Many years before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Lord frequently used to call us as a group to action stations to pray about the “menace” that Russia posed to the nations. At the end of our time in Oxford, one of our flatmates had a dream that, long after people had forgotten about it (from a military point of view at any rate) Russia would rise again and spring into action. Russia’s continuing flexing of its military might in Ukraine and Syria remind us of verses God spoke to us through many decades ago, such as Jeremiah 6:22, prompting us once more to pray for this mighty country, where the Spirit of the Lord has nurtured and sustained so many despite immense hardships and persecution, and the seriously dangeous directions the nation is moving in.
This is a particularly important time to pray for Russia because the hopes of spiritual renewal that blossomed in the early 1990’s have not developed as far or as fast as many Christians had been expecting at the time. According to the statistics I have read, 90% of Russians have no meaningful link with any church. (Technically the breakdown is that the nation is 0.6% Catholic, 12% Muslim, 19% Non-Religious, 64% Orthodox and 1.2% Protestant/Evangelical).
May the Lord use these two contrasting articles to place something of His ongoing burden for Russia on your soul. In this first one I want to focus on how Russia’s failure to “remember” properly, and to learn from its history, is a serious obstacle to constructive growth and change in the heart of the nation.
The Importance of Remembering at a National Level
Remember your history, your long and rich history. (Isaiah 46:9)
How apt and powerful that verse is for Russia!
In the epilogue to her excellent book Gulag; A History of the Soviet Camps (Allen Lane, Penguin Books 2003), Anne Applebaum brilliantly shows how powerful Memory and Remembering are – and how serious the consequences are when serious matters are locked away in filing cabinets with no intention of referring to them again.
Anne shows in considerable detail that remembering is not something that Russia does well. Issues that are not reformed root stock and branch usually find fresh ways to spring up in fresh ways and as a result of this historical legacy that has not been faced up to, ideological and totalitarian oppression are never far away in Russia. Truth remains a commodity to exploit, and standing up for it a risky matter.
Making opportunities to confess, forgive and remember well
Remembering properly is vital for any nation. Germany has made more effort than any other nation in modern times to face up to its past.
South Africa’s attempt at restorative (rather than retributive) justice in the aftermath of the Apartheid is generally considered to have been a success.
We have focused on Hungary recently. In Hungary a modern museum simultaneously beams both fascist propaganda and Communist propaganda at visitors through a series of television screens from the moment they come through the door in order to give a generation that is too young to have experienced the reality of either a taste of what the not-so-distant past was really like. Significantly, the ex-Communist party, now rebadged as the Socialist party, fought bitterly against this museum being opened, highlighting as it does the plight of so many victims of terror.
The great value of Truth Commissions is that they allow victims to share their stories in an “official” forum whilst at the same time making it possible to bring grievous crimes from the past into the light of public attention. (Cf the British Parliament’s 2002 enquiry into the bloody Sunday Massacre.) No such “truth-telling” has ever been permitted in Russia, either in Parliament or anywhere else within the judicial system. No official investigations have therefore ever been conducted into the countless murders that took place in the Soviet Gulag. Four and a half million political have certainly been rehabilitated into mainstream society, but many see the reason for this as being motivated less by any real concern for truth and reconciliation than as a ploy to end any unwanted investigations into the past. It is easier to “buy” victims off with a few inducements (such as free bus tickets) than to look more deeply at how the injustices that Stalinism engendered continue to live on into the present day.
Refusing to face the truths of our past
It feels significant that Russia does not have a national monument to honour the victims of the Gulag -and neither has it done anything to promote any sense of national mourning let alone repentance. Such memorials as there are in Russia are known to relatively few – and the country continues to act as if it had not inherited the legacy of the Soviet Union. There is certainly no national museum dedicated to the history of repression. A national centre of mourning would officially acknowledge the suffering of victims and their families.
Most Russian leaders are reluctant to renounce their past explicitly in case present practices are brought into question. An additional reason for the reluctance to ask probing questions is because people are afraid of finding out things they do not want to discover about their loved ones – or even of betraying someone they love. This was the acute problem that people wrestled with in East Germany, when the Stasi files were made public, revealing just how many people had become part of the network of Stasi informers.
Given that former communists have continued to dominate most of the former Soviet countries, there was therefore little inducement for any real openness concerning the past to develop. People had a vested interest in keeping the past under wraps in order to avoid incriminating themselves, or the system they owe allegiance to.
In the last of his great science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength,
CS Lewis describes the horrifying impact of an alien Fascist-like dogma
taking over first a university and then a town. in our own land there
are warning signs in many directions. (The Week does an excellent job of
highlighting some of the more extreme aspects of Political Correctness
in our own country edition by edition.)
When dealing with big issues it is always good to go from the particular to the general – toe deep, knee deep, waist deep and suddenly we find ourselves swimming in the flow of subjects that mean so much to God Himself.
