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Russia is truly an enigma. From a pro-life, pro-family standpoint, the situation there looks almost hopeless. There’s at least one baby killed by abortion for every child born. Healthcare is precarious, to put it mildly. Life expectancy for men has dropped to 57 years and alcoholism is omni-present. Families, as we know them, are not common. Lifetime marriage is seldom seen, and some people whom we have spoken to tell us that the average cohabitation, legal or otherwise, lasts only a few years.
Seventy years of Communism have taken their toll. Lenin, and then Stalin, knew quite well that intact families who stayed together (and prayed together) were incompatible with their Communist ideals, so they set out to destroy the family. Wages were kept low enough so that the women had to leave the home and go to work. Children were put in state daycare as soon as they were out of the arms of their mothers. Almost every clergyman in Russia was killed. If you were known to be a Christian, you couldn’t get a job or advance in the one you had, and other onerous restrictions were imposed. Over the years, this has brought Russian society to the point where there is no tradition of intact families, and almost no religious tradition at all.
On the other hand, through the ashes of this culture, there is springing up a plethora of new initiatives, both in the area of family life and religion. It was one of these initiatives that brought Mrs. Willke and me to Moscow recently. Our efforts and the trip were well worthwhile, and we hope will bear much fruit.
Our journey began in Warsaw, Poland, in May of last year, where we spoke to almost a thousand people at a major East European Pro-Life Congress. Mr. and Mrs. Lech Kowalewski, leaders of the Polish pro-life movement, sponsored the event. A Russian Orthodox priest approached us near the end of the meeting and explained that since Gorbechev had stepped down, they had opened almost 500 new churches in Russia. They had very few priests to staff these churches, so, with relatively brief seminary training, they had ordained a large number of priests. Their education had consisted of teaching the Liturgy and essence of the Russian Orthodox faith, but apparently not much beyond that. He told us, “These young priests know almost nothing about what you and Mrs. Willke have spoken about. We need you in Moscow. Would you come?”
It seemed that the Patriarch, Alexi II of the Russian Orthodox Church, had authorized and promoted a major teaching seminar for his priests and lay leaders in Moscow. These priests and lay leaders from all over the Russian Federation were invited.
Almost immediately, we packaged and sent a number of cases of Russian pro-life material in mailbags . Happily, these arrived intact prior to the November seminar. Our host, Father Maxim Obukhov, was most pleased. By the time we had gotten there, he had distributed much of the material and more was passed out at the seminar.
The only bad news was the weather. Temperatures ranged from ten to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit, and it snowed three of the six days we were there. There was no sun, just chilling smog enveloping the city. We had come prepared for the weather, so that didn’t bother us much. Not trusting foreign equipment, I took the precaution of bringing our own slide projector which would accommodate 220-volts, and it performed flawlessly.
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We gave one lengthy presentation on fetal development, beginning at viability, progressing down to the first cell stage. We then discussed at length new information and developments during the first week of life, including stem cells, cloning and fetal experimentation. We had a session on surgical abortion. Then we discussed known abortifacients such as RU 486 and progressed to abortifacient birth control devices, both mechanical and chemical. We discussed post-abortion stress in both women and men and gave guidelines to the attendees for counseling in this field, which was new to almost all of them.
Attendees came from all over the Russian Federation. There were priests and lay people from Siberia, the southern Ural Mountains, Archangel in the far north, St. Petersburg, Minsk in Belarus, and quite a few people from Ukraine. There were attendees from Crimea and, of course, Moscow. The only negative was a somewhat limited boycott from some Moscow people who objected to these foreign people coming in who were not Russian Orthodox, but this was not a major problem. Metropolitan Cyril, from Smolensk, is a top member of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, and reputed to be a possible successor to the Patriarch, Alexi II. He came to the seminar, spoke and highly complimented what was being done. There were a large number of exhibit booths with religious articles, books and artisans showing their wares.
Father Obukhov was a very gracious host, inviting us to his home one evening on the outskirts of Moscow. We were pleased to enjoy some unique Russian food, to meet his wife and children, and take a fairly lengthy walk with him into a forest behind his home, culminating in a large bonfire in the woods. There he roasted meat on spits over an open fire — a meal to remember.
Mrs. Eva Kowalewski, who also spoke at the seminar, had organized a seminar for Catholic priests and laity on the previous weekend. Attendance was much less, as there are only two functioning Catholic church buildings in Moscow, a city of over 12 million people. We found out that there are about eight or ten “parishes” that haven’t been able to obtain or build church structures, but are now staffed by priests. One large church building has been completed, and each individual priest, with his small congregation, takes turns using it for religious services. Archbishop T. Kondrusiewicz, who attended this meeting, is a very gentle but impressive man who was appointed the first Catholic bishop in Russia since the Communist revolution — in our judgment, a wise choice. Accordingly, we also spoke on two occasions to this audience which was very appreciative of our efforts.
Upon our arrival, to our pleasant surprise, Father Obukhov presented us with the newly printed Russian edition of our book, Why Can’t We Love Them Both. He explained that they had rushed a few hundred copies off the press for the seminar but that in a few weeks they would be finishing the first printing of 10,000 copies, all of which would be distributed throughout the Orthodox churches in his country. We were most impressed, as we had only given him the English edition of this book in May, and already in November the Russian edition was in our hands.
Barbara and I have spoken in over 65 countries over the years. We have faced a bewildering variety of audiences, large and small. I’m sure that wherever and whenever we spoke, some good was accomplished, but this one was different. Here we faced the teachers of millions of Orthodox Christians in a country of almost 150 million people, a country that had been totally starved for the ethical type of information we brought to them. Further, through the materials we had sent and our newly translated book, we feel confident that the seeds we planted have a reasonable likelihood of sprouting, growing and flowering throughout the Russian Federation. We felt very privileged to have been asked and certainly wish our newfound friends the blessings of the Lord, for they will certainly need it. We unquestionably felt the truth of what the Bible says on this trip, that the harvest indeed is great, but the workers are few.