Chronicles readers may remember that in my last letter I described the “Russian Style” exhibition in London as a Soviet propaganda ballon d’essai, flown to test Western media response to the new nationalism emanating from Moscow. It is by no means coincidental that such a test should be made here rather than in the United States: The more diverse and at the same time less localized British press offers Soviet propagandists a quicker, more complete picture of their successes and failures. In other words, the theater of Soviet propaganda uses London as a New Haven of old, opening shows here and taking them to New York once all the kinks in the production have been taken out. More preparations are now under way, and what follows is a kind of preview.

The richly illustrated catalogs of Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga (International Book) have just announced the publication of several timely tides. Let us ponder why, at this particular moment in history. Progress Publishers should bring out Christian Ecumenism, a treatise of some 300 pages proving that “theologians see the way out of the crisis of religion in unifying all Christians”—unless, of course, its editors suspect that “all Christians” are ready to be unified under Soviet rule. Perhaps even more significant is the companion Religion and Social Conflict in the USA, which “analyzes the ways of ‘extinguishing’ social conflict with the help of religion.” Christians, pay attention.

Titles like USSR Through Indian Eyes, Red Star and Green Crescent, and A Tree in the Centre of Kabul tell another side of the same story: Russians love religion. “Socialism,” runs the catalog blurb, “has turned the once-backward outlying regions of tsarist Russia into flourishing republics [like Kazakhstan?] that are now far in advance of certain neighbouring countries [like Afghanistan?] which were formerly comparable as regards traditions, religion, and way of life.” Moslems, take note. Here is USSR: A Genuine United Nations. Indeed, why have the UN—are you listening. Ambassador Kirkpatrick?—if the Soviet Frontiers of Tomorrow promises to unite all nations in a world Where Human Rights Are Real?

But is the USSR: A Dictatorship or a Democracy? If you do not think the question rhetorical, you had better read The Anatomy of Lies and Why We Returned to the Soviet Union. For there is one religion which the Russians do not love as passionately as they do their beloved Russian Orthodox Christianity, dreamy Buddhism, or sweet Islam: Yes, the Jews are Caught in the Act again, as usual, and Zionism Stands Accused in the pages of Wormwood. The last book, according to the blurb,

is about Zionism and Zionists. The Soviet writer exposes Zionism for what it really is—the shady sides of the Zionist “promised land,” the reactionary substance of Zionism, the tragic fate of Soviet Jews caught in the Zionist web.

The italics are mine.

According to one of my father’s axioms, all Soviet history must be interpreted in terms of political movement from the totalitarian “left” to the totalitarian “right.” In other words, as it develops and matures, totalitarianism is bound to jettison the “left-wing” heritage of the Enlightenment and employ as its new ideological tool the “right-wing” heritage of anti-Western (and, of course, anti-Semitic) nationalism, in combination with Orthodox Christianity which it can well adapt for this use. Save for such interruptions as World War II, when Stalin’s “communist” totalitarianism had to dissociate itself conspicuously from the “nationalist” totalitarianism of Hitler, and the post-1953 “liberalization”—when another such detour was occasioned by a prolonged power struggle—the trend toward the universal nationalist state of Stalin’s dreams has continued to this day. Shortly before his death, Stalin was—according to rumor—exploring the possibilities of having himself crowned with the full participation of the Orthodox Church. This did not startle those in the 1950’s who appreciated the logic of such an interpretation of history. Today, we need not be startled by the fact that the Soviets are returning to the old plan devised by the erstwhile seminarian Josif Djugashvili.

Keston College, in Kent, which specializes in religious affairs with particular attention to Soviet Russia and its captive nations, has helped to bring out a new book, The Bear’s Hug by Gerald Buss. Subtitled “Religious Belief and the Soviet State,” it looks at the history of the Church since 1917, giving attention to its martyrs and heroes; it also contains information, new to many Western readers, that is pertinent to our discussion.

The news from Moscow is that the Russian Orthodox Church will be celebrating its millennium in 1988, and there is now little doubt that we may look forward to a new union of church and state in Russia. Consistent with the continued drift to the “right,” such a “new attitude to religion” will be of incalculable strategic value to the regime, particularly in areas like Central America and even, with certain adjustments, in the Moslem World. To be sure, this is not the point of Mr. Buss’s book. Yet the persecution of the Church in Soviet Russia and its exploitation for political purposes are complementary, not contradictory realities; reading The Bear’s Hug with the strategic concerns of Soviet rulers in mind, we may draw our own conclusions.

At 9 p.m. on September 3, 1943, Stalin summoned the three Orthodox Metropolitans to the Kremlin. The historic meeting, it is usually said, revealed the Marshal’s intention to make the Church a part of the war effort. Yet the meeting took place some six months after the surrender of the Germans at Stalingrad, in every way the turning point of the war, and after the success of the Kursk-Orel counteroffensive; the Allies had just landed in Italy, and the armistice, while still not announced publicly, had been signed (with Stalin’s approval, in his country’s name) on September 3, the day of the meeting. As far as the “war effort” was concerned, Stalin needed the Church less than ever before. Yet from 1943 to 1953, according to Mr. Buss, “the number of functioning churches grew to a maximum of about one half of the prerevolutionary total of about 50,000,” from an estimated 1939 total of “under 1,000, and possibly much lower.” On the occasion of Stalin’s 70th birthday on December 21, 1949, the churches resounded with a Te Deum, as he was hailed homiletically for his deyania (apostolic deeds) as “a paternally solicitous guardian of all aspects of our human existence.”

In the last decade of Stalin’s rule, the new Soviet Church was becoming firmly established as a handmaiden of the totalitarian state charged with the important task of disseminating propaganda and projecting influence. Predictably, the “de-Stalinization” policies of Stalin’s successors were accompanied by anti-Church activity (by 1965, according to Mr. Buss, “fewer than 8,000 churches” remained open). It appears inevitable that the current Soviet regime will use next year’s celebration of the millennium to correct the strategic blunder of its predecessors, restoring the Church to its proper place in Soviet policy, ideology, and propaganda. It should be no more difficult for master propagandists to combine the “new attitude to religion” with the “modern vision of Russia” than, in another context, it was to combine the music of Richard Wagner with the production of tanks. The only question is whether the West will greet this new attitude as yet another of all the glad tidings from Gorbachev’s Russia.