Our past impacts on our present and our future
From time to time I have revisited the stories of believers who were imprisoned in Soviet days, and wonder how they are faring today. The stories of these Russians who either survived or perished in the Gulag camps deserve to be retold far more widely in this day when totalitarian regimes in nations such as Uzbekistan and Belarus continue to persecute believers actively. E.g. Voice of the Martyrs: Uzbekistan and other sites on the web. (cf Non violent Muslims too have suffered persecution and torture there).
In Gulag; A History of the Soviet Camps Anne Applebaum writes that in many of these countries, the structure of the secret police apparatus remains virtually unchanged, ensuring that many “overshadows” remain as a result of alliances that were formed (and deals that were struck) in the days of the former Soviet Union, with its enormous military establishment and imperial goals.
Anne Applebaum suggests that it is the public awareness that is more notable by its absence than the missing monuments. The Russian government made no attempt to bring the perpetrators of torture or mass murders to justice, even though many of them were easily identifiable. Very few in contemporary Russia consider the past as something to be repented of: it is looked on rather as a bad dream to be forgotten. But, as Anne presciently warned 12 years ago, “it lies in wait for the next generation like a great and open Pandora’s box.”
One of the reasons for this is that many Russians follow Putin’s feeling in viewing collapse of the Soviet Union as a profound blow to their personal pride. The old system may have been bad, “but at least we were powerful. And now that we are not powerful, we do not want to hear that it was bad. It is too painful.”
As a result, the political consequences of no attempt being made to address these memories in Russia have been much more damaging than they have in other former communist countries.
Along with obvious financial shortages, this lack of willingness to face the past goes a long way to explain the absence of any serious reform of the judicial and prison services. There continues to be a grimness about Russian prisons which is utterly
reminiscent of the conditions that existed back in the labour camps of the 1930’s. Appalling sanitation, foul air, lack of light combined with intense mental degradation lead to a situation that intensely highlights the complete loss of everything that makes for civilisation.
Given the more or less voluntary amnesia on the part of virtually everyone, and lack of meaningful judicial intervention, not to mention the colossal weight of constant propaganda from the media outlets, the recipe is in place for extreme volatility – especially since heavy censorship has again been imposed in this country, with the secret police, the FSB, continuing to exercise a heavy presence.
The example of Chechnya set an important precedent for what happened earlier this year in Ukraine
When Stalin deported the Chechen people to the wastes of Kazakhstan, it was in the full intention of wiping them out – along with their language and culture. At least half of them physically died in exile. Fifty years later, in a repeat performance, the Russian Federation obliterated the Chechen capital, Grozny. If the Russian people, and especially the Russian elite had taken to heart what Stalin did to the Chechens, they might perhaps not have invaded Chechnya in the 1990’s. To do so was the moral equivalent of present-day Germany invading western Poland.
As Anne Applebaum puts it, “Very few Russians saw it that way of course – which itself is evidence of how little they know (or are told) about their own history. History can easily acquire a living momentum – rather like a free-wheeling demolition ball which continues to destroy and knock down”.
Intercessors have long known that remembering and identificational repentance go hand-in-hand. This has always been a task for the few rather than the many. Certainly in Russia there is resentment that the West focuses more on the ugly things than on the serious achievements of the Soviet regime. The West may well have missed many tricks by not making greater efforts to incorporate Russia into the family of nations when the Cold War ended and glasnost was at its height– but there is a deadweight of tradition from the Soviet days that cannot fail to influence the future – and this unquestionably includes the security services as well as the military.
Of course we must guard our hearts from viewing our neighbours as enemies, and reducing them to objects, let alone portraying them as being lesser or evil beings, for this merely makes it easier to proceed for each new episode of totalitarian excess to develop without facing up to the darker side of human nature.
But if we choose to forget just how brutal the totalitarian regime of the USSR really was – affecting half of Europe as it did, it is likely to skew and distort our what we know about the other half too. Just think how many already today in the West have never heard of the 7/7 massacres in London! As dark inclinations surface again, it is important to remember that totalitarian philosophies and “shows of strength” make a profound appeal to millions of Russians back home. We should not forget how intensely popular Putin is with many in Russia.
Unless the elite comes to recognise the value and the importance of all the Russian citizens, and honour both their civil and their human rights, the outlook is grim for the nation and Russia risks becoming a land populated by “impoverished peasants and billionaire politicians who keep their assets in Swiss bank boards and their private jets on runways, with their engines running.”
And may the Lord give increased wisdom to western politicians, economists and other key players to know how to respond to the enigma that is Russia – which is really no enigma at all, but rather a nation where an iron fist overlays any tendencies to what we would regard as open democracy.
You might find it helpful to use this prayer cast from Operation World as a starter for your prayers for Russia.
See the Watchmen for Russia category for more insight, information and background.
Anne Applebaum has subsequently written a severe indictment of the direction Russia is heading in: How [Putin] and his Cronies stole Russia