Three Conversations: Three Generations
I have been asked to give an impression of Moscow. I can think of no better way than that of relating my conversations with three taxi-drivers.
Always, wherever you go, talk to taxi-drivers, if you have the opportunity. They know more than anyone else.
The first taxi I was sent was driven by a very young man. He turned out to be 22 years old. His name was Ilya (Elijah). A good name for a taxi-driver, I thought. Seeing that I was a priest, he began talking. He was by origin half-Muslim and half-Russian, but not baptised. He wanted to know how to get baptised, what to do, what he should know. I told him. By the grace of God, may it be done. Elias charged me nothing for my fare.
The second taxi driver was a former Air Force pilot who had been based in the Far East. Aged 44, he received a monthly pension of just over £200 (about $300) a month. So he had become a taxi-driver. He related how with his wife he liked to explore old Moscow (because modern Moscow is so ugly), especially the old monasteries. He had seen films about the Church, including ‘A Lesson from Byzantium’. A fellow-pilot had become a priest, an engineer friend also. This driver also charged me nothing for my fare.
The third taxi driver I was sent was over 60. Immediately, I realised that he was a Stalinist. And he began the usual talk, which I have heard so many times before from that generation. Of course, partly this is true. In Soviet times, everyone did have a modest job, a tiny flat - rent 20p (30c) a month - , the educational system probably was the best in the world and there was free medicine, however basic. There were no drug addicts and no alcoholics wallowing on the streets. And the birth-rate was holding up. Every family had two or three children - unlike today. He said: ‘The Soviet Union was just like today’s European Union; everything was controlled’.
I pointed out to him the great error of Communism – the persecution of the Church. He denied this, saying the Church had been free since 1942. I mentioned the persecution under Khrushchev. He did not reply to this, but said how Stalin had won the War and had transformed Russia from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. At this point I realised, as usual, that he did not know the history of his own country (and probably did not want to know it). He was a victim of Soviet propaganda and there was nothing that I could say to unbrainwash him. But I did think to myself:
Russia was a great industrial economy before 1917. If the Revolution had not happened, it had been estimated that by 1950 Russia would easily have overtaken the rest of the world. If the Revolution had not happened, probably there would have been no Hitler and no Second World War. But if there had been a Hitler and a new German War, a Russia free of Stalin and his ideology would have pushed back the Nazis by 1943 and gone all the way to the Atlantic coast, liberating all of occupied Western Europe, Russian troops celebrating in Paris as after their defeat of Napoleon. Only Stalin’s incompetence and purges of the Armed Forces had made the War drag on to 1945. The War had been won by the Church-backed patriotism of the people, not by the evil monster in the Kremlin. And then there would have been no Cold War.
This driver, who drove like Parisians used to drive thirty years ago, along the pavements, cursing at people who stopped at red lights (so committing the greatest crime of idiocy, according to him) charged me for my fare.
As I sit at Domodedovo airport again, watching the aeroplanes through the window, ‘Ural Airlines’, Air Bashkortostan’, ‘Uzbek Air’, ‘Tadjik Air’, I listen to the announcements. Three languages are used: Russian, Chinese and English. Here is the future: Anglo-American for technology and international trade, Chinese for manufactured goods and Russian for oil, gas and faith – for physical and spiritual energy.
And I think about these three conversations and these three generations. And I think: The future is here among the younger generations. There are those here who have come out of the great atheist nightmare in Russia, and there are those in the West who are entering into it. Let us learn from today’s Russia.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips