Thursday, May 31, 2012

“Hoover’s Boys” in the USSR – The Forgotten Rescue

ARA Relief Truck
Ninety years ago, Russia experienced a famine that was one of the greatest human disasters in Europe since the Black Death of the mid-14th century. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Civil War, a terrible famine devastated Russia and for two years (1921-22) hunger and disease spread rapidly across the country from the major cities in the West to the Pacific Coast.

Most people, including Russians and Americans, have little knowledge of this famine and the American relief effort that was extended to Russia, despite the hostility that existed between the two countries after the Communist Party toppled the Romanov dynasty. It is a little known fact that Herbert Hoover, head of the American Relief Administration (ARA) at that time, managed an emergency food program that saved more lives than any person in history.

The Story Now Told 

Stanford University Professor Bertrand Patenaude did years of research to document this amazing feat by the American government coming right on the heels of the end of World War I. The author’s hero is Herbert Hoover, who is often criticized for his early Depression-era presidency. Hoover, a Stanford graduate who earned a degree in geology and later traveled the world as a mining engineer, was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to help organize relief efforts for 7 million Belgians who were living under German occupation. Once the war ended, the United States was asked to feed millions of people in 21 war-torn countries and Hoover was invited to lead the newly created American Relief Administration.

In July 1921, Herbert Hoover received a plea for food aid from the Russian novelist, Maxim Gorky -- a plea sent to other Western nations as well -- and Hoover responded immediately with a promise of support. Hoover and his colleagues, however, were not prepared for what they discovered about the new Soviet Union. While the famine that began in 1921 resulted from the destruction from the First World War and the subsequent violence of the revolution and the civil war that followed, it was made worse when the Bolshevik leadership began a mass requisitioning of grain. As the rural areas were stripped of their grain, the death toll rapidly mounted and 100,000 people a week died. Soviet estimates from the 1920s claim that somewhere between 5-10 million people lost their lives in the famine.

The first American relief ships arrived in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in September 1921, and the relief workers were some of the first foreigners to witness the devastation caused by the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed. They were shocked to find a badly fractured railway system, a mistrustful Bolshevik government that spied on American relief workers, and famine that was threatening the lives of up to 16 million people by the winter of 1921.

The “Hoover Boys” 

ARA Supply Caravan, 1922
When Hoover realized the extent of the crisis and heard widespread reports of cannibalism, he convinced the U.S. Congress to approve the purchase of $20 million worth of corn and wheat to feed starving Russians. Over 300 relief workers, called the “Hoover Boys,” arrived in the Soviet Union to assess the food needs and logistical challenges, and to build storehouses for the millions of bushels of corn and tons of seed which began to arrive in early 1922 and were shipped across the Russian heartland.

By August 1922, the ARA and its “Hoover Boys” were feeding nearly 11 million Russians a day in 19,000 food kitchens. The ARA also hired 120,000 Soviet citizens to help distribute the food. One survivor said: “People used to call that food ‘America,’ so we were handed out ‘America’ . . . My father used to say, ‘See, the Americans did the right thing, sent us help.’”

In July 1922, Maxim Gorky wrote Hoover to praise him for this remarkable relief effort. He wrote: “Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians who you have saved from death.” But that, of course, did not happen. Soviet leaders wanted to forget this tragic episode in their history and subsequently accused the Americans of sending spies into Russia to commit sabotage under the guise of kindness.

Professor Patenaude spent 14 years researching this forgotten piece of Russian-American history and his book, The Big Show in Bololand (which is what the “Hoover Boys” liked to call Bolshevik Russia), lays out this remarkable humanitarian effort, a relief mission largely unknown to the people of both countries.

* PBS has a 60-minute DVD entitled “The Great Famine” that tells the story of the ARA relief effort in Russia with graphic film footage.

** For a story of a related rescue mission to save hundreds of Russian children during this time, see my “Reflection on Russia” posted on January 26, 2012, and entitled “The Story of a Secret Rescue Mission.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Modern Russian Masterpiece: “The Master and Margarita”

Mikhail Bulgakov
One of the most popular books among Russians in the 1990s was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, first published in late 1966 and early 1967 – 26 years after the author’s death. As I traveled to Russia and visited many university campuses during this period, I often asked Russian students: “What is your favorite book?”  I was astonished at how many times I heard, “Why, of course, The Master and Margarita!”   I know several Russian students who have read this book more than twenty times.  Can you imagine?  Do you know any American college student who has read any modern novel more than five times?  The affection for Bulgakov is deeply rooted.  One young Russian literature professor told me: The Master and Margarita is a perfect book.  You cannot subtract one word from this book.  You cannot add one word to this book. It is perfect!”

