Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Russian writers began to strike out in new and bold directions, slowly but surely testing the limits and constraints of official government censors. The harshness and terror of the Stalinist regime gradually gave way to more tolerance and freedom of expression, although the path to greater artistic freedom was not always straight or easy to follow.
The new “thaw” in Soviet society, which continued through the eventual accession of Nikita Khrushchev to power in 1953, was exhilarating, although there were clear limits to this newfound freedom. When Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was published in the West and the Nobel Prize was awarded to him in 1958, he was forced to reject the award and his novel was not published in the Soviet Union for nearly thirty years.
During the 1960s and 1970s, efforts by Soviet writers to describe the reality of life in the Soviet Union often resulted in forced exile, a government policy that resulted in the loss of many leading Soviet intellectuals. The most famous expulsion was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s involuntary exile in 1974. But the seeds of change were sown and writers everywhere began to test the limits, searching for ways to express their ideas, and seeking new outlets for their musings.
The Village Writers
One group of Russian writers, relatively unknown in the West, found an outlet for their essays in the journal, The Young Guard, and, later, Our Contemporary. While the members of this group were Russian nationalists, they shared none of the virulent, aggressive characteristics of the Stalinist regime; instead, they lamented the devastation of Russian culture and the way in which World War Two, the social upheaval following the war, and political dogma had undermined the values of the past. Since many of these writers saw this devastation most clearly portrayed in the poverty and demoralization of Russian villages, they were dismissed by their opponents as “village writers.”
Some of these writers were, in fact, peasants by origin, and their writings demonstrated the way in which peasant language could enrich literature. For them, the village was a microcosm that clearly revealed the symptoms of a deep spiritual disorder in Russian society. Slowly, carefully, often using indirect imagery, they probed religious issues and suggested that the Communist Party’s deliberate undermining of religious values contributed to the malaise in post-World War Two Soviet society. Because their writings were so honestly and deeply concerned about community life in Russia, government censors hesitated to block their publications.
Soloukhin’s A Time to Gather Stones
This report of medical missions and their cooperation with Russian churches and nonprofit organizations has great importance on many different levels. Most important is that care and service is being offered to individuals who are struggling with serious diseases or who are vulnerable because of their homelessness and poverty.
But, on another level, the role of faith-based medical missions is important because it demonstrates in powerful ways that churches and their related programs have an important contribution to make to the well-being of Russian society. After seventy years of persecution, the churches in Russia were reduced to a marginal role in society. This reduction, compounded by the atomization of society by the ruling Communist elites, resulted in several generations of Russians who are accustomed to seeing no worthwhile role for churches outside of privatized, spiritual nurture of church attendees. The Soviet experience gave primacy to the role of the state and eliminated most private organizations. For many Russians today, “private” means “not important,” when compared to state-administered programs.
Medical missions, along with other private relief and development organizations from the West, are building ties with Russian nonprofit structures and are quietly demonstrating that faith-based programs are critical to meeting some of Russia’s most pressing health needs. They are also making a strong case, just by their presence, for the private sector as an important player in healthy, democratic societies. Their work is a ministry of grace, which demonstrates the power of the Gospel message. People of faith care about others and are motivated by their faith to serve those in need.
Sick and homeless Russians need help. This help is coming from people in faith-based organizations. The message should be clear to those in power: the private, nonprofit sector needs to be nurtured and encouraged in Russia, if a healthy New Russia is to emerge from these difficult years of transition out of Communism.