MY INTERVIEW ON RUSSIA AND RUSSIAN ORTHODOXY

Last week a I received an e-mail from Tudor Petcu, who is a Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Philosophy of the the University of Bucharest. I did not know him, but he had read my blog on being Russian Orthodox although I’m not Russian. He asked me if he could do a written interview with me and ask me questions on how living in Russia has impacted me and how it is that I became Orthodox. This would be part of his research for his Ph.D. He was very gracious, and I gladly accepted. I received his permission to post his questions and my answers on my blog.

  1. First of all, given the fact that you are an American living in Russia, please let me know what’s your perspective on Russia from a spiritual and cultural point of view and how did this country actually influence you as an American.

I came to Russia for the first time in 2002 as a part of a group that gave financial and other resources to Russian orphanages. The group I was with focused on the rather small city of Luga. At that time this city, in which I now live, was very poor. Crime, drugs, and alcoholism were quite common. The fall of Communism and ten years of the failed leadership of Boris Yeltsin had taken quite a toll on the people here. Many necessities were still in short supply. Now, sixteen years later the city is quite different. The resilience and inner strength of the people of Russia in the face of adversity is, in my opinion, the characteristic that led to the recovery of Russian culture and a deepening spirituality. Even in the years when poverty was common, things like ballet, opera, dramatic arts, and literature were still very important to the common people. As an American, I normally associated those interests with those in higher socio-economic groups. I was quite surprised at the number of Western classics and authors with which most Russians were quite familiar. I would say I have observed a cultural depth here that I had not experienced before coming to Russia. There wasn’t the hunger for immediate gratification that we Americans find so attractive.

Spiritually I think the change has been slower. Religion, faith, and the Christian spirituality that had been a part of Russia for practically all its history had been almost completely removed from this society for seventy years. I now see great changes in this area. From my own experience, as one who worships in a Russian Orthodox Church in a small community, I have observed a diversity of age groups in attendance. There are many children with whom my children play after Liturgy. What has surprised me, frankly, is the number of older Russians who I know were brought up in the Communist era, yet are now deeply committed to their church. It is not simply attending Liturgy, however. They seem very focused and reflective during Liturgy. There is not the fascination with being spiritually entertained in Russia that predominates in the more popular “seeker sensitive” churches in America. Obviously I cannot read the motives of worshippers whether they are in America or Russia. I can listen and think through what I have heard from and observed in people of both cultures. Further, generalizations are always inaccurate at some points, but I would say the spirituality that dominates in Russia is more of a reflective and contemplative spirituality than the emotionally driven worship and spirituality I often encountered in America prior to becoming Orthodox.

So Russia influenced me in these areas by making me realize how I had let my circumstances dictate my commitments. Russians had overcome far more than I had ever faced and still came away committed to appreciating and improving their culture. They had faced having all spiritual values and truths expunged from their society, but they renewed their commitment to those values. Many Russians have said they see the Communist era as having purified Russia. The sufferings for their faith had a positive impact on the Church and on them as individuals. They influenced me to face my owns struggles this way. Too often I had tried to avoid the difficulties rather than let them strengthen me. Russian influence had led me to seek spiritual and cultural values whatever my circumstances.

2). With your permission, I am interested to find out more information about your spiritual personality before becoming an Orthodox. Who were you before discovering Orthodoxy and what was your view on life and its purpose?

I was raised in a very devout Baptist family in America. The rural culture of that time was quite anti-intellectual, and as a teenager I became an atheist (although I told no one). Eventually at the end of my military service I came to believe atheism was even more intellectually bankrupt and returned to the church. My faith became central to my life. The purpose of life was to know God better and to live out what his will for my life was. After university I went to seminary for a Master’s degree. I was ordained as a Baptist minister, but my heart was in the academia. I completed my Ph.D. in Koine Greek and New Testament. I went on to teach in a Baptist University for 14 years. Over the years my faith became more “intellectualized” and less a matter of the heart. The purpose of life became more about professional and academic goals, rather than my earlier goal of knowing God. I went through the painful ordeal of a divorce, which led to me resigning from the University. I do not blame being a Protestant for that; I had to accept full responsibility for my own moral and spiritual failures. It was at that time I was offered a job teaching English in St. Petersburg, Russia. I left America and lived in Russia for three years. I married my present wife in St. Petersburg in 2007. She was raised in a Communist home, but had joined a Protestant church years before I met her. We were not in church when we married, and spirituality, sadly, played no part in my life. I think at that time I probably could not have given any purpose for my life other than the immediate concerns of each day. We came to America in 2008. My old life in America could not be recovered. I became quite despondent because I now had a job I did not find fulfilling and very few of my old friends. Life had lost its purpose. My wife eventually started going to church—one of many Baptist churches in the area. Later I joined her, and eventually we found our place among the faithful there. I was asked to teach a group in Sunday School and again committed myself to knowing God and doing his will.