The Author: Bulgakov

First some background on Bulgakov.  Mikhail Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891, the son of a professor at the Kiev Theological Academy.  He was trained as a medical doctor, but abandoned his medical practice after two years in order to devote his life to writing.  He chose to remain in Russia after the revolution of 1917, accepting Bolshevik rule but not actively supporting the Communist regime.  Bulgakov was one of the first Russian writers to be censored by the Communist authorities.  By the mid-1920s, his novels and plays were banned, barred from both publication and theater performance.  Although he is one of Russia’s greatest writers of the 20th century, Bulgakov did not see a single line of his work published during  the last thirteen years of his life.

Despite the censorship and the humiliations that accompanied it, Bulgakov labored for twelve years on his greatest work, The Master and Margarita.  Although ill and often suffering from nervous exhaustion, he wrote ands rewrote this novel without any hope that it would be published – at least in his lifetime.  He died in 1940.  Twenty-six years later, Bulgakov’s crowning achievement was finally published in Moscow and it immediately became an international best-seller.  Now, more than thirty-six years after its publication, the book’s influence continues.  What is there about this book which has led to such lavish praise and such heated debates about its meaning?

The Storyline

The Master and Margarita is a complex novel which masterfully weaves together three different plots.  The first plot is about Satan’s visit to Moscow in the person of Professor Woland, a professor of black magic who, together with his accomplices, wreaks havoc on the capital city.  In the chapters which tell the story of Woland’s adventures in Moscow, Bulgakov cleverly ridicules life under Communist rule with its crass materialistic philosophy.  The second plot is the story of the confrontation between Pontius Pilate and Yeshus Ha-Notsri,  a figure resembling Jesus but with enough differences from the Gospel narratives to leave some doubt.  These four chapters, dispersed among the thirty-four, are worth the price of the book, in my judgment.  The third plot is indicated in the book’s title and concerns the relationship between a weak passive young man and his girlfriend.

A Brief Sampler

The first chapter opens with a meeting between the editor of an important Russian literary journal and a young poet who writes under the pen name of Homeless.  The two meet in a park to discuss a project in which the journal editor has commissioned the poet to write a long anti-religious poem denying the existence of Jesus.  After awhile, they are joined by a stranger (Satan in the person of Professor Woland) who rudely interrupts their conversation.

 “Forgive my importunity, but I understood that, in addition to all else, you  don’t believe in God either?” Woland asks in a hushed voice.

 “No, we do not believe in God.” Berlioz (the editor) replies.

 “You are atheists?” asks Professor Woland, throwing himself back against the  park bench.

 “Yes, we are atheists,” Berlioz responds.  “In our country atheism does not  surprise anyone.  Most of our population is intelligent and enlightened, and  has long since ceased to believe the fairy tales about God.”

 The conversation continues about proofs of God’s existence until Professor  Woland says: “But what troubles me is this: If there is no God, then, you  might ask, who governs the life of men and, generally, the entire situation  here on earth?”

 The young poet Homeless hastily responds: “Man himself governs it.”

 “Sorry,” the stranger responded mildly, “But in order to govern, it is, after all,  necessary to have a definite plan for at least a fairly decent period of time.   Allow me to ask you, then, how man can govern if he cannot plan for even so  ridiculously short a span as a thousand years or so, if, in fact, he cannot  guarantee his own next day?”
The first chapter concludes as Professor Woland leans over and whispers to Berlioz and Homeless, “And keep in mind that Jesus existed . . . There is no need for points of view. . .  He simply existed, that is all. . .  There is no need for proof, either.”

A Sign of Hope

I agree with Calvin College professor Edward Ericson’s judgment, despite some opposing views by other literary critics, that “The Master and Margarita is Mikhail Bulgakov’s spiritual – specifically Christian – testament.”  The bottom line is this: only fools believe that they live in a world without God.  Bulgakov creatively uses the reality of Satan to prove the existence of Jesus.  No wonder the Communist Party banned this book for so long!

