Fear of freedom is killing the future of Russia
by Marta Allevato
Serghei Chapnin , director of the "Moscow Patriarchate Journal" speaks to AsiaNews about the challenges of contemporary Russian society and the contribution that Christianity can give to a real "moral change" in the country .

Moscow (AsiaNews) - The need for a "moral reflection" on the nation's Soviet past, to revive greater respect for the dignity of the human person, to teach young people about the freedom contained in Christian thought and give greater impetus to the "internal mission" of the Church, explaining the true meaning of Church teaching to the faithful. These are some of the biggest challenges that society and the Orthodox Church in Russia are currently facing, according to the journalist Sergei Chapnin, director of the "Moscow Patriarchate Journal" (circulation of 17 thousand copies nationwide), the monthly magazine on the Churches' pastoral life and its leaders' activities.

Author of a recent essay entitled "The Church in Post-Soviet Russia", Chapnin argues that the problem with Russia today - from society to politics, to faith - is that it still hasn't freed itself from the shackles of its Soviet past: he is concerned by a growing desire to "return to the USSR " among the younger generation, by the pressing calls for "respect for traditional values​​" launched by the country's leadership and the Kremlin project to establish a "political culture of Statehood " , which is likely to become a regime ideology.
He is also convinced that real change can take place, but only from the grass roots level, beginning with the individual citizen. This is why he believes, the example that Christians can offer, by being witnesses to their faith,  is important.

Chapnin - who is also editor of the Patriarchate publications - has already started a small revolution, launching a monthly magazine "The Temple of Russia in XXI century" which for the first time addresses the issue of the architecture of modern Orthodox churches . "It is a project I started in early 2014 based on the fact that many churches are being built, but of poor quality and taste", he says in a conversation with AsiaNews , in his office a few steps away from the Novodevichy Monastery in Moscow. The explanation , according to the journalist, is theological : "Until we understand what the liturgy means for us today, we will never understand what kind of churches we need".

It is quite a big issue, but what and who would it actually involve? 

We have been discussing it for over a year and a half, even Church leaders are involved and we are preparing an official document on it. It is not just a question of structures that meet the needs of the parishioners (free parking, a cloakroom for coats in cold regions ...), but also to the shape of the altar: should the iconostasis cover it completely or leave it open to allow a better understanding of the liturgy? The issue of whether the altar is open or closed, depends very much on the perception of the role of the faithful in the liturgy and in the future I think we will increasingly see churches with open altars. The liturgy today is incomprehensible to the majority of the faithful, not only for the fact that it uses the old ecclesiastical language, but also because people do not understand what is going on. What is lacking is a serious work of catechesis.

But is that only becoming a problem now?

It is a huge problem that started about 25 years ago, when the Church was free again, and suddenly out of fashion: a lot of people were baptized but there were not enough catechists and so those people learned little of the Christian faith beyond the formality of religious life. No one knew the spiritual significance of the liturgical gestures, or was aware of the change that they would have to make to their daily life. The fact that there has never really been any internal change, a secularized conception of the Church and religious life has become imbedded in Russia, as a space in which to reconnect to the past, but without detaching from Soviet consciousness. This has resulted in phenomenon such as the 'Orthodox communists' , 'Orthodox Stalinists ' and so on.

Is there any hope that new generations will reject this Soviet mentality?

Unfortunately, this particularly involves the younger generations who often speak of  'a return to the USSR' , because they have been educated in a school system that has never changed. And it is a problem that plagues both lay people and priests.

Whose responsibility is it?

Partly that of the political world.  The reform the education system focuses on cost saving measures and not on the quality of the content.  But also the fact that there has never been a moral evaluation of the Soviet experience .

What are the consequences ?

The flourishing of any interpretation of the past. In the twenty-first century we are told that we should be proud of the successes achieved by our country during the Soviet era in terms of technology, aerospace, military ... But if we raise the question of repression, the gulags, the lack of freedom, the civil war, we are accused not respecting our country. It is very primitive and the glorification of the past often affects even our bishops and priests. I call it historical schizophrenia, a disease that has afflicted us for at least 10 if not 15 years.

The Church has been among the biggest victims of 70 years of state atheism , can you not do something to help custody the nation's historical memory ?

The Church is already doing a lot, with the construction of memorials and even bringing children who attend catechism classes to the historical sites of repression, such as the Butovo shooting range in Moscow. The state, unfortunately, he never thought of a policy in this regard and if it were not for a few enthusiasts who defy bureaucracy and obstacles, the historical memory of certain events would be completely lost.

What do you think about the introduction of courses in "fundamentals of religious culture" in schools?

The lessons are important, but do not solve the problem of education of our youth. If the state took ideology out of an education system that is still imbued with Soviet ideology and staffed by teachers who punish freedom of thought, they wouldn't be needed .

Do you think things can change in the future?

Unfortunately, no. Good teachers leave and new ones arrive who cannot build relationships with the kids, over which they have no authority. Since the mid 1990's, the younger generations completely lack respect for teachers.

Does this behavioral problem only relate to schools?

Respect for the human person is THE problem in Russia, it touches every sphere of society and even the Church. I think that even in this case, it is a legacy of the USSR : we are all, deep down, Soviets and we do not respect one another.

But aren't Christians taught to see God in others and respect them?

Sometimes I wonder if the Russian Christians can. There are groups, even among Christians who behave so aggressively that it seems they do not know what respect is. Who are constantly looking for an enemy to judge and fight. There is no moral authority in the country, as were Serghei Averincev or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and this also reflects the crisis of our society.

Yet the state makes continual references to ' traditional values ​​' , including Christian ones . What do you think ?

The state is in a vacuum of values, and not being able to invent new ones, has turned to those that already existed. Only it turned to the imperial past, which had orthodoxy at its center, while we are children of another empire, a Soviet atheist one.

Does this mean that people do not understand what these traditional values ​​are?

It is very dangerous to refer to Christian values, by picking out the ones that best suit as if at a supermarket. The State condemns homosexuality, but not a lie, for example. Despite all of this talk about Christian values ​​ those of the Soviet period prevail among the people: suspicion, lack of trust and respect, individualism, used to justify their own misconduct by the fact that 'everybody does it'. Thus corruption , for example , continues to proliferate because there has been no change in the moral climate.

What would be a real change ? How can Christianity help in this?

We need to start by changing ourselves. Unfortunately, contemporary Orthodox religiosity, is twofold: privately we are more or less Christians, publically we act like everyone else. There are exceptions, but they are few.

It is a great challenge for the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The biggest problem and most urgent is to stimulate internal mission: to teach what Christian life means to those who are baptized. You have to understand that Russia can live according to Christian values​​. The change must happen from the bottom up to be effective. Priests and bishops play a key role in this, well before the Patriarch, as an example to the faithful. But unfortunately today we have already young bishops with serious moral issues.

What do you think of the project of "a political culture of Statehood"?

It's an attempt to form a state  ideology, however that is prohibited by our Constitution. There is a lack of willingness to explain to people what's going on in the world and in the country and this is also seen in the attitude of closure and fear of power towards independent media and politicians. This fear, however, is killing the future of Russia . Everyone is looking for a signal from above and the questions 'where do we go from here' and 'how can we move forward and develop' continue to remain unanswered.

How would you describe the relationship between the Orthodox and Catholics in Russia?

There are good relationships in different cities, especially among the priests and the youth community . In general, the situation is developing in a positive way. The Catholic Church looks at us with respect and vice versa. Although there is still a problem with some Catholics, who are somewhat closed and suspicious of the Orthodox. I think in the end if there is mutual interest and respect, anything is possible.