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Lenin Will Live

On communism.


I loved my Oktyabryonok pin. It was a large five-pointed star, shiny, deep red, with a wonderful, grooved texture. There was a white circle in the middle of the star. And in the middle of that white circle, a boy’s face in gold. It was a kind, intelligent face, framed by long curls. I was seven when I received that pin; it was my first sacrament. Being baptized into a community of faith was both an honor, and a responsibility. I realized I had to try my very best to be a good person, a good example to other children. I had to prepare, so I could be confirmed.  

Several years later, my new scarlet kerchief that an upperclassman had just tied around my neck, rested upon me like a tongue of fire. My new Young Pioneer pin was burning on my white blouse. That second pin was a smaller red star with three flames rising above it. ALWAYS READY! was written across the bottom of the star on a slant. And in the center of the star was a man in profile. His face and the top of his head were dazzling white, and the little hair he had left was golden. Somehow it was still the golden boy from my first pin, and yet another person, a father figure, or as he often was referred to affectionately, Grandpa Lenin.

My own father did not join the Communist Party. Not because he did not believe in its ideals; quite the opposite. He witnessed unscrupulous people joining merely for professional advancement, which he detested. Those careerists discredited the word “communist,” for which he had reverence. Still, they did not shake his faith in the goodness of communism and the possibility of the Communist Party’s revival.

Naïve and misguided? In retrospect, yes. Especially, when analyzing Russia and Russians from across the pond. However, from the perspective of someone who was born and raised in Moscow, the U.S.S.R., let me tell you: my father, who considered himself an atheist then, was, without knowing it, a religious man. I grew up thinking there was no God, and yet I too was a believer. The Soviet citizens in my life—my family, friends, teachers, colleagues—were good people trying to uphold moral values and treat others with respect and compassion. And we did share a common religion. We had our icons, our creed, our “Glory Be”: “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live.” Amen, we had our god. 

When I received my Komsomol pin—the third sacrament that was supposed to complete my initiation—I barely glanced at it, tucking it hurriedly in my pocket. My religion was already in shambles, and my god was about to be revealed as an impostor. I experienced a loss and found myself in a void that had to be filled. However, that feeling of emptiness was not entirely new. 

I remember myself as a little girl walking with my father along an embankment. It was a bright spring day, and there were golden dandelions everywhere. I remember asking my father out of the blue, “What happens after we die?” Though he was surprised, I sensed that he had been expecting the question. “What do you think happens?” he said, placing the emphasis on “you.” It was my turn to be surprised, but I told him, “We cannot just end.” I saw he was happy—relieved almost—to hear that. My father, I learned that day, did not have all the answers. Neither did our religion. Neither I, nor my father could ask our god: What happens after we die?  

My first encounters with Christianity were scarce, and scary. I remember a very old woman, who lived by herself in a very old house not far from our summer cottage. A beautiful smile lit up her face every time she saw us kids, and she always had a kind word for us. She was skinny, her clothes were ragged, and she had a hunchback. We suspected she was a witch. One day, our suspicions proved to be true. We peeked inside her house, and to our horror, saw her kneeling on the floor of a dark room that was dimly lit by burning candles. We were sure she was practicing witchcraft. None of us knew about praying. 

Another time, I was at the drugstore and, while waiting in line, studied a poster that quite remarkably managed to denounce both materialism and religion. It was a series of cartoons; to this day, I can see them clearly. The first one showed a young fashionably dressed woman, clasping her hands as if in prayer, and kneeling before an open closet full of fancy clothes. The second cartoon showed a young man, also “praying,” but this time before his new polished car. The last cartoon showed an old woman and a young boy, walking hand in hand toward a church in the distance. The captions were rhymed, and went something like this: Mama worships clothes; father, his car; they left their son with the great-grandma, she took him to church to worship. I was probably ten years old, and that chilling poster made a big impression on me. I thought the young boy was doomed.

I did not know anybody who was a churchgoer.When I was growing up, nobody in my immediate family—three generations (later, four) living under the same roof—was baptized, except for my grandmother, who was born seven years before the Great October Socialist Revolution. Her father was a dispossessed and exiled kulak, which made her, my grandmother, a daughter of the enemy of the state. She was expelled from medical school because of that, but her life was spared, and so were the lives of her two children—my mother, and my aunt—born during the peak years of the Great Terror. My grandmother never went to church, and I never saw or heard her pray. Close to the end, though, she once told me that she prayed for the family every night; and, with all the hard-heartedness of youth, I did not believe her . 

There was no God. It was an axiom. A given. But there were old churches, the ones that survived. Some glamorous museums, such as those standing on the meticulously landscaped Kremlin grounds; some inconspicuous crumbling structures, desecrated and repurposed. There were organ concertos at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, and icons at the Tretyakov Gallery. All those things—even misplaced, and taken out of their element—manifested something much bigger than architecture, music, or art. They were beautiful, but only as far as glimpses and reflections of beauty can be. They seemed to point to some unknown source that could once and for all quench the eternal human longing.

My father, mother, sister, and my young niece were baptized into the Russian Orthodox faith together, all on the same day, at a small village church.  I was not with them at the time. I had just met my future husband, who happened to be an American and a lapsed Roman Catholic. When I embraced his faith I did not have to convert per se, but in a way, I did. Not just from the Orthodox Christianity of my people but also from the pseudo-religion that influenced me throughout my childhood and adolescence and left me in the dark with so many unanswered questions.

I still knew nothing when I walked through the doors of the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague for the first time, shortly after my husband and I moved to Czech Republic, our temporary-turned-long-term staging post between Russia and America. I was passing by and for some reason climbed the steps and entered the church right before the Sign of Peace. Suddenly there was a bustle and people were exchanging handshakes and talking, even kissing. A man turned to me, offering his hand, and I shook it. He spoke, I had no idea what he said. I smiled, and as indistinctly as I could uttered the only “suitable” phrase I came up with, “Nice to meet you!” 

My faux pas aside, it was indeed nice to “meet” him, and all those people, who shared something I wanted desperately to partake in. I am grateful that I was led to that old church, home to the miraculous statue of the Infant Jesus. The church that welcomed expatriates like my husband and me and was our anchor for eight years. It was there, at the Church of Our Lady Victorious, that my husband experienced reverting, becoming a practicing Catholic once again. It was there, during the Great Vigil of Easter, that a group of adult catechumens, including myself, was fully initiated into the Roman Catholic Church. And it was there that my husband and I brought our two children to be baptized under the watchful eye of the Infant Jesus. 

We will always have fond memories of the Church of Our Lady Victorious and the Church of Saint Thomas, also in Prague; in particular, its chapel, in which my husband and I had our second—Church—wedding. By that time, the priest who performed the sacrament was almost our family priest. We were blessed with good priests throughout our spiritual journey, which started in Czech Republic; and each parish we belonged to—first in Europe, later in America—played a meaningful part in leading us to where we are now.

Today—having discovered (children and I) and rediscovered (my husband) the majestic beauty of the traditional Latin Mass—we call the National Shrine of Saint Alphonsus Liguori our spiritual home. This magnificent “Baltimore’s Powerhouse of Prayer” is a beacon of Hope in the middle of the rundown and troubled city. It is a privilege to worship God at the Shrine that remembers homilies of Saint John Neumann and Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos and now witnesses the new pastor’s tireless zeal for being a good and faithful shepherd to his flock. It is a thrill to hear him praise God in the robust, far from dead, official language of the Church; to use the Missal to follow along with the prayers and join in the responses, gradually picking up Latin. And it is a joy to see so many young families with children filling the pews. A family of eight—and growing—is a common sight at our parish: parents and six kids, ranging from a baby to a ten-year-old, with older children helping take care of the little ones.  

In the Shrine’s chapel, behind glass, stands a replica of the statue of the Infant Jesus—a gift from “our very own” Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague. Infant Jesus has a kind, intelligent face, framed by long golden curls. There is a kneeler in front of the statue. You can kneel before Him, and you can ask Him anything.

Born and raised in Moscow, Sasha A. Palmer now lives and writes in Baltimore, Maryland.

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