I find much hope in the fact that this book was a favorite of Russian university students in the 1990s, but I am less sure about its popularity now.  It is in the richness of Russia’s literary heritage, with its deep Christian spirituality, that a moral foundation can be rediscovered upon which the New Russia can be built.  Western secularism is no answer.  An enlightened and revitalized Christian faith, separated from the power of the state, is the best hope for Russia’s future.

* Revised text: originally published in August 1994.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Dostoevsky: God’s Existence and the Problem of Evil

Fyodor Dostoevsky
One of the most powerful and insightful dialogues that takes place in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, The Brother Karamazov, is located in Chapter 3, Book V.  Two of the three brothers, Alyosha and Ivan, meet in a restaurant and Ivan, the second oldest son, decides it is time to get to know his younger brother better.  Their dysfunctional family and the struggles with their oppressive father set the context for this conversation.

Ivan, the Intellectual Skeptic

Ivan is clearly the studious intellectual in the family and he decides to share some of his deepest struggles with his twenty-three year-old brother who he has come to appreciate and respect.  He tells Alyosha that he has an intense desire to embrace life, but is distressed by the disorder and injustice he encounters everywhere he goes.  He sees that Alyosha has “an inordinate appetite for life,” and this makes Ivan “want to live and go on living, even if it is contrary to the rules of logic.  Even if I do not believe in the divine order of things. . . “

Alyosha, the spiritually-minded brother, responds enthusiastically, “I’ve always thought that, before anything else, people should learn to love life in this world.”  Ivan responds: “To love life more than the meaning of life?”  Alyosha fearlessly answers: “Yes, that’s right.  That’s the way it should be – love should come before logic, just as you said.  Only then will man be able to understand the meaning of life.”

The discussion then moves to Ivan’s views on the existence of God and immortality.  He believes that “man has invented God.  What is so strange and extraordinary is not that God really exists but that such a thought – the very idea of the necessity of God – should have occurred to a vicious wild animal like man. . .”  Ivan further elaborates his argument: “It is not God that I refuse to accept, but the world that He has created – what I do not accept and cannot accept is the God-created world.”
Ivan then passionately raises the issue of evil in the world, and he focuses particularly on the evil and injustice that children suffer.  How can there be a creator God who allows this to happen?

The Grand Inquisitor

When Alyosha reminds Ivan that he has forgotten Jesus, who “gave his innocent blood for all,” Ivan launches into a narrative he had created based on the 16th century Inquisition in Spain.  He describes a Christ-like figure who heals the sick and lame, but is arrested by an old Cardinal (Pope) of the Church – the Grand Inquisitor -who later enters Jesus’ darkened cell and severely reprimands him for appearing again and hindering the work of the church.

The Grand Inquisitor attacks Jesus for giving humanity freedom of choice and states that the mission of the church is to remove “the awful burden of freedom.”  He ridicules Jesus for expecting men and women to voluntarily choose to follow Him.  The Grand Inquisitor argues that now the Church has to correct this error and take away humanity’s freedom in exchange for happiness and security.

The Conclusion

In Ivan’s telling of this story, the only person to speak is the Grand Inquisitor; Jesus remains silent during the entire monologue with all of its accusations.  Then, in an unanticipated move, Jesus approaches the old Cardinal and kisses him on his dry, withered lips.  The Grand Inquisitor responds by freeing Jesus, but telling him never to come back again.

When Ivan finishes his long narrative, he realizes that he has put his younger brother into a difficult position and thus might have ended their friendship.  Alyosha’s response, however, is to lean forward and kiss his brother.

Alyosha recognizes that his brother Ivan has given considerable thought to these fundamental questions facing humanity and that they are not easily answered.  He also sees Ivan’s deep love for humanity and his pain over all of the suffering in his family and in the world – qualities of a person worthy of redemption.
My brief summary of these forty-five pages of Dostoevsky’s novel doesn’t do justice to this masterpiece, but I wanted to share the conversation between the two brothers to illustrate its depth and importance for addressing some of the most important issues of its time – and our time as well.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Russian Literary Treasure: The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1862
One of the great classics of world literature is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Bantam Books, 1970), a novel written only one year before his death in 1881.  This compelling and complex story revolves around a patricide and four sons that remain, each one with a motive for murdering their father.  Much of the novel focuses on the relationship between the three brothers -- Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha -- with less attention devoted to the twisted and cunning bastard son, Smerdyakov.  Dmitry is portrayed as the sensualist, Ivan, as the intellectual, and Alyosha, as the spiritually-minded youth.  Throughout the elaborate tale of sordid love affairs, pathological obsession and courtroom drama, Dostoevsky creatively interlaces his own search for truth about God’s existence, the meaning of life and humanity’s role on earth.  The excerpts which follow are illustrative of the richness of this masterpiece.

