It is the 15th of December 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1937.
The second half of the 20th century is sometimes reduced to a cosmic Cold War struggle between the Christian West and the Communist and Atheistic Soviet Union and her satellites. It is a characterization that certainly requires more nuance and less partisan flag-waving. For now, it is sufficient to remember the Cold War as an ideological battle with questions of the role of the church and faith near the center.
But what makes this such a curious story, in history and for the church, is to look at the peculiar relationship between the World Powers before the Cold War. A curious event that gives insight into their pre–Cold War relationship took place in 1937. Three Soviet aviators were attempting to make the first trans-polar flight. While over the American Pacific Northwest, they noticed they were running out of fuel. They made an emergency landing in Vancouver, Washington, where General George Marshall, a future WW2 hero, met with the Soviets, and they ate breakfast at the Marshall's home.
The United States was not happy, to say the least, with the Russians for stepping out of WW1 in 1917, but few Americans took much time to understand that Russian Revolution. While "Red" scares are a part of American history, this would become more of a staple of post-WW2 history. Even in the early years of WW2, Joseph Stalin was sometimes pictured as an affable "Uncle Joe." Life Magazine suggested that the Soviets were no different from Americans, and they were "one helluva people."
But Stalin was no avuncular character. In fact, in 1937, his designs turned devilish. This was the year the "People's Commissars Council" was formed under Molotov. Trotsky was exiled for his criticism of the increasingly paranoid General Secretary. The Purges would begin in this year, 1937, and would soon have a death count of up to 40,000 people a month. It is estimated that up to 16 million people died at the hands of the Stalinist Soviet State.
We've looked at the repression of Christianity and the Gulag system before when we discussed the life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn survived, but he wrote of another priest and scientist, Pavel Alexandrovich Florensky as, "perhaps the most remarkable person devoured by the Gulag." Soviet records, especially those killed by the state, can be tricky, but we will recognize the death of Florensky by firing squad on the 15th of December in 1937.
Born in 1882, Florensky recalled his spiritual crisis in 1899 at the age of 17. One source recounts that "He had a dream of being buried by impenetrable darkness through which a thin ray of light or sound brought the name of God. He woke up in shock, crying out, 'No, it is impossible to live without God!'" Florensky attended the University of Moscow and graduated in 1904 with the highest honors. His thesis "On the Peculiarities of Flat Curves as Places of Interrupted Discontinuity" earned him an offer to join the faculty. Still, he decided to study at the Moscow Theological Academy. He graduated in 1908 and was ordained into the Russian Orthodox Church. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Florensky refused to either go into exile or resign his position. Instead, he kept up his practice of wearing a cassock, cap, and cross even when lecturing on math and science at the University. He was also a key figure amongst those who called themselves the Union of Christian Struggle. These radical Christians attempted to synthesize the Gospels and a theory of a just revolution.
Later, Florensky would abandon that group to take up a government position to bring electricity to the Soviet Union. A valuable scientist, if not seen as a religious extremist, his connections to the likes of Maxim Gorky kept him relatively safe. But it would all come crashing down when he published a work of geometrical interpretations of Einstein's work and referred to Einstein's theory as the "geometry of the Kingdom of God." Such bold theism earned him a trip to a prison camp on the White Sea. Florensky was eventually moved to Leningrad in 1937, where he died at the hands of a state firing squad. The Mathematician and Priest, Pavel Alexandrovich Florensky, was most likely 55 years old.
The reading for today comes from 19th-century German author Jean Paul Richter. This is his The Holiest Among the Mighty
Christ, who, being the holiest among the mighty, and the mightiest among the holy,
Lifted with his pierced hands empires off their hinges and turned the stream of centuries
Out of its channel, and still governs the ages.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 15th of December 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, who reminds you that it is pronounced "MOSS-CO" not "MOSS-COW," same as Glasgow. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.