Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



RUSSIA, in my imagination, had always been "holy" Russia, and it was surprising to go there and find it so apparently unholy. The shrines along the streets loomed blackly, forgotten and unlit. The churches for the most part were silent and deserted. I had expected to see vast religious changes with the revolution, but what I found was so sweeping and so sudden. A year before scarcely any one passed a church without crossing himself --the soldiers, the cabmen. Now only occasionally one of the crowd makes his gesture of respect absent mindedly, like an old courtier bowing to a dead king.

Happily no matter what changes may come the churches will remain a striking part of the Russian landscape. I used to think when I looked out of my window in Moscow that it could scarcely matter whether or not one ever went inside, because it was impossible not to get spiritual inspiration by merely looking at the beautiful exteriors. Moscow has the most exquisite skylines, the flat-topped colourful Russian dwellings broken up by the tall golden spires, the green and blue domes with the slender crosses. Moscow is full of churches and so is all Russia. In the Caucasus the traveller runs suddenly across a jewel of a little church, of ivory and blue, nestled in the dark evergreens....

And the bells are beyond description. Sometimes a low sweet chime comes to you from a great distance, a faint silver tinkle; sometimes the bells of all the world seem to be ringing at once in a great barbaric symphony.

Russians are deeply religious, like the Irish or the Italians, and they will always be religious. But the church to-day in their minds is all knit with the Tsar and the old regime and is naturally absolutely discredited. Once the Little Father was divine, now he is only a poor exile with all his weaknesses exposed and they are disillusioned. Autocracy was an integral part of the old religion. When the Russian church produced such monsters as Rasputin, Iliodor and Bishop Pitirim it had reached the height of its corruption and was rotten to the core. And like the monarchy, it crumpled and disappeared without a struggle at the first firm blow; it was but a shell. And the masses, a simple, mystical people, turned the channel of their ardour into revolutionary enthusiasm, into the idea of world freedom and internationalism.

The intelligentsia have always been largely atheistic. This swerving away from the church now is all by the peasants. Yet they do not harbour a violent resentment. I bought old ikons in the markets and put them up around my room. Almost every one who came in remarked about my having them there. If they were intelligentsia they laughed at my "piety." If they were working people they were puzzled and displeased. I explained that they were very beautiful--interesting from a point of art. "They cannot be beautiful to us," they would exclaim, "blind faith in them has caused us too much sorrow." In the old days a man carried an ikon when he went forth to kill a man as well as when he went to bless one.

I talked to Y. M. C. A. men who had spent many months in all parts of Russia. They all told me the same thing. The old Orthodox Greek Church is dead. In their opinion this was greatly due to the fact that it offered so little and demanded so much. As Dillon has recently remarked: "It (the church) was a mere museum of liturgical antiquities. No life-giving ever animated that rigid body, for Byzance was powerless to give what it did not possess." The Y. M. C. A. representatives are not hopeless over the situation. They believe that it is only a matter of time before a more satisfactory, more human institution is built in its place.

An incident which I witnessed in Petrograd in December illustrates an amusing new resentment among the people for the superior feeling of the priests. I was riding on a street car one morning when a priest climbed aboard. He refused to pay his fare, saying he was a man of God and therefore exempt. Immediately the passengers became excited. They were mostly peasants and they began to argue hotly. A man of God, they claimed, was no different from any other man--all were equal since the revolution. But the priest was stubborn and not until the crowd threatened to take him to the Revolutionary Tribunal did he consent to pay, grumbling.

Priests were employed at the funerals after the February revolution, but the rift between the church and the people widened quickly. On the greatest occasions like the famous Red Burial there were no priests and no ceremony. I shall never forget the menacing and hostile glances we received when we went through the Kremlin the day after the funeral. The Red Guards took us through so we could make a correct report of the damages. The priests were so enraged over the Junker defeat that they would not even speak--but they were powerless. I had a feeling that if they had the power instead of the masses there would have been terrible revenge and bloodshed.

There are many noticeable evidences of paganism in the Russian church. It has been the study of the church to combat this by purifying what they could not uproot by turning to account any similarity of names or of symbols. It explains the high place of honour given St. George and St. Dmitrie, the slayers of dragons, and the festival song in honour of St. John which runs: "John and Mary bathed an the hill--while John bathed the earth shook--while Mary bathed the earth germinated." The sacred trees and the mysterious wells have all been consecrated to the saints and purified with holy rites.

One of these pagan customs was the annual blessing of the Neva. In January of this year the Neva went unblessed. I saw the whole dismal performance.

There were half a dozen priests and about twenty old peasants. They gathered in St. Isaacs Cathedral, and after a good deal of singing and burning of incense, they emerged from the great doors and down the broad steps. A small blizzard had just come up. The streets were knee-deep in snow and as we walked we kept running into drifts. After proceeding about three blocks the priests stopped, sprinkled holy water and waved the incense burners, then they trod in a circle, looked at their scanty following, heaved great disappointed sighs and began to retreat toward the church. The peasants, without a word, dwindled away.

In Petrograd there was an entire lack of interest in the affair. I tried vainly to get several Russian friends to go with me to see the ceremony, but they only laughed and went on with their interminable discussions.

Russian priests never fit my idea of conventional priests at all. I saw two laughing merrily once while some old peasants were bowing their heads to the stone floor during mass. They often had mean, vicious faces, were extremely dissipated and commanded no respect from their flocks. One old priest who spent much time at the front, adored to tell the most frankly Rabelaisian stories. One of the peculiar things I found about these few remaining priests at the front was that the soldiers commanded them to pray for the horses and the deserters as well as themselves. This supervision of prayers was always a custom in Russia. Drunken priests were kicked awake and made to pray for a dying man or perform a marriage ceremony. What strange intermediaries to God!

The priests were forced to marry according to the law of the church, but the monks were celibate.

None of them seemed to feel that cleanliness was next to godliness, many of them did not wash at all. The village priests, always desperately poor, were a repulsive sight as they went along mumbling into their matted beards, their long dirty garments dragging on the sidewalk and half a dozen ragged children clinging to their arms. The one universal note was that neither the priests nor the monks liked to work. The great rich estates of the church were confiscated by the Bolsheviki and turned over to the peasants. The monks were invited to remain if they would promise to do their share of labour. The majority of them indignantly refused. Some of the younger ones, however, left the church and went into all sorts of service under the new government. Madame Kollontay, Minister of Welfare, told me she had a number in her department. And some I know were teachers. What became of the rank and file no one seems to know. Of course, a few are still tending to the tag ends of their flocks.

No one, even the most devout, can feel sorry because of the sudden fall of the Russian church. Whatever is built in its place must be better and more solid and more satisfying even if it will not be so picturesque and semi-pagan.