By Israel Shamir
Easter has no fixed abode; this most important movable feast of the Orthodox Christian year flies like a shuttle between March and May and weaves the diverse important dates into a single metaphysical narrative. In the memorable year 2000, it coincided with the Western Easter proclaiming Christendoms underlying bedrock unity. Last year, Good Friday fell on April 9, the Deir Yassin Massacre Day, when apostles children were slaughtered by Jewish terrorists in the land of Christ. This year, Resurrection Sunday comes on May Day, weaving back the unnecessary tear between the Reds and the Christ. The Russians, amongst whom I celebrate today, christened it Krasnaya Pascha, Red Easter.
In this unique country nay, civilisation, - thousands of men and women stand up for the all-night-long Easter service and in the morning join mass demos under the Red banner. Thus for me, and for many Russians, May Day came as a second, unexpected apotheosis of the Easter celebration.
I came to Russia for the last weeks of their Lent and for Easter. The Spring was unusually long and cold; until recently, white snow covered the eternally green boughs of the pines and the naked white bodies of birches in the forest. Thick ice allowed fishermen to drill holes and catch fish in the frozen streams until mid-April. It was good: Russia is beautiful like a bride in her white dress of snow and ice, while rosy-cheeked and blue-eyed Russian girls in their modest fur coats are irresistible on frosty days. And the churches with their multicoloured onions and domes are embellished with exquisite icons and frescoes.
In Soviet days they served as coal stores, hardware shops, or at best, museums of atheism. Active churches were a rare thing. The rest was so run-down that they inspired no interest -- just dirty old structures ready to be demolished when a new bypass has to be built. And a lot was demolished. Since 1991, the Church embarked on a huge project of regaining surviving churches and repairing them. The result is mind-boggling yesterdays Cinderellas became todays Princesses. I could not recognise them their old domes a-blazing with gold plating, bells a-ringing, and interiors totally redone. The surviving frescoes were lovingly restored, ruined ones were painted anew in the traditional Byzantine style. The monasteries turned into soldiers barracks or boarding schools for young delinquents returned to their original purpose and many serious young and spiritual Russians take up the Orders. Even the long-demolished Cathedral of St Saviour in Moscow a site of a swimming pool in Soviet days was rebuilt. Thus the Russians succeeded where the Jews failed: they did rebuild their Temple.
The last days of the Holy Week were quite a build up. The churches were full day and night; the believers formed long queues to go to confession: the Russian church has no booths for this purpose, and confession is a face-to-face interview in a nave. Only after a three-day fast and confession one may receive the communion done with bread and undiluted wine, as in the church of Apostles. Besides the Communion, the Orthodox church also practice pre-Paschal unction reserved in the West only for the dying.
On Easter Saturday, Russian ladies baked their delicious Easter cakes and brought them to be blessed by the priest in the church, so in the afternoon the church compound was scented by spices, raisins and fresh dough. It is their custom to break the fast by eating these sweetish cakes with cottage cheese.
The night-time Easter service was very long, but people did not leave early they felt it was the much-expected culmination of their long and hard Lent. Indeed, Orthodox Lent is very strict: even olive oil (do not even think of dairy foods or fish) is permitted on Sundays only, while marital joys are banished completely. I went to a church of a nearby monastery, a vast structure built in the beginning of the 20th century in Art Nouveau style with pre-Raphaelite frescoes, and stood all night long, until the dawn, among throngs of smartly dressed Russians with lit candles in their hand who answered the priest calling out Christ is Risen! with their thunderous Indeed, He is Risen!
And just a few hours later I stood opposite the Bolshoy Grand Opera (where I was recently at the premiere of a specially commissioned by the theatre new opera Blumenthals Children, a fascinating and provocative treatment of the iconoclast Sorokins writing by St Petersburg composer Desyatnikov) in the May Day demo crowd, listening to a Communist leader who repeated just the same call; and from under the Red banners came a reply: Indeed, He is Risen!
Paradox? Not really. Even universal faiths have some local colour, and Russian Communism and Russian Orthodox Church share the same background. On every turn of their development, whether in their old Pravoslav Tsardom, or in the Red Republic, the Russians who strove for the unity and brotherhood of Man were motivated by compassion and acceptance of losers.They consistently rejected Mammon. The Russians despise money and material belongings; for them, poverty is a welcome sign of an honest man rather than a mark of social leprosy as in the West. They suspect rather than admire a moneybag. The old adage of the Spiritual East as opposed to materialistic West still holds true: who does not like East, does not love the Spirit.
