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On Russian Easter, Many Recall Grandmothers Who Kept Faith Alive

April 6, 1991 GMT

LVOV, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ Some 30 years ago when the Communists still strictly enforced atheism, 6- year-old Yaroslav Chukhny set out for church on Easter carrying a basket of eggs, meat and pastries to be blessed by the village priest.

His parents sent him alone because they feared they would lose their teaching jobs if they openly expressed their faith on the holiday, celebrated a week after the West’s Easter.

Near the church, a big black car stopped and a Communist official scolded, ″Good children do not go to church.″ Chukhny dropped the basket and burst into tears. But as the car left, two old women comforted him and sent him to the priest. Good children do indeed go to church, they told him.

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This Easter, millions of Soviets are celebrating the survival of their religious faith during a 70-year campaign by the Communist Party to eradicate it, particularly among children. And much of the credit belongs to elderly women like the ones who came to Chukhny’s aid.

″From my earliest childhood, my grandmother taught me religion,″ says Chukhny, now a Ukrainian Catholic priest in Lvov. ″It was the same for my friends. Our entire generation learned faith from old women.″

According to the pre-revolutionary calendar still used by an estimated 5 million Ukrainian Catholics and 40 million Russian Orthodox believers, Easter comes one week later than in the West. As Soviets pack churches and cathedrals Sunday, many will pray for the ″babushki,″ or grandmothers, who taught them to revere icons, sing hymns and secretly believe in God.

In part, elderly women came to play this role because they best remembered the old customs. Elderly men are far less numerous in the Soviet Union, after the ravages of World War II and Josef Stalin’s purges.

Old women also became guardians of the faith because they were insulated from Communist reprisal. Already past retirement age, they did not have to worry about losing jobs, being denied promotions or failing to win admission to universities.

In Russia’s traditional matriarchy, it was natural that women should protect spiritual values in the Communist period. Although all Orthodox Church leaders are men, the matriarchal inclination was evident in an Easter message from Patriarch Alexi II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

″The patriarch calls on all believers to serve with ardor and sincerity to the mother-church and the beloved motherland in order to witness in unity and accord before the whole world that Christ has indeed risen,″ Alexi said.

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For Chukhny and other Ukrainian Catholics, this Easter has special significance because it marks the resurrection not only of Jesus, but also of their church.

In 1939, Soviet troops seized the Western Ukraine under a secret protocol of the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression treaty. Many Ukrainians resisted, and some welcomed Hitler’s troops as liberators when they invaded two years later.

After the war, Stalin accused the Ukrainian Catholic Church of collaborating with the Nazis, and banned it. Hundreds of priests were sent to prison. All of the church’s property was handed over to the Russian Orthodox.

For more than 40 years, Ukrainian Catholicism survived underground. Only in the last 18 months has the Ukrainian church been legalized.

The church is still fighting to reclaim much of its property. But last week, on Palm Sunday, it reached a turning point when its spritual leader, Cardinal Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, 76, returned to Lvov after 53 years of exile in the United States and Europe.

″The return of the cardinal is the symbolic return of our church,″ said Mikhail Stasheshin, 28, a member of St. Yuri’s choir who learned to sing hymns on his grandmother’s knee.

The revival of Ukrainian Catholicism has taken place against the background of a general religious revival under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Church attendance is booming, holiday services are broadcast on television, and Bibles are sold freely. Among young people, wearing a cross is fashionable.

Last fall, the Supreme Soviet legislature passed a law on freedom of religion, formally ending decades of repression.

″Maybe (the lawmakers) finally decided to listen to their grandmothers,″ Chukhny said.