3) Which was the main reason why you have made the decision to convert to the Orthodox Church? What exactly have you discovered in Orthodox spirituality?

It is very difficult to say what the main thing was that led to my conversion. First, my decision to become Orthodox was based on what I found attractive in Orthodoxy; it was not because I was unhappy with my Protestant church or life in general. At the time we had no plans to live in Russia again, but my interest in Russia had been rekindled when I read a book on the “October Revolution.” I started reading more on Russian history. I also ordered a conversational Russian course. For some reason, I kept reading Russian history and trying to learn the basics of the language. Then I came across a book called “The Art of Prayer,” which was a compilation from writings of several Orthodox elders (mostly Russian). The majority of the writings came from Theophan the Recluse and secondly Ignatiy Brianchaninov. I couldn’t put the book down. I would read their prayers and teachings every morning before work and before I went to bed at night. They were, obviously, from a time and a “world” very different from mine, but I knew the life they had in the Spirit was one I wanted. Something within me resonated with what these men wrote. Their spirituality was not about increasing the things you did or the number of people you influenced. It was “putting your head inside your heart.” It was focusing on the inner life, which would eventually result in exterior changes, but those were not the point. It certainly wasn’t what Protestants call “antinomian,” but neither was it focused on listing what was permissible and non-permissible behavior. I was brought up in a very legalistic atmosphere, and it had always been difficult for me to overcome that. So when I had failed completely morally and spiritually I considered myself a failure and had left the church—and God. In the teachings of these Orthodox thinkers, they simply placed life on a different and deeper level altogether. There was an honesty about failures. As one monk said in response to the question on what he and the other monks did in a monastery: “We fall down, and we get back up; we fall down, and we get back up.” I found that very refreshing.

I then found an Orthodox Church about 40 minutes away from my home and started attending Saturday night Vespers. I did not understand a lot of what was going on there. What I did understand was that everything there was about God. I sometimes smile when my Protestant friends ask me, “What was it that attracted you to the Orthodox Church?” I tell them, “The fact that the Orthodox Church was not trying to attract me.” They were friendly; they were caring. But worship wasn’t about me. So I would have to say it was the profound readings from those old Russian writers as well as the theocentric focus of Orthodox worship that were the primary factors that led to my conversion to Orthodoxy.

4) Can you say that becoming Orthodox, you have lived the most important or the deepest spiritual revolution?

Yes, I would say that my becoming Orthodox has been the most significant “revolution” in my Christian experience. The last time I went to my Protestant church I left thinking about the positive things I had experienced. The music was profound and enjoyable; the sermon was a great interpretation of a biblical text; the greetings from others were very genuine. As I put the keys in the car, I distinctly recall the thought that seemed to burst in my mind: “But did you really worship God?” I had thought about God; I had “absorbed” information about God; I had listened to descriptions of him; I felt good singing about him, yet I could not get those Saturday night services at the Orthodox Church out of my mind. Those daily readings from Theophan and the Orthodox Liturgy had completely revolutionized my spiritual life.

5). How and why in your opinion can Orthodoxy help people gain redemption?

Since I am still fairly new to Orthodoxy this question is a difficult one. I will offer what I can at this early stage in my “journey into Orthodoxy.”

How? Orthodoxy can help people gain redemption by those of us who are Orthodox living out our “theosis” before others. The Spirit of Christ is within us. Life is about letting the character of God become manifest through us. That way it is never letting others focus on us. We know by “theosis” we don’t mean we become gods in essence. The divine “energies” are present, however, and it is our responsibility to live redemptively with others.

