How odd that scorn for Russia, and fear of that country, have become fashionable in Western countries even – sometimes especially – among conservative-minded and Christian men and women. This view is so common that people automatically assume that I share it in conversations and correspondence.
When I object, they are often puzzled, or immediately assume that I am in the pay of the Kremlin. In fact, I now refuse to appear on the Kremlin news channel RT because anyone who sees me there will assume that I am being rewarded with enormous wads of roubles, and perhaps a dacha in the birchwoods outside Moscow.
Even more weirdly, the only people who don’t share this modish Russophobia tend to be unreconstructed left-wingers and trade union hardliners, who, like their conservative equivalents, simply have not grasped that today’s Russia is more or less the opposite of the old USSR, whose collapse I watched in Moscow almost exactly 25 years ago.
How I wish I could take such people on guided tours of the Soviet past. Then they might at last understand the difference. I would like them to come with me, preferably by train across the murderous borders and blasted, oppressed, polluted brown-and-grey wastelands of the Warsaw Pact to the Belorussia Station in Moscow. And then I would lead them on from there to the little park where – until August 1991 – there stood one of the most disturbing, and in my view diabolical, sculptures in the world. It was of a young boy – but he was no Peter Pan.
Pavlik Morozov was an object of veneration to generations of Soviet Children. He was a communist saint and martyr, compulsorily revered because he had betrayed his own father to the secret police, and then been rather understandably killed by his grandfather.
We now know that the legend was almost wholly made up. But that does not matter. The old USSR was not just some neutral place from which Christianity had been swept by force. It was the active heart of a system of thought which was more or less the opposite of Christianity, founded on power rather than love, and violently hostile to lifelong marriage and the private fortress of the family.
Then I would have taken them to the KGB museum, in a cavernous brown marble building behind Lubyanka Square, and shown them their prize exhibit, the funeral wreath of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police. The wreath is made of bayonets. Images of this handsome monster were still on sale in Moscow department stores until 1991. But, like the Morozov idol, they have now vanished.
On the same tour I might have shown them the churches and cathedrals of the Russian capital, its skyline before 1917 a bell-haunted riot of religious architecture, but under communism the surviving churches were mostly locked, dilapidated, their bells smashed and melted, actively desecrated by aggressively secular use (one monastery was turned into a home for delinquent boys who were not discouraged from vandalising it).
I would invite them to watch the twisting bitter sneers on the face of the educated Soviet middle class whenever religion was mentioned. I would take them into my home, in an elite Communist Party Central Committee block, past the memorial plaque to Yuri Andropov, unlovely head of the KGB.
And then I would lead them to St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square on the eve of Easter 1992, to watch the ecstatic liturgy of the Orthodox Church, performed there for the first time in decades, and I could show them the Moscow of today, dozens of once-insulted churches now repainted, regilded, restored to life. How much hope, do you think, of a comparable restoration in our own greed-infested capital, where Wren’s Christian London is now besieged and dwarfed by monstrosities of money-worship?
In between I might offer them the glimpses I saw, of thousands of Communist Party cards smouldering in litter bins, of the Soviet navy sunk and scuttled in the lovely creeks and inlets around the “August City”, Sevastopol, one of the loveliest harbours in the world and now once again a classical expression of Christian Russia.
Oh, yes, there are bad things. Russia is not free and its hard history of incessant invasions by hungry neighbours means it probably never will be. Vladimir Putin is a sinister tyrant, very dangerous to challengers. But, unlike his Soviet forerunners, he has no interest in invading the minds of men or in making windows into their souls.
The last time I was in Moscow, I suddenly stopped dead in the street, flummoxed by the realisation that in some ways speech and thought are now more free there (where what is annoyingly known as “political correctness” does not flourish) than they are here.
If those left-wingers and trade unionists could actually see the country they still rather bizarrely admire, they’d hate it. And maybe some of its current mistaken enemies would see why I’m willing to put in a good word for it and for its increasingly Christian and endlessly long-suffering people.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund