Mere candlestick holders in Moscow?

Christ the SaviorAs an Orthodox Christian, I have to admit that my heart lurched a bit when I read the early wire stories about the funeral of Boris N. Yeltsin.

Online Orthodox folks were forwarding these reports around today with short messages on the top, such as “Interesting,” “Amazing” or “Can you imagine this?” But the emotions were more mixed than outsiders might think. Let’s pick up the early New York Times report by Michael Schwirtz at the second paragraph:

The service was held in full accordance with Orthodox Christian tradition in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, whose reconstruction Mr. Yeltsin approved while he was president after it was destroyed during the Communist era.

During the service, Mr. Yeltsin’s open casket lay beneath the cathedral’s massive frescoed dome and was draped with the Russia tricolor. Clergy intoned prayers over the body, as a teary-eyed Naina I. Yeltsin, Mr. Yeltsin’s widow, and his two daughters, dressed in black, looked on.

… Not since the death of Czar Aleksandr III in 1894 has the Christ the Savior Cathedral officially been used for the funeral of a Russian head of state.

This was such a symbolic national moment, but please do not think that many Orthodox believers — inside and outside of Russia — were tempted to overestimate its importance. The moment was poignant, but in no way perfect. “Civil religion” is real, but it’s rarely the real thing when it comes to faith.

This is not to judge Yeltsin, whose career is framed by courage as well as by corruption. And how are we to know the mysteries in the minds, hearts and souls of President Vladimir V. Putin and the other dignitaries who — with varying degrees of success, if you study the photos — seemed to make the sign of the cross again and again while attending the funeral rites?

But I have a very strong memory from 1991 that, I think, provides a bit of context for these images. Through a strange series of events linked to that year’s Moscow Book Fair, I was part of a group that arrived in a hotel across the street from Yeltsin’s headquarters only days after his triumph and the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, I was in the crush on the steps of the Russian White House at his victory party, with 100,000 or so other people. It was a stunning time, which led a friend of mine to look at the scene and say, “Don’t you feel like you’re back stage at the changing of the world?” (If you wish, click here and see my Scripps Howard columns from that era.)

It was amazing. However, let me stress that it was at that time — even as the bells rang and the world seemed to tremble — that a candid Orthodox priest told me about an interesting and sobering Russian expression that I think helps put the Yeltsin funeral in context.

The term is “podsvechnik,” which means “candlestick holder.”

However, the Russians also use this term to describe leaders who understand the power of the liturgical photo opportunity, the politician who knows how to venerate an icon, make the sign of the cross and then stand still holding a candle during some or all of an Orthodox rite, while the cameras click.

OrthoCandlesThis is the cynical side of what we witnessed today.

But this brave priest emphasized that it is not the whole story, for those who are patient and are willing to cling to hope. It is possible to see signs of faith, as well as cynicism. It helps to remember the context for this era of confusion and mixed signals. This is how I put it a few years ago:

Outsiders must remember that this is taking place only a few generations after the Communists closed 98 percent of Russia’s churches and, in one brief period, killed 200,000 bishops, priests and nuns and then sent another 500,000 believers to die in labor camps. Millions later died in Stalinist purges. KGB records indicate that most clergy were simply shot or hanged. But others were crucified on church doors, slaughtered on their altars or stripped naked, doused with water and left outdoors in winter.

Now, once again, we see Russian bishops burning incense in a state funeral. It’s a great photo. However, I hope some journalists who covered the rites hang around to ask this hard question: Were some of the bishops in these photos mere “candlestick holders”? There is no easy answer, but the safest is “some were and some were not.”

Why? As Yeltsin came to power in 1991, that anonymous priest in Moscow told me that it was crucial to understand that the post-Soviet Russian church will contain four kinds of leaders:

A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

That’s what I was thinking about today, as I read the reports from Christ the Savior Cathedral. I hope there are journalists who linger to explore this confusing, joyful, painful, inspiring, sobering story. It would be worth the effort.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jennifer Emick

    “The term is “podsvechnik,” which means “candlestick holder.””

    I love it.

  • George Conger

    The changing status of the Orthodox Church in Russia is a fascinating topic that I hope will receive more coverage.