Why? There is a lot of brokenness in relationships with each other but ultimately with God. In my opinion, we won’t mend the brokenness by pointing them to a really cool religious experience or spiritual hedonism. These things are superficial resolutions. The Orthodox people with whom I came in contact reflected an honest concern that did not point me to themselves or to their experiences. Their message was simple: “Come and see.” Again, I came out of a religious culture that emphasized telling people about Jesus and being ready for any question they might have. We had to win them! We organize “worship” services with their emotional and spiritual comfort in mind. Orthodoxy can help people gain redemption because it points them to God. Orthodoxy does not try and point them to improved social relationships at church or offer an attractive religious experience. Orthodox doesn’t have those “traps” in its history or religious subculture. Orthodoxy is founded on the truths of Holy Scripture and how those truths were interpreted by the Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers. It is not about novelty. What Orthodoxy offers is the body and blood of Christ to a world in need of the redemption found only in Him.

6). Considering that you are a convert to Orthodoxy, what would be the most important lesson that everyone of us should learn in the Orthodox Church?

I suppose that the lesson from my conversion is that if someone like me who came from a devout Protestant background, gained ordination and degrees in that tradition, and then squandered it all, can end up Eastern Orthodox then I think anyone can. I would like Orthodox people to have confidence in the faith we share. For my Ph.D. dissertation I spent a lot of time studying polemic in the ancient world–that is, how individuals and groups from various philosophical and cultural backgrounds argued with each other. Polemic was when things had reached the boiling point. My conclusions are that not much was ever gained with those arguments. I had many conversations and lunches with my priest in America before I converted to Orthodoxy. He never launched into what was wrong with Protestantism or Protestants. He never condemned any of the weaknesses he may have seen. He always let me ask my questions and patiently answered them. It was always about what Orthodoxy stood for, not who it stood against. I am concerned with a trend I saw in some Orthodox circles in America which focused on where we disagree with other branches of Christianity and deciding which ones are really Christian and which are not. The disagreements are there, but I see no advantage in focusing on them.

In Russia, I don’t see that as much as I see another problem which many of the Russian “elders” I have read pointed to: the need to stay away from superstitions and empty traditions. Orthodoxy has such a great appreciation for tradition. I think that is wonderful. Traditionalism, however, focuses on aspects of one’s culture or ethnic heritage which may have nothing to do with the faith. Likewise, old ideas and activities that are rooted more in paganism than the Christian faith ought to be left outside our way of thinking as believers. We must remember the mother of all virtues is humility. There is nothing about national or ethnic pride that leads to spiritual strength or virtues, whether it be American or Russian pride.

theophan recluse

LIFE IN RUSSIA: TRAVELS, TRIALS, PROBLEMS & PROGRESS

Oksana had rented us a small, quite old, Soviet style one room apartment in Minsk. It was a 40 minute drive from the airport to the city. I was surprised when we drove into Minsk. I had heard some stories about how life is in Belarus, but Minsk impressed me with its beauty and also how clean it was. No trash anywhere! It was almost 10:00 p.m. when we drove through the city, but folks were out walking, including families with small children. We passed McDonalds and there were teenagers “hanging out” there just as one would expect on a Saturday night in America.

The old apartment was nicer than I expected. Like many buildings in the city it was built by Germans enslaved there after WWII. The Nazis came through Belarus and occupied it, as they occupied cities like Luga here in Russia. Eventually, however, the Russians drove them out and marched all the way to Berlin to end the war. (The allied troops arrived slightly later.) After that, things did not go well for the German invaders. They had to perform slave labor until they were sent back to Germany over five year intervals. Some Germans ended up learning the local language and decided to stay rather than go back to post-war Germany. I can say the Germans built beautiful and very sturdy buildings. The beauty of Minsk far exceeded my expectations.

We returned to the airport the next day. The drive from and then back to the airport gave us the chance to get local information from the best of possible sources: taxi drivers! Almost everyone in Belarus speaks Russian so there was no language barrier for Oksana to “probe” them. Despite the wonderful buildings and apprearances there are serious problems with inflation and heavy taxation. The economy was “revamped” about a year ago, and folks are struggling even more with the extremely high cost of basic items. Just in our short visit we could tell the prices were much higher than in Russia. Alexander Lukashenko became their first president in 1994. According to the Constitution adopted at that time the president could serve two five year terms. Nevertheless, he has been able to manipulate the system and remains the only president they have ever had. People in general seem quite tired of his heavy handed and wrong headed leadership, but he remains in power. The driver said most people see no other alternative to his leadership. They believe he is grooming his fourteen year old son for eventually becoming president.