A World In Which “Everything Would be Permitted”

Early in the story, the three brothers attempt a reconciliation with their father at a monastery where Father Zosima, the spiritual elder of the youngest brother Alyosha, serves as the mediator.  During this abortive reconciliation effort, Dostoevsky inserts a conversation in which Miusov, a cousin of Karamazov’s first wife who is instrumental in having the oldest son Dmitry taken away from his abusive, unloving father, tells a story about the middle son Ivan, the intellectual who questions all values of life:

“Let me .... tell you another little story, this one about Mr. Ivan Karamazov himself, an interesting and characteristic story, I think.  Well, not more than five days ago, in a company consisting mostly of ladies of our town, he solemnly declared, in the course of a discussion, that there was nothing on earth to force men to love their fellow men, that there was no law of nature that a man should love mankind, and that if there was love on earth it did not stem from any natural law but rather from man’s belief in immortality.  And here he added parenthetically that if was any natural law, it was precisely this: Destroy a man’s belief in immortality and not only will his ability to love wither away within him but, along with it, the force that impels him to continue his existence on earth.  Moreover, nothing would be immoral then, everything would be permitted, even cannibalism.  He went even further, finally asserting that, for every individual -- people like us now, for instance -- who does not believe in God or immortality, the natural moral law immediately becomes the opposite of religious law and that absolute egotism, even carried to the extent of crime, must not only be tolerated but even recognized as the wisest and perhaps the noblest course...”
“Just a minute!” Dmitry shouted unexpectedly.  “I want to get it straight: crime must be considered not only as admissible but even as the logical and inevitable consequence of an atheist’s position.  Did I get it right?”
“You’ve got it right,” Father Paissi (a devoted friend of Father Zosima) said.
 “Every One Of Us Is Responsible For All Men”

In addition to Dostoevsky’s insightful criticism of atheism, which is a recurring theme throughout the novel, the Gospel message is also clearly articulated.  Father Zosima, the revered monk, is most often the mouthpiece for Gospel truths.  Zosima’s words are absorbed by the young Alyosha, who grasps them through the difficult trials of his own life and later teaches others what he has learned.

After the failed reconciliation attempt, Alyosha returns to the monastery to find Father Zosima ill and near death.  Father Zosima recovers briefly and devotes his final moments to summarizing his philosophy of life, a moment which Dostoevsky records in great detail.  The following excerpts, remembered by Alyosha, illustrate the heart of Zosima’s teachings -- teachings which profoundly affected the life of this youngest brother:

“Love one another, fathers.  Love God’s people.  We are no holier than those outside, just because we have shut ourselves up behind these walls.  Just the opposite, by coming here, each of us acknowledged to himself that he is worse than those who remain outside, worse than anyone in the world.... For I want you to know, my beloved ones, that every one of us is responsible for all men and for everything on earth, not only responsible through the universal responsibility of mankind, but responsible personally -- every man for all people and for each individual who lives on earth.  For monks are no different from other men, and they must be what other men ought to strive to become.  Only then will our hearts be moved by a love that is infinite and universal, and knows no surfeit.  Then every one of you will be able to gain the whole world by his love and wash away the world’s sins with his tears.... Do not hate atheists, or teachers of evil, or materialists, whether they are wicked or good -- for many among them are good people, especially in our time.... Never cease to explain the Gospel to the people... Have faith and defend its banner. Raise it, raise it high.”

As these excerpts illustrate, Dostoevsky was offering to the Russian people (and eventually the world) an alternative view of life, a perspective that took seriously the teachings of Jesus about the power and efficacy of love.  He prophetically foresaw the bankruptcy of a materialistic worldview and warned of the crime and violence that would surely befall a society built on atheism.

