Monday, December 24, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Holy Family Might Be Treated like ‘Persons of Caucasus Nationality’ in Today’s Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 24 -- If Mary and Joseph showed up in today’s Moscow rather than in Bethlehem as they did two millennia ago, the residents of the Russian capital would likely treat them as despised “persons of the Caucasus” with all the negative consequences that could entail, according to a Russian minister.
Joseph would likely be beaten by skinheads, Sergei Sosedkin suggested recently, and Mary, having been arrested for violating passport rules, would have had to give birth to Jesus not in a manger but in a Moscow militia substation where she should be kept alongside real criminals (
Sosedskin’s bitter conclusions about his fellow countrymen were triggered by a conversation he had with a young Venezuelan woman named Maria who had been an exchange student in Belgorod for six years when the two were sitting next to each other on a recent flight between Frankfurt and Moscow.
Asked two of the standard questions Russians often pose to foreigners -- how difficult do you find our language and what do you think of our weather -- Maria responded in lightly accented Russian that like everyone else she had had difficulties learning the language but now spoke it sufficiently well to make friends.
But her comments about the weather were more interesting. “Your winters are cold,” she said, “there is snow and the days are short. But during the summer, drunken skinheads roam the streets. They can harass you. As a result, I like winters in Russia more than I do summers.”
Maria went on to acknowledge that her fellow Venezuelans did not relate especially well to the many foreigners now coming to her homeland or even living there, but at least there, she said, no one ever beats them just because of how they look or the way they speak Spanish.
Over the last few years, Sosedskin commented, “we [Russians] have gotten used to militant xenophobia,” something few acknowledge given how much pride Russians have in their reputation for hospitality. But however much Russians believe that still to be true, the pastor added, “I haven’t heard about it from [our] foreign guests for a long time.”
Instead, he continued, like Maria, such visitors have told him “ever more often” about their fears of coming into contact with Russians who will treat them badly simply because they look different or speak a different language -- or in some cases speak Russian less perfectly than the typically uneducated skinheads think they should.
Recently, Sosedskin said, everyone has “been hearing about [the rise of] a proud Russia.” And there is evidence of this: “the incomes of the population are rising, new homes are going up, the army is getting new weapons, and stock and bond markets are breaking new records…”
“This is all very well,” Sosedkin continued, “but from a Christian point of view, if you will, that is not the main thing. Much more important is what is going on in our souls. Is it love that is growing there or hatred? What kind of a people and society do we imagine ourselves to be?”
A truly great country, he concluded, “ought not be build on the foundation of force.” And he added that he personally would “be proud of the achievements of the new Russia when a Venezuelan girl like Maria will be able to walk with her friends along our streets without fear of being beaten only because she has dark hair and a ‘non-Russian’ accent.”
Until that day, no one can be sure that many Russians would in fact treat a returning Mary and Joseph as “persons of Caucasus nationality,” an ugly term covering an ugly reality that far too few governments or ordinary people in either Russia or the West have condemned whenever and wherever it is invoked or acted upon.
On this Christmas eve, one can hope along with Sosedkin that everyone in Russia and elsewhere will find it in our hearts to meet the challenge posed by yet another victim of this kind of hatred, the great Russian memoirist Nadezhda Mandelstam, in her book Hope Against Hope.
There, she suggested, all people must come to recognize that “happy is that country where the despicable will at least be despised.” Many times, of course, no one has the possibility to do more, but no one should ever do less -- as Sosedskin’s stories about the experience of Maria and the possible fate of revenant Mary demand.

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