The Spirit in Russia

THE historic vote by the Soviet parliament Monday guaranteeing freedom of religion in Russia, and the end of religious persecution, is merely the final act in a decades-long struggle. The vote gives the force of law to the religious liberalization process that has been taking place since 1988 in the USSR. Another foundation-stone of orthodox Marxism has crumbled. The crooked has been made straight; the rough place plain. It's been evident for years in Russia that religious feeling could not be snuffed out there. Mikhail Gorbachev himself says he was baptized as a child; his mother is a ``believer.

The recent tactic of Soviet scientific atheists has been ``neutrality'' on religion. The assumption is that, left to itself, religion will die out since no one could possibly find real solace or meaning in something as invisible to the material world as faith. Sorry, wrong assumption. Official atheism, not God, is now dead in Moscow. Nietzsche take note. That there was even a debate over whether religion could be taught in state schools shows how far inroads have been made.

In some ways, the rise of religion in Russia - increased church attendance, interest among intellectuals - comes just in time. Religion has always provided a kind of social cohesion - something, along with bread, the Soviet Union is running short of just now. Along with nationalism and consumerism, religion will be vying to fill the gap in Russia's soul left by sterile communism. How this plays out is important.

One example this fall is a possible clash between the new Soviet law and even more liberal legislation about to be passed by the Russian Republic, under Boris Yeltsin. That legislation, drafted by dissent priest Gleb Yakunin, would allow religion to be taught in schools.

In practice, religious freedom won't come easily. Inertia and hatred must be overcome. Not only Christian believers but Jews also must be given access to all aspects of Soviet life - colleges, jobs.

Finally, all religions must be given equal status. Already, this is an issue in the Ukraine, where Catholics are being discriminated against. Communist domination should not be replaced by Orthodox domination in Russia.

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