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Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Great Russian Adventure - 2

Broad boulevards, filled with expensive cars. Range Rovers, BMWs, Mercedes. I mean, filled. Traffic jams characterise Moscow’s broad boulevards. There may be poverty, but it isn’t out there on the streets of the big city. 

Has poverty been driven underground? Not that we saw. Ksenia gave us a guided tour of the most beautiful of the metro stations, and then set us loose to navigate the system on our own. With some forward planning, we were able to move where we wanted to in a short space of time: as the rear lights of one train disappeared down a tunnel, the approaching lights of the next could just about be seen. So many trains, most of them crowded even out of rush hour. We found it inexpensive, especially with the exchange rate in our favour, and bustling with people. People who were probably a touch irritated by the tourists impeding the flow by pausing to photograph and gawp at the artwork in some of the more magnificent stations.

Some stations are dedicated to the various republics which made up the Soviet Union. One memorable station in particular depicts the people of the Ukraine, bringing in the harvests from fertile fields. We saw armed soldiers in other stations, too, but that station had a cohort of four soldiers patrolling the platforms, reminding us of the tension and struggle in that area right now.

It is interesting that Stalin, ruthless as he was as a leader, had the vision for constructing this transport system in the 30s, at the same time he was wiping out millions of his fellow countrymen and women. Why did he think it important? 

He recognised the spiritual hunger common to all for something beautiful, something to celebrate and pledge allegiance to. He ordered the building of this system of trains, also grasping an opportunity to propagandise the suffering population by depicting scenes of heroism in the fields of corn and on the battlefields. Propaganda yes, but displayed amongst chandeliers and marble columns, carved on statues and exploding in colourful mosaics, painted on the ceilings, depicted on the walls and floors. Echoes of the lavish decoration in Orthodox churches, many of which were demolished by his orders, too. Yes, give the people beauty, but make sure it celebrates the glories of the Soviet experiment. God, he thought, is dead.

As the communists razed the Church of Christ the Saviour to the ground and replaced it with a swimming pool, they recognised that people need beauty to celebrate and give glory to.
Psalm 150 urges us to praise God in his sanctuary. In their desire to obliterate the people’s connection to God, the Soviet Union’s leaders lavished money they didn’t have (as much of the population was starving) on temples to the communist struggle and (hoped-for) achievements. 

The stations stand as a reminder that the human spirit is about much more than practicalities and economic success. The human spirit longs for God, creator of heaven and earth and of all that is in it. Puny man may try to erase that longing or replace it with a longing for something else, but such effort is futile because worshipping God is in our DNA.

Interesting that when perestroika happened in the 1990’s, the people pressed to have the Church of Christ the Saviour rebuilt. So the government dug out the swimming pool and rebuilt the church exactly as it had been. Inside is a riot of gilded columns and statues, and paintings telling the gospel stories. 

When we went inside, we found that it isn’t simply a gallery of art and beauty. It is a living church, where many individuals bow before icons and in chapels, lighting candles and praying to God. 

Psalm 2 describes this clearly. ‘The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs.

It hasn’t been a very funny period for the suffering masses of Russia, but their soul remained strong and vibrant.

Perhaps ‘religion’ is the opium of the masses, but faith in the living God sets us free. All of us.

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