The light shines in the darkness. The witness of the Russian Orthodox Church during the years of the Soviet persecution



“Now I begin to be a disciple. So that I have no desire after anything visible or invisible, that I may attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire, or the cross, or the concourse of wild beasts […], all the wicked torments of the devil come upon me, so that I may but attain to Jesus Christ. All the compass of the earth, and the kingdoms of this world will profit me nothing. It is better for me to die for the sake of Jesus Christ, than to rule unto the ends of the earth [cf. Mk 8, 36]. Him I seek who died for us; Him I desire who rose again for us. He is my gain at hand. Pardon me, brethren: be not my hindrance in attaining to life […] do not yield me back to the world. Suffer me to partake of the pure light. When I shall be there, I shall be a man of God. Permit me to imitate the passion of Christ my God.” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, cc.5-6)

With these words, St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died in Rome in the Colosseum around the year 150, expresses the meaning of his martyrdom: full completion of his human life because the way for a complete encounter with Christ and the imitation of His passion. These are true words for the Church of all times and places, because she is always a fruitful mother of new Christians and martyrs (witnesses!) of Christ.

This is why the exhibit “Light shines in darkness The testimony of the Russian Orthodox Church during the years of Soviet persecution” organized by the Foundation Rimini Meeting in collaboration with the St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of Moscow presents itself not only as an unprecedented possibility for the Italian audience to closely know seventy years of suffering and persecution, together with the bright witnesses of faithfulness to Christ and His Gospel, but also as an occasion for each of us to place ourselves in front of the fundamental needs of the faith, the ‘claim’ of One who says, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10:29-31).

The exhibit, organized in eight rooms that follow a chronological order, presents the different stages and the various facets of the Bolsheviks’ attempt at systematically destroying the faith. This historical journey is intertwined with some of the martyrs’ (canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church) personal stories which constitute the “bright spots” that are able to demonstrate that no power was able to arrest the presence of Christ to the Church and totally destroy that perception of self as relationship to the Mystery that allows to affirm an irreducible I.

This journey toward a great awareness of the self and one’s own Destiny—traveled by the martyrs whose life is presented here, but also by many others—constitutes the challenge of this exhibit, a challenge that involved, first of all, a great number (more than 70) of Russian, Ukrainian, and Italian students. Under the guide of historians and professors, they studied the events of the Russian Orthodox Church under the Communist regime, but most of all they accepted the comparison with a world far from their temporal experience (and, for the Italian students, even from their spatial one as well as from their cultural and ecclesial understanding) by allowing themselves to be questioned by a reality—that of martyrdom/witness—that appeared always less as a remote prospect and always more as a concrete modality for facing life.

This was not an easy undertaking, yet it was one that turned to be always more surprising and provoking like, for example, when a five-day seminar organized in early March in Moscow saw the participation of more than 40 Italian and Ukrainian students joining their Russian colleagues. During those days, each group presented to the others the martyrs on which they had been working in the previous months, generating a lively and fascinating exchange of very different ways of thinking and understanding history and the faith, but also building paths of true friendship that will continue during the work at the Meeting.

It is always more clear that these months of preparation for the exhibit as well as the trip to Moscow have not been simply the occasion for an intense and shared work; for each participant, they have turned into a radical and unavoidable question concerning their own vocation. In early October, someone admitted of never having thought of martyrs and martyrdom and of never having found this topic interesting, but later recognized that this dimension—the need to choose in front of powers—was already present in his life as a student. By participating at the Divine Liturgy in Moscow, someone else discovered the meaning of prayer and of being deeply moved by a Presence during the celebration of the Eucharist, while another person decided to start studying Russian because, in the encounters made and in the things seen in Moscow, he recognized an irreducible call to more than a simple passing feeling.

For this reason we can say that this exhibit has already caused some “perturbations” in those who guided and followed it and that it represents an engaging provocation for all: to let a culture and a Church experience that have forms of expressions very different from the ones we are used to speak for themselves, in the certainty that we might recognize a plausible and desirable answer for overcoming that “state of emergency of the human person” that had already been theorized by the great George Orwell when, starting from his experience of communism, he wrote:

«The first thing for you to understand is that in this place there are no martyrdoms […] In the Middle Ages there was the Inquisition. It was a failure. It set out to eradicate heresy, and ended by perpetuating it. For every heretic it burned at the stake, thousands of others rose up […] Later, in the twentieth century, there were the totalitarians, as they were called. There were the German Nazis and the Russian Communists. The Russians persecuted heresy more cruelly than the Inquisition had done. And they imagined that they had learned from the mistakes of the past; they knew, at any rate, that one must not make martyrs. Before they exposed their victims to public trial, they deliberately set themselves to destroy their dignity. They wore them down by torture and solitude until they were despicable, cringing wretches, confessing whatever was put into their mouths, covering themselves with abuse, accusing and sheltering behind one another, whimpering for mercy […] We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him […] The command of the old despotisms was “Thou shalt not”. The command of the totalitarians was “Thou shalt”. Our command is “Thou art”» (1984).