THE SOVIET UNION THAT WAS
LIBERALISM AND OTHER ISMS
April 1993. I am here in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates for the Holy Week celebrations. On the Friday before Palm Sunday, I celebrated the Eucharistic liturgy in our St. George Orthodox Church, Abu Dhabi, and on Palm Sunday, at St. Thomas Orthodox Church, Dubai. In both these places it was my special privilege to oversee the construction, in the last few years, of two beautiful new churches. This is exceptional because the Emirs and Sheikhs do not normally allow the construction of any places of worship other than Islamic mosques. As a favour to the communities of Indian Orthodox Christians, the Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai long ago permitted us to build churches of our own. In Islamic countries, unlike in socialist and liberal countries, religions other than Islam enjoy no equal privileges with Muslims or any full freedom of worship. So we are very grateful to the Emirs and Sheikhs for this special concession to us in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
In Sharjah also we have sizeable Orthodox congregation; they have no place of worship of their own; they share a prayer hall with nine other denominations, and it is often difficult to maintain the atmosphere necessary for Eastern Orthodox worship in such common places, where other Christians have different attitudes about how a place of worship should look and be maintained. Our people want to construct a church of their own, but it is very difficult to get permission from the Sheikh and from the Waqaf or Islamic Affairs Board.
So I went to seek the advice of my long-time friend Sheikh Dr. Ibrahim Ezzeddin, Advisor on Religious Affairs to the President of the Emirates. Dr. Ibrahim Ezzeddin is a distinguished, scholarly, intelligent and devout Egyptian Muslim, for whom I have both great affection and high admiration.
We had met for the first time, years ago, in Moscow, at the first major inter-religious conference held in the Soviet Union with the theme: Religious Workers, to Save the Precious Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe. Dr. Ezzeddin was the leader of the large Islamic delegation of more than 200 members from a dozen or more countries. There were more than a thousand people from all the religions of the world attending. I was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee, with the responsibility to bring out half a dozen documents acceptable to all religions and all political opinions to the left of centre. Sheikh Ibrahim Ezzeddin was the leader and spokesman for the whole Muslim delegation, since he spoke perfect English and was widely acceptable to Muslims who disagreed among themselves.
Chairing the Drafting Committee, I remember, was a difficult task for three reasons. First, the process of communication in the committee was so convoluted. Some Muslim Sheikh from, say, Afghanistan, would make a point in a session of the drafting committee, in his special kind of Arabic. An interpreter would render it from Arabic to Russian. From the Russian another interpreter would translate it into English. The chairman of the drafting committee could never be sure whether what the Afghan said, as it got through two interpreters, was rightly understood by him or by the committee, or whether the committee’s response was properly conveyed to the Afghan.
Secondly, since the conference theme was averting nuclear catastrophe, quite often there were differences of opinion between not only Soviet and Western participants, but also among Nuclear and non-Nuclear nations. It was difficult to find an easily acceptable common formulation.
Thirdly, there was always somebody at the back of the Chairman, whispering in his ears what should be said, that is, some people wanting us to repeat in our document the official Soviet government line. That line was most of the time decidedly progressive (for example, for the total elimination of all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth), but in some particular cases politically unacceptable to certain nations.
We had produced a draft on Peace in the Middle East, more or less along the lines of UN resolutions on the subject. This did not fully agree with some extreme Arab views, and some Muslims went to Metropolitan Juvenaly of the Russian Orthodox Church and protested. Juvenaly skillfully directed the dissenting Muslim leaders to the Chairman of the Drafting Committee. They came to me in a huff, showed me their draft, and said that if it was not accepted by the conference, the entire Muslim delegation was walking out of the conference. Sheikh Ibrahim was one of the people who came to see me to give the ultimatum. Mine was a difficult situation indeed. If I accepted their formulation, many of the western delegations would object and protest. I had tried to be fair and objective in producing our version, which had asked for the implementation of the relevant UN Resolutions on the subject. I prayed and said to the Muslim leaders, calmly:
“Gentlemen, I am not used to negotiating under a threat. If you will give me your reasons why you object to our draft, I am quite prepared to propose some suitable amendments to the drafting committee. But if you threaten me with a walkout, I have nothing to say.”
