THIRTY YEARS AGO, amazing events were unfolding on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. A liberal government came to power in Poland. Hungary’s border with Austria opened, allowing people across the region to taste life in the West. Finally, in November, the Berlin wall came down, and a month later, Romania’s nasty regime was toppled. Even the Soviet Union held contested elections and the communist monopoly on power crumbled.
With less bloodshed than most people would have imagined, a form of governance based on atheistic Marxism lost its grip. Among the many happy consequences, freedom of religion, which had been repressed or circumscribed under communism, was restored. These days, Europe’s eastern half is the most devout part of the continent, in part because its Christian churches bear the laurels of persecution. At least some ordinary believers in that region appreciate the chance to practise faith without fear.
Given all that, one might imagine their leaders would be looking for ways to commemorate and ponder the fall of communism. Whether through ceremonies or formal speeches, one would expect them to be voicing gratitude for the events of 1989, while offering some reflection on how the dark communist night was allowed to descend. In fact, those clerics seem far more preoccupied with what they regard as the terrible maladies of the present day.
In different ways, two recent pronouncements illustrate that point. In Krakow, the Polish city from which Pope John Paul II emerged as a castigator of communism, the local prelate recently made an attack on “LGBT ideology” which was vitriolic by the standards of current Catholic debates.
Speaking on the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski compared the promotion of gay rights with the totalitarian ideologies which Poland had endured during the 20th century. “A red plague is not gripping our land anymore [but] a new one…wants to control our souls, hearts and minds,” he declared on August 1st. “”Not Marxist, Bolshevik, but born of the same spirit, neo-Marxist.”
Feelings about LGBT issues had been running high in Poland after a gay-pride march in Bialystok on July 20th was attacked with rocks. As news of the prelate’s speech spread round the Catholic world, it was denounced by James Martin, a prominent American Jesuit who wants a softening of Catholic attitudes to gay people, for “incendiary comparisons” which could “only promote hatred and violence.”
Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church (pictured above), has plenty to say on issues of sexuality (he calls gay marriage an “apocalyptic” portent). But in a recent, elaborate pronouncement he singled out a different aspect of the modern world. His focus was on digital technology, virtual reality and “transhumanism”, the idea that the species can and should be improved through artificial intelligence.
Addressing atomic scientists in the city of Sarov, he warmed to some familiar themes (the horrific chaos of the 1990s, and the noble efforts of the church and the nuclear establishment to preserve Russia’s nuclear arsenal),but also mapped out some newish ones.
“We are living witnesses of the birth of a new myth, the myth of transhumanism which reflects belief in scientific progress as an end in itself. [It] is taking possession of an ever greater number of human minds [and] spreading through all spheres of culture, cinema, literature, computer games. The idea that through technology alone we can overcome death and sickness, social injustice and hunger, even spiritual disorder, proves all too attractive to people, especially those with no faith in God. “
In a wide-ranging and learned reflection, drawing on great Russian and early Christian thinkers, there is one huge lacuna: any negative reference to the communist regime which in 1923 closed Sarov’s once-magnificent monastery and its nine churches. Kirill laments that modern relativism makes it hard to preach the Gospel but fails to mention that worse impediments existed in the past. He condemns over-ambitious efforts to re-engineer the human species but has nothing to say about the Bolshevik dream of “creating a new type of human being”, whatever the cost in blood.
One might expect a clearer historical memory in Romania, which endured a brutal communist regime but now has a pro-Western orientation. But there, too, the leadership of the Orthodox church, to which most people adhere, has surprisingly little to say about the communist era. Among the country’s Eastern-rite Catholics (who worship in an Orthodox way but accept Rome’s authority), things are a bit different. In June, they welcomed Pope Francis to Romania where he acknowledged as “blessed” (a step towards becoming saints) seven Eastern-rite bishops who were killed by the communists.
But there has been no equivalent gesture by the Orthodox leadership, although plenty of their number endured terrible suffering or death under the Marxists. According to Mihail Neamtu, a Romanian philosopher and politician, “ordinary Orthodox folk revere the memory of those who died for their faith, but the church leadership is more hesitant, because such remembrance would raise awkward historical questions – including the hierarchs’ collaboration with communism.”
For all the huge differences between countries in the region, a similar point might be made in many of them. Today’s clerical leaders, across central and eastern Europe, form an unbroken chain with those who in one way or another survived communism by establishing various kinds of modus vivendi with the system. The Polish Catholic leaders maintained a courageously independent voice, but even they had to pick their disputes with the regime carefully. In Russia, as writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted with regret, the clerical compromise with power was more abject than in Poland: the Russian Orthodox church escaped near annihilation in the early 1960s by agreeing to parrot Soviet foreign policy. In the immediate aftermath of communism there was a flurry of revelations about collaboration between Russian hierarchs and the KGB, but soon the files snapped shut. In Romania, the files were never opened.
In Russia, some special factors come into play. Vladimir Putin has drawn the current Orthodox leadership into a close political partnership in which both sides laud the need for a strong and geopolitically confident Russian state. By that logic, the Soviet era is not remembered as a time of religious persecution so much as a period when Russian power was respected in the world. The church does commemorate the “martyrs’ killed for their faith in the 1930s but its leaders seem to devote more energy these days to the victory over the Nazis, a sentiment that easily overlaps with Soviet nostalgia.
All this helps to explain why, 30 years on, the moral and spiritual analysis of the communist era is still unfinished business. That is a troubling state of affairs, even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, the claim that challenges no less pressing beset mankind in the early 21st century. Understanding the pathologies of the past is surely a prerequisite for negotiating a route to the future.