With great pomp and expressions of mutual respect, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet authorities have, for the last week, been marking the millennium of Christianity on the territory of the Soviet Union. Several cardinals and evangelist Billy Graham are among the foreign guests here for the celebration, which reaches its climax today with a meeting addressed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the Bolshoi Theater. A similar formula is often used to mark the end of political conferences and international congresses.
In one way at least, today's meeting is quite appropriate to commemorate the event. The date that is being celebrated this year is not the coming of Christianity to the Slav lands, but the official adoption of the faith by a Slav leader, Vladimir the Great of Kiev, the city that was the center of eastern Slav civilization until the middle of the 13th century. Christian communities were apparently thriving in Kiev almost two generations before Vladimir was baptized.
The Communist Party leadership under Mr. Gorbachev has taken the opportunity of the millennium to reach out to the church hierarchy. Four monasteries, including the Danilov Monastery visited last week by President Reagan, and a large number of churches are being returned to the church. On April 29, Gorbachev himself met with church leaders, emphasized the need for dialogue between believers and nonbelievers, and called for the church to support perestroika (restructuring). Some ideologists of reform connect the growth of interest in religion over the last 20 years with the political alienation of thinking Soviets under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev. This has led them to conclude that many believers are potential allies of reform.
Some stereotypes about the church - for example, that it is the preserve of the elderly and the obscurantist - have been dented in official media coverage around the millenium. A priest with a doctorate in psychology has been the subject of a profile in one paper; young nuns figured prominently in recent coverage in the weekly Ogonyok.
But the status of Christians in the Soviet Union is still ambiguous. Restrictions on religious belief have been relaxed, although far from all religious denominations are allowed to function openly.
In private, a number of quite prominent personalities in Soviet society, including writers, intellectuals, and artists who have taken firm stands on both sides of the reform debate, make little effort to hide their faith. Some are also members of the Communist Party. None, however, seems to have been moved by the millennium to make a public declaration of faith. A new law on freedom of conscience is promised, but like other pieces of reformist legislation, is taking a long time to formulate.
One of the nearest things to an endorsement of Christianity as a religion has come from Dmitry Likhachev, a prominent scholar and supporter of reform. In a long interview published earlier this year in Ogonyok, Mr. Likhachev emphasized both the historical importance of Christianity in Russia, and its spiritual qualities. He also stressed the need for the strict separation of church and state. Officially this is the case now. In practice the church is tightly controlled by government's Council on Religious Affairs.
The timidity of the church leadership in relations with the state compromised it in the eyes of many newer converts. ``I consider myself a Christian in spite of the [religious] leadership, not because of it,'' said one young believer. ``The hierarchy is cowardly and compromised.''
Religious dissidents are critical of the church leadership, but divided in their attitude toward the millennium. One group of religious dissidents led by former prisoner Aleksandr Ogorodnikov, has organized its own alternative commemoration. Others, led by another former prisoner, Fr. Gleb Yakunin, have rejected this approach. Instead they are calling for the hierarchy to join in the repudiation of Stalinism. Father Yakunin and his supporters have drawn particular attention to the hierarchy's message of greetings to Stalin on his 70th birthday in 1949. Yakunin described this as ``one of the most shameful documents of 20th-century church history.''
Vladimir, the prince who made Christianity his state religion, was later canonized. He makes an unlikely saint. One of the earliest Russian chronicles, the Tale of Past Years, describes a succession of missionaries - Muslim, German Christians, Jews - visiting Vladimir and explaining the virtues of their faith. Islam's polygamy appealed to him, but the idea of giving up pork and alcohol did not. The fasts described by emissaries from Rome were equally distasteful. The Jews lost their case when they mentioned the Diaspora. Intrigued by the accounts of missionaries from Byzantium, he sent envoys to look at their religion. The beauty of the rites attracted him, but the Tale says he only accepted Christianity after he went blind. Promised the return of his sight if he was baptized, he became a Christian and regained his vision.