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Visitors from the West are often surprised to learn how many historic Catholic churches are scattered about the Russian heartland. Today’s ultra-nationalists cultivate the myth of a purely Russian-speaking, purely Orthodox czarist Russia with Catholics only in far-western possessions like Poland or Lithuania. But in fact there were more than three hundred Roman Catholic parishes before 1917 within what is now the Russian Federation, many in places such as Irkutsk in eastern Siberia.

Even then the Russian Empire was a demographic mixing bowl, with communities of ethnic Poles or Germans in the remotest provinces. Under Stalin, of course, the mixing became more massive and more coercive than ever. But by Stalin’s death there were only two functioning Catholic churches left in all of Russia, and none east of the Urals. For the last decade the Catholics have been trying to recover what they lost, only to face charges of “proselytism” and “spiritual aggression.”

Late in 1998 the Russian Orthodox bishop of Oryol, several hundred miles south of Moscow, learned that a nineteenth-century Roman Catholic church building was about to be returned to the city’s newly revived Catholic parish. He contacted the provincial government to protest this decision, and it was quickly reversed. Aleksi II, the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, said not long ago that the only Catholics in Russia are diplomats in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Fortunately, the Patriarch’s statement does not exhaust the complex reality of Orthodox-Catholic relations in today’s Russia. In Kazan, on the mid-Volga, Catholics converted an ordinary apartment into a chapel after the secular authorities refused to return their nineteenth-century church building, which had been converted into a wind tunnel for aviation research. The local Orthodox bishop visited the apartment to pronounce a blessing of his own on the new sanctuary and on the Argentine priests who serve there. In Bryansk near the Ukrainian border, where the former Catholic church is now an apartment building, an elderly Orthodox resident of the building allows the revived Catholic parish to celebrate Mass in her apartment.

A powerful faction within the Catholic Church is evidently willing to make major concessions on the religious freedom of Catholics in Russia for the sake of progress toward the goal of ending the nine-century-old schism between Eastern and Western Christendom. Since mid-1997, for example, the Vatican has muted its objections to Moscow’s legislation restricting the rights of religious minorities. The Pope even received Boris Yeltsin personally in Rome shortly after Yeltsin signed that bill into law. The Vatican has received little in return for such concessions: Patriarch Aleksi still rejects even a symbolic meeting with the Pope. Those who understand today’s Russian Orthodox Church know that there is simply no chance of reunion in the near future.

Whatever concessions the Pope may be willing to make to Orthodoxy, they will have little effect. Orthodox in Constantinople and New York might react with joy, but Aleksi and his circle will simply find other excuses to keep the Vatican at arm’s length. As a political and bureaucratic institution, the Moscow Patriarchate needs Rome more as an enemy than as a friend.

Today’s Russian politicians have found the Orthodox tradition to be one of the most potent forces to fill the ideological vacuum that has followed the collapse of Leninism. Unfortunately, Orthodoxy is attractive to them not as a vision of man and God against which one judges one’s own government and people, but as a neo-pagan tribal religion, a reservoir of slogans and symbols for trumpeting one’s own superiority. For the Church’s hierarchy, the most reliable path to power and money is to cooperate with such politicians. Today’s ideologized Russian Orthodoxy looks like a Slavic version of Japanese Shintoism.

This tendency has been gathering strength since about 1993, when religious freedom and openness to Western ideas reached their peak in Russia. During the 1995 parliamentary elections I visited the monastery at Sergiev Posad northeast of Moscow, home of the Moscow Patriarchate’s most important divinity school. By coincidence my visit coincided with that of one of the candidates for the local seat in parliament, an ally of nationalist General Aleksandr Lebed. Of the dozen candidates for the seat, he was the only one invited to address the school’s assembled faculty and students: In effect he was being given the school’s endorsement.

What struck me most in his remarks—and even more in the questions from the audience—was their secular content. There were hardly any questions about issues that most Christians would consider to have a peculiarly moral character, such as abortion, but intense interest in topics such as the expansion of NATO. The candidate began his remarks by stressing that he was an ethnic Russian and an Orthodox Christian. When I asked him what it personally meant to him to be an Orthodox politician in today’s Russia, he hesitated and then admitted that he was still “in transition” from communism to Orthodoxy and that he did not even attend church services.

In that respect the candidate was typical of today’s Russians, only about 1 percent of whom can be found in church on a typical Sunday. But about half identify themselves to pollsters as Orthodox. If you were to ask these Russians about the theological issues that differentiate Orthodoxy from the West, few would be able to give a coherent response. When they think of Catholicism they think of Poland, and especially of the occupation of Moscow by a Polish army during the seventeenth-century Time of Troubles (which they remember as if it happened yesterday). The popular attitude toward Catholics is much like that of the English-speaking world a century ago, when every schoolboy was taught to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada as a specifically Protestant triumph.

Attitudes toward Protestantism are more volatile. A decade ago the average Russian had no strong feelings either for or against Protestantism, but missionaries from the West have changed that. The American missionary who can barely utter one sentence in Russian, and who acts as if the Russians had never heard of the gospel before his own arrival, has been all too common. As one well-informed American Protestant missionary told me, his cause would have been better served if the West had sent one-tenth as many missionaries that were ten times better prepared. By stirring up largely justified resentments, Protestant missionaries helped lay the groundwork for the 1997 law restricting religious minorities. Ironically, the foreign missionaries themselves have suffered relatively little from the law’s implementation. The main victims so far have been indigenous Russian Protestants, including some whose families have been Protestant for a century or more.

Try a thought experiment: Suppose that Russia were to undergo an ideological evolution somewhat like that of Western Europe in the 1950s, with nationalism fading as continental and global links multiply. Would the Russians and other Orthodox then be ready for civilized dialogue with Western Christians, leading to reunion? The most likely answer: dialogue yes, reunion no. The reason is that the Western churches themselves are not ready for reunion, not having solved their own identity crises. For example, the differences between the most traditional and the most modernist elements within contemporary Catholicism are greater than the differences between Martin Luther and the Council of Trent. Until Western Christians themselves can decide whether to cast their lot with tradition or with trendiness, the best they can hope for from the Orthodox will be a polite distance.

In their dealings with Catholics and Protestants, as with the International Monetary Fund, the Muscovites have proved to be better chess players than their Western counterparts. Patriarch Aleksi believes that the Pope has a romantic longing for reunion which Moscow can use to extract concessions from Rome without giving anything significant in return. He also understands that the shrinking World Council of Churches needs him and his fellow Orthodox more than the Orthodox need it. Unfortunately from the point of view of Orthodox outside Russia, the concessions that seem most important to Aleksi are not theological but political, such as the West’s tacit acceptance of secular laws designed to help the Moscow Patriarchate suppress its competitors within Russia.

On that basis one could even make a case that it might be better for a meeting between Pope and Patriarch not to take place in the near future. Such a meeting would probably produce nothing more on the positive side than a photo opportunity; on the other hand, it might give Aleksi more room to resist the legitimate demands of simple, rank-and-file Catholics in places like Oryol to get their churches back. Until the Moscow Patriarchate is willing to concede basic religious freedom to Russia’s indigenous Catholics and Protestants—which is inconceivable until today’s top metropolitans and archbishops retire—hopes for serious steps toward reunion are likely doomed to disappointment.

Lawrence A. Uzzell has served for the last four years as Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, an independent research center based in Oxford, England, that studies religious life in Communist and ex-Communist countries. He has recently been appointed the Institute’s Director.