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Reflections On The Scandal

The Spirit of Gulag

The repressive Soviet labor camps that sprouted under Stalin’s regime in the 1930’s and thrived well into the 1980’s, were not unique to Russia. It was simply that there they achieved their most grotesque apotheosis. They became embedded as a parallel institution of organized systematic totalitarian life in which exactly one half of a nation’s population reported on the other half,  while a small elite subjugated, persecuted, and murdered millions of “tovarishchi” (friends!) over more than a half century! All this while most of the country and the so-called civilized world denied the existence of these camps or the ideology which bred them.

When I plunged briefly into that world last week for one day, thanks to the traveling Gulag exhibit at Ellis Island, I felt a sickening feeling as I read the petitions of dissidents in support of Solzhenitsyn’s monumental work on the camps (The Gulag Archipelago), and beside these petitions the official government denials or approbations of this terrorist network and ideology.

My inner revulsion, however, came not from the remembrance of this horror, but the astounding parallels of that literature of the early 70’s, with the formal exchanges and letters relative to our OCA crisis today.

It was that eerie parallel which reinforced in me the importance of the present existence of the website. Until I was reminded by those harsh photographs and documents of the Gulag era, I still counted on the basically benevolent and altruistic nature of church leaders to work towards the church’s healing. I had thought the website possibly damaging to that process of healing, because it allowed too free and untrammeled an expression of frustrations which served only to fan the flames of dissent. After all, it’s easy to kvetch, much harder to silently persevere and “trust”!

But this is precisely where the Gulag documents opened my mind to the realization that something like the OCANews website is the Church’s equivalent to Russian dissident literature, that both of those forms of communication and correspondence arose because of the absence of legitimate and normal modes of communication. The OCANews website is not an illness, a disease which embarrasses the church. It is rather only one of the symptoms which announce the real disease lurking beneath the surface. Boils aren’t pretty, but the condition is not solved by blaming the boil, but finding its cause.

Men and women of good will, lay people, priests, bishops in some cases, write in the best way they know how, usually with as much respect they can muster, to vent over what now is widely perceived as a protracted conspiracy of silence.

One clear sign of the OCA’s illness is shown in the expressed instructions from church leaders that such writings and discussions be squashed and stifled—“for the good of the church”, one hears at libitum, just as one heard “for the good of the state” in the Gulag era. It would be irresponsible for me to suggest or infer that even the most extreme machinations of ecclesial institutions or leaders can be likened to the Gulag system. But it is not outrageous to assert that the psychology or ideology lurking beneath that system is fundamentally the same as what the Church understands to be the affliction of every fallen human being (including all churchmen)—in St.John’s words, “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” (1Jn 2:16).

It is, or should be, completely understandable that the venting of frustrations in church life will not be pretty, wrong things will be said, tempers flare, accusations made, and lines of formality and civility crossed. But if contemporary psychotherapy has taught us that such venting is healthy, church history has revealed it to us long before, in the tortured road of both red and white martyrdom by which true doctrine was won for us all. We have Athanasius, Chrysostom and Maximus to lead that charge. A strong and sure pater familias within a healthy family, is never afraid of dissent, but rather welcomes it as a sign that the children’s minds are astute and struggling to incorporate and discern the wisdom transmitted. Furthermore, as Paul Evodkimov reminded us, the biblical divine Father never issues decrees, but rather sends out invitations, and this should be the model of those who for the church accept the cross of being called “father” or “vladika”.

Regardless of what details may now be unearthed in the OCA crisis, it is eminently clear that whatever financial and moral disorders prevailed over the many years in question, they could not have occurred without a level of endemic neglect and carelessness that spreads across a broad spectrum of responsible persons and corporate bodies. To demonize one or a few culprits is to forget that a lost individual can only function by virtue of not being held regularly accountable through a system of responsible oversight.

In recent local OCA history a diocesan authority was permitted to browbeat and threaten clergy and laity and to mismanage and control funds over many years before some priests found the courage to react and effect a change. But those same priests recognized that it was their misguided tolerance of the wrongs and their own petty fears which, as they say in modern psycho-parlance, “enabled” the dysfunctional system. Ultimately, all of us proved dysfunctional, some by intimidating, the rest by allowing the intimidation.

Today, there is still a remarkable absence of any public repentance on the part of such bodies who served in oversight capacities for the OCA in those years. Records indicate that only a few individuals bravely recused themselves from service on Metropolitan Council, for example, when their questions remained unanswered. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his essay, Not to Live by Lies, writes that even under a repressive regime, one has the “power” to refuse to be in the same room where lies are being told—but one has to have the courage for the consequences of such abstention.

And in the end perhaps that will be history’s judgment on our recent life, whether with the diocese just mentioned or with the entire church in America—was it all perhaps a simple lack of courage? One can ask why all those years our ultimate guiding body, the Holy Synod, was silent while issuing official decrees on Moral Issues for the faithful. We may guess the reason, but one day we must hope that they will tell us why themselves. What is clear is that the recent mutual episcopal recriminations are a diversionary tactic from facing the common foe of “benign” neglect and fear—tactics which are beneath a fraternity that issues moral imperatives for others to abide.

While the original source is by now forgotten, apocryphal memory attributes Woodrow Wilson with the warning that those who forget history are bound to repeat it. Gulag history is not ancient history, it is of the generation of our biological fathers. During the time of Glasnost’ in Russia and the fall of the Berlin Wall, only three percent of Russians thought Stalin was a good guy. With the further revelations of truth one would have thought that Stalin would sink irretrievably into history’s cesspool, yet only 8 years later, by 1998, a remarkable 53 percent of Russians thought him a hero! That’s how quickly humans forget history. Today’s Russia sports 30 new huge statues of Stalin, and 20 more are scheduled! It’s ironic that Stalin was once an Orthodox seminarian!

Ideologies develop their own hideous terminology to obscure truth and courage. Thus, what we once called the Gospel of truth and light, freedom and love, joy in the Holy Spirit, we now call “Best Practices”. And just as counseling replaced confession of sins, so best practices will supplant responsibility and courage. A book of rules will be the criterion of faithfulness, and saints of genius (as Simone Weil called them) will give way to ordained policemen of the new order… unless… unless we love God and each other enough to begin to listen to and suffer with one another, and to recognize that the Church is not a quasi-military hierarchy but a communion of love of all of her unique, frail, fallen, and redeemed members; and that the voice of each one is precious, no matter what emotional obstacles it must traverse to reach the “ears that hear”.

God’s children are angry. They have good reason. They trusted their priests, their bishops, their leaders. They sent in pension money for assessments. Their pastors were reprimanded when these assessments didn’t come on time. These assessments were squandered. For now, the children may just not find very “civilized” ways of expressing their sorrow and rage. For a long time they may not find a way to trust their fallen fathers. Can we blame them?

Fr Alexis Vinogradov
Wappingers Falls, NY




Other Reflections:

Fr. Paul Harrilchak
Holy Trinity, Reston VA

Fr. Ted Bobosh

St. Paul, Dayton OH

Otche M 

Special to

Holy Trinity, Boston