That calmed down the Muslim leaders. Dr. Ibrahim apologized for having threatened to walk out, and then we sat down and explained things to each other. I had to accept one or two verbal changes in our draft, but no substantial change. The amended draft was accepted by the conference, and from that time on Dr. Ibrahim became my friend.
I had paid several visits to Dr. Ibrahim Ezzeddin during my later visits to Abu Dhabi, which was part of Delhi Diocese. He was always Presidential Advisor to the Ruler of UAE. He also served a Vice-Chancellor of the newly established AI Ain University in UAE. He always received me with great honour and affection, and often introduced me to his friends as one who is fit to be the Prime Minister of India.
So this time (in 1993) when I phoned him, he readily agreed to see me; he even made it convenient for us to meet in his private apartment in town, so that I did not have to go through the security and protocol problems for seeing him at the Presidential Palace where he lived and worked.
Asked for advice on applying for a plot of land and permission to build a church in Sharjah, and another in Al-Ain, he said to me:
“You know Bishop, just this week, the British High Commissioner came to me with a similar request. The Anglicans want to build a church in Al-Ain. I will tell you exactly what I told him. We have, in the Arab countries, two different schools of thought. One group, more conservative, thinks that the whole Arabian peninsula is sacred land, and that it should not be polluted by the construction of any non-Muslim places of worship in the entire peninsula. They would not let any non-Muslim groups to practice collective worship in a country like Saudi Arabia. We have also people who think like the Saudis. Then there is another group, also faithful to Islam, but not so conservative, who think that a place of Christian worship in a Muslim land is not against the command of the Prophet--blessings be upon him -- but such places would not be obtrusive and showy, causing affront to the sensitivities of Muslims. The Sheikhs in the Emirates have been of the latter point of view in the past, and that is why your community has now two churches in our country. But the trend today is in the direction of the first position. It is up to the individual Sheikh to make a decision about a Christian church in his territory; though he would normally consult other sheikhs before giving such permission. That is what I said to the British High Commissioner, and that is all that I can say to you, Bishop”.
We discussed the matter a little further, and then he asked me if he could put two questions to me in a very personal and private way, just for his own understanding. I readily agreed. His first question was about Muslim- Christian dialogue. We will deal with that question in the context of discussing inter-religious relations. His second question forms the theme of this chapter.
“Bishop, I hope you do not mind my asking a very personal question. I hope I am not being nosy. I have learned to respect you, and I thought it was best to put the question to you directly than to depend on hearsay. I have heard many people refer to you as ‘a pink bishop’, not quite ‘red’, but close to it. Mind you, I myself have socialist ideas, but I would like to hear you characterise your own ideas in respect of socialism.”
“Well, Sheikh saheb”, I began, using an Indian way of friendly accosting which is both respectful and affectionate, but which he may or may not have appreciated, “I have been called a “Red Bishop”, both in India and abroad, parallel to the somewhat pejorative appellation “Red Dean of Canterbury” often applied, more justifiably, to Dean Hewlett Johnson in an earlier generation, but this is the first time I hear the epithet ‘Pink Bishop’. I have a qualified commitment to Socialism, if that is what people mean, even after the collapse, beginning in 1989, of one form of socialism in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. That is a commitment to ideals like social justice for all, the dignity of all human beings, the unity of the human race, peace among nations and peoples, and a healthy and life-promoting environment. It is not, however a commitment to any particular form of the socialist ideology which has arisen in post-Enlightenment western civilisation. I am not committed to particular doctrines like the Class Struggle as the single framework for understanding all social development, state ownership of the means of production, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. I do not subscribe to fundamental ideologies like dialectical materialism or historical materialism. Nor am I committed to any form of western idealism. I remain a committed Christian, and every other commitment is within that framework only”.
The Sheikh listened patiently and with nods of approval. He was by no means fanatically anti-Christian. He replied:
“I am very glad to hear your statement. I have often wondered how a religious person can also be a socialist in the ideological sense. I have always thought of you as a religious person and I have wanted to ask you how you reconcile your religious views with the views of the Communists. I would like to hear you at greater length on that subject on some other occasion.”