    In the ecumenical world, the Russian Orthodox church has been taking an activist line of late, and its influence appears to be rising sharply.

    On Feb 28 Alexander Solzhenitsyn published a postscript to his novel “The Red Wheel” in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, arguing the roots of Russia’s tragic 20th century lay not in the October revolution in 1917 that ushered in Lenin and the “Red Wheel” of Bolshevism, but began with the February 1917 revolution that toppled the Tsar. Nicholas was God’s anointed ruler of “Holy Mother Russia,” and his abdication provoked the historically cataclysms of the Civil War, collectivization and the Gulag from a vengeful and jealous God, Solzhenitsyn.

    Well and good you may say, but Vladimir Putin then published a half a million copies of Solzhenitsyn’s pamphlet and distributed them to government leaders across Russia.

    Liberal Russian commentators have already argued the church and state have grown too close. In Monday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Viktor Erofeyev argued that “Elements of theocracy are slowly developing [in Russia]. One cannot compare them with the religious fundamentalism in Iran, but they do stimulate a negation of foreign cultures and a distrust of any talk of universal values. The Tsarist solution of ‘orthodoxy, autocracy, popularity’ has already become today’s reality to a certain extent.”

    The Yeltsin funeral photos are a symbol of this sea change.

  • Str1977

    I am amazed about Solzhenitsyn’s view … as if all were well under the Tsars since Peter I. had done away with the office of Patriarch and ruled the Church directly. Only after the February revolution was a new Patriarch elected.

  • Maureen

    I’ve seen this church/state attitude before in Russian writing, even in pop culture stuff. It’s disturbing to see people forthrightly declare that obviously Moscow (not Kiev!) is the Third Rome, and that this obviously means (not that their Patriarch should be Pope or Ecumenical Patriarch!) that Russia should be the new Roman/Byzantine Empire. So of course Ukraine belongs to Russia, because so does everything else.

    (If you really want to mess with these Russians’ heads, you claim that everything should belong to Ukraine. Or Italy.)

    It’s the sudden zip _past_ Holy Church and Holy State, straight to Holy King of the Imperial State, that’s disturbing. It’s not really a theocracy; it’s divine right to the nth power. It’s refusing to see that, hey, we’re great because we’re a nifty country full of nifty people, and we don’t need some stupid emperor or state, shackling the nifty people to some random dumb purpose de jour, to make us great.

    Sometimes, when depressed, I think there’s just something in the Russian mindset that wants somebody in charge, and for whoever’s in charge to do all kinds of crazy emperor-type things, so that everyone can sigh about the mysteries of God’s will and offer it up. I wish they’d get more in touch with the mouthy Norse traders in their heritage.

  • Steve

    Yeah, I remember Brezhnev’s funeral, when his widow stepped up at the last moment and made the sign of the cross on his chest. That took courage.

  • Alexei

    Yikes. Solzhenitsyn has really gone off the deep end.

    Just wait until Pentecost, when the Patriarchate is set to reunite with ROCOR. Then you’ll see all the tsarists coming out of the woodwork, breaking off into schismatic groups and such.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The Yeltsin funeral was a good excuse for the MSM to provide more coverage of and information about Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, so far, it seems to not have happened

  • Kealani Alexandra

    Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

    I beg you all to put aside these worries of the consciences of others, of history however painful. I beg you remember that God is glorified in all things – even in this incongruous strangeness.
    God will work great things from it. Our job is to praise Him!!

    (And isn’t it so beautiful to see, even at a funeral of such an “important” man, the church is still dressed in it’s Pascha whites proclaiming: Christ is Risen !!)

  • Suzanne

    Now lettest thy servant depart in peace, O Master, according to thy Word.

    Glory to God, for you and your writing Terry.

    (Note to self: Add Terry’s column to my blogroll, after lunch.) :)
    God bless you. May we all discover the Pascal mystery, and heal the schism in our own hearts.
    Your friend,

  • Suzanne

    Now lettest thy servant depart in peace, O Master, according to thy Word.

    Glory to God, for you and your writing Terry.

    (Note to self: Add Terry’s column to my blogroll, after lunch.) :)
    God bless you. May we all discover the Pascal mystery, and heal the schism in our own hearts.