I may have Ronald Reagan to thank for my marriage. During the spring of 1995, I visited the Russian city of Kostroma to continue my dissertation research that involved visiting 17 Russian and Ukrainian cities. During that visit, I ended up going to a Russian Orthodox Easter service out in a small country church. The all night service in old Slavonic, which even most Russians could not understand, gave me plenty of time to talk with one particular Canadian member of the group I was researching. She would become my future wife.
The reason why I later realized I may have Ronald Reagan to thank for that glorious Easter night and morning has to do with the toast that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) priest leading the service gave when breaking the traditional Orthodox fast on Easter morning.
First, he toasted the Mormons. The reason he toasted the Mormons is that the Mormons followed through on their pledge to give money to help restore the old Orthodox Church in which the service was held. The Presbyterians had promised money, but they did not deliver.
Second, he toasted Ronald Reagan for his opportunity to lead the Easter Service. And from this toast, I then realized that this man was a famous priest about whom I had been reading. When Reagan came to Russia in the late 1980s, he met with dissident Orthodox priests, Father Gleb Yakunin and Father Georgi Edelstein, who had been suspended from their duties because of their efforts promoting religious freedom. Then when Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev, he brought their plight to Gorbachev’s attention. Gorbachev responded by giving Father Yakunin and Father Edelstein churches to direct. The small church given to Father Georgi Edelstein was an abandoned wreck in the boondocks outside of Kostroma (4 hours north of Moscow) where he still lives and worships (for more on his story and ROC corruption see the LA Times story here).
Of course, these priests with Christian courage experienced years of suffering for fighting against an unjust system (see for example the heroic story of Father Alexander Ogorodnikov). To understand the reason why, one must learn from what Father Gleb Yakunin did. As early as 1966, Yakunin had raised the problem of religious freedom to the Russian Patriarch. For failing to keep his mouth shut, the ROC hierarchy suspended him from the priesthood. That did not stop Yakunin. In 1976, he formed the Christian Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Believers in the U.S.S.R. to give voice to the persecution of religious believers. For that, he received a five-year jail sentence from the political authorities.
Gorbachev’s willingness to grant Reagan’s request led to Yakunin’s restoration to the priesthood. Later, he ascended into post-Soviet politics as a member of the Duma. As part of committee work, he gained access to the KGB archives, where he published material that demonstrated Patriarch Alexy II and other senior leaders within the ROC had been KGB agents. The ROC leadership moved powerful politicians to deny him further access and to the files. The ROC leadership later defrocked him in 1993 for continuing his political work.
As Yakunin’s story demonstrates, the ROC has courageous priests and members (just as Russian society has many courageous people who seek to do good with little earthly reward). Unfortunately, they are not the major leaders of either the ROC or the state. For the ROC, the future power and prestige of Russia is more important than battling the corruption within the church or society—a lesson that should be a warning to American evangelicals enamored by Christian nationalism and authoritarian leaders. Those later Americans are the fools about which Proverbs warns us (e.g., “A fool finds pleasure in wicked schemes…” Prov. 10:23). Putin and corrupt leaders of the ROC are the vipers and sheep in wolves clothing about which Jesus warned us.
At almost 90, Father Edelstein still lives, works, and worships in the Kostroma region. He also still demonstrates the amazing courage of a man who speaks truth to power even when the consequences are high. Just this past Sunday he issued this brave statement:
Brothers and sisters! Early in the morning of February 24, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities are being shelled. Russian soldiers kill their brothers and sisters in Christ. We Christians should not stand aside when a brother kills a brother, a Christian kills a Christian. We will not repeat the crimes of those who hailed Hitler’s actions on September 1, 1939. We cannot shyly close our eyes and call black white, evil good, and say that Abel was probably wrong and provoked his older brother. The blood of the people of Ukraine will remain on the hands of not only the rulers and soldiers who carry out orders. Their blood is on the hands of each of us who approved of this military operation or simply remained silent.
We should all follow Father Yakunin and Edelstein’s examples and refuse to remain silent in the face of massive evils perpetrated by powerful contemporary authoritarian leaders—whether attacks on religious liberty, the Uyghur genocide or the Ukrainian invasion. If we do remain silent, the victims’ blood will be on our hands.