Out of Russia: Redemption is on offer for true believers

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MOSCOW - The large billboards were so professional that when they first appeared all over Moscow - with the word 'WHY?' in Russian in huge white letters on a black background - it was hard to tell what they were selling. Several days later, the photograph of the American evangelist Billy Graham appeared on a new set of advertisements. Billy Graham was coming to town, selling not Western goods but Western-style goodness.

Along with Mr Graham's face came more questions. 'Why do I need religion?' 'Why am I misunderstood?' 'Why don't people live in peace?' 'Why is the sky blue?' The question for the 73-year- old Mr Graham this weekend is how many Russians will turn up and how many will believe what he has to say when he addresses them in Moscow's Olympic stadium for three consecutive days.

A crowd is guaranteed. Mr Graham is benefiting from the activities of a multi-sect Russian Christian mission, Revival- 92, which has organised 12 trains from important cities such as Kiev, St Petersburg and Minsk to come to Moscow, and stay for three nights sleeping on the trains. The trains will bring in at least 8,000. Another 5,000 will be there singing in the mass choir.

Billy Graham believes that after years of godless Communism Russia is ripe for conversion. He talks of the 'emptiness of young people's lives' and of people searching for something to follow in a world that they feel has failed them. The evidence suggests he will have a willing audience. Russians are turning to anything from religion to folk medicine, black magic and astrology to help alleviate the drudgery and hardship of making the transition from a rigid totalitarian society to free-market capitalism. Congregations in the 1,000- year-old Russian Orthodox church are increasing each month. Moscow's 111 functioning churches are often full.

American and Korean evangelists have had a good summer baptising new followers in ponds and lakes around the city. One of the weirdest sights - for anyone who lived here under Communism - is to see the saffron-robed Hare Krishnas dancing and chanting through the streets. In the winter, they wear boots, down jackets and woollen hats, but they have a hole in the hats for their characteristic ponytail and they wear their yellow robes over winter coats. They claim as many as 700,000 believers in Russia and they are building Hare Krishna temples all over the country.

The Mormons are here with more than 30 youthful missionaries from Utah. In the spring Moscow's Seventh Day Adventists, who used to hold secret services under Communism, arranged their largest blessing campaign inside the Kremlin. They handed out 21,000 Bibles and baptised 1,300 people.

In July, the American astronaut Charles Duke, now an evangelist, toured military and state security services and spoke to 3,000 Muscovites at the Moscow Dynamo stadium. He handed out 10,000 Russian- language New Testaments with military camouflage covers.

It's a dramatic change. Under Communism, religion was not banned officially but it was against the law to proselytise. If anyone taught Sunday School to young people, they faced imprisonment and even execution in the early years as the Communist Party tried to wipe out religion, 'the opiate of the masses'. Until fairly recently, those who worshipped something other than the state faced loss of status and position. Many worshipped in private, trying to keep out of sight of the KGB informers and often keeping crucifixes hidden for fear of persecution.

Billy Graham remembers those days. He first came here in 1959 hoping to preach the Sunday sermon in a Moscow church, but he was told his visa did not cover preaching. He had to sit and listen.

Evangelists such as Mr Graham hold out the hope of miracles as well as answers to prayers, and Russians are ready, it seems. A survey conducted by the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta indicated that nearly a third of Russians, Ukrainians and Kazakhs believe in miracles and 11 per cent said they believed in paradise. Forty per cent said they were interested in the New Testament, but only 29 per cent considered themselves true believers.

Their eagerness to become devout again, however, makes them yearn for a kind of universal world of believers who all agree to worship in much the same way. But the unification of all these churches is unlikely, Mr Graham believes, until Christ returns to Earth and rules over us all.