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Soviet Churches Unsure of Course as Nation Struggles for Freedom : Eastern Europe: The people are eager for something to believe in, but there is no precedent for how religious institutions should act and think in this environment.

December 29, 1990|RUSSELL CHANDLER | Chandler, a Times religion writer, is on leave to write a book about trends that will affect religion as the year 2000 approaches. He recently traveled to the Soviet Union and wrote this first-person account for the Religious News Service. and

MOSCOW — The beefy young security guard, dressed in the standard Soviet military uniform of gray with red trim, stopped us at the entrance to the imposing Supreme Soviet building overlooking the Moscow River. We were there, I told him, to keep an appointment with Father Vyacheslav Polosin, chairman of the Supreme Soviet Committee on Freedom of Conscience, Religion, Philanthropy and Charity. Could he help us find him?

The guard didn't know whether Polosin's office was there, or if the Russian Orthodox priest was in or out. He scowled and yelled officiously into two gray telephones on his desk--neither had dials--yet all the while he appeared genuinely concerned to make contact for my interview.

After 10 minutes of alternately shouting, smiling, pacing and banging telephone receivers, the guard succeeded in piercing a typical maze of Soviet inefficiency and we were escorted into the sixth-floor office of the bearded, robed priest. There, we talked for more than an hour about the sweeping new religious liberty law that he had helped draft.

This incident, falling on the final day of an intensive, three-week trip through the Soviet Union -- from the Baltic to the Black Sea and the Ukraine to the Kremlin -- struck me as an apt parable of a huge country in rapid and irreversible change.

The blustery old-line authority is wavering while the new guard is trying to figure out who or what will replace it. At the same time that leaders are adjusting to glasnost and perestroika, inefficiency, scarce resources and a lack of motivation are crippling the country's efforts to stave off political chaos and economic collapse.

And Soviet religion is caught in the middle in this new era of unprecedented freedom and opportunity, vulnerability and peril. There is simply no precedent for how the church should live and think in this environment.

I found a certain naivete as well: 70 years of repression have left many Soviets with the belief that religious values, if only allowed to flourish, could now quickly instill moral leadership and install charitable services that communism has so dismally failed to provide.

Meanwhile, unsophisticated church leaders, with only rudimentary theology and a paucity of sound religious literature, are easy targets in a supermarket of spiritual beliefs and self-anointed messiahs now abroad in this vast land.

As a first-time visitor to the Soviet Union, I shared what I suspect are the assumptions and preconceptions of many Americans.

I knew that Russia is only one member, although the most populous one, of the still-intact 15-republic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which stretches across 11 time zones and occupies one-seventh of the world's land mass. But I gained a firsthand appreciation of the country's immense size when our group spent long days and weary nights just to travel around the western fifth of it.

I had read that this ancient culture, stemming from Babylonian times, consists of 130 cultural groups, 91 "major" languages and four alphabets. But I felt the fierceness of the ethnic and regional rivalries when Estonian Christians said they were insulted by being greeted in Russian, and pastors in the Ukraine insisted that they needed more Bibles -- but only in the Ukrainian language.

I had been aware that shortages and long lines forced Soviet citizens to wait for food and household items. But the burden of the scarcity and poor quality became real to me when I talked to a woman in Tallinn, Estonia, who had been standing in line for three days waiting unsuccessfully for a basic sewing machine she had ordered months earlier. In a nearby bakery, people waited in longer and longer lines for fewer and fewer selections. The large picture of V.I. Lenin looking down from behind the empty shelves was "mocking the shoppers," our guide suggested.

I had been prepared to expect corruption, but it was a surprise when an Aeroflot Airlines ticket agent brazenly told us that she could only get our translator aboard the crowded flight from Krasnodar to Moscow if we provided her boss with a carton of American cigarettes. And I wondered how the drivers stoically waiting in a long queue behind a "no petrol" sign must have felt when our Russian driver, armed with our U.S. dollars, zoomed ahead for a fill-up at the supposedly empty gas pump.

I vividly remember the horror I felt in April, 1986, when I learned about the Chernobyl nuclear accident and the lethal radiation it spread. But I was taken aback to hear people from the affected area emotionally plead for medical help now, saying that the full extent of the damage has never been measured and that the government has done little for victims. I agonized with a pastor who feels he should remain there to minister, although three of his eight children are suffering radiation sickness while his wife has begged him to move away.

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