As 2013 opens, a wave of anti-Americanism is radiating out from the Kremlin. How does this affect Judy and me? On one level, not much. This current campaign hasn’t seemed to change the way we’re treated in our town. But on the other hand, our whole reason for being here is to bless Russia—specifically our students, neighbors, friends, and the little community of Russian Quakers. Anything that affects the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional climate of the people we care about also affects us. After all, the first step in blessing is listening.
2012 was a bumpy ride for Russia in many ways. As the year began, political demonstrations of unprecedented scale upset conventional wisdom. Thousands of new volunteers monitored the presidential elections in March. A punk feminist rock band shocked the nation with their “hooliganism” at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, igniting a whole new round of debates about church-state relations. As the year ended, Russian-American relations fell to a new low as the government here responded to American “interference” by banning adoptions by Americans. And all organizations receiving American support and engaged in any activity that can be labeled “political” are now subject to summary liquidation.
I was thinking about these themes when an old friend of ours passed along an open letter from his former colleague Andrei Zubov, now a professor of history at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations and director of its Center for Church and International Relations. He also teaches comparative religion at the Russian Orthodox Institute of St. John the Divine. As I read his letter—a New Year’s greeting to his wide circle of friends and colleagues—it gave me a sense of perspective on the year we’ve just left behind and the year to come. I think it applies directly to our own context here in Russia, but maybe you too will find it helpful.
From Andrei Zubov’s letter:
…The past year was full of expectations and hopes. As always, we had expected more than we gained, but what we gained was significant. The year will go down in Russian history for more than just its anniversaries [specifically the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino]. I think it will be studied as a year when Russian society was able to wake up, or at least begin to wake up. Our terrible totalitarian past no longer constrains our souls, especially the souls of young people. In principle, it’s sad—but it’s also healing—that society became more detached from government, more disillusioned with the authorities, and less inclined to hope that the problems of simple people will be decided by guardians in high places. People realized that these guardians have always, and will always, put the priority on solving their own problems—and at our expense. This is our bitter but useful experience.
During this year, the credibility of the Russian Orthodox Church and its Primate suffered a tragic decline. On the other hand, the level of cynicism in society also fell. More and more people became involved in volunteer activities, in social programs. Again this particularly involved young people. Also, faith in God did not decline, but for very many people (almost a third of our citizens) whose background was a lukewarm and nominal orthodoxy, their faith became non-denominational. I think this is generally better and more honest, although it demands an accounting from those who continue to consider themselves members of the Church. For them—for us—the time has come to take on some very serious work.
Our society no longer believes in words but looks all the more attentively at deeds and the actual lives of people in the public eye—including their private lives…. In this past year, many reputations were shaken and destroyed. Is it possible that this new year will be a year not for the destruction of old things, but the creation of new things? Perhaps the creation, the crystallization of a new, more kind, self-sacrificing and honest public life? All the prerequisites are in place; the realization depends on us.
Every morning we wake up, all of us, young and old; we feel that we have been given a new day and a new playing field, on which we can distinguish ourselves or discredit ourselves to the benefit or detriment of ourselves and others. As the new year dawns, a whole year’s playing field opens up; symbolically, the world is created anew. In this new world, which comes to us and into which we enter, it’s my wish that you will find happiness unblemished by shame, and you will find meaning that does not pass away like morning dew. Time is something that is given to us, but the future is something we ourselves build. May we find joy in this work during this New Year 2013.
Cordially yours, Andrei Zubov