Today, Russian Reds are reconciled with the Church; the Communist Party members attend the services and joined the Pravoslav tradition. Gennady Zuganov, the CPRF leader, congratulated the demo with the May Day and with Christs Resurrection as well. Rogozin, the leader of a breakaway Rodina faction, now a big party by its own right, was even more eloquent in referring to Easter. As various Red and nationalist parties and groups represent a clear majority of the Russians, it is an important and a positive change from the days when churches were dynamited and worshippers discouraged.
It is a good change, for the Reds loss of power cant be understood but in context of Russian spiritual quest. The Russian Communists modernised Russia, they created a society of mutual support. They could not give villas and Cadillac cars to everybody, so they gave what they could. Everybody had more or less the same: they had their safe and assured employment, their free accommodation, free electricity, telephone, heating, public transport.
But they forgot to attend to spiritual needs of the Russians. They forgot the teleological What for. And people cant live without a purpose. This lack of purpose became obvious when the pressing material needs of the people were satisfied. The Russians accepted Communism not in order to live better; they had a greater goal of spiritual perfection. The trouble began from the top: the de-spiritualised Soviet elites of the last decades drifted to the right; they loved Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and had accepted the neo-liberal world-view a long time before the collapse.
Indeed, in the West, the neo-liberals solved the problem of What for by creating massive social insecurity: people are not liable to think of spirit if they can be thrown out of their homes by a bank. Gorbachev copied their solution when he allowed the Soviet ship to capsize. He was supported by the pro-Western reformers.
The West is full of variety and contains many ideas and paradigms. But the Russian Westernisers were a narrow-minded lot; they embraced the Chicago school of Milton Friedman with fervour; and despised the Russian people, their history and tradition. They privatised Russian national property, sold it to the trans-national companies and tried to integrate Russia as a supplier of raw materials. However, their victory was not as final and conclusive as they thought.
There are clear signs of Russians reasserting their history after the clean break of 1991. It is not only churches lovingly restored and filled with worshippers; not only restoration of historic names thus Kalinin Avenue (named after a Soviet leader) became again the Invention of the Cross street. It was done by the winners of 1991. But the Soviet past is being reintegrated, too. The great celebrations of V-day due on May, 9 are a sign of the change. The liberal reformers of 1991 asserted that there was no difference between the Commies and the Nazis, between Hitler and Stalin. They mocked the veterans saying Pity you werent defeated: we would live like Germans. They forbade celebrations of V-day: not out of love to Hitler, but because of their hate to the Soviet anti-Mammonite past.
This year, every street in Russia bears some congratulatory poster blessing the vets for their great victory. Here again, it is not a sign of hate to Germany or to National Socialism, but of reconciliation with the Soviet past. At the May Day demo, Stalin was acclaimed by Zuganov and other Communist leaders as the father of the great victory. There were his portraits a-plenty. Its not that the Russians miss the Gulag or industrialisation; but Stalin and his rule are part and parcel of Russian history. Likewise, the French Restoration regime of Louis the Eighteenth called Napoleon the Corsican Monster, but just a few years later, by 1840s, the late Emperor regained his place in the Pantheon of France.
The struggle for Russia's future is far from over; it has just started. Some people may think that this great country became an irrelevancy, a rusty oil pipeline and a consumer of Chinese goods and American ideas. But Russia is alive: Russians write great books still unknown in the West. Three books of the last decade, The Last Soldier of the Empire by Alexander Prochanov, The Blue Lard by Vladimir Sorokin and The Sacred Book of Werewolf by Victor Pelevin are as enjoyable, challenging and uplifting as Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez. There are no contemporary writers or books in the West of a similar stature. In a properly arranged world, these treasures of spirit would be considered among great achievements of mankind. Indeed, who cares for oil it is Russian writing that we should import!
Russians do read a lot. Another positive change since the Soviet days is freedom of creativity and publishing. In Soviet days, stifling Party control blocked incoming ideas and books and stopped their creation in Russia. Even revolutionary Marxist books were banned, unless written in boring Sovietese. Now, in a tiny bookshop in a Moscow Underground for a few roubles one can buy new editions of Guenon and Joyce, Murakami and Pavic, St Augustine and Chesterton and certainly, the Russian writers and philosophers old and new, with their fusion of metaphysics, theology and politics: from pre-revolutionary Bulgakov, Florensky, Rozanov to contemporary Alexander Dugin, Serge Averintsev and Alexander Panarin. I felt myself as Gulliver in Brobdingnegg, the Land of Giants: there are hundreds of Russians one can discuss most complicated questions with and find oneself out of ones depth.