It was an interesting, but not profitable, visit. After we returned we learned that for visa purposes, Belarus does not count as going outside the country. Both countries are regarded as one entity, so in order to get a renewed migration card I had to leave the country again this past weekend. Russian bureaucracy remains frustrating to us. Nothing on the website warned us not to go to Belarus. The good news is I am now the only non-citizen of Russia in our family. Everyone has dual citizenship except me. I will now seek to become a temporary resident, which means I would not have to leave the country every six months.

So Friday I flew to our usual destination of Finland. I went alone. I hate travelling without my family. Gone are the enjoyable days of airline travel when I was a young man before terrorism. I had to fly “commercial” a lot when I was in the Marines. Very simple. You walked in, bought your ticket and boarded the plane. Now international travel is inconvenient at best and frequently quite difficult. I sometimes have to go through three secuity checks. I was able to check in on-line this time so that made things a bit simpler. I’ve blogged about Finland before. It is a comparitively easy place for Americans since most people there speak English. I flew out Friday night and got a return flight for Saturday morning.

A couple of minor conversatons were a bit unusual—and humorous. The Russian passport control person in St. Petersburg actually chatted a bit with me. I guess he saw that I had been in Russia a good while and asked me (in Russian) if I spoke Russian. I told him I did, but I do not speak fluently. He said that to experience the freedom of Russia I need to speak fluently. (It was a play on words since the phrase for “speaking fluently” in Russian is “speaking freely.”) I told him I very much want to, but I still have problems understanding native speakers. He almost smiled and said he understood. First chat I’ve ever had with someone at a passport control booth. They usually are stone-faced, sullen or just plain rude.

The other conversation was humbling. I was going through security in the Helsinki airport for my return trip, and it was crowded. Traveling alone, I was hearing people speak in Finish and Russian all around me, and people were jostling for position in line. When I got to the front the security officer told me to do something, but she spoke in Finnish. Before I could say anything she impatiently told me again in Finnish. I responded just as impatientlty and told her to speak in English. As soon as I said it I felt stupid, because I realized I had just told her in Russian to speak to me in English. I had not understood what she had told me in Finnish, but after I said what I did in Russian I understood her facial expression perfectly: “What kind of idiot just asked me in Russian to speak English?” Oh well, the good news is she understood my Russian and gave me the directions in English. I quickly did as she asked and hurried away with head down.

Progress living in Russia. Of course we had missed Liturgy at our Orthodox Church since we were out of the country. I did have a pleasant time the week before meeting some folks there I had never met. After the Liturgy I went to Trapeza (meal). I was sitting at a long table waiting for the food to be served. I was chatting with a friend, but I noticed three Russian grandmothers sitting across the table and to our left. They kept glancing at me and whispering. Finally, they spoke to my friend in a quiet tone. He said, “The grandmothers would like to know what you think of Donald Trump.” This was just after the bombing of Syria. It was diplomacy time for me. I explained that I was very disappointed that he decided to bomb Syria, especially since the international team was on the way to inspect and see if there really had been a gas attack. I admitted I was suspicious of my government, along with France and the UK, because they bombed Syria the day before the inspection team arrived. I also emphasized that every poll I had read about before the bombing showed a clear majority of Americans did not want to bomb Syria. One of those polls showed almost 70% opposed it. I said I believed the evidence indicates the American people do not want war with Syria or Russia.

They smiled–and Russian babushki do not smile often! They said they did not believe Americans wanted war either, but all the news points to the U.S. Government and press saying bad things about Russia. One of the gentlemen from the choir asked why I thought the government did the bombings if the American people do not want war. I said my belief is that the sale and use of weapons always results in huge profits; also, I think Syria is a crucial point for the transport for oil. Oil and weapons mean big money for powerful people. He replied that he would like for me to run for President of the United States. We laughed.

Problems living in Russia. It was a good conversation, but overall it is becoming more and more difficult here for me to defend my government. Russians do not understand why America and other Western countries favor getting rid of Assad, since that certainly opens the door to ISIS and pretty much all the terrorists groups. No one else is in line after Assad who could provide stability. Before I came to Russia I thought Assad was a horrible person. I believed, based on what I had seen and read in the American news and heard from American leaders, that he was a horrible dictator. If news outlets across the spectrum from FOX, CNN, MSNBC, the NY Times, etc., say it, then it must be true. Moving here opened me to other sources of news, however. I had no idea that the West basically depends on the White Helmets and other groups affiliated with the terrorists for information. I knew from my own observations that their videos were fraudulent. Also, here I found “alternative news sources.” I became aware of people like Tom Duggan and Eva Barlett. Recently I have also listened to Vanessa Beeley and read Janice Kortkamp. These are people who have actually lived in Syria or at least spend months at a time there. My perspective on Assad has changed from getting news directly from Syria.

