Today I had the opportunity interview Father I., a Catholic priest who was born in and grew up in a city east of the Urals who has lived and worked around the world in every continent except Australia and is currently working throughout the greater midwestern regions of the USA. I asked him a series of questions about his views on the current political situation in the US and Russia, about nationalism, and other major issues today.
The answers that I provide here are paraphrased from his responses, and should accurately and fully capture both his original words and spirit in which they were spoken.
Many Catholic priests from Russia are the descendants of German, Polish, or Ukrainian Catholics deported during the Communist purges. What makes Father I. unique is that he is neither of foreign extraction nor was his family related to deportees. He is an ethnic Russian who, like many Russians, grew up in a home where religion was either nonexistent or cursory, and he became Catholic after he was essentially left alone by his family, who had immigrated to the US, to live with a friend in Russia with no other family. This friend’s family was Catholic and attended mass, and it was this way that he was introduced to the faith and eventually became a priest.
Father I. is also a younger priest, having been born after the fall of the Soviet Union. His views also reflect a generational difference, and thus are insightful on the changes taking place today.
For the sake of Father I.’s safety, I have redacted his name and details about his place or ministry.
A: ‘America is very good place. She has her problems but who doesn’t? Two good things I see in America are that human life is valued, and that everybody has the chance to earn money and maybe even become rich. Both do not exist in Russia. Your life is valuable if you have money. If you don’t you are garbage. Also, nobody can earn any money in Russia unless you are part of “the club” with Putin and his friends. In America, there is a lot of hope for people who do not have it otherwise.’
‘Everybody wants to escape Russia. There is no freedom of speech or print. If you say the wrong thing, you get a “visit” from the police or go to jail. You might also “commit suicide” if they do not like what you said enough. Opinions are just an illusion. They do not exist. You either agree or you are finished in society.’
On immigration to America:
‘I did not want to stay in America. I still want to go back and work in my home country because there is a lot to be done.’
‘I hear people in America say that communism is gone, but this is not true. It is just with a different face. The KGB is still communist, they control everything, and Putin is the head of them. He is the biggest communist in Russia, and then maybe Dugin. From what I have seen they are going back to the old ways, because they want to keep control over everything and they are losing it.’
On the “Power of Siberia” oil pipeline from Russia to China:
‘Oh yes. That thing is all about politics. It does not benefit anybody except those in power.’
‘I do not even want to think about them. What they are doing right now with nationalism is exactly what happened before World War I and World War II. It makes me sick to think where this is going because we know the end.’ (ed note: Fr. I. appeared physically uncomfortable and worried when I mentioned this)
On American people:
‘Americans are overall good people. The people in the south are much kinder than those in the northern regions. Some are strange because they will call you at odd times or make very strong requests for things that are small or not important. I got a call a few days ago [before this interview] for something the person said was very important, and it was early in the morning. I got there and I thought ‘Is this it?’ because it was small and could have waited. I did not need to be up, but the person acted like it needed to be done now. It seems to be common, and I have had to learn to adjust how I respond.’
‘Everybody wants to leave Russia. Human life has no value in Russia. Nobody in power cares for anybody, and people are miserable. I love the Russian language and my culture, and it is very beautiful and has produced many great people and works. But everybody is miserable and sad. A lot of people are hopeless and see no point to life at all.
On the Russian Orthodox Church:
‘What Church? There are a few people who believe, but the Church is mostly an extension of the government and national pride. That is why nobody goes except a few old people (who believe). No one believes in it outside of patriotism because it is an extension of Putin.’
‘Putin and his gang control everything. He wants to be dictator and he is. Some people like him, but most don’t and it is all a big show. I think that Putin knows it too, and he is trying to make the people care but nobody does. You have authoritarianism without authority (ed. note: he used this exact phrase here). People just do what they want unless you criticize the state of government or the society, and then you go to jail because they do not want people talking about the problems.’
On Russian life outside of Moscow:
‘In the city where I am from, [name of a sizeable city redacted], it is the same for most of Russia except Moscow and few areas where the rich people live. A lot of poverty and misery. There are a few priests I am friends with who work very hard with them all throughout Russia, especially Siberia and the Far East. They have a lot of responsibility. There is so much need, because a lot of people are sad and turn to stuff like alcohol to forget, and this does not help them.’
‘The reaction [in the US] seems to be too strong. In Russia things have been a lot worse, and you do not see reactions like this over something so small. People are afraid of not having food and they are buying out the grocery stores, but they are all going to restaurants. It does not make any sense. Hopefully the panic will be over soon and it all can be normal again.’
‘America is very good and generous to immigrants. This is not so in Russia. Everybody all around the world wants to come to America because there is hope that most do not have where they come from. The people from the Spanish countries are lucky because they do not have to journey a long distance.’
On the Vatican and Pope Francis:
‘There is a lot of things going on there right now but I try to avoid it. Some people say this, some people say that, and they argue, but there is a lot of work right now for us [priests]. When Bishop [name redacted] helped me to get my assignments where I am now, it was because I speak four languages and have lived throughout the world.
‘When I lived in the Philippines, it was in a very rural area. People sometimes kept chickens in their houses, and animals roamed about. It was very poor and they did not have much, but the people were happy and cared for each other. Their problems are different than those of the US or other countries, but they were mostly content with their lives and the few simple things they had.