Russians are aware of their problems and think of new solutions. Their problems are our problems, too: the Soviet collapse coincided with (or ushered in) the global Ice Age of social deep-freezing. More and more people in the once-protected West find themselves marginalised; the Third World outpoured unto New York and London; compassion is outlawed; spiritual search is non-existent.
The recently demised Russian thinker Alexander Panarin believed that the Orthodox Christian paradigm has a way to deal with the coming neo-liberal Ice Age by bringing in the Christian Eros as the force to revitalise the Universe. Russia may yet raise again the banner to summon the defeated, the outcast, the disenfranchised, the discarded against the new Masters of the World, he wrote.
In his view, Orthodox Russian Christianity is different and can offer a solution to perplexed mankind because it is centred on the Lady. Indeed, Her image occupies the place usually preserved for the Cross in the Western churches. She is often presented as the Queen sitting on the throne with the crowned Child on Her lap. For the Russians, the Mother of God represents Nature. She is divine, connected with the Spirit and bears Him in Her womb. The Russians love to Christ who is Spirit is not divorced from their love to the Lady who is Mother Earth and their Compassionate Intercessor. God the Father, the God of Old Testament, the God of Justice has very little presence in the Russian universe.
If Dan Brown were to visit Russia, he would never write his Da Vinci Code, for the female divinity is not suppressed or replaced here. In his very American bestseller, the Catholic Church tries to suppress the cult of Mary Magdalene as it is afraid of femininity; while the Jews (of all people) protect and guard Marys remains. In real life, Jews have no female saints and dislike Our Lady even more than they dislike Her Son, while the Church venerates the Lady and adores the female saints. But Dan Brown had to fit his perfectly normal, true and justified longing for the Earth-bound and Spirit-connected Mediatrix into the Judaeo-American neo-Calvinist picture of the world, where Jews are always right and the church is always wrong. That is why he turned everything upside down; the New York Times spread its fame and the public bought it. In Russia, he wouldnt be able to misrepresent: here, the Lady reigns supreme, and the ideas of Compassion and Connection to nature and spirit wait to be unleashed.
Will it happen? Russia is at the crossroads. While new-found freedom of creativity, publications and religious freedom are very important achievements, probably they could have been had without the great social cost the Russians were forced to pay. Their national assets from oil and gas to land and factories were privatised and taken over by a small group of extremely well-connected oligarchs. Now Western companies try and buy these assets. Russian industry is in poor shape; de-industrialisation proceeds unhindered. Once an advanced country of great science and modern industry, Russia is being converted into a raw materials supplier. Though oil money makes this decline relatively comfortable for many Russians, in case of economic downturn catastrophe is inevitable.
Russians feel themselves threatened by the aggressive US drive to acquire military bases and political influence in the ex-USSR republics. The Orange revolution in the Ukraine and the possibility of NATO forces entering this Slav hinterland made the threat acute. Russian James Bonds, Putins ex-colleagues from St Petersburg branch of the State Security, are strongly represented in the state apparatus; usually such people like George Bush the Senior are considered patriotic chaps, but now the Russians are worried not only by their lack of liberalism and corruption, but also by their inability to meet the American challenge and their readiness to give in to American demands, including the much discussed question of a US presence at Russian nuclear facilities. The media is concentrated in a few hands; though as opposed to the West, there is a prominent state-owned media, but it is also quite pro-Western or provides poor-quality entertainment.
At the May Day demo, the Reds demanded just one hour a day on the state TV to be devoted to their programmes: this exceedingly humble request is not likely to be met. Meanwhile, TV broadcasts Swan Lake and concerts of rock groups, while political discussion is kept under wraps. The Reds and the Nationalists are unhappy with the regime, for it is not doing enough to stop embezzlement, corruption, privatisation, de-industrialisation and impoverishment of the people. Though the regime took up some of their slogans, their words remain words only and are not accompanied by action.
