When we did see people, it became clear that not only was I far from the American West, I was far from the Slavic-majority parts of Russia. Instead of the churches (many of them new) dotting the landscape over the previous hundreds of kilometers from St.Petersburg, here the places of worship were Buddhist temples - Kalmykia is the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion.
Buddhist temple in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia
As daylight faded away, we moved further south and west, closer to the Caucasus. It didn't feel like the mountains yet, but as we drove through Budyonnovsk in the pitch dark, we felt close to the region's recent, violent past; we have family friends that witnessed the terrorist occupation of a maternity hospital there in 1995. In the coming week again and again we would find ourselves in places which caused cognitive dissonance when we met with peaceful people in idyllic surroundings (Nalchik, Beslan), knowing the horrible tragedies that had happened there. We wondered frequently – have things really called down, or is it dangerous? Have the peoples of the Caucasus really decided that they feel better as a part of Russia than outside of it, or is the whole region a powder keg?
But my family and I weren't there primarily to learn about politics; we had come to the Northern Caucasus at the invitation of area Dean Sergei Maramzin in order to take part in congregational events...and only second to get acquainted with the region's nature and culture. We arrived in the small city of Prokhladny (“cool” as in “cool weather”) in Kabardino-Balkaria in time to get settled and have some rest before guests began to arrive for the deanery gathering. That first morning two of our stereotypes were confirmed – yes, there really were a lot more Ladas (Russia-made cars) in the south than in the north. And, yes, Caucasians really know how to do hospitality – the congregation had a refrigerator full of food waiting for the guests who had come from afar. Reflecting back, however, it seems to me that it was only on the roads (where traffic police seem less informed about anti-corruption campaigns than in other parts of the country and where drivers tend to have rather vague understands of the traffic laws) where our stereotypes of the Caucases were once again confirmed. As a rule, we found ourselves surprised...
Caucasian generosity on display among Russian Germans in this picture from the congregations annual harvest festival. 1970s.
One of the ways was through getting acquainted with the congregation in Prokhladny.
While I knew that some German Russians had formed colonies in the N.Caucasus, I hadn't known that the foothills of Kabardino-Balkaria had become a gathering point for those who wanted to leave their places of Stalin-imposed exile in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
The congregation that formed upon their return was strong in the pietist “brother” tradition, much like the congregation I served in Novosibirsk; when it was registered in 1971, it was the biggest Lutheran congregation in the Russian part of the USSR. It had become a gathering point for ethnic Germans since many found it impossible to return to their homelands (especially on the Volga). In Prokhladny Russian Germans purchased a single-residency home and transformed it into space for worship where probably 150 people could sit if they were willing to be stuffed in; they built on and added places for another 50 or so, but old timers told us that many times people would not find a place in the building and would participate in the service while standing in the courtyard.
Today the congregation, celebrating 45 years of existence, is small. They were hit hard by a very early wave of emigration (already in the 1970s), but they did their best to remain true to what they knew. With time they moved the worship service into Russian (with the exception of the hymns, which still are usually taken from the Wolga Gesangbuch), and they try to be good stewards of what they have – taking care of the elderly, of their buildings (including a parsonage – very important if they are going to have a chance to attracting a full-time pastor), and their faith. One advantage they have over “brother” congregations in other places is that that in the Northern Caucasus valuing one's elders and one's heritage is considered very important. For that reason many more young people show up in church than in other comparable congregations; from my short contact with people there, I think that some of them are there to stay. It was a privilege to have a chance to talk with them (and with guests from neighboring Maisk and from other congregations in the region) about critical aspects of Reformation history that might be relevant for congregational life today.
Part of long weekend together with believers in the region was a day trip to into mountains; our guide for the day (and our family's great helper for the rest of the week) was Valery Fogel, the head of the congregation in Maisk. Valery has played an important role in the region (and as a synod council member for the whole ELC-ER) for decades; he was born in Kazakhstan and still loves his hometown of Almata, but he's come to appreciate life as in the Northern Caucasus. He has great respect for those who take their faith seriously – whether they be Lutheran, Orthodox or Muslim. He knows the region and its people well; he showed us many sides of life in the region – from the Tsey glacier on the border with Georgia to the moving (beyond words moving, actually) monuments in Beslan (where over 300 children and adults where killed when terrorists occupied the school) to the quaint beauty of Nalchik to Grozny, the pride of the Chechen people as their republic is being rebuilt after the war.
Valery with the older boys at the amazing feast of local, Chechan food that our new friend and host Said arranged for us.
I learned much from each of these visits, and I also had a wonderful time growing to know Valery as a brother in faith. A week's visit, though, certainly couldn't give me a clear and full impression of the Northern Caucasus. I was confused (and remain so) about how in Grozny there is now no sign of or memorial to the war that flattened the city just over a decade ago; in Northern Ossetia I wondered about the revival of traditional (shaministic?) forms of faith at the expense of the Orthodox church... I noticed time and again the tensions among the Caucasian peoples – is there a chance for long-term peace when people have such heightened awareness of tradition (including traditions of disliking certain neighbors)? Why did we see so many positive images of Stalin in the region (on vodka bottles, car stickers, mountain murals) when so many of these very peoples who honor him were targets of repression?… On a less serious note, I still don't know what to think about all the drinking of and bathing in mineral water that seems to be a big part of local understandings of health...
I'm not sure thaat I gained a handle on what is going on in the Northern Caucasus, but after visiting there I'm happy to join Dean Sergei Maramzin's encouraging words - “I wish you a happy upcoming Reformation anniversary, dear Church! You are young, fresh and fit, like a daughter of the Caucasus mountains!” With God's blessing, Sergei, Valery, and others will continue to work so that the message of peace and God's steadfast love continues to echo throughout the mountains and foothills of this beautiful and very interesting region.
A museum in downtown Grozny with tradition clan defense towers. It seems that it, and everything else in the city, is brand new.