Then after the bombing I was impressed with Pearson Sharp of One America News Network. OANN has traditionally been pro-Trump and overall conservative in its perspective. Sharp videoed his arrival in Damascus the day before the bombings started. He expressed surprise that he was able to get a visa and enter Syria fairly easily. The other mainstream reporters had said how hard it was and most Westerners could not get in. He said it wasn’t hard for him. Then he walked the streets of Damascus late the night of his arrival. People were out walking the streets freely. He was surprised that he saw folks smoking, going to bars, women wearing tank tops, etc. People he spoke with—without exception—liked Assad and said the West does not understand that their options are government control (Assad) or rebels who do not tolerate anything but a very strict observance of their version of Islam or severe punishment or death will result.

Sharp was awakened in the night by the bombs. He observed most were intercepted and others did little damage. The West said most bombs got through and even blew up chemical producing factories. The next day he went to the actual site where the gas attack on the Syrians, which provoked our bombing, supposedly happened. He videoed as he walked up to many people randomly, and no one saw anything of a gas attack. On the bombings they said maybe six or seven bombs got through, but they just destroyed empty buildings. Everyone was actually in a pretty good mood. No casualties resulted from Western bombing. Later other veteran reporters, e.g., Robert Fisk of the UK, reported the same thing. In fact, no one actually on the ground there reported anything of significance.

The “official” report from the U.S., France, and the UK said we blew up chemical producing plants. That is not credible. First, OPCW has inspected Syria annually for the last three years. The report at the end of last year said Syria has no factories producing chemical weapons. Further, everything I read or was told by people who know chemistry better than I (which, admittedly, doesn’t take much), said there is no way to blow up a chemical producing plant without releasing the chemicals in the atmosphere and killing many people in the area. The amount of heat that must be quickly generated is simply not possible with conventional weapons. None of the Western media seems to have bothered investigating the official account of the governments.

Syria has a significant Christian population—probably about 10%. The overwhelming majority of these believers are Orthodox Christians. The leaders of these churches issued a statement condemning the bombings. (Here is their full statement:http://syriacpatriarchate.org/2018/04/a-statement-issued-by-the-patriarchates-of-antioch-and-all-the-east-for-the-greek-orthodox-syrian-orthodox-and-greek-melkite-catholic/)

So there is a connection with Russia in that the majority of Christians in both countries are Orthodox. Russians hear and know that the believers in Syria are scared that if Nikki Haley’s commitment to getting rid of Assad comes true, it will leave them open to being murdered and massacred as were Orthodox believers in regions dominated by jihadists types before Russia and the Syrian army drove them out. (I realize America is giving itself credit for driving out ISIS from Syria, but that claim doesn’t even merit discussion.)

I really thought when we moved to Russia in June of 2016 that the political divisions in America that had spilled over into relations with Russia would subside a few months after the election. I thought basic decorum and diplomacy would return and the two countries would, as Donald Trump had proposed, get back to normalcy in fighting the terrorists of the world. Obviously I was wrong. The news about Russia is still dominated by reports filed by people who have no idea what life is like here. The dogs of war from both parties still get center stage despite the fact they have little real knowledge of life in the countries they denounce.

We try to look, however, to the good things about life in Russia. Divisions and disagreements take place within Russia but without the venomous rancor of the divisions in America. Our family appreciates the schools our children go to and the church we attend. We move about, shop, walk, and carry on in safety. As a “traditional family” here in Russia, we do not feel like we are swimming against a great cultural tide created by people who dispise and seek to silence the values we hold dear. You can find evil in Russia, but it rarely struts down the street like in America.

I have found the longer we stay in Russia that absence really does make my heart grow fonder. I miss our times with close family and friends in America now more than ever. Even in Finland I saw things that took my mind back to loved ones and memories from across the ocean and the years. On the other hand, I fear ending up like George Webber in Thomas Wolfe’s novel who, after all his travels, found you really can’t go home again. He realized he wasn’t the same man who left, and home was, well, the home he left was no more. You can never step in the same river twice, as they say.