My association with the Communists
Well, that is what I shall try to do in this chapter: speak of my association with the Communists. I must go on to speak also of secularism and western liberalism in the same process. I am not seeking to justify myself, but only trying to clarify my own views as they now stand.
I come from the Indian state of Kerala, where the Communist parties have been very active since 1940’s and have held the reins of state government several times. About 35% of Kerala votes usually go to the Communists, and if the remaining 65% is sufficiently divided, or if one of the major non-Communist parties ally themselves with the Communists, the latter can always win. They do not have to use undemocratic methods to come to power.
Until I left India for the first time in 1947, I had only the usual journalistic contacts with the Communists. Even my trade union activities were under organisations related to the Indian National Congress. In the years from 1954-56 when I was in India again, I generally kept out of active politics. It was only after I came back to India from Geneva in 1967 that I devoted myself to Indian politics as such and came in contact with Indian communists. On that, I shall write later.
My First Visit to the Soviet Union
As far as international communism is concerned, my contacts with the Soviet Union began in 1962, when I led the second official delegation of the World Council of Churches to the member churches in the USSR. It was a distinguished delegation of 7 members of the WCC executive staff. As Associate General Secretary of the WCC, the mantle of leadership fell on me, though I was quite inexperience compared to most of my fellow delegates. There was Prof. Z. K. Mathews, a senior and well known South African Black, the Africa Secretary of the WCC, Dr. Paul Abrecht of USA, Director of the Department of Church and Society who had been with the WCC since its inception in 1948, the Rev. Victor Hayward of England from the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, Mr. Dominique Michaeli of Switzerland from the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, Dr. John Taylor of USA from the Department of Information, and Dr. Mauricio Lopez of South America who later became President of a University in Argentina and died a cruel martyr’s death in the heroic struggle against oppression and exploitation in his country.
As we set out from Geneva there was a lot of expectation and excitement. The Iron Curtain was just beginning to lift, and all of us, particularly westerners, were eager to have a peep behind. We had been fully briefed by knowledgeable western Kremlin-watchers whom to trust and whom not to. They told us that our interpreters would always be KGB agents whose job would be to report our conversations, contacts, and activities to their bosses.
And we were given a ‘sacred’ secret mission by the Protestants -- to smuggle in 24 Russian Bibles supplied by the United Bible Societies. I was given the name of one Prof. Alexander Mirkasimov, a Russian who had once migrated to America, but now given up his American citizenship after a dozen or more years of holding it, and become a Soviet citizen again. He was working at the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church. I was to discretely hand over the 24 Bibles to Prof. Mirkasimov, without anyone else seeing me give it. I put 12 Bibles in my own suitcase, and the remaining twelve were distributed to my six colleagues, each one carrying two Russian Bibles in his bag.
We had been told that we would be received in Moscow airport as VIPs and that our baggage would not be examined by customs. Contrary to our expectations, our plane made an intermediate stop in Kiev on its route from Geneva to Moscow. This being our first stop in the Soviet Union, our baggage, we were told in Kiev, would have to go through customs. The customs officials were very polite. I was in my priest’s garments - black cassock and flowing black gown over it, and a glittering Archimandrite’s cross on my neck. My suitcase was not opened in Kiev or Moscow. But each of my colleagues’ suitcases were gently opened, and they took out the two Bibles from each suitcase. They did not even examine the rest of the contents of the suitcase. They obviously knew exactly what they were looking for. Today I know that there was always an agent of the KGB in the WCC office and that the information would have been carried to the customs officials ahead of our arrival, that we were carrying 24 Bibles. I thought I was specially privileged that the 12 bibles in my bag were not taken. The customs men told my colleagues politely that it was forbidden to carry Bibles into the Soviet Union, and that their Bibles could be returned to them on their leaving the country.
When we got to Moscow we were given a very warm official welcome. On a suitable occasion I quietly and clandestinely handed over 12 Bibles to Mr. Mirkasimov as I had been instructed. I had a great sense of one mission accomplished successfully.
