Vienna, November 27 – An Orthodox priest in a town near St. Petersburg has sparked controversy by putting up an icon showing the figure of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, with some believers and Communists viewing this as simple justice and others as an indication that many Russians have lost any sense of proportion or truth.
One of the most widely covered stories in the Russian Federation this week concerns not the actions of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or even the impact of the economic crisis but rather the decision of a priest to put up an icon portraying Stalin and the efforts of some to canonize him.
The priest of St. Olga’s Church in Strel’na, Father Yevstafiy, recently put up an icon there to the Blessed Matrona of Moscow, on which Stalin was portrayed, without any of the attributes of sainthood but simply standing next to her. Thus, technically, it was not an icon of Stalin at all (www.nr2.ru/society/208177.html).
But that distinction was quickly lost. Yevstafiy’s own parishioners demanded he put the icon with Stalin in a less prominent place and stop referring to the late Soviet dictator in prayers – even though the Strel’na priest has a long history of provocative actions, including putting up another icon portraying a Russian soldier who died in Chechnya as a “new martyr.”
His superiors in the Russian Orthodox Church denounced this action as “inappropriate.” And story after story on Russian television (www.islamnews.ru/video-view-184.html), the print media (www.newizv.ru/news/2008-11-26/102216/) and the Russian blogosphere (www.mk.ru/blogs/MK/2008/11/27/society/383332/) played up the debate.
In comments to “Novyye izvestiya,” Father Yevstafiy stood his ground. “The feeling that Stalin is the father of the peoples, that he is thus in part my high father has never left me in the course of my life. I thus have two fathers, besides the Heavenly Father: one is my father in the flesh and the other is the father of the peoples who was strict” and may “have made mistakes.”
Any attacks on him are wrong and inappropriate the dissident priest continued, and he said that he “remembers Iosif Vissarionovich in all services where this is appropriate, especially on those days when he died, was born and when he celebrated the common Victory of our people.” And he insisted that Stalin was “a believer.”
But at the same time, Yevstafiy was careful to specify that “this is not an icon glorifying Stalin. This is an image of. Matrona of Moscow. And Iosif Vissarionovich is one of those people whom she blessed. She blessed many people,” the priest said, including “a well-known architect and a well- known composer of those times. And Stalin too.”
Spokesmen for the Moscow Patriarchate denounced this action but have taken no action against it, at least so far. The sharpest criticism of Yevstafiy’s pretentions came from the pastor of Moscow’s Church of the Tsar Martyr Nicholas, who said that the appearance of icons showing Stalin was “a terrible sign, an indication that people have completely lost a sense of truth.”
The appearance of the icon showing the late Soviet dictator comes as some Russians are seeking his canonization by the Church. Among them are believers who agree with Yevstafiy and also some communists, who although themselves atheists, believe that the Soviet leader deserves this mark of respect.
Sergey Malinkovich, the leader of the Communists of Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast, said that he would not deny that “the majority of the members of our organization are atheists, but there are believers and Orthodox too, [and] we try to respect their attitudes” in the work of the party.
“Those priests with whom we have spoken say that the figure of Stalin enjoys great respect among their parishioners. Therefore we too have begun now to speak about his canonization and about the creation of icons on which he is portrayed.” He added that in short order, 10,000 of them would be printed to give to those who already see Stalin as “holy.”
“For the Church, Lenin was a communist,” he continued, “but Stalin was a genuine national leader.” And “for us, he is approximately the same as Napoleon is for France.” Thus, he has already for a long time been “canonized in the popular consciousness.” Now all that needs to be done is to take care of “the formalities.”