Modern Russia does have its ghosts

moscow theater 007Dang it, that's what I get for waiting an extra day or two before writing about that sprawling Los Angeles Times series, "The Vanishing Russians." I was waiting until the last day to see if reporter Kim Murphy elected to dig into the religious questions raised all the way through this fascinating and depressing set of four articles. This is a textbook "project" in a great mainstream newspaper, complete with loads of statistics and personal stories to back them up. This clip will give you the flavor of the thing:

Russia is rapidly losing population. Its people are succumbing to one of the world's fastest-growing AIDS epidemics, resurgent tuberculosis, rampant cardiovascular disease, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, suicide and the lethal effects of unchecked industrial pollution.

In addition, abortions outpaced births last year by more than 100,000. An estimated 10 million Russians of reproductive age are sterile because of botched abortions or poor health. The public healthcare system is collapsing. And many parents in more prosperous urban areas say they can't afford homes large enough for the number of children they'd like to have.

Let's see. We have suicide, AIDS, substance abuse, rampant abortion and a loss of hope in the future. All of this in a nation that, in the past century, saw the rise of an atheistic regime that tried to stamp out the practice of faith. Still, the city skylines are dominated by crosses and onion domes.

Let's see. Do you think there might be a religion element in here somewhere?

But I waited too long. My friend Roberto Rivera, a brilliant Catholic thinker who now writes for The Point blog linked to Prison Fellowship, beat me to it. However, we offer him thanks for using, with credit, a term from GetReligion in his analysis. Rivera says that the opening story in the series is:

... such an important piece that I feel bad about pointing out that it's haunted by what the folks at GetReligion call a "religion ghost." (That's their term for an unacknowledged religious element in a story.) How do you write a story about declining populations, especially declines fueled by substance abuse, abortion and suicide, without mentioning religion? For that matter, how do you write a story about the Russian people without mentioning the role of religion? But, apart from quoting an Orthodox priest on the effects of the Soviet system, Murphy's story is a religion-free zone.

Reading it, I thought of the scene in War and Peace in which Napoleon asks the Tsar's emissary, Balashov, if it's true that Moscow has hundreds of churches and monasteries. When told it is, Napoleon says that this many churches and monasteries are a "sign of the backwardness of the people." The joke, of course, is on Napoleon: it is "very religious" and "backward" Russia that shatters both his army and the myth of his invincibility. You can't tell a good, much less complete, story about Russia without talking about her religion or, in this case, the lack thereof. And you especially can't do it here -- the correlations between what is killing Russia and religious observance is just too great.

All kinds of questions leap to mind. Where to begin?

teremFor starters, I wanted to know if officials or researchers have seen any differences between the Russians who are secular and the Russians who are believers in the major faiths of that culture. Are religious believers more likely to have children? This is, after all, a pattern seen in other cultures.

Sure enough, by the time we make it to the fourth installment in the series we discover that Muslim believers are on the rise for multiple reasons, including birthrate. It appears that trends in Russia resemble those in post-Christian Europe.

Which raises another point. Russia is not Europe. Is it impossible for Russia to fit into the Western world on the terms of the modern Western world? The Communists tried to tear an ancient form of Christianity out of the heart of Russia. Is the modern world attempting the same thing, only in the name of -- what? -- the glories of the shopping mall? Globalization?

The ghosts actually break into song when Murphy has to deal with the issue of suicide:

Russians fling themselves from balconies, slash their wrists or simply walk out in the snow on a bitter night. Russia's suicide rate, at about 36 per 100,000 people, is second only to that of Lithuania, according to the Serbsky National Research Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. In some remote areas of Russia, the rate exceeds 100 per 100,000.

Nikolai Zavada, a 21-year-old musician who goes by the name Serial Self-Killer, posted a song on http://www.mysuicide.ru, a well-known website that was later shut down because of public pressure:

I'm going out. And it doesn't matter whether it's up or down. Or who's holding your hand, an angel or otherwise. The cold has worn me out.

"People have a lack of hope," Zavada said in an interview. "That all their efforts are in vain. And also, they have a feeling of eternal emptiness."

So here is the obvious questions: When it comes to "eternal emptiness," are all Russians created equal? Are some spiritually emptier than others? Do those who practice a faith face the same sense of emptiness as those who have flung the faith of Mother Russia aside? This is a gripping series, full of crucial questions. I am simply saying that it needed to explore one more big question about this dark night in the Russian soul.

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