to work with them without compromising his faith. Ultimately the Soviets return in victory. Without giving away the ending, when the Soviet troops arrive it is “out of the frying pan and into the fire” for the believers.
As we watched the movie I found myself responding at a very emotional level. I looked over at Oksana, however, and she was silently sobbing—sometimes not silently. Her reaction was at a much more profound and visceral level than mine. As many of my readers know, Oksana was raised in a Communist home here in Luga, although her dad was stationed in East Germany for several years, and they lived in a Russian military community there. Her atheistic childhood was basically happy. Her memories are not of a cruel and heartless Communism. Her parents were and are very loving and happy people. They believed in the principles of Communism (some of which actually came from the Bible unbeknownst to most Russians) and sought to live them out as best they could. Oksana was a little Octobrist and then a Pioneer. Summers usually involved going to Pioneers’ Camps.
Luga was occupied by the Nazis. The “Seige of Lenningrad” was not too far from outside the city limits. I have mentioned before the old Orthodox Church here still bears the mark of the Nazi era. It also bears the scars of Stalinism. It was turned into a dance hall and then a theatre. Many have pointed out that the numbers of Stalin’s executions were inflated by most Western historians. Nevertheless, you won’t find many here who will vouch that he really was a good guy. The history of the Orthodox Church here records he had all the priests murdered. This is not the corrupted history of Westerners; it is the record of those Russians who lived here and saw what his henchmen did. Still, much of this was hidden from Oksana and her family until much later.
As I observed her tears I thought how difficult it is for an American to get inside the thinking of those who were born and raised in this country. Our history is not just incredibly shorter, it is also largely devoid of many of the horrors. We’ve had our wars, and we’ve had our hard times to be sure. But more Americans died during the War Between the States than in any other war we’ve had. In WWII about 450,000 American lives were lost. That seems a lot, and clearly a lot of people suffered. Russian lost about 27 million, not to mention the suffering, the shame, and the horror of the Nazi occupation and the atrocities that took place. There was no family in Russia that was not impacted by that war. When I first came to Russia some of the “grandmothers” in the Baptist church here tried to speak to me in German. Those of that generation who had not been deported to slavery there had experienced the daily presence of the Nazis. “Foreigner” to them meant “people who speak German” I guess. I wanted to laugh when they concluded that if I didn’t speak Russian, then surely I spoke German! But as I looked at their faces I realized I could not fathom what they had experienced. Since the Revolutionary War my country has never been occupied. Its citizens have never been deported to serve as slaves. We took the land and then later we, in fact, imported human beings from other countries to serve as slaves. So looking at the wrinkled faces of those old “babushki” made me painfully appreciative of their smiles. They accepted suffering as a part of life. The Russian people have been a многострадальный народ (a much-suffering people).
While Russians feel their history more deeply than many of us, they do not stay locked in it. Oksana is no longer a Communist. She enjoyed her life in America, and we enjoy the freedoms we have now in Russia. Both she and I converted to the Orthodox Christian faith. We laugh about idiosyncrasies in American culture and in Russian culture as well. We both have been shaped by the culture and history of the other.
That understanding would be our hope for the relationship of our countries. As an American who has lived in Russia almost four years now, I have to say I do not think there has been much of an atttempt at a political or social level overall to understand Russia, its culture, and its history. On the other hand, we formed some very close friendships while in America with folks who were interested, who did care, and who came to appreciate Oksana’s homeland. And I find many Russians interested in American language and culture. It seems a bit idealistic, but some of our American and Russian friends have given me hope. So as a non-objective observer, I would like to offer some suggestions on certain things any person—at any level—has to understand about Russia before forming judgments.
First, as I have mentioned above, we Americans must recognize that their history has been far more tormented than ours. This October (actually November by the new calendar) will mark the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Tsars and the beginning of 70 years of Communism. “Outsiders” like me need to remember the horrors that that era brought to Russia, but not to all Russians. As I said, Oksana had a happy childhood and a more loving family than many in America will ever know. She remembers many good people growing up who were loyal to their families, good providers, and good moral people. We must recognize both the horrible acts, as the ones portrayed in the movie, perpetrated by the government on religious persons as well as the strong moral stand of many who were not believers.
Second, Russia has endured the collapse of two governments in one century. The old Orthodox Tsars were toppled by the Communists. Then Communism collapsed under the weight of its own abuses and stagnation. America now is in a political and social whirlpool. I’ve never seen it this disjointed or divided. But it is good to remember our country has never had a coup; we’ve never been forced to completely reorient our loyalties. Russians have been through this twice since 1917. I believe and detest the fact that some American politicians resent the fact that Russia is, comparitively speaking, a much more stable country now. They seem determined to twist reality to convince the tax paying populace that Russia is just the way it used to be—and thus we really need to spend a lot of our money on weapons. Unlike what the Western media and some politicians suggest, there is some dissension here but people feel free to express their disagreements with the current administration. The truth, however, is most Russians realize that the disagreements with each other are miniscule compared to their past revolutions. They have a leader that, according to almost all polls (both Western and the ones taken here) approve of. That does not mean they approve of everything Mr. Putin does! They complain about things. At the same time many believe and appreciate that they have a leader who loves this country and has worked tirelessly to make it better. So even those who disagree with him are by and large civil. Americans must come “to the table” understanding that most Russians like the general direction in which their country is going. I don’t sense that same shared unity of vision from Americans about America. Nevertheless, we can’t resent Russia because it is not in turmoil like we are.
Third, Americans should investigate for themselves what is and is not true about Russia and its leaders. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Bill O’Reilly have casually referred to Putin as a murderer. From their comments and their writings I see no evidence they have actually researched this charge. One has to go outside the pale of reading Western press releases to study the charges. I have thought of devoting one blog to this topic simply because it has become a part of the polemic of some American leaders. The trick is to keep repeating something enough times that you can slip it by the public as an accepted fact without really having to prove it. For example, when Boris Nemtsov was murdered (and Putin was assumed guilty by the West), Putin had an 86% approval rating. So he murdered Nemtsov because he was insecure of his political standing or future? Name one American politician who comes close to 85% approval. Trump was ecstatic over 55% this week. Putin took over when Boris Yeltsin appointed him as his successor. As Gleb Povlovsky said, “Yeltsin didn’t build a government; he led a revolution for ten years.” There were a lot of bad people in power. Some journalists and political operatives were murdered. Since Yeltsin appointed Putin I guess it became convenient for Westerners to pin the murders on him. The idea that no one here actually investigated these murders is simple ignorance.
Fourth, appreciate what could come of good relations between Russia and America. I confess feeling more than frustration that Donald Trump’s foreign politicy seems to lack a “center.” He fires Flynn, says Crimea should be returned to Ukraine, then insist in the following press conference that having good relations with Russia is a good thing. What I do like about what he has said is that there is potential for good if both countries unite in fighting ISIS and all forms of terrorism. I clearly remember the tension of the Cold War days. But there was a shared conviction ultimately that, in Ronald Reagan’s words, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Terrorists do not care about the ramifications of their actions. If Russia and the United States can join together, then I think the terrorists will be on the run.
Finally, I would offer the Ronald Reagan model of leading the relations between the two countries. Now, I realize I have good American friends and good Russian friends who think that is a terrible suggestion. Reagan did refer to the USSR as “the evil empire,” after all. I contend, however, as with Jack Matlock and others, Reagan hated Communism. He thought it was awful. He didn’t hate the people living under it. Reagan chose Jack Matlock to be his lead diplomat in working with the Soviets. Matlock had studied the Russian language, culture, and politics all his adult life. He had immersed himself in it. He spoke “their language” in the fullest sense of that phrase. He appreciated their good points and separated political and personal differences. Then Reagan got to know Suzanne Massie—of “trust but verify” fame. She had studied the language and the culture since she was a child and had written a profound book called Land of the Firebird (which even someone with my extremely limited artistic abilities can enjoy). Her area was more the religious, artistic, and cultural aspects of Russia. She traveled to Russia whenever possible even in the Cold War era. Reagan, she said, would call her in for lunch from time to time and the conversation would often begin, “So tell me how the real Russians are doing?” He wanted to know what life was like for them—especially the religious ones. (Both Massie and Matlock were Democrats, by the way. They were chosen for their expertise not the potential political donations they would bring to the president.) Russians were not cogs in some political wheel or tools for some political game as far as Reagan was concerned. So he took the abuse he got from the right wing of his party and went to Russia to meet with Gorbachev. I was a child, but I remember Krushchev and the reaction of adults to his banging his shoe, claiming (supposedly) “we will bury you,” and the Cuban missile crisis. The animosity between the two countries, the nuclear proliferation and all of that were a part of life for us. I never thought I would see the end of it. If you had asked me (or most members of the CIA) in 1990 if the USSR would fall the next year the answer would have been, “No way!” But it did fall. The number of nuclear weapons was drastically reduced, and the world was safer.
Last Sunday we went to Liturgy at the downtown Orthodox Church. It was very uncomfortable, primarily because the church was packed! It was hot inside, and I couldn’t move! Everybody stood there for two hours with their big coats on! I reflected on that later, however, and again as I watched the movie. Back in those days of that occupation and what followed, one could be risking freedom or even one’s life by faithful worship. Now, Russia is—despite what you hear—a free country. Some worship; some don’t. Some like the President Putin and brag on him. Others don’t like him, and they let you know. Reagan reminds me that change is possible. Things, cultures, politics can be made better. I hope sooner rather than later.