Dmitri Gasak: “Russian Society has forgotten how to tell good from evil”

10 April 2017
Dmitri Gasak, Chairman of the Transfiguration Fellowship of Minor Orthodox Brotherhoods, speaks about why it is that what happened in 1917 in Russia wasn’t just a change in the political system, but the beginning of a national and human catastrophe, as a result of which society has lost the ability to discern between good and evil, and why repentance is exactly the thing which will give the people back their bearings. The Transfiguration Fellowship is, in this 100th year since the Russian Revolution, running an initiative called “Calling our Nation to Repentance.”
Дмитрий Гасак
Дмитрий Гасак

One often hears the objection that a call to repentance causes schism and division in society, as if by way of polemic we hear calls to reconciliation. Father Vladimir Vigiljansky has even proposed “a decade of silence.” Why is it that you insist specifically on repentance?

Dmitri Gasak: It seems to me that the division itself between repentance and reconciliation is a false one, because both spiritual and mentally it is one process. What is reconciliation, after all? It isn’t just a political act or a symbolic action, not to mention that we are already sick and tired of such things after the Soviet era. Reconciliation is the restoration of trust and communion within the nation.

Now of course trust and communion require some sort of a basis. And, in complete seriousness, this basis can only be discernment between good and evil and discernment of historical events according to their spirit and fruits. It is here, and only here, that we can find reconciliation. The hundred years since the revolution amply showed its fruits, which we can see starting with our own families. Let each of us look backwards and see in what love, in what peace – both internal and external – our relatives lived. And we have to begin with ourselves. It is personally, that our brotherhood has embarked upon “Calling our Nation to Repentance”, specifically having in mind the restoration of peace – but the peace that is given to us from above. The 20th century clearly showed the illusory nature of any purely political act of reconciliation (though our own nation did not even benefit from this sort of act after its civil war), though as they say, “a bad peace is better than a good war.” But those who insist upon peace without repentance are, in fact, constituting the necessity of making peace while there is hidden enmity. They scream about peace but are preparing for war. We’ve seen this. And it is this internal enmity that it is necessary to move beyond. Repentance is the road to true, open reconciliation, both before heaven and before our fellow man. If anyone knows of a different path which would presuppose a sober and honest view of things, let him demonstrate it.

How would you react to the accusation that the initiators of actions like this are trying to imbue people with a feeling of guilt, so that they become easier to manage?

Dmitri Gasak: An unlikely story! “The party is our rudder” – who doesn’t remember that? And who says that it is so bad to be managed? And then who said that history isn’t a directed and managed process? An “unled person” is an asocial person, isn’t that right? The question is who is leading, how they lead and where they direct you. It’s a question of goals and means, which one way or another, leads us to the question of the meaning of our life, both personal and social.

From the perspective of Orthodox tradition, repentance was never a way to manage, but a way to freedom – freedom from evil and sin, from bondage to the dark shadow of the past. And all that happened to us in the 20th century: murder, treachery, the battle against our very own nation, enmity and division – not a single religious tradition within our country calls these things bright or good.

You say that this initiative is non-political, yet it is tied to the hundredth anniversary of specific political events and presupposes a specific view of Soviet history, in particular. Doesn’t it turn out then, that the “reds” who triumphed conditionally in historical terms become the carriers of the whole nation’s evil, while the “whites” who lost the war are bleached spotless and clean? And doesn’t this all begin to look like revenge for the losing side?

Dmitri Gasak: It is possible that to some people it looks exactly like that, and that some people are still afraid. But excuse me, what sort of revenge can we seriously talk about at this point? Just as with fears about being managed, this argument about revenge turns out to be a false move and wrong interpretation, which distracts us from the primary significance of the matter. From a political perspective, the reds won, but again – I call everyone to look into their own personal family histories and judge by their consciences, are you winners or losers? From today’s perspective, the picture looks like this: Bolshevism prevailed and destroyed Russia. But this isn’t Russia’s victory or victory of some person in Russia – even those who remained alive didn’t win, let alone those who died by force. What sort of revenge could we possibly speak of? Where is this white movement of today? Who are these whites? Eighty-year-old Nikita Krivoshein, the grandson of Prime Minister Vrangel, who now lives in Paris? He tried to come back and they locked him up in a camp. Now it seems he’s not going to try again. Or “Belo Delo” (White Affair), an organization which restores Russian Military Cemeteries around the whole world?