But the Reds and the Nationalists are not in fighting shape. They were defeated in 1993, when Yeltsin shelled the Parliament and took dictatorial powers. In 1996, the Red leader Zuganov actually won the presidential election, but the results were falsified, and Zuganov did not dare to do a Yushchenko and forcibly take what was his by right. Since then, the Reds suffer from a certain weakness. This could change because of an alliance with two outsider groups.
A new force, National Bolsheviks led by Edward Limonov, a charismatic poet, are anything but vegetarian. Very young, practically teenagers or in their early twenties, the NBP made a few spectacular actions: takeovers of ministries and even of the President public reception office. They carry out an unusual form of terror instead of bombs, they throw eggs, rotten tomatoes and pies, slapstick-comedy-style, into politicians and officials faces. The authorities were duly terrified and meted out a five-year jail sentence for a well-aimed pie. Some forty NBP young men and women are now in jail, but their readiness to go into action where others just talk made them the cutting edge of the opposition. They are courted now by Communists and Liberals alike. At the May Day demo, Limonov was standing next to Zuganov and Rogozin, leaders of much bigger parliamentary parties.
The second force is quite different. These are a mixture of liberals and neo-liberals. Their numbers are tiny, their two parties could not even make it to the Parliament. They also had a demonstration on May Day at some distance from the main event; it was attended by two or three dozen people. But they have a lot of money and strong positions in the media, business and power structures. They are also dissatisfied with Putin; they want to speed up privatisation, open the country for foreign investors, privatise social housing, bring in immigrants, remove limitations of free movement within Russia, withdraw from Chechnya and win release of UKOS boss Hodorkovsky.
Though their demands are the very opposite to those of the Reds and the Nationalists, there is a tentative coalition of these groups against the President. The Reds and the Nationalists feel they can use some of the Liberals media access and money to advance their agenda; the Liberals need the masses mobilised by the Reds and the active fighters of NBP. In return, NBP dropped its more radical slogans and now speaks for greater freedom and democracy, for amnesty and general softening of oppressive policing.
All sides in the new setup believe in their ability to come out the top dog. The liberals are certain they will eventually get the power in the land; but so do the Reds and the Nationalists. The liberals have a precedent of the Ukraine to go by. There, Communists and Nationalists supported Yushchenko and installed pro-American neo-liberal regime. In case of a revolution, the liberals will rely upon their connection with the West, their media power and political sophistication.
That is why some opposition forces in Russia prefer to support the President as the lesser evil. These supporters of the President include Left.ru, our Moscow friends, a very good left group, and the Eurasia of Alexander Dugin, an important and much admired Russian Orthodox thinker. They feel that the revolution will be utilised by their enemies, and the enemies of Russia. They say that they already tried to support the liberal agenda in 1991, and this experience cured them from entering such alliances.
Their opponents say that the President is under American control anyway; he gave up the Russian positions in Cuba and Ukraine, Georgia and Vietnam. He carries on privatisation. Though he speaks like a Red nationalist, his actions follow the liberal blueprint. They also feel that an Orange revolution is inevitable: the Americans are fomenting it, and ordinary people are dissatisfied with the regime. With the support of the liberals, they can create instability and hope for the best. Let us enter the melee, as Lenin used to say, and sort out our strategy later.
Their slogan is After February, October a reference to the events of fateful 1917. The Bolsheviks did not overthrow the Tsar as is sometimes claimed; it was achieved by the liberal Westernisers who seized power in February 1917 in order to introduce full-blown capitalism in Russia; but the Russian soul had a very strong faith-based rejection of Mammon. Thus a few months later, in October 1917, the Bolsheviks kicked the Mammonite liberals out. While now the liberals intend to replicate their Ukrainian success, their tactical partners hope to repeat the 1917 feat. It is not impossible: Even a few months before it occurred, nobody expected the Bolshevik victory of October 1917. Indeed, the liberal revolutionaries, the victors of the February revolution, were well-positioned to rule. In order to win, the Bolsheviks cooperated with the German General Staff, with New York Jewish bankers and even with British Intelligence but in the end they dispatched their yesteryear supporters without a thank you.
It is a dangerous game, but revolutions usually are. Should we be satisfied with the lesser evil or may we try and gain the whole lot? I have no clear-cut answer. While a return to Soviet Communism is as unlikely as restoration of the Pravoslav Empire, the creative forces of the Russians may still move mankind forward, out of its present impasse. The divine spark in Mans soul is not easy to extinguish, the Spirit will win as sure as Christ is Risen.
