Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, enterprising businessmen have been travelling to Russia in search of adventure and a quick buck. The Canadian documentary Jesus in Russia explores another foreign incursion, this one by American evangelists. They are there, as one of them, a reformed drug addict, says, for the "thrill", the "rush" of saving souls for Jesus. The most striking images in Elliott Halpern's film are the worldly-wise skeptical faces of Russians, young and old, juxtaposed with the upbeat New World expressions of the performing evangelists. The culture shock is extreme. None of the preachers know Russian or, it seems, anything about Russia. National traditions are irrelevant to people who believe that each individual has a direct hotline to Jesus. As Russians stare, the evangelists bring preaching and praying up to date, with techniques borrowed from rock concerts and football half-time shows. They pass out money, free medical care, faith healing, and hope, the last in large doses.
Some Russians protest. Angry ultranationalist bikers want the Yankee preacher with his easy love to go home. A man watching a rally in Palace Square in St. Petersburg suspects a plot with foreign money behind it, because the marching evangelists are "too extravagant, too colourful-who's paying for this?" A cynical old woman says she'd rather pray to an electrical pole than to God. A mother of three children washing clothes at a pump says that the preacher has come too late. She has given up hope: "Nobody helps me, neither God nor Satan." But for the most part, the crowd listens and people take the Bibles (in Russian) that are handed out.
The film contains no voice over. Halpern and his producer Simcha Jacobovici obviously want to give their viewers reality unstructured by explanations. In so far as they are successful, the film can be rather confusing. The viewer doesn't always know what to think or where things are going. But this narrative reticence makes sense: it is wise not to explain or to predict too much about Russia's future. The narrative stance assumed by Halpern is that of a bemused observer, who sides with no-one in the religious struggles he is documenting. He is careful not to slip into satire, although he comes close at times. (I'm thinking of the Born-Again dentist who leaves his patient gaping while he explains his Christian mission in Russia.) Halpern lends as much credence as he can to each religious figure in turn. If he does not adopt the fervour of each, he does not debunk it either. Each viewer will have to decide for him or herself whether to laugh or cry at the more emotional moments.
So why are the Russians listening? The Reverend Alfred McCroskey blames the Communists. "Basically the Russians are hungry. They've been starved physically, spiritually, emotionally, they're hungry for Jesus Christ." Some answers emerge indirectly, from images of decrepitude and chaos. Reverend McCroskey's bus sways through the muddy, potholed main street of a village near Petersburg. Rick Amato-the evangelist who is a former drug addict-convinces a ten-year-old to give up one loaded pistol, but pretends not to see a second one, because the kid may need it "on the mean streets of Russia, in the madness of Moscow." With the collapse of socialism, Russians need to look out for themselves, spiritually as well as materially. Reverend McCroskey's group has come to see its main task as planting churches. All that is needed to do this, it seems, is a Bible and a few conversions in each community. Where there's a will, there's a way.
In the world of Russian religion, the evangelists are left-wing, and they have rivals on the right. A Serbian nun with almost perfect English preaches the end of the world. Her smiling ferocity about the last days, when Orthodoxy will protect the Russian people, impresses and slightly deflates even the dynamic Rick Amato. The Russian Orthodox Church is represented by rotund, intense Father Oleg Steniaev, who despises the loosey-goosey religiosity of the Americans. In an amazing turn of events, riot police subdue Russian Orthodox protesters who try to disrupt the Evangelical march for Jesus in Petersburg. The appeal of Orthodoxy is palpable in scenes of Father Oleg in his mediaeval robes leading services and baptizing converts in church. In the opinion of this reviewer at least, the soft rock boosterism of the evangelists does not hold a candle to traditional Orthodox pageantry. The traditional church faces two obstacles, however. The first is ignorance of sacred rituals and even of the language (Church Slavonic) in which services are conducted. The second and more daunting is the resistance of the populace to hierarchical religion, the very reason why Evangelical Christianity is so popular in North America. Its simplicity appeals to people who have lost faith in authority or, as is the case with Americans, never had much of that in the first place. In this sense, Evangelical Christianity is grass-roots populist democracy come to Russia.
Then again, my assessment of the relative aesthetic merits of Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism may be beside the point. Lena Zolotareva, a dance instructor, and the most beautiful and stylish participant in the film, prefers Born-Again Christianity because it is modern and up-to-date. Teenagers remark that the evangelists are "different": you'd never see a Russian priest out on the streets handing out books. The fact is, though, that the Orthodox priests are being forced out of doors to defend themselves. Ironically, the evangelists may ultimately contribute to the salvation of Russia's national church by forcing it to modernize. If Catholic priests and Orthodox Jewish rabbis can rock their way into the hearts of their youth, so can the Russian Orthodox.
Father Oleg himself faces challenge from the right. A pseudo-messiah has appeared. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the meeting of the Grand Inquisitor with Christ in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, Father Oleg takes on Sergei Torop, formerly a policeman, but now convinced, along with a number of Father Oleg's parishioners, that he is Christ incarnate. To North Americans, Torop and his disciples, in robes, sandals, and long hair, look like actors from the set of a Cecil B. DeMille movie. Only Torop's expression, with its little half-smile and absolute conviction, jars. An ally of Father Oleg demands that "Vissarion Christos" heal his crippled right hand. "Christ" refuses, saying that those who do not believe cannot be healed.
Neither here nor anywhere else do arguments for religion display any intellectual rigour. To this extent religion gets short shrift in the film. Halpern has sought out none of the many pious Russian intellectuals who are participants in a struggle for Russia's soul that may have consequences for her religious future as profound as what is happening among the masses. The most appealing religious figure (to this reviewer) is Reverend McCroskey with his fatherly compassion, gentlemanly manner, and sincerity. It is easy to laugh at-and feel embarrassed by-middle-aged people jumping up and down and shouting, "I love you," to perfect strangers. We may shiver at the tinge of fanaticism colouring Father Oleg's unreconstructed Orthodoxy. What Halpern is showing us is not theological debate, however, but a battle conducted on the streets of Russia for the allegiance of simple souls yearning for lost certainties. In the present conditions in Russia the need for God seems to be competing successfully with the need for food, shelter, and medical treatment. That in itself is a tribute to the strength of religion and the spirituality of the Russian people.
Donna Orwin is a visiting professor in the Slavic Languages and Literature department, and a resident fellow in the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Tolstoy's Art and Thought, 1847-1880 (Princeton University Press).