The endeavour to politicize national repentance is no more than an attempt to derail the initiative. The political sphere of the nation’s life is important and necessary, but it is not the only sphere, and forgive me if I say that neither is it primary in relation to some questions. It isn’t politics that lies at the foundation of everything, and political questions also have a deeper basis – a moral basis, for instance.

The Church was a victim of the Revolution, and this is one basis upon which some people object to talk of the Church’s repentance. The Church suffered, after all, shouldn't she be on the receiving end of an apology? Conversations about restitution also generally occur in this context. Is it really appropriate to speak of the Church’s guilt and need for repentance?

Dmitri Gasak: Here we encounter the fact that the events of 1917 are much more than one sided. Our impressions of the Revolution are dominated by versions we have read in Soviet textbooks. Unfortunately, we can sense this even within the Church. After all, the Revolution was a wake-up call for the church and for Christians not only in 1917 but also in 1905-07 and across the whole course of Soviet history – not only for the parts of the church that were located here in Russia, but also for those in Europe, America, and other countries. And the people who saw deepest into the matter, including church hierarchs, admitted the guilt of the church in particular for the events of 1917 and for the fact that destructive forces were victorious within Russian society. If we admit the church’s responsibility for history in general, then we must also share responsibility for 1917 and for the Soviet history that came after it. In fact, current church leadership doesn’t deny this, as can be seen, for instance, in what Vladimir Legoida recently said.

On the other hand, we still don’t understand very well what we are responsible for; what exact guilt is borne by those of us in the church? On this point we still have a great deal to learn and understand. In 1917 there was a global breakdown in church history and an entire era came to an end. This era is what Fr. Sergei Bulgakov referred to as the Constantinian Era. Our understanding of church as a sort of relationship between society, culture and state – an understanding which, incidentally, had held firm for many centuries – was shaken to its very foundation. The position of the Russian church within society was radically changed. What lead to this? We haven’t yet made sense of it.

Neither yet have we made sense of the history of our church during the 20th century. For the moment we seem unable to outlive the cruelty and sheer scale of anti-church repression. The picture is fearsome. But there was something else, too. Some people emigrated and established orthodox life in Europe, American and Asia. Some people stood up to life-threatening risks and preserved Christian life here in Russia, under the very noses of the Soviet authorities. Others forsook their faith and ruined the church, participating in the repression against it. There were even those who, while never taking off their vestments, cooperated with the authorities in order to cover up their own sin. Every portion of the spectrum was covered. At present we poorly understand what the Russian Orthodox Church actually was in the 20th century. Nor do we really understand why it was that Soviet power was so unforgiving in relationship to the church; in other words, we don’t truly understand the spiritual nature of Bolshevism. For the moment we don’t have a complete answer to these questions; we still have some living through it, some praying through it, and some serious thinking to do about all of this.

The call to repentance which we hear in the Initiative is nearly always understood as if those who are making the call understand themselves as victims, or at least as innocent and not including themselves in the call to repentance but desiring to “bring others to repentance.” What could lead to this perception? Is it accurate and what is the main difficulty here?

Dmitri Gasak: The call the repentance assumes, on the one hand, that a person will muster their personal and individual participation, while on the other hand also being able to participate in a spiritual act which is common within some sort of community. Unfortunately neither the former nor the latter is ingrained in our habits, because the lifestyle into which we were programmed during the Soviet era (think about management in this context!), did not presuppose either freedom of personal reaction or action in community (action which is “soborno”). In this particular case I distinguish between action which is “soborno” in community, and collective action. One is the action of a community and the other is the action of the mass or the crowd.

Community responsibility comes out of the individual personal responsibility of each member of the community. And the responsibility of another cannot be a condition of this individual personal responsibility for that which is common, as in “if you repent than I will.” Repentance is an unconditional thing because the setting of conditions vis-à-vis the other is equivalent to not taking responsibility for one’s own action. You are responsible for that which you should be responsible for. Whether or not someone else joins you in taking this responsibility is a matter for his or her own faith and trust.

