This year, marking the weighty 100th anniversary of the events that in 1917 brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power, thus the establishment of the Soviet Republic, is about to end. The celebration of this anniversary is marked by historical and emotional difficulties. Its symbol, which deserves focusing on, is the “Wall of Grief”, the national monument to the victims of political repression inaugurated on October 30 on Sacharov Street in Moscow by the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and by President Vladimir Putin. The bronze memorial bears the word “remember” engraved in 22 languages; its base is made of stones from former prisons and concentration camps, mass graves from all over the country. It should be noted that the monument is an initiative of the Federal Government, and not, as has been the case of other memorials to date, of civic associations. In order to relate to the feelings of those who are faced with the heritage of this tragic past, SIR interviewed Professor Miguel Palacio, history scholar in charge of Public Relations and head of the Department for the Protocol of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Institute for Higher Studies on Theology of the Orthodox Church in Moscow.
What has it meant for the Russian Orthodox Church to remember the October Revolution of 1917?
Immediately after the fall of the Tsarist regime, in 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church fell hostage to the complex political situation: the provisional government and the soviets had a difficult relationship with the Church. Moreover, in October 1917, not long before the Bolsheviks seized power, a historic event, with a markedly positive bearing, occurred in the life of our Church: the election of the Patriarch of All Russia by the pan-Orthodox Council. While the events of 1917 in Russia marked the beginning of Church oppression, they also enabled her salvation, for she finally was given a spiritual leader after 300 years: in fact, the Patriarchate had been abolished by Peter I in 1700 and the Church, integrated within the public system, was run by a collegial body, the Holy Synod.
The number of new martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church can only be compared to those of the first centuries of Christianity. Just to mention a few facts: some 9 thousand people died in the initial stages of the persecution (1918-1920); in the years 1937-38 200 thousand people were killed and 100 thousand were sentenced to death (one every two priests was killed). On August 20 2000, on a decision of the Council of Archbishops, the martyrs and confessors of the Russian Church were canonized, those known and those without a name. In fact, to date
We know the names of some two-thousand saints who suffered in the Soviet Union as a result of their faith in Christ.
In the year marking 100 years since the Revolution, in Russia there is much talk of Christians victims of persecution. Conferences and films have recently been dedicated to this issue. A memorial compound was built on the site of the Butovo polygon in Moscow, where thousands were shot to death in the 1930s. The site has been visited also by many representatives of the Catholic Church. Over one hundred burial grounds of the victims of the political repression have been brought to light and the search of new findings is ongoing. Almost all churches of the Russian Church bear the icons of 20th century martyrs and confessors; many monks are given their name to honour their memory. It should be noted that they are practically our contemporaries, thus their life experience is closer to us than the experience of the ancient holy Church.
What are the “lessons” learnt by the Church as a result of decades of Communist ideology?
The main lesson is the invincibility of the Church thanks to the spiritual strength of her clergy and her faithful. At the beginning of the 1960s Nikita Khrushchev used to say that the last priest would die in the 1980s. Now priests speak on TV and on other information media, their opinion is sought; while Khrushchev and his colleagues have been almost completely forgotten.
In your opinion, how could such a profoundly atheist ideology prevail in a Country like Russia, which was so deeply marked by Christianity?
Unfortunately, in 1917 political criminals lacking an understanding of spiritual life seized control of the Country. They viewed the Church as a dangerous force that could have unmasked the inconsistency of their slogans. The dream of the Bolsheviks was to erase Russia’s historical, spiritual and social experience, its national culture rooted in Christianity. But they failed to fulfil their goal. Despite their fears, people went to church, got married, baptized their children, helped the clergy, in spite of the fact that by doing so they risked losing their jobs or being sent to prison for owning a Bible. It is a known fact that in some of their homes Christian icons were hidden behind the portraits of Marx, Lenin or Stalin and venerated in secret. Young people entering seminary were summoned by the KGB who discouraged them and frightened them, but this didn’t prevent a considerable number of talented and cultivated youths from devoting their lives to serving the Church. Faith lived in people’s hearts, despite the many prohibitions, and thanks to the martyrs and the ascetics it was transmitted to the present generation of Orthodox Christians, who cannot even imagine losing not only their jobs but also their lives for the mere fact of wearing a cross.
How do you feel when you walk near Lenin’s mausoleum on the Red Square?
I think that the time will come when the several groups that compose Russia’s society – Communists, Socialists, Conservatives, Monarchists, Liberals – without clashes, violence or tensions, will agree on the fact that Lenin’s body must be consigned to the earth. He was a terrible man, a murderer full of hatred and revenge, but he was also an exceptional thinker, the creator of a new State, who managed to persuade millions of people that he was right.