There are those who come here with a notion of sorting the place out, or who arrive, innocently and are so enraged by Russia and Russianess that the impulse to order overwhelms them. For sure, if you hail from one of those lands where trains run on time and people smile in shops, there is something here that seems like a challenge to decency and order: but do not give in to these impulses, don’t let yourself be sucked in, for that way madness lies.
One of the first waves of saviors to hit Post Soviet Russia was the Christians: Protestants mainly and from America, I guess that all that talk of godless communism, combined with that allergy to books so common amongst believers, had led them to imagine a churchless wasteland full of benighted souls dragging their sacks of rocks, collected for making soup, between the monuments to Lenin that stood glowering 10 deep on each street corner. But of course there was a church here already: an ancient and smoky church full of gold objects and bearded priests, and when the Russians found God again, it was there that they found him. So the Baptists, and Jehovah’s witnesses, the Mormons and the Methodists didn’t make much headway. Most left after a while to head to richer soul harvesting pastures, some fell in love with Russia or with a Russian, and some even drifted into the seductive candlelit warmth of the Russian churches.
The Orthodox Church, like their Catholic brethren, was always extremely comfortable with the notion of “Rendering unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's": neither great movements of liberation theology nor loud condemnations of the immorality of the rich have featured much during their return to glory. Old Tsars, new Tsars: whoever they have to deal with to ensure their influence and business interests are fine, particularly after 70 years of legally imposed atheism. What’s more, an orthodox mother Russia standing against the hordes of foreign invaders is a familiar narrative, one that ensures a prickly relationship with the Pope and his lackeys, who are seen as the real threat anyway. So the clean shaven Americans bearing picture books full of lambs playing tag with friendly lions can’t have been much more than an afterthought, and nobody opens their door to strangers anyway.
All of which is a precursor to an encounter with a Jehovah’s Babushka in a wood in 1999. The wood is a little to the north of the Sokol (сокол=falcon)district in north western Moscow, and somewhere deep in those woods is a holy spring where the Orthodox go on holy days to fill plastic bottles with the blessed water.
My wife and her mother, both believers, had decided to top up their spiritual tanks one summer day and I tagged along: the forest is beautiful, with a large, still pond and the city was in its best summer dress that day.
So I sat by the pond and started reading, and I’m not joking here, Milton’s paradise lost, which I had picked up for a dollar or two in a beautiful, gold leaf, embossed leather bound edition somewhere in one of the city’s antiquarian book shops. And the sun shone, glittering off the clear water, the breeze rustled through the silver birch trees and I saw that it was good.
And then she was there, hovering in that diffident fashion Christian missionaries have: hoping that they might catch your eye and then rely on your fear of being rude in order to engage you in conversation. So I smiled at her, and went back to Milton who was busy telling me:
“Of four infernal rivers that disgorge
Into the burning Lake their baleful streams
…Whose waves of torrent fire inflame with rage.”
Ad she saw the book, with its shiny golden angels on the cover and, seeing the angle, she struck: “It is a Bible?”
So I explained that it wasn’t, but she told me the good news anyway, just in case I hadn’t heard. So I explained that I had, and that I was quite familiar with its implications, though, I didn’t mention I was reading about where I would be heading if I didn’t take her Xeroxed leaflet. But I thanked her for her concern, and asked her how she had come to be a Jehovah’s witness in Moscow.
If you ask directly, people almost always tell you.
There followed a tale, a familiar enough tale, of divorce and mean, alcoholic men, fights over apartments, loneliness and despair and then the arrival of an American woman who had shown her a way out, and with it a family of sorts that she could join. Then there was period of hopefulness and even talk of leaving Russia and going to a place where God was known: a new life away from the ashes of the old. But, then that god, whose mysterious ways had little effect on the Foreign Ministry’s Visa Department, had taken his children back to the land of the free, and she had remained behind.
There had been a few of them left: Russian members of the congregation that is, but over time they drifted away from Godliness, or into the bearded version that was on the rise again, until, finally, she was alone in her faith.
And so it was that a well educated Russian woman in her late sixties roamed the woods where the orthodox collected water, and where she tried to hand out copies of American, Christian literature to an Englishman reading about Satan in a book written by an English Puritan at pretty much the same time as other English Puritans were clambering onto boats to cross the Atlantic and start the evolution that would eventually see them mutate into witnesses to the doings of a bronze age middle eastern Deity.
All of which is very, very mysterious, or utterly random.