For this reason, the “Calling our Nation to Repentance” initiative is not just a call, but also an act of repentance on the part of those who initiate the call. Repentance is an internal affair, but just like changing one’s life, it involves calling some things by their true names. In our appeal, we say that we need to call evil by its name, but in order to do that, we need to be able to distinguish it. That which is foolish we must recognize as foolish and, in doing this, ask God’s forgiveness, or, if you don’t see God, at least ask forgiveness from your fellow man. It is interesting that asking forgiveness of others turns out to be even harder than asking forgiveness of God, and we hear many objections specifically to the idea of asking forgiveness of each other in order to straighten out our relationships. But remarkable examples of exactly this have begun to appear – I mean Denis Karagodin, and several others.

But in modern Russian society there isn’t unity of opinion as pertains to questions of discerning good from evil. We are not yet familiar with unity of opinion when it comes to such essential questions of human life. But we shouldn’t think that peace and trust within society can be established without making the effort to discern between good and evil. A people who have committed evil and not recognized and named it as such, simply continue to commit that evil. The colossal number of abortions in our country alone…make no mistake, this is no coincidence. Let those who are responsible for this at long last look into their souls and try, at least, to answer question of whether this is good or bad.

Is there demand for repentance within society?

Dmitri Gasak: You know, I don’t think that a single person with a conscience and endowed with reason can pass by the 100th anniversary of the Revolution without taking notice. Despite such a colossal passage of time since the event, we can see that we have not outlived the Revolution’s consequences, nor have we completely understood what has happened to us. And, on the eve of the Revolution, many spiritually sensitive people foresaw social upheaval within the country, and some even came forward with the initiative to repent. In particular, Nikolay Nikolayevich Nepljuev, a very well known man, came forth with a repentance initiative ten years before the revolution of 1917. He appealed to nearly all Russia’s social classes with a call to admit their historical mistakes and sins. Did anyone hear him? Does anyone remember about this today? Did the church, or her hierarchs in particular, make any reaction to his call? Nothing of the sort! And this, because they were thinking politically.

We are now living through a year which forces each of us to consider how we should live through it and how we should live out this memory if only we consider ourselves even partly the inheritors of those who lived in this land fifty, one hundred, or two hundred years ago. And people are striving for this. It is no coincidence that people have become interested in their families’ histories…taking them out of mothballs, where they’d been hidden away during the Soviet era – the era of atrophy of memory. But it will be necessary to be able to see and evaluate our “findings”, and this will require great courage and moral effort.

How should we live through 2017? There is no basis for celebration, nor is it possible to keep silence. Shall we limit ourselves to discussion of our successes, both personal and societal, over the last twenty-five years? That also wouldn’t be right. More than a quarter century has passed since the Soviet power structure fell, but we are far from flourishing as a socity. And it isn’t as if we don’t have anything to eat, but it as if we have no strength. And after didn’t we Russians once say that God isn’t in strength but in truth? So let’s try to declare this truth to our own selves, at least – if you see it, it will be persuasive to others, too. We need to believe in the truth but we don’t – instead we are afraid of it.

For this reason we feel that we should live through this year as a year of repentance and sobriety. For some reason some people, even in the church, associate repentance with black tones and all that is bad. Nonsense! These are people who know nothing of repentance. Repentance is always a breaking through to the light. Repentance is the action of a strong person and not a coward. A coward cannot repent. A coward can’t admit his mistakes or sins. A coward can’t bear responsibility for history. A coward can’t walk before the face of God.

A man can admit his own mistakes, but how can I repent for that which others have done?

Dmitri Gasak: You don’t need to repent for that which you haven't done or participated in. Neither illusion nor spiritual coercion over others is necessary here.

But in terms of history, each of us is part of some sort of national or family based line – or at least we want to be. After all, we are children of our own fathers, and not of other fathers. That means that we are part of them and part of their lives. And if we find that on our land, the land upon which we tread, a great number of evil acts have been perpetrated, it isn’t possible that these are unrelated to us. Once again I repeat, it isn’t that each of us is personally answerable for everything. There are personal mistakes and crimes, but there are also societal and national mistakes and crimes. And if we are part of a people group or nation, then we can share the responsibility of that nation. What sort of responsibility this is, is a question which we must each answer individually – a matter for the conscience of each of us. I would suppose that this must never be done under duress.

