School of Thought

Finding God in Russia

By Brian Schroeder
Posted 7/29/21

Irina could not keep her eyes on the teacher.

Staring beyond the dirty windows of her classroom, she was mesmerized … by snowflakes. A veritable scarcity in the coastal city of Odessa, …

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School of Thought

Finding God in Russia

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Irina could not keep her eyes on the teacher.

Staring beyond the dirty windows of her classroom, she was mesmerized … by snowflakes. A veritable scarcity in the coastal city of Odessa, these lacy little diamonds danced and sparkled in the dreary sky, winking at the 10-year old, teasing her mercilessly. 

Snow in these parts was rarer than bread. If you stood in line long enough, you could always come away with a couple stale loaves, but these white flakes of magic were not to be found anywhere, no matter how long you waited.

The young girl’s heart pounded. Soon it would all be gone. Visions of snowballs and snow forts and snowmen melted in her mind with the prospects of the melting snow, leaving behind nothing but the brown, lifeless earth of Odessa, her hometown — all because she and her classmates were being held hostage to these mind-numbing, never-ending lectures.

This was atheist instruction class and this was Nikita Kruschev’s Soviet Union.

Education for the Communist leader represented Russia’s greatest and most sustainable hope for the future. It was the mechanism that would mold young idealogues in the image of the revered Lenin, and the schoolteachers who wanted a part of this glorious destiny would preach and teach the state’s doctrine tirelessly, relentlessly attacking those religious myths, which in spite of 46 years of state indoctrination, would not melt away.

To make religious people look sick or crazy, they told the students about a Baptist lady who put her child in an oven and roasted it to death; the middle school students put on a play depicting priests as pathetic and foolish.

But little Irina, only 10 years old, was a thinker beyond her years, and to her the whole thing didn’t seem fair.

“Everyone’s against God,” she mused. “The teachers, the young pioneers, the speakers on the radio — the whole country. Even in our schoolyard games they tell us not to gang up on one person.”

And to her the whole thing seemed unceasingly curious that they worked so hard against someone who really wasn’t there anyway.

“God doesn’t exist,” the instructor said again from the front of the classroom. “Only silly, ignorant old women believe that!” 

And Irina sat there and thought to herself, “Can’t they tell they’re giving themselves away? Adults tell us there are no ghosts or gremlins, they tell us once or twice and that’s it. But with God, they tell us over and over again. So he must exist, and he must be very powerful for them to fear him so greatly.”

Well, this line of logic led her back to the subject at hand, the snow falling outside.

“OK God,” she said, “if you didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have to be sitting here listening to these lectures. So it’s your fault we’re missing the snow. If you’re so powerful, make it keep snowing!”

That was Irina Ratushinskaya’s first prayer. And that was the day white flakes fell like manna for three solid days. In fact, it was the city’s largest snowfall in 60 years. School was canceled, and Irina and her friends frolicked outside in the mounds of sparkling crystals, laughing hysterically as these sweet kisses from heaven fell graciously on their glowing, red faces.

In the midst of this winter party, Irina’s mind was racing, delirious with wonder and emotion. She pondered this God who her teachers denied, the one who could make snow fall, even in official Communist airspace.

She would talk to him secretly, mostly late at night, asking endless questions — not politely, but with passion and persistence.

And a relationship began between a little Russian girl and the God who is there, a relationship that endures to this day.

So though prayers be outlawed in the classroom — though God himself be outlawed in the nation — the human spirit can still find him if it seeks him. And wise men, and women, do still seek him. 

 

(Brian Schroeder became head of school at Veritas Academy in Cody in June 2020. Hailing from America’s Dairyland and a die-hard cheesehead, he and his wife Susie have seven children and four grandchildren. His career has followed three tracks: seven years in pastoral ministry, 14 years as a family/youth counselor and 15 years in education.)

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