Russia: An Introduction

A word about the Russian Church

Russia was evangelized in the 10th century.

Converted to Christianity by missionaries from Constantinople, Russia was under the jurisdiction of the Mother Church of Greece. The Russian Church is currently the largest Church of Byzantine tradition due to the wide span of its provinces and the number of its faithful.

It obtained the status of an Autocephalous Church in 1448 and the title of Patriarchate in 1589. The number of the faithful is difficult to ascertain because of the events related to atheistic Communism.

In the Russian Orthodox Church, just after consecration in the Sunday liturgy, the memory of the Mother of God is honored and the following words are sung by the assembly: "It is right and just to bless you O Mother of God, ever blessed and immaculate, Mother of our God, more venerable than the Cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim, you who without losing your integrity, gave birth to the Word of God." There are many more examples that could be given of the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the very beautiful Byzantine liturgy.

Most Russian households have an oil lamp burning before an icon of the Mother of God. It is here that the family gathers for prayer and here too that the father blesses the children or those about to travel.

The persecutions of the 20th Century

The Communist regime scarred 20th century Russia with 70 years of persecution. The first Christian community gathered together their possessions and then distributed the goods to each according to their needs (in conformity with Acts 4: 35). Karl Marx borrowed this formula from the Bible. Communism emerged out of the attraction to community values, but atheism corrupted community values by giving them an excessive and rigid nature.

The practice of charity, which brings reconciliation, was replaced by a destructive class struggle that cannot lead to communion. From a moral point of view, conversion (which calls for a personal change) was replaced by revolution (change of structure).

From a philosophical point of view, as a reaction against idealism, Feuerbach and Marx went to the other extreme by creating a system where only the material existed. They substituted God's benevolent authority by an artificial dictatorship. This resulted in enormous massacres, amounting to 50 million deaths in Europe, and the same number in China if one includes wars and their consequences.

The persecution of Christians that then took place in Russia was worse than that of the Roman emperors against the early Church, because it robbed Christians of their private lives, human integrity, and the right to bear witness.

The believer had no place in society. He couldn't hold a job in politics or in higher education or even in scientific research. The children of Christian parents could not pursue higher education, except in rare cases. These children were trained to denounce their parents. Catechesis was banned as an offense. Those who were influential, even clandestine, were arrested and either brain washed or destroyed by drugs in psychiatric hospitals. The KGB stifled or infiltrated churches.

Despite tight secrecy, the cruel treatments were eventually disclosed and revealed the perversity of a system so fundamentally contrary to the beautiful motto of modern revolutions: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Christians no longer dared to speak of their martyrdoms and yet countless Christians have been valiant in the "struggle for human rights," because they were strong in their fight for and with God. They have often been the sign, the reference and the basis of the Resistance even for non-Christians. (2)

Workers resistance, the feminist movement based on the Virgin Mary, the desire for conversion and the hunger for God showed that communism was not a workers' movement, that it didn't lead to freedom and that religion wasn't dying. There is also a decisive mystical factor, which occurred on February 13, 1917 (before the apparitions at Fatima and the October Revolution): the Blessed Virgin appeared in Moscow with an icon of the Virgin Queen. Victory was achieved not by crusades or violent war, but through peace and reconciliation: peace did not come by crushing the Eastern bloc, but through love and reconciliation. (3)

Pilgrimages and Marian Shrines

At the present time, Orthodox pilgrimages in former Soviet Union countries are becoming more and more frequent. The faithful are visiting holy places that survived the Communist period.

Many feast days of the Icons of the Virgin Mary are celebrated in Moscow (23), Saint Petersburg (5, including the feast of Jasna Gora celebrated on the 6th of March) and Kiev (5).

Other important centers of Marian devotion are Kursk, Smolensk, Wiazniki, Tobolsk, Vitebsk, Vologda, Novgorod and Potchaïov. Some pilgrimages last days, weeks and even months.

Finally, mention should be made of the Orthodox pilgrims who visit shrines  that were destroyed by the Communists, but whose memory has remained rooted in the hearts of the people to the point that as soon as it was possible again, the faithful started going to those empty places where only a cross put up recently marks the holiness of the place. (4)

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(1) R. LAURENTIN, Comment la Vierge Marie leur a rendu la liberté, ŒIL, Paris, 1991.

(2) Ibid

(3) Ibid.

(4) Prof. Antoni JACKOWSKI and Dr. Izabela SO?JAN, "Pilgrimages as a means of integration for Europe" in People on the Move #97, April 2005, published on the website www.Vatican.va.