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Zuganov's "Why Not?"
The leader of Russia's Communist Party today attended the opening of a huge exhibit in Moscow's Expo Center on Orthodoxy in Russia. And he saw no contradiction...
- by Dr. Robert Moynihan
MOSCOW, Russia, November 1, 2007 -- I have encountered many contradictions in this country filled with them, but perhaps none was more striking than the one I encountered today.
It was grey and drizzly this morning as I made my way to the "Expo Center," the great hall of expositions just outside of the center of Moscow.
Although my ticket had "VIP Parking" written on it, thanks to the Russian Orthodox Church officials who had given the special ticket to me, the young police officer at the entrance to the special parking lot did not let our car pass. He check his hand-written list up and down; no luck.
So we had to swing out to the side, head on down the road, and park a quarter mile down the street and walk back.
Inside the vast hall, as large as a large convention center in the United States, were booths from all over Russia, one for virtually every Orthodox publishing house, monastery, university, theological academy, foundation and diocese in this vast country, which comprises one-sixth of the land mass of the world.
I saw hundreds of books, icons, vestments, maps, charts, chalices and photographs of bishops and holy men.
There was a strange mix of ancient and modern. Many video screens showed films -- for example, the Sunday morning television programs of Metropolitan Kirill, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate's External Relations Department. His lips moved, but I could not hear his voice.
At 11 am, there was a brief ceremony to open the exposition, which was called "Orthodox Russia." As I waited by the entranceway, Patriarch Alexi II and several other leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church entered, just next to me, followed by a number of political leaders.
One of the Moscow city government officials I had met with earlier in the week saw me, and sent his deputy to invite me into the special restricted area directly in front of the Patriarch.
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The Patriarch addressed the crowd of about 1,000 people.
"This exhibition which we are inaugurating here today is a sign of the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church," Alexi said, speaking in Russian. "Everyone who is interested in the life of the Orthodox Church can come here and learn about it."
After Alexi, a special representative of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, read a letter from Putin offering his congratulations for the opening of the exhibit.
Then the mayor of Moscow, Juri Luschkov, a short man with a low, powerful voice, also welcomed the exhibit, saying that the Christian values in Russian Orthodoxy were vital for the health and prosperity of Russian society.
As they spoke, my Russian friend, Leonid Sevastianov, nudged me and said, "See the man with the red tie in the center just behind the Patriarch?" I looked and nodded. "That's Gennady Zuganov. He's the head of Russia's Communist Party."
"Russia's Communist Party?" I said. "What's he doing here?"
The Communist Party is one of the largest political parties in Russia, even today, 16 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. About 15% of Russia's voters (down from 25% in the 1990s) still vote for the Communists. It the second party in popularity after Putin's "United Russia" party.
Most of the supporters of the Communist Party say the main reason they vote for this party is nostalgia for Soviet times. Fifty-eight percent of Communist Party supporters in a recent poll said that they vote for it because they hope the Communists will bring something good back from the past ("the people were happy then"; "children could study for free and everybody had jobs"; "this party has raised me and I liked that life"; "they can bring order to the country"; "they would provide normal life to us"; "they would not allow the sellout of the country").
Some Communist Party supporters say they like this party because they like its leader, Zuganov ("I like Zuganov as a person").
After the speeches, and the delegation of VIP's around the Patriarch had broken up, I went up to one of Zuganov's associates and asked if I might meet Zuganov.
"Of course," the man said. "Just go up to him and talk to him."
"You work with him?" I asked.
"So you too are a communist?"
"Then may I ask you, why are you here, at this exhibition on the Orthodox faith?"
"There is no contradiction," Zuganov's associate said. "We are Communists, and we are Orthodox. One does not exclude the other. The ideal of human justice espoused by Communism was rooted in the ethos of Christianity. We share a common hope."
I walked over to Zuganov, who was standing nearby, looking at a display of Orthodox icons. He turned abruptly as I introduced myself as an American journalist.
Zuganov is a strong, powerfully-built man of middle height. He has a proud bearing; there is no stoop in his shoulders.
I shook his hand, and then I asked him why he, the leader of Russia's Communist Party, was participating so prominently in the opening of an important national exhibition on Orthodoxy.
"Why not?" Zuganov said. "There is no contradiction."
Of course, there is a contradiction. The rejection of religion as "the opiate of the people," the rejection of belief in a better world than this one as a false and illusory belief which distracts human beings from struggling in this world for social justice here and now, is a central tenet of Communist ideology.
So, either Russia's Communists are no longer Communists, or the content of Communist ideology -- if Zuganov really sees no contradiction between being the head of the Communist Party and supporting by his presence at today's exhibition opening the work and life of the Russian Orthodox Church -- has changed dramatically.
I do not know which of these hypotheses is true, but both offer an intriguing perspective on contemporary Russia.
Zuganov's "why not" shows how outmoded are the ideological "schema" under which most of us have viewed the world during most of the past century.
There are no longer clearly defined lines between Communists and Christians, between atheists and believers. If there were, than Zuganov could have articulated those clear differences.
Instead, he said: "Why not?"
Political and cultural and spiritual ideas in our time, especially in Russia, are not clear and precise.
In this sense, politics, culture, and spiritual life today are, in many ways, up for grabs. In Russia, and around the world.
I walked across Red Square this evening for the first time on this trip. I stood across the square from Lenin's angular tomb constructed of massive rectangular red blocks, and tried to understand again the meaning of this place, filled with contradictions: St. Basil's at one end of the square, the modern shops across from Lenin's tomb with the "Hermes" trademark written in the windows, and at the far corner, the Basilica of Our Lady of Kazan.
Here, for 70 years, the Soviet military staged monumental parades each May 1.
Tonight, young couples are strolling hand in hand across the same stones where tanks once trundled, seemingly oblivious of that past, or of any past.
Russia, and not only Russia, is seeking her true soul.
Will she find it?
No one knows.
And if she does, will she share her discovery with the world?
And then the thought occurs to me that, if Russia does find her true soul, and shares that finding, perhaps the world will see that Russia's contradictions -- her suffering -- excavated in her soul a depth capable of reminding all humanity what man is: a profoundly flawed creation, and yet, at the same time, an exceedingly noble one.
A Very Special "Russian Christmas" in Washington, D.C.
On December 17, a week before Christmas, the Moscow Boys' Choir and a leading Russian orchestra will travel to America to perform an exceptional "world premiere" concert of Russian Christmas music at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington...
For more information, click here.
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