January 21 | comments icon 1 COMMENT     print icon print


The Burning Spirit of Burns in the former USSR

Neville Kyrke-Smith, national director of Aid to the Church in Need (UK), has travelled for more than 20 years to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Ahead of Burns Night, he reports on Faith, politics and the Scottish celebrations in Russia and Ukraine

‘ST Andrew is our saint and we enjoy Burns Night very much,” was the comment of Dr Alexei Bodrov in Moscow, Russia.

Alexei is rector of the St Andrew Biblical Theological Institute—an important catalyst of Christian ecumenical endeavour and exchange— which runs courses and publishes books.

He went on to explain that there are probably more Burns Suppers in Russia than in any other country, outside of Scotland: “This year there will be Burns Nights in Moscow from January 22 to 25 with music, dances, poetry, whisky tasting and typical Scottish meals… It looks very enjoyable!”

It is not just having the same patron saint, or sharing dark and cold winters—it is presently 44 degrees in Yakutsk, Siberia, which I have visited—that unite the Russians with the Scots.

There has always been a fascinating draw between these two worlds. This was shown in the communist workers who idealistically went to help in Soviet Russia in the early 20th Century and in the fascination with Russian literature and poetry.

Burns’ works as ‘the people’s poet’ were translated in Russian and his works are still taught in schools.

Now, Intourist, the former Soviet travel agency, even runs international Burns Night tours to Moscow and Kiev—days to remember… or perhaps not.

Reality in Russia today

What is the reality in Russia and parts of the former Soviet Union today?

There are real worries about human rights issues and the freedom of the press, as seen in the recent re-trial of Mikhail Khordovsky and the arrest of protesters. Human rights activists and journalists have been murdered in recent years.

In Belarus the authoritarian President Lukashenko acts like a dictator; opposition leaders were arrested after the recent election, which failed to meet any criteria for a free and fair vote.

One Belarusian opposition leader, the poet Vladimir Neklyayev, had to be hospitalised after being beaten unconscious. But he was then arrested and carried off wrapped in a blanket from his hospital bed, whilst his wife was locked in an adjacent room.

The control of the media, lack of democratic development and the failure to control those who pull the levers of power leads many western observers to fear what may develop in parts of Eastern Europe.

It has to be asked if democracy can emerge within Vladimir Putin’s Russia—his KGB past and the self-interests of a Kremlin business elite seem to ride roughshod over human rights and freedom.

Hope for the Church

Yet, there is some hope thanks to the Church. The Russian Orthodox Church suffered and was also compromised in many ways during Soviet times, but the Orthodox Church has grown dramatically in recent years.

For example, the number of parishes in Moscow has increased dramatically since Soviet times; there used to be 40 parishes and there are now 400 for 10 million inhabitants.

Members of Patriarch Kirill’s family suffered and died in the soviet Gulag prison camps at Solovki—and he is very firm on Stalin’s Terror when millions died, refusing to accept the rewriting of history to reinstate Stalin as a national hero, even calling some of Stalin’s actions ‘a crime against humanity.’

It is hoped that the Orthodox Church—and indeed the Catholic Church— can help to build civil        society.

Just at the moment, one ecumenical endeavour is frozen—literally frozen in port—as the chapel boat, funded by Aid to the Church in Need is in port for the winter.

The boat—called ‘Fr Werenfried’ after ACN’s founder—is carrying the relics of eight saints from the time of the undivided Church of the first millennium.

This ecumenical voyage began last September, as the boat set sail along the Volga River for the Liturgy to be celebrated and for the relics given by the Catholic Church to be venerated.

This project received the blessing of both the Russian Orthodox Patriarch and the Catholic Apostolic Nuncio.  An Orthodox priest is on board at all times, to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the boat’s chapel, dedicated to St Vladimir, who baptised Russia.

Christian revival in                the Ukraine

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, in Ukraine, the Christian Faith has revived and grown to such an extent that more than half of all Ukrainians went to the Liturgy in Orthodox and Catholic churches last Easter. The Holy Spirit Seminary in Lviv, where I stayed last year, is itself also a witness to the Resurrection—with two hundred seminarians studying in this Ukrainian Greek Catholic seminary built thanks to the support of the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need.

Indeed, there are now more than 1000 Catholic seminarians and novices in the whole of Ukraine. And in one parish I visited 3000 young people are catechised per annum.

This is a true revival of faith, after the terrible years of Soviet persecution when hundreds of thousands of Christians died for their faith or were exiled to Siberia.

Sr Luisa, who oversees the catechetical work based at the Ukrainian Catholic University, expressed thanks echoed in so many parts of Eastern Europe: “Thank you—for Aid to the Church in Need has helped us that we may build the living Church. We work with your help so that our children may grow in faith.”

The dark clouds of history cast long shadows across much of political and religious life in Eastern Europe. The past seems to haunt the present.

Yet, thanks to a rediscovery of faith there is hope. And in former Soviet Russia, where God was for so long denied, maybe the following verses of Burns’ Epistle to a Young Friend might be read at Burns Suppers next week:

The great Creator to revere

Must sure become the creature;

But still the preaching cant forbear,

And ev’n the rigid feature:

Yet ne’er with wits profane to range

Be complaisance extended;

An atheist laugh’s a poor exchange

For deity offended.

When ranting round in Pleasure’s ring,

Religion may be blinded;

Or if she gie a random sting,

It may be little minded;

But when on Life we’re tempest-driv’n —

A conscience but a canker—

A correspondence fix’d wi’ Heav’n

Is sure a noble anchor!

n To support the work on ACN, visit http://www.acnuk.org or call 020 8642 8668 or 01698 337 470

Comments - One Response

  1. Philip M.McGhee says:

    I actually remember having a beer with Patriarch Kiril many years ago. At that time,he was simply,Father Kiril Gundayaev. As I was just learning Russian at the time,the Servant of God,Walter Ciszek,SJ,helped me along.

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