It is also worth remembering what repentance is in the original meaning of the word. It is a return, a coming home to unity with the Father (we remember the famous Rembrandt which hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg), and a restoration of integrity that has been destroyed, on the basis of some sort of fundamental values. But it is important not only to declare these values, but actually to return to them, as in the Gospel parable of the Prodigal’s Son, who not only remembered that he wasn’t an orphan, but found within himself the strength to return to his father and confess how lost he was. This is a step of sincerity and trust, but without these things there is no such thing as life.

You constantly invoke a kind of anthropologically valuable foundation, but not everyone is a believer, and even among believers are there really that many who actually practice their faith?

Dmitri Gasak: Yes, it is true that not all believers practice their tradition, nor do they even all belong to one tradition. But the catastrophe that has occurred in our nation wasn’t choosy. It happened to all of us. Even the unbeliever has some sort of basic idea about good and evil – what benefits him is “good” and what is bad for him is “evil”. And if common sense hasn’t abandoned us completely, at least on that level, then let us be honest and follow through at least on that level. What do we understand and know of our own families, at least for the last 150 or 200 years? There are many who don’t even remember their own grandfathers – this is part of the reason we don’t know anything and aren’t guilty of anything. But it is for this reason, specifically, that the current moment and the question of national repentance is of so much importance: if we don’t wake up then the personal and social degradation will continue, then we can forget altogether about Russia and admit, that her history is over forever.

What exactly do you have in mind when you speak of “national repentance”? Why, particularly, “national”?

Dmitri Gasak: Yes – quite a few people ask about that. The thing is that to pose the question of repentance for the whole nation at this point is not sober or serious. At this point there won’t be any sort of general repentance – nor do I know whether such a thing is even possible, for reasons that I’ve already state above. For instance at the moment there is a draft law in preparation on the unity of the Russian nation. The thought is understandable and the problem obvious, but it looks like a sporadic movement, which is frantic and very much of the moment. This sort of thing isn’t created or popularized within a legal environment, and neither can in take root there. There isn’t a single law which could describe a nation, or the nature and characteristics of national unity. Law, in such a case, is secondary and should reflect reality, but it’s the reality that we don’t see. So here’s the thing – we have to create the reality of our national life rather than just propagating supposed symbols thereof. 1917 wasn’t just about a political change in the governing of our country; that year there was what you might term a catastrophe, which was human, societal and national, which expressed itself in moral degradation, as a result of which society lost the ability to tell good from evil. And without that ability society can’t exist, no matter how good the laws you pass may be. The fundamental bases of societal life were beaten out of us, intentionally and consistently. Much has been said and written about this, and surely much more will be in the future. There is much less said and written about what to do, so as to move on. There aren’t many historical examples, to put it mildly, of what to do to turn things around in such a situation. We have almost none and we don’t know what to do. But we do know one thing, which is that to build a common life based on a lie is not possible. It’s the same as unleashing the power of death. For this reason we need repentance, and for this reason it needs to be national. Therefore we appeal to people whose consciences are alive and well and who have enlightened minds and the courage to put the primary values of our nation’s life back into their rightful place. Then God will honour their efforts and others will join in.

So that means that this is a question not of the majority but of a minority?

Dmitri Gasak: No that isn’t quite the question – words like majority and minority are a little bit out of place here, because a little leaven always leavens the whole loaf.

The “Calling our Nation to Repentance” initiative is subtitled “those who have hope”. Why is this?

Dmitri Gasak: The name came to us in expanded discussions as we were preparing for the Transfiguration Meetings Festival. Repentance is the first step in the right direction, though it has no visible guarantee, and it is impossible to repent without hope. But what is this hope based on? It’s difficult to say, because hope is a hidden and mysterious thing. It’s based on the fact that we people have hearts that are alive, and ears that still hear, eyes that still see, and heads that can at least understand something or other. In the final instance, hope is based on faith in and trust for both God and man. This is why we have hope. If anyone is to declare that there is no hope, he will turn out to be correct in his assumption. Only he will be right in a worldly way – a way that is too worldly, in fact, and therefore incomplete. This kind of truth is the truth of the Grand Inquisitor. So this is why we “have hope”. Of course we have no special equipment that will guarantee us a result, and in this sense also, the “Calling our nation to Repentance” initiative is non-political. We rely entirely upon people’s free decision to join in. This is a call made in hope, and, as is said, “there is no shame in hope.”

Interview by Sofia Androsenko

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