STORIES YOU’LL LOVE: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
In The Assassins, Masha Khaykina enters the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington, D.C., and begins a journey that will change her life. Perhaps, some readers of mysteries and murder novels will find this interjection of religion inappropriate. However, if one knows Russia, the combination of spies killing people and a Christian perspective will feel quite at home. Such is the way of Russia, a country that has lived through horrendous violence and loves poets.
It has been estimated that Stalin killed 20 million people during his purges. Another 20 million died during World War II before the country quite counting. All of this happened in the country that features the Bolshoi Ballet.
I discovered the power of their faith during a visit with the Metropolitan of Minsk. Because it was l985 and in the Soviet Union, the meeting was arranged in clandestine fashion. We came in one door and the Orthodox priest came in a back door. The encounter was in a winery with a large wine tasting back room. We sat on one side of the table and the Metropolitan sat on the other side. In his high black kamlavka or maitre, black cassock, with a heavy staff, he was most impressive.
The introductions were made and pleasantries exchanged. The Metropolitan quickly pushed us to the heart of the discussion. He wanted to know what we believed and what motivated us to come to Minsk. Were we truly men and women of peace? Did we really want to avoid a war with the Soviet Union?
Our responses assured him that we sought only the highest objectives. In turn, we pressed the priest to tell us how he had survived World War II, the political purges, and the struggles with Communism. To our surprise, the large man answered in a forthright and straightforward manner.
His story of endurance left us staggered and overwhelmed. We were listening to a man who had walked through hell and back. The Metropolitan had seen the worst violence a time of horrendous upheaval could produce. Living through nights of intense pain and fear, he had come out a man of peace and faith. His story left us unable to speak. None of us had ever experienced his world of struggle.
Finally, the Metropolitan asked us to sing an American hymn. We looked at each other in consternation. None of us were musicians and my singing is beyond terrible. Nevertheless, we decided a Negro spiritual would be an authentic expression of native American music. We launched into “Go Down Moses” sounding like Moses probably wouldn’t ever want to be coming back after that number.
Then, we asked the Metropolitan to sing. He suggested the Sanctus from the Mass would be best for him. Leaning back in his chair with his eyes turned upward toward heaven, he began singing in Russian. No one in our delegation understood the language, but our hearts melted as the transcendent, mysterious hymn literally took us out of the room to the feet of our Creator. The majestic sound transformed us into participants in eternity. We were left overwhelmed and awe-inspired.
The heavenly sound came from a man who had endured the worst the world had to offer.
Religion in Russia? Yeah, it will always be there regardless of Stalin, Putin, and whoever tries to repress faith. Masha’s experience with the icons is different from the American world, but so typical of Russia.