The spirit of Christian freedom is a gift that in post-Soviet Orthodoxy has not, alas, been embraced or appreciated by many. Soviet-educated people, deprived of their experience of inner freedom, mostly failed to discover Orthodoxy as a liberating experience. Rather the opposite, immersion in church life became a convenient substitute for Soviet ideology. The path to post-Soviet civil religion, which has now taken such shocking forms, has been gradual and, for many, far from obvious. For many, but not for all…
One of those who constantly and unambiguously spoke about the danger of this kind of substitution was the Archbishop of Grodno and Volkovyssk, Artemy (Kishchenko). The anxiety associated with the substitution of Christian evangelism for a new form of ideology has been one of the leitmotifs of his preaching for many years. At a time when the crisis in the life of Russian Orthodoxy was not yet so evident, the frequent reference to the topic of substitutionism seemed to many to be an obsessive theme, a broken gramophone, not the most relevant topic. Nevertheless, after the events of 2020 in Belarus, after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, and after the active support of aggression by the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, it turned out that such warnings were not in vain at all.
Archbishop Artemy, who passed away on April 22, 2023, was a man of remarkable Christian freedom and courage. His rule for life was the words of the Gospel: “Do not be afraid, only believe!” (Luke 8:50). Looking at him, I often wondered: why was he so different from the other hierarchs of the Church in his freedom? How did this gift originate and develop in him? It would have been impossible to get a direct answer from him to these questions. So I asked Vladyka Artemy a great deal about his life, relationships, impressions, quests, books, and people in our communion. In this way I sought to understand the path of his formation.
Archbishop Artemy was characterized by an intolerance for all kinds of ideologies, as well as for the lies and falsehoods that accompanied them. He did not tolerate doublethink and hypocrisy. The reason for this was the deep personal trauma of encountering the lies of Soviet ideology and its system of coercion. This conflict, which began when he was still in school, strongly affected his family relationships, significantly affected his friendships, and caused him to categorically reject this kind of worldview. The encounter with Christ in his youth became for the future archbishop an encounter with Eternal Truth and gave him a sense of inner freedom in an unfree society. It is thought that this experience determined much in his life. Coming to the Church, he became in a sense an outcast and was not afraid to be one for the rest of his life. Christ forever remained his refuge from lies and hypocrisy. This experience was equally valid in church life when faced with doublethink and pharisaism among fellow believers and his fellow ministers.
The unexpected acquisition of civil and ecclesiastical freedom after the fall of the Soviet Union was, as Archbishop Artemy understood it, God’s greatest gift received by the Russian Church through the prayers of a host of new martyrs. The Church received freedom and was to become its establishment in the life of society. Knowing history, Vladyka saw the tremendous danger of the revival of various kinds of “symphonies” or the establishment of illusions of the Orthodox state. It was obvious to him that such alliances would become a new slavery of the Church and a tragic substitute for the evangelical way of life. He watched bitterly as the Russian Orthodox Church, step by step, sold the gift of freedom in exchange for some kind of state preferences or financial assistance. Looking at life in modern Orthodoxy, Archbishop Artemy always noted the more favorable position of those church communities and churches that were not dependent on the state and government aid. The need to solve difficulties and problems independently without external support, according to Archbishop Artemy, helps Christian communities strengthen their unity and brings their lives closer to the early Christian ideal.
Within his diocese, he consistently defended the independence of the Church from the state authorities, which more than once led to conflicts. In both church and secular circles in Belarus, he gained the reputation of a “scandalous,” intransigent bishop. He was like that in a certain sense. It was possible to come to an agreement with him only when there was no compromise of conscience and principles. Conversely, if someone, even someone with high power and authority, infringed on the Church’s freedom and autonomy by trying to impose questionable decisions, then Archbishop Artemy would give an immediate and harsh rebuke. At such moments, he did not reflect on the possible negative consequences and problems. The situation called for a principal Christian response, and this was promptly followed.
Tension was felt not only in interactions with the state and civil society. Relations within the Church were no less acute at times. The bishop of Grodno never flirted with the religious feelings of his flock. The replacement of the Gospel of Christ by various kinds of Church traditions, the search for miracles and graceful elders, ritualism, and the creation of a religious excitement around shrines have always provoked Archbishop Artemy’s harsh criticism. His preaching was always Christocentric. He taught his flock personal responsibility before God and their conscience. In his word he suppressed all striving for religious exaltation and taught spiritual sobriety. Such an approach differed sharply from the general spiritual mood in many dioceses of the Belarusian Exarchate. As a result, a significant part of the Orthodox community in Belarus recognized him as “not sufficiently charismatic” or even “not quite pious.”
Vladyka Artemy clearly understood that overcoming ritualism in Orthodoxy was only possible through serious religious education and catechism. He formed the clergy of his diocese accordingly. The educational qualifications of the clergy of the Diocese of Grodno, thanks to the archbishop’s calibrated personnel policy, reached the highest level in comparison with the other dioceses of the Belarusian Exarchate during the first few years of his archdiocese and remained so until Archbishop Artemy was forcibly “retired.” He personally initiated a number of effective catechetical, educational, and cultural projects. The international choral festival “Kolozhsky Bell-ringing,” which united choirs from 15 European countries, took place in Grodno every year. The parish house of Protection of the Holy Mary Cathedral was a place for meetings of the Grodno creative intelligentsia. Musical and literary-poetry evenings, exhibitions of fine arts were regularly held there. These meetings were always distinguished by a high creative level of the participants. The system of catechism developed by him at the diocesan level had no analogues in Belarus. In Grodno, with the direct participation of the Hierarch, the Theological College for the Laity with a six-year program of theological training was in function. Two compulsory catechetical classes were taken by all couples preparing for marriage and godparents before participating in the Sacrament of Baptism in all the diocesan deaneries.
