I have always had an interest in Russian history. My sister married into a family of White Russians who settled in London in the 1920s. The Revolution was, from their point of view, a cataclysmic event which destroyed their way of life and had left them for a time as stateless refugees. Part of the family made it to the West and part was left behind, only to disappear during the purges in the 1930s. My interest is thus tempered with a sense, through others, of the emotions of exile, bereavement and sheer horror at what went on in that tragic country.
I have no real qualifications to comment on the present upheavals that are going on in Russia and Ukraine. But I cannot help noticing the sentiments of the Cold War that are appearing in the current disputes between Russia and Ukraine. The word Ukraine, for me, sums up the massive famine of the 1930s when the peasant class was systematically destroyed over large areas to destroy resistance to the Soviet experiment. This was but one of the many horrors perpetrated in the name of socialism. At the same time Stalin was destroying the entire class of revolutionaries, who had brought him to power, through show trials. Tens of thousands of people were swept off to prison camps in remote parts of Siberia and Northern Russia, many of them to die of hunger and privation. When I was at university, there was a fellow student who was Polish. He described how his parents had escaped during the war from one of these camps, clinging to the underneath of a train all the way into Persia. Why do I mention these things in this blog? It is because the one thing that has been absent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is any real ownership of the horrors of the soviet past. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a few people becoming extremely rich while the rest of society carried much as before. If some people expressed regret about the past, there was nothing which was loud enough to be heard by the rest of the world.
In South Africa, Desmond Tutu presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but nothing similar has been heard of the territories of the former Soviet Union. Why does this matter? It matters because, as someone said, those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are destined to repeat them. The horrors of autocracy, suppression of dissent and complete distortions of truth are back in the news as though the collapse of the Soviet Union never happened. In short Russia is stumbling back into the mire of tyranny and arbitrary rule partly because they have never owned up to what actually happened in the 70+ years of Soviet misrule. It was not just misrule, it was the grotesque and arbitrary mistreatment of human beings by those who believed in a bizarre corrupt ideology.
Although one can point to other countries around the world who do not own up to their histories (Japan), the Russian failure is perhaps one of the most serious. I bring it up now not only because it is in the news but also because I am reminded of the situation at Trinity Church, Brentwood, described in the previous post. This is a church is condemned by its own inability and refusal to face its own past. Because of living in a miasma of falsehood, it contaminates all who attend it. Even those who use the facilities it offers become guilty by association. A particular guilt falls on a small group of apparently honourable churchmen who come to the church and, in return for substantial ‘love offerings’ ,preach and provide an aura of respectability to the church. I used the anonymity of a blog response to challenge a particular Anglican notable to explain why he did not use his influence to challenge the refusal of the church to face up to its past. The 600 ex-members who have been betrayed and shunned deserved better than hearing the message ‘business as usual’.
For over 70 years the citizens of the old Soviet Union lived in a place of pretence, falsehood and the miasma of propaganda. Truth was something that few people were in touch with and consciences and humanity were blunted in this so-called experiment to make the new Soviet citizen. The refusal to tell the truth about anything was the chief way in which the fantasies of the system were able to be sustained. When Christian groups fail in the basic task of honesty towards their members, then a similar crime against humanity is being committed. How can human beings in any situation, Christian or otherwise, flourish in a situation where lies are being told? A good definition of what Christianity has to offer is the enablement of human flourishing. Lies, suppression of truth make that flourishing impossible to sustain. Trinity Church Brentwood and other churches like it, thus fails this fundamental test of credibility