Fr Dmitry Dudko

Heroic priest later shunned for confessing his 'crimes'

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Moscow intellectuals would cram into the succession of small parish churches where the Russian Orthodox priest Fr Dmitry Dudko was gaining an increasing audience. His direct and inspiring sermons were unlike the remote and ritual addresses of most Orthodox priests. With a natural style, he was willing despite the risks to tackle the Church's role in Soviet society.



Dmitry Sergeievich Dudko, priest: born Berezina, Soviet Union 24 February 1922; married (one son, one daughter); died Moscow 28 June 2004.



In the late 1960s and 1970s, Moscow intellectuals would cram into the succession of small parish churches where the Russian Orthodox priest Fr Dmitry Dudko was gaining an increasing audience. His direct and inspiring sermons were unlike the remote and ritual addresses of most Orthodox priests. With a natural style, he was willing despite the risks to tackle the Church's role in Soviet society.

"He is a man of surprising integrity and simplicity," declared Natalia Solzhenitsyn, wife of the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in the 1970s. "His preaching finds a direct and accurate path to a person's heart."

Amid a growing ministry that centred as much on his home in a Moscow communal flat as on his church, Dudko baptised thousands of adults as well as children. In late 1972 the authorities decided to dismiss him from his parish, but Dudko refused to go quietly. In defiance of Soviet convention, he openly told his congregation of the dismissal. They rallied to defend him.

In December 1973 he began a bold experiment, inviting parishioners to put questions in an open forum after Saturday-evening vespers. He broke taboos, telling the congregation of his earlier prison sentence and mentioning informers among church congregations. He even denounced immorality, family breakdown and crime as "the fruits of atheism", a daring assertion as atheism was mandated by the state and the Communist Party.

After Dudko had ignored the dean's order to put an end to the question-and-answer sessions, in May 1974 Patriarch Pimen - no doubt under KGB instruction - himself ordered a halt and then removed Dudko. Later he was allowed to resume pastoral work in a village church near Moscow.

In 1977 his question-and- answer sessions, tape-recorded by eager listeners, gained a wider audience when they were published in English as Our Hope. "More than any other document coming from Russia, Fr Dudko's sermons represent the religious life of the rank and file of Russian believers," the respected American Orthodox theologian Fr John Meyendorff wrote in his introduction. "Fr Dmitry shows us not only human understanding but also a great sense of faithfulness to the Church."

By late 1979, as he continued to call for the canonisation of the last Tsar and his family, and defended other Orthodox priests and lay people arrested by the authorities, Dudko knew his own arrest was imminent. Yet when it came, in January 1980, it was a shock, arousing widespread international protest.

His supporters received a further shock in June 1980, when Dudko publicly recanted his "crimes" in a televised confession. "I renounce what I have done, and I regard my so-called struggle with godlessness as a struggle with Soviet power," he declared. He was released immediately and the KGB finally dropped the case against him in 1981.

Born one of four children in a devout peasant family in a village near Bryansk in western Russia, Dudko was a bookish lad. In 1937 disaster struck, when his father Sergei was arrested for refusing to join the collective farm. His mother struggled on looking after the children. In 1941, his home region was overrun by Nazi forces and it was only in 1943, when Soviet forces recaptured the area, that Dudko was called up into the Red Army. Within a year he had been injured and invalided out.

In 1945 he entered the newly reopened Russian Orthodox seminary at Zagorsk near Moscow. But, like his father before him, in 1948 he would be arrested. He was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" for writing religious poetry (once he was known as a dissident, the authorities would allege he had been sentenced for collaborating with the Nazis).

Dudko was freed after eight and a half years and returned to the seminary, where he finally graduated in 1960. After ordination he was assigned to several Moscow churches.

His last years were unhappy. His 1980 confession left his spiritual children stunned and he was regarded after that with some embarrassment. He himself found it hard to overcome his guilt for what he later called his "fateful mistake".

After the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991, Dudko became close to nationalist groups, writing a regular column in the right-wing anti-Semitic newspaper Zavtra. He railed against the crime and immorality of the "brutal democracy" before which, he argued, Stalin's despotism was just a pale shadow. He praised Stalin as a "believer" who in 1939 had prevented the final destruction of the Russian Orthodox Church. He also urged that Rasputin be canonised.

Dudko's followers preferred to remember his heroic contribution to keeping the Church's spiritual life alive in the later Soviet period.

Felix Corley

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