Archbishop Artemy was particularly concerned and disturbed by the substitution of the Gospel message for pseudo-church religious surrogates with political and pseudo-patriotic overtones. Perhaps this is the very area in which the main divergences between Archbishop Artemy’s views and the so-called official position of the Russian Church, including that of the Belarusian Exarchate, became evident. While initially, with the election of Metropolitan Kirill as Patriarch, Archbishop Artemy placed great hopes for beneficial transformations in church life, it later became apparent to him that Patriarch Kirill’s activities suppressed the living spirit of Church life and replaced the preaching of the Gospel with ideology. The greater was his disappointment… After all, the story of the relationship between Patriarch Kirill and Archbishop Artemy began back at the Leningrad Theological Academy, where the former was rector and the latter a student. It ended with the Patriarch urgently signing a decree removing Archbishop Artemy from the cathedra, and after his passing, he did not even dignify his death with a few lines of condolence.
The history of the Church was perceived by the late Archbishop Artemy as a history of testimony. An unshakable faith in Christian truth was what defined in his mind the image of the true Church. He categorically rejected opportunism and compromise with falsehood and evil. His favorite saints were John the Baptist, St. John Chrysostom, St. Philip of Moscow, St. Arseny (Macievich), St. Patriarch Tikhon, and a host of new martyrs of Russia. His ideal was the Church free from the state of the pre-Constantinian era. In evaluating the deeds of the new martyrs, he emphasized that their witness was not only a confrontation with godlessness, but also a struggle for the Christian attitude toward man and the defense of the right of the Church and man to be free in faith, action, and word.
A personal challenge to Archbishop Artemy’s Christian and pastoral conscience was the political crisis of 2020, when Belarus was shocked by the level of incredible violence, torture, and persecution of peaceful protesters who spoke out against the lies and wanted a democratic transformation of their country. The ideological heirs of Dzerzhinsky and supporters of the Soviet restoration carried out a full-scale terror in many cities of Belarus. Faithful to his pastoral conscience and principles, Archbishop Artemy issued a letter in which he explicitly condemned the violence, falsifications, and blessed those who carried peace, justice, and truth. A few days after the publication of the message, when the brutality of Belarus’ enforcement agencies resulted in the first victims, when the horrors of the torture of the Okrestin detention center became known, Archbishop Artemy delivered his famous sermon, in which, in a direct and formidable pastoral word, he uncompromisingly denounced the violence and all its perpetrators. The priests of the Grodno diocese, with the blessing of their bishop, went to help and provide food for the imprisoned and mutilated people.
Being aware of the actual realities of life in Belarus under Lukashenko’s autocratic regime, Archbishop Artemy clearly understood that he had crossed the line beyond which he could not be tolerated. In the eyes of the Lukashenko regime, after these speeches and actions, he became a threatening enemy. Such a step of the Grodno bishop was quite conscious and fully corresponded to his Christian faith, strict principles and convictions. He took the path that the saints revered by him had taken. Being near him, one could think that he had been waiting for such a moment in his life and was glad of the moment of challenge.
The Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church was also faced with a great decision. In those circumstances, Archbishop Artemy did not have any particular illusions, but there was still a little hope that his fellow bishops would find it possible to defend the freedom of the Church and not give up to the pressure of the regime. Alas, this hope was not met. Archbishop Artemy was hastily removed from the administration of the diocese of Grodno of the Belarusian Orthodox Church without his will or consent after 25 years of his bishopric.
The discrediting of many of his endeavors and initiatives was a difficult test for him after his dismissal. Life in the Diocese of Grodno began to be forcibly “normalized,” following the general principles and trends typical of the life of the “official Church” under Patriarch Kirill. More than once during this period he stressed the importance of education as a resource that cannot be taken away from a person. He knew from direct communication that people who had been catechized and educated at Grodno’s Theological college for the Laity received a healthy Christocentric foundation for their faith and worldview, as a kind of qualitative spiritual and intellectual vaccination against pseudo-Christian ideologies and propaganda.
Archbishop Artemy did not remain voiceless with regard to the fratricidal war unleashed by the Kremlin leaders against Ukraine. In one of his interviews after the war began, he expressed support for the Ukrainian people, condemned the aggression of the Russian Federation, and called the words and actions of Patriarch Kirill that justified the attack discordant with the Holy Spirit.
Archbishop Artemy, having once accepted the gift of Christian freedom, remained faithful to it until his death. Undoubtedly, the time will come when the words and deeds of the Christian witness of the deceased Grodno archbishop will become the support and justification of Belarusan Orthodoxy before the judgment of history. Undoubtedly, the legacy of Archbishop Artemy (Kishchenko) will not be lost and will be preserved both in the diocese of Grodno among the many laymen and clergymen educated by him, and among those of his spiritual children and pupils who were forced to leave Belarus. For thousands and thousands of Belarusian Christians, who did not accept the lies and violence of the Lukashenko regime, Archbishop Artemy became one of the symbols of the Christian faith, free from the diktat of the political authorities. That is how he has gone into history.
Memory eternal to Archbishop Artemy!
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