The rest of the trip went along quite well. I had an exposure to many aspects of the Soviet system. We were always lavishly entertained. Our information from the West was that Soviet citizens did not get enough to eat, especially of meat and vegetables. At our own meals we experienced no shortages, except perhaps that we could not get milk for our tea. Wine flowed at every meal, and even at breakfast there was an abundant supply of cognac and vodka, meat, fish, vegetables, smoked ham, salads of different kinds, bread, butter, cheese and eggs, tea, coffee, and lemonades in many colours and flavours. It did not take us long to surmise that this was not the lot of the ordinary Soviet citizen in his own home. There were shortages, mainly of meat and milk goods, but the Soviet citizen was getting enough to eat.
I was impressed by certain positive features. As far as I could find out, there was full employment; no one with the ability to work was without a job. All had some place to live, not much space perhaps, but none were homeless or on the streets. And rents, subsidized by the state, were very low. Health care and education were practically free for all. Clothing, though not classy or fashionable, was not expensive. Children and their needs received special attention. Transportation was cheap, whether by Metro or bus, by air or rail, for Soviet citizens. High quality entertainment, whether opera, symphony, ballet, circus or puppet theatre was always available in the large cities at moderate prices. Athletics and Sports were areas in which the Soviets excelled. There was very little crime, at least in those days. The streets, even in the large cities, were safe at night. Holidays, even in classy hotels, were cheap by any standards, though the domestic rates were not available to foreign tourists. Essentials of life, like goods in the shops when available, were always very reasonably priced -- whether food items or domestic utensils, phonograph records, stationery, books, souvenirs and so on. I kept saying to myself: “Oh, when would my country and the whole Two-third World reach this level of development!”.
On the negative side, we saw that people lacked the individual freedoms so highly regarded in the West, like freedom of protest and dissent, freedom of the press, freedom of religious propagation, freedom of criticising the government, and freedom of association. There certainly was no freedom to accumulate wealth beyond a certain point, no freedom for one family to own several houses and lands; no freedom to travel abroad when you liked; no freedom to own several cars or sometimes even one; no freedom for much luxurious living and consumption, except an occasional party with a lot of alcohol. I remember the occasion when the Leningrad Theological Academy, where I had been nominated an honorary lecturer, first gave me an honorarium of 1200 rubles ( in those days it was the equivalent of US $ 1800), I could not find ways of spending that money usefully. Sometimes one bought a watch or a camera or a pair of opera glasses for someone back home, but the quality and variety of luxury goods always left a great deal to be desired. I have often wondered why the Soviets who have magnificent achievements to their credit in space technology and war technology, always remained so low grade in the quality of most of their consumer goods. Was it pure inefficiency and corruption, or was there an element of intentional asceticism which looked down upon quality goods? First I thought it was a case of social asceticism. If that were really the case, the system could hardly have caved in, as it later did, by the deadweight of consumerism.
There was little room for individual creativity or freedom in the arts. Thought itself, as well as literature and art, was entirely bound by conformism, enslaved by the establishment. There was too much spying on each other and punishment without trial. One heard about the inhuman methods of the KGB. The misuse of privilege by those in the upper reaches of the power scheme, the unforgivable ways in which the state handled intellectual dissent, and the violation of many basic human rights. Religion was persecuted, attacked and officially ridiculed, not only at great cost to the State, but also at the expense of truth and justice.
There was religious freedom within certain limits. State law technically allowed freedom of worship, but not of imparting religious instruction to children or adults (except the Sunday morning sermons or in the class rooms of the priest’s training centres), or of propagating one’s religious convictions to members of one’s own family. The Russian Orthodox Church was allowed more freedom than other Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Jews in the Soviet Union.
It was around 1942 that the privileged position of the Russian Orthodox Church became established, twenty five years after it had been banished from public life by the Bolsheviks. It is curious that this coming back of the Orthodox Church into the center of Soviet life should happen in the time of Josef Stalin, one of the most oppressive dictators history has seen.
In 1942, as Hitler’s armies were already approaching Leningrad, Stalin saw that Soviet resistance to Hitler would take more than the simple admonitions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the Soviet people.