A Time for U.S.-Russian Repentance?


by John P. Burgess


Tens of thousands of people gathered in Orthodox churches throughout Russia on Sunday, February 26th. In the church that I attended, the priest spoke of a God who invites humans to confess their sins and make a new start. As dozens of flickering candles cast gentle shadows into the darkened room, he bowed his head and in a hushed voice spoke of his own shortcomings. “I don’t always give you the attention that you need. I’m not always patient with you. The priesthood is a high calling, and I’m not always worthy of it. I ask you please to forgive me.” I held my breath, but his parishioners responded, quietly but firmly, “God forgives.” And then they came forward one by one to ask him to forgive them.

This ritual takes place in Orthodox churches throughout the world on Forgiveness Sunday, the beginning of the seven weeks of fasting and prayer that mark the Great Lent. But this year the words, “God forgives,” had a special poignancy to me. Earlier in the day, several thousand Muscovites had marched to commemorate the second anniversary of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a political dissident who had spoken out against President Putin. The circumstances of his death, on a bridge over the Moscow River in the shadow of the Kremlin walls, remain unclear. And in the new Russia other kinds of violence and insecurity are never far away. With Russian government support, low level warfare continues in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian mass media issues shrill attacks on the United States daily, despite Russians’ fascination with Donald Trump.

Forgiveness and reconciliation will not come quickly either to Russia and Ukraine, or to Russia and the United States. But whatever problems lurk beneath the surface or elsewhere in the country, Moscow hardly seem economically or politically beleaguered. Despite the free fall of the ruble since 2008, cafes and restaurants are operating at full throttle. Specialty coffee shops and hamburger joints have become ubiquitous, and English words in Latin script jump out from the Cyrillic that otherwise graces billboards and shop signs. Orthodox priests and parishioners may have confessed their sins that night and asked each other for forgiveness, but little on the surface of everyday public life here – except, perhaps, for the few marchers for Nemtsov – suggests that anything is amiss or needs correction.

Everyday normalcy is what Russians want. In a year that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, social and political stability is their first priority. President Putin’s call for the country to buckle down and wait out low oil prices, Western sanctions, and economic hardship resonates deeply with them. “We know how to be patient,” said an acquaintance to me, after we greeted each other at church and asked each other for forgiveness. “The U.S. has deeply miscalculated if it thinks it can put the squeeze on us,” he added. Other Russians too, at least publicly and in conversation with an American, project confidence and resolve more than resentment or despair.

Theologians and philosophers have sometimes doubted that nations can make confession and offer forgiveness of sin. Politics, after all, is the realm of the possible – of negotiating competing interests – not a spiritual space in which alienated people momentarily break through to reconciled relationship. But, right now, a season of national self-examination would do both Russia and the U.S. good. On the glittery streets of the new Moscow – and in its restored gold and silver onion-domed churches – there is little evidence of a new Cold War. But not all is right between Russians and Americans. They still wait to walk a Great Lent together.

John P. Burgess teaches at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is the author of Holy Rus’: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia, just released from Yale University Press. An earlier version of this blog was published on-line at Yale Books Unbound (March 9, 2017).