As Russians search for truth following the collapse of their failed ideology, Marxism-Leninism, it is to the richness of their own literary heritage that they must turn.  It is easy to understand why the Communist Party had difficulties with the writings of Dostoevsky and other 19th century Russian authors.  His words were a scathing indictment of their promised “utopia.”  Dostoevsky’s words also challenge the secularism of the West, with its empty promises of happiness in material possessions.

Originally published in March 1996

Friday, May 4, 2012

Orthodox Christianity: An Overview

Global Christianity: The Big Picture
The Church of Christ the Savior
& the Kremlin Cathedrals
In December 2011, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a major study entitled “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.”  I found the report to be fascinating and I was particularly interested in how the analysts compared current data with data from 100 years earlier, so the reader gets the sense of key trends in religion worldwide.

This comprehensive demographic study concludes that there are 2.18 billion Christians of all ages in 200 countries and this number represents nearly a third of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion.  The number of Christians around the world has more than tripled in the last 100 years (from 600 million in 1910), but because the world’s overall population has also risen rapidly, Christians make up about the same portion of the world’s population today (32%) as they did 100 years ago (35%).

Christians are the largest religious group and Muslims are the second largest, making up a little less than a quarter of the world’s population.  Within Christianity, Catholics are the biggest group (50.1%), followed by Protestants (36.7%) and Orthodox (11.9%).

 The report highlighted a “momentous shift” within world Christianity.  Unlike a century ago, Christianity today is “truly a global faith.”  Here are a few highlights that document these changes:
  • “Though Christianity began in the Middle East-North Africa, today that region has both the lowest concentration of Christians (about 4% of the region’s population) and the smallest number of Christians (about 13 million) of any major geographic region.”
  • “Nigeria now has more than twice as many Protestants . . .  as Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation.”
  • “Brazil has more than twice as many Catholics as Italy.”
  • “Although Christians comprise just under a third of the world’s people, they form a majority of the population in 158 countries and territories, about two-thirds of all countries and territories in the world.”
  • “About 90% of Christians live in countries where Christians are in the majority; only about 10% of Christians worldwide live as minorities.”
A startling set of statistics from the Pew Forum report about this “momentous shift” in global Christianity caught my eye: “A century ago, the Global North (commonly defined as North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and New Zealand) contained more than four times as many Christians as the Global South (the rest of the world).  Today . . .  more than 1.3 billion Christians live in the Global South (61%), compared with about 860 million in the Global North (39%).”  
Orthodox Christianity in the Global Context
As noted above, Orthodox communions comprise 11.9% of the world’s Christians, an estimated 260,430,000 adherents (3.8% of the world’s population in 2010).  Thirty-nine percent of these Orthodox Christians reside in Russia, the country with the largest number of Orthodox.  I was surprised to discover that the second-largest number of Orthodox Christians (36 million) live in Ethiopia – more than three times as many Orthodox as in Greece!  Turkey, where the original seat of the Orthodox Patriarch was and is located, has a small Orthodox population (about 180,000).

After Russia and Ethiopia, the next three largest Orthodox populations are in Ukraine, Romania, and Greece.  These five countries comprise 74.4% of the world’s Orthodox population.  If you add the next five countries on this list, these ten countries hold 87.4% of the world Orthodox population.

Unlike other major components of the global Christian movement, Orthodox Christianity is heavily concentrated in Europe (which includes Russia in this study), where 77% of the Orthodox reside.  The other interesting finding is that most of the countries with large numbers of Orthodox Christians have an Orthodox majority, except for Ethiopia and Egypt.  Orthodox Christians make up a majority of the total population in 14 countries.

What Lies Ahead for Orthodoxy?
While I claim no expertise in Russian Orthodoxy, my experience over the last twenty years in that country leads me to anticipate the following trends in Russia, trends that are probably not applicable to other Orthodox countries:
  • After 70 years of severe persecution by the Communist Party in the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church is now free from government censorship and control.  Its leaders are now struggling with the issue of how the church should relate to the government – an issue in many different countries.
  • Its top leadership -- Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion – has considerable expertise in ecumenical relations and their diplomacy will create new friends for the church worldwide, possibly stimulating the further spread of the Orthodox faith.
  • There are evidences of grassroots cooperation between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant leaders and joint work is already underway in the area of child welfare and orphan care issues and this networking will continue, in many cases driven by local parish-based activists.