October is a busy month for anniversaries this year.
Oct. 31 will mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Fatima celebrated the 100th anniversary of its apparitions this year.
Not so well publicized — at least in the West — is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
The anniversary of the communist takeover of Russia coincides with the 100th anniversary of the final apparition of Our Lady of Fatima to three shepherd children in Portugal. The children said the lady “dressed in white” asked them for prayers and penance, otherwise Russia “will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the church.”
Vladimir Lenin became dictator of the world’s first communist — and officially atheistic — state. Christians were persecuted, church buildings confiscated and many leaders were killed.
The Russian Orthodox Church formally has recognized, or “glorified,” more than 1,500 bishops, priests, monks, nuns and deacons who died for their faith under communist rule, which lasted from 1917 until 1991. While the Orthodox Church was never legally suppressed like most Protestant churches were, communist authorities worked vigorously to encourage atheism, closing thousands of Orthodox monasteries and churches, sending clergy and religious to the gulags or to psychiatric hospitals, and making it extremely difficult for any regular churchgoer to hold a decent job or get into a university.
The Roman Catholic Church suffered even more. Long considered by Russians to be part of the West, Catholicism under communism was seen as having a foreign allegiance. By the end of the 1930s, only two of the 150 Catholic parishes in Russia were still functioning. The Ukrainian Catholic and other Eastern Catholic churches were outlawed and their bishops were imprisoned. Priests caught celebrating mass were arrested and either executed or sent to prison or to work camps.
After the Soviet Union began breaking up in 1990 and communist rule came to an end, the churches experienced a revival. In Russia, even government officials are now embracing Orthodoxy in public, and Russian culture and art are being transformed with new Christian influences.
Salavat Scherbakov, a Moscow-based sculptor, recently completed a massive statue of Russia’s first Christian emperor. The towering St. Vladimir sculpture was prominently placed in Borovitskaya Square, just outside the walls of the Kremlin.
A few blocks from Moscow’s Lubyanka Building, which for decades served as the headquarters of the KGB, the Russian Orthodox patriarch recently consecrated a church memorializing those martyred during the communist reign.
“While we were in procession around the church, people were standing with portraits of those martyred and those condemned to death” by the communist regime, said Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who heads the church’s department for external affairs.
President Putin, a former KGB agent, as well as government officials and church leaders, were in attendance for the ceremony May 25.
Patriarch Kirill’s consecration of the Church of the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Orthodox Church was one of the ways his church is commemorating the centenary of the 1917 Revolution.
After 70 years of persecution, contemporary Russians are rediscovering their Christian heritage, Scherbakov said in a Catholic News Service article. Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin is cited as an example of Christianity’s growing acceptance. He won his country’s most prestigious literature award for his 2012 novel Laurus, which is set in religious, medieval Russia.
“I wished to describe a way of life that is far from modern people,” but one that is nevertheless attractive to contemporary readers, Vodolazkin said. His book details the quest of a “holy fool” in the Russian Orthodox tradition, a kind of ascetic who humiliates himself in the eyes of others to draw closer to God. “Humans cannot live only through TV, the Internet and shopping,” Vodolazkin said. “This all concerns a horizontal level (of living), while humans are looking for a vertical dimension to life.”
Many Orthodox faithful say they are optimistic about Christianity’s future. Soskina Lubov Stepanovna, 68, who has lived her entire life in Nizhniye Pryski near the famous Optina Pustyn Monastery, remembers the decades when going to church was illegal.
“Now life is better: we can pray, ask God for help and he listens to our prayers and helps us. We ask him to help our children and, you see, our children were baptized as Christians.”
Mother Cornelia Rees, an American Orthodox nun who has lived in Russia since 2008, said that, despite the progress made since the fall of communism, the country still suffers “ills” from its atheist past, reflected in high rates of abortion, prostitution and drug addiction.
While there is a new openness to the Christian tradition, church attendance remains low. According to a recent study from the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre, only six per cent of the Orthodox population in Russia attends church weekly. However, the study reported, 57 per cent of Russians believe Orthodox Christianity is an important feature of national identity.
Less than one per cent of the population identifies itself as Catholic.
Lenin could not have imagined how Russia would be transformed in 100 years. Nor can we imagine what will happen in the next 100 years — both in Russia and in the West.