Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Reflections on the Life & Times of Boris Yeltsin

This morning I watched some of the funeral service for Boris Yeltsin, which was broadcast on the BBC World Television News on BBC America. It took place in Christ our Savior Cathedral in Moscow, itself a product of Yeltsin's years as President of Russia.

The cathedral had been blown up by the Soviets under Stalin and the area was turned into the largest outdoor swimming pool in the world. In 1995 my elder daughter, Olivia, and I leaned over the railings and watched some of the last swimmers to use the pool enjoying themselves in the sunshine, yet it was soon to make way for a rebuilding of the cathedral, a symbol of the seachange that had taken place in Russia.

Boris Yeltsin tends now to be remembered as a baffoon and a bit of a drunken clown, but this is hardly a fair characterization. While Gorbachev prepared the way for an opening up of the country, Yeltsin was the man who not only slammed it through, but also provided leadership at a time when there could have been terrible bloodshed and hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling out of the east into western Europe. But none of this happened. He was often a contradictory figure, and while there was much suffering in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was the father both of freer markets but also religious freedoms the likes of which Russia had never known.

As I watched the funeral there were faces I recognized among the celebrants from the time when I was involved with the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1990s, and once again I was haunted by the extraordinary beauty of Orthodox liturgical music. There is nothing to beat the glory of a Russian church choir. Memories of the times I spent in Russia came flooding back, whether it was freezing ears and feet during the middle of winter, or extraordinary moments in worship in some of the country's ancient churches.

I have all sorts of questions of Russian Orthodoxy, and have been especially uncomfortable by the way it has wrapped itself in Russian nationalism, but having said that its presence right at the heart of an occasion like this is a telling example of how much Russia has changed. Much of this is a result of the courage, tenacity, and larger-than-life-ness of Boris Yeltsin and others. As he stood there holding a funeral candle I wondered whether President Vladimir Putin, when he was a member of the KGB ever thought he would be doing such a thing before the world's television cameras.

Yeltsin needs to be thanked over and over again for some of the things that he did, and those in the area of personal and religious freedoms could well be his greatest legacy. Lauren Homer, an attorney who worked in the area of Russian religious freedoms in the 1990s, has written of him, "Without President Yeltsin’s personal intervention and courage, Russia today would have only a handful of state controlled faiths. People of faith within and outside Russia owe Boris Yeltsin a huge debt of gratitude."

After the cathedral service, instead of being buried in the Kremlin wall behind Lenin's Tomb, Yeltsin's body was taken through the streets of Moscow to the hauntingly beautiful convent of Novodevichy, and became the first Russian leader to be laid to rest in consecrated ground since 1894. I have a small oil painting of the convent on the wall of my study, picked up for a few dollars at a Moscow street market when Russians hardly knew how they would keep body and soul together.

All this got me thinking afresh of those seven or eight years when Russia loomed large in my work and ministry. I first went to Russia along with an Episcopal Church delegation, thinking that we might pick up one or two projects that would excite the supporters of the ministry for which I then worked. We came as friends, wishing to share with our Russian counterparts some of the blessings that had been bestowed on us. Their church was in tatters, while we had much that we thought we could make available.

Today the roles are reversed. Their church now plays a significant role in the life of the Russian nation as ours lies in tatters, in many ways the victim of its own hubris and intellectual arrogance. One of the things that struck me in the time that I spent with ordinary Russian Orthodox Christians and clergy was how they had learned some important lessons during the seventy years of their humiliation, and I found myself praying that God will teach us the lessons we need to learn during this period of our own humiliation.

No comments: