by Matthew Heise
The Keating Files – July 31, 2021
When the topic of a news article is “Russia,” chances are good that you will be reading about the poisoning of a Russian political dissident, whether in Russia or outside its borders. Indeed, free speech remains a controversial topic in contemporary politics, as Alexei Navalny and his allies can certainly attest. When tens of thousands take to the streets in Yakutsk despite -43 Fahrenheit temperatures, you simply have to sit up and take notice! Growing protests similar to those from 2011-2013 on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow occurring throughout the country reflect the natural reaction of alarmed citizens to the tone-deaf nature of the political power structure in Russia.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, mysterious deaths and poisonings of religious and political figures have continued to plague Russia. Father Alexander Men, Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov initially come to mind, but there are many more. I remember once eating lunch with colleagues outside Izmailovksy Hotel in Moscow and noting that political dissident Boris Nemtsov was only a few feet away from us on his phone. “Strange,” I thought to myself, “he doesn’t have any security despite constant death threats.” Five years later, I wasn’t surprised to learn that he had been gunned down on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge within the shadows of the Kremlin.
It is true that no one will confuse modern-day Russia as an exemplar of free speech, but at the same time, religious freedom has fared considerably better. Oh, the daily pressure upon any non-Orthodox Church cannot be disregarded, but compared to Russia’s past, the present offers us a more positive outlook.
Above: Ruins of Lutheran Church on the Volga (photo by author)
When the Bolshevik Revolution succeeded in October 1917, centuries of czarist rule in Russia were unceremoniously swept into the dustbin of history. Recalling travels through the Volga River region twenty years ago, I was reminded of backpack journeys throughout Europe, marveling over castles and manor homes from ages past in various states of ruin or repristination. Only now, I noticed the same state of affairs in Russia with regards to churches, mostly Lutheran. These grand cathedrals built by a sturdy farming community once commanded the attention of the entire countryside, visible from miles away. Now they were shells of their former selves, left rotting in the fields, their roofs shorn and congregations long since exiled to Siberia or absorbed into the post-Christian culture.
If this was the end of the story, it would blend seamlessly and tragically with the current state of political affairs. Today, however, religious faith is quite robust throughout Russia. While it doesn’t mean that believers are theologically astute (are they anywhere?), there is a reverence for what Russia once was. People acknowledge the mistakes of the past century and have come to the realization that man cannot live within a spiritual vacuum. With the fall of the Soviet Union at year’s end 1991, many of these conversations long since hushed came out into the open.
One example was the situation surrounding the so-called “swimming pool church,” St. Peter’s Lutheran in downtown St. Petersburg on its central avenue, Nevsky Prospect. The father and son pastoral team, Paul and Bruno Reichert, were arrested shortly before Christmas in 1937 and executed on January 3, 1938. The church building, remaining in relatively good condition despite dating back to 1838, led state officials to entertain a variety of proposals for its use. A concert hall seemed to have the most support while the world-famous Hermitage and Russian Museum vied for its valuable artifacts. But in the end, World War II intervened. Used temporarily as a warehouse after the war, in 1958, the Baltic Sea Shipping Company converted the large interior of the church into a swimming pool. Generations of youth now identified the church only as a community pool, the altar being replaced by a diving board and the upper balcony utilized as seating for parents and interested citizens for festivals, such as the Day of Neptune.
As 1991 dawned and with Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of perestroika (restructuring) in full bloom, government actions were questioned more readily, with Russians increasingly repentant about the sins of the Soviet past. Taking advantage of newfound freedoms, Lutherans looked to reclaim the old church building.
A spirited public discussion ensued when the German Cultural Society of Leningrad made a formal request for the return of its worship structure. In a letter to the local government, the society called for a “suspension of the use of the church as a swimming pool because the reconstruction of the church insults the religious believers and contradicts all cultural and aesthetic sense in the center of Leningrad.” A city newspaper, Evening Leningrad, added in an editorial: “When the moral law in our country contradicts the judicial, the former demands stringent observance.” The times were indeed changing as a citywide referendum would change the city name Leningrad back to St. Petersburg on September 6, 1991. By the end of the year, the hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered permanently from the Kremlin. St. Peter’s Lutheran has been a functioning church since the 1990s, housing a Russian-German history exhibit in one of its halls and murals of religious persecution from the past on display in the bowels of the church where one can still spy the old swimming pool tiles.
Christianity in all of its denominations has made quite a comeback given the catacomb state of the church under communism. In his book Holy Rus: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia, John P. Burgess lays out how the Orthodox Church has gone about restoring its public witness in Russia through religious education, social ministry and remembrance of what are called the “new martyrs.” Known as the Russian Golgotha, the Butovo killing fields just south of Moscow have become a major pilgrimage site. While Joseph Stalin has experienced a sort of rehabilitation among some Orthodox, even to the point of icons being created in his image, the state archives housing the secrets of the past are creaking open.
Controversial Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, who passed away last year of the coronavirus and was often described as one of “Putin’s priests,” was no fan of the infamous NKVD (secret police). I recall meeting him at a dinner in Moscow with a professor of mathematics at St. Louis University, the late Dr. Charles Ford. Dr. Ford had been researching with Russian mathematicians the deaths of famous Russian Orthodox mathematicians in the Soviet Gulag, a topic of interest to Fr. Smirnov given the execution of his great-grandfather, Father Vasily Smirnov, in 1938.
Whatever one’s politics, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the mountains of evidence that have gradually been seeing the light of day. Orthodox Church historian Mikhail Shkarovsky has published extensively about the persecutions meted out to Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Lutherans in the USSR. Less well-known is the cemetery of Levashovo, just outside St. Petersburg and more ecumenical in scope, marking the burial spots or murders of not only Orthodox, but Lutheran and Roman Catholic believers as well. That cemetery is visited annually on the day of Political Repressions by the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia, among others. I have stood there in the cold with the descendants, listening to tearful stories of family members murdered for their faith.
So, while any Russophile laments the state of affairs concerning freedom of speech in Russia today, the news is not all bad. In those early post-Soviet years, my good friend, Pastor Jose Flores, received an invitation to meet the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II. As the meeting began, however, it was evident that a mistake had been made inviting a Lutheran pastor to the Danilov Monastery. Recognizing the error and laughing gently as he interrupted the translator mid-sentence, Patriarch Alexey confessed in flawless English, “Thank you for helping us thaw the Russian soul.” The Russian soul has indeed cast off the chill of its past and while it is unlikely today that Patriarch Kirill would repeat the words of his predecessor, hope remains in Russia. Now if only the politicians could get free speech right.
Matthew Heise is the Executive Director at Lutheran Heritage Foundation.
 Maxim Ivanov, Лютеранский Квартал в Петербурге [The Lutheran Quarter in Petersburg], (Saint Petersburg, Russia: Yevropeiskiy Dom, 2004), 40.
 Matthew Heise, Adapted from forthcoming book published by Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA: My Brother’s Keeper: How American Lutherans Fought to Preserve the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia in the USSR, 1921-1939.
 Ivanov, 44-45.
 Ivanov, 46.
 John P. Burgess, Holy Rus: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia, (New Have, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2017), 51, 91, 122.
 Burgess, 159.