Resurrection Sunday 2005, Moscow
By Delia Khano©
Anyone who has not recently been to see the revered sixth century Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem would hardly recognise todays approach to the little town. It seems that the checkpoint with its roadblocks, watchtower and offices is soon to be a welcoming and exclusive entrance for the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who wish to visit Rachels Tomb; and this rerouting will put many Bethlehemites out of business.
At present all other sorts and conditions of men and women, including foreigners, are thoroughly checked there coming and going; West Bank cars are not allowed past; and a visit to Jerusalem or Israel requires a very special permit, difficult to obtain.
The old Israeli promise of freedom of religion is shown to be just a sop for the media, although Jerusalem is the lodestar for both Christian and Moslem Arabs. Worse, families are divided and sources of work cut off.
One would never think these embargoes would last into peacetime but there is every indication that they will. A large tract of land to the south-east of the present checkpoint, about 250 metres square, has recently been taken, bulldozed and enclosed with a formidable fence, apparently to serve as the checkpoint for non-Jews, a carpark for taxis waiting for Arab labourers and others, lanes for queuing cars (it can take two hours to get out), and a new road which makes a detour past Rachels Tomb.
If we pass the present checkpoint without trouble or too much delay, it leads us to the inevitable roundabout in the midst of nowhere; and then comes the fearsome eight-metre high Wall. There is an opening in it and one may, as things are, just drive through it, but in future we understand it is only to be for the Orthodox going to Rachels Tomb, and for Patriarchs and Bishops of the western and eastern churches on Christmas Eve. Business for the many shops on this road is now at a standstill.
Apart from this gap, the Wall is complete on the northern side of Bethlehem, and it links up with the barrier coming south from Al-Azarieh (Bethany) and Abu Dis. This leaves two or three kilometres between the Wall and the Green Line, and we do not know if this land and its villages will be annexed to Israel or left as a sort of no-mans-land. Bethlehem was the marketing town for these villages in former times.
The Bethlehemites on the north side of the town say already it is like living in a prison; when the Wall surrounds it completely it will indeed be terrible.
Tourism, which has been the main source of income in the Nativity town since the Crusades, is now in steep decline: its many adjuncts hotels, restaurants, museums, tourist agencies, the staff for all of these, guides, souvenirs including the centuries-old olive wood carvings, Palestine pottery, jewellery, embroidery and other handmade crafts - have all suffered critically. Bethlehem University graduates are exceedingly keen to work in tourism but, with Bethlehem almost eclipsed, they need to go to Jerusalem to find a job and hopes of a permit are dim.
It seems to be deliberate policy on Israels part to exclude Bethlehem: a Ministry of Tourism programme will not normally include it; and an Israeli tourist agent may tell his Christian pilgrims, You should not go there: it is full of terrorists. I have been going to Bethlehem for forty-five years and I have yet to meet a terrorist or anything like one.
In fact Bethlehem is very quiet - unnaturally so: the people are surrounded by settlements, imprisoned by the checkpoint and the Wall and decimated by emigration. There was a time when the population was mainly Christian, but nearly 10% of the Christians have emigrated just since the year 2000. The character of the town began to change in 1948 with the influx of refugees from western Palestine, and a certain number of Hebronites came into the town since then; but there is nevertheless still a sort of Christian establishment.
A Christian community that came to Bethlehem as the result of persecution by the Turks are the Suriani or Syriacs whose language is Aramaic. Two of the families are rich: the others have very slender means. They saved up from the 1950s to have their own village or quarter, and in the early 60s they managed to buy ten and a half acres of land in the shadow of the Ecumenical Institute of Tantur. Their plans were approved in Jordans day, but not by the Israelis when they took over. Now the Israeli government is confiscating it to extend Gilo. The Syriacs not only receive no compensation, but they are being harried to pay large amounts of land tax. The drain of Christians is likely to accelerate, and an attractive people with a fascinating history to be dispersed to the Americas and Europe.
Frustrated in their every endeavor and severed from their mother city Jerusalem, with a Jewish sect preferred to the diverse millions for whom Bethlehem has special importance, the diaspora from Bethlehem could become a flood if conditions do not improve. But because some of the Israeli establishment would manifestly wish for just that to happen, perhaps the Bethlehemites will endure the siege conditions.