Thanksgiving in Russia Helped Me Appreciate Religious Freedom

Yvonne Davis

I was in my room at the famed Metropol Hotel in Moscow, Russia, next door to Red Square. It was April 2005 and I was preparing for a training workshop in advanced communication skills the following morning for personnel at the U.S. Embassy.

Built in 1905, this five-star, czarist-style lodging house historically had borne testimony to some of Moscow’s most intense chapters in history. The hotel is known for its glamour, for its use as a barracks during the Bolshevik Revolution, and for guests who were writers (including George Bernard Shaw), artists, mobsters, celebrities, and spies. The KGB monitored all visitors from outside the Land of Reds.

Pope John Paul II had died eight days before my arrival at the Metropol. Watching the funeral Mass in my room, it was clear that the much-beloved and well-traveled polyglot pontiff was a religious rock star for the Catholic Church and all of Christianity.

I was pleasantly surprised that the live broadcast of the funeral was allowed.

My thoughts turned to song, worship, and prayer. It was a habit to carry my Bible to every country I visited, as my spiritual security blanket. Although 70% of Russians proclaim Christianity (Orthodox), as an American I would be banned by Russia (and perhaps now labeled a terrorist) if I were seen in public with my Bible, prayed openly, or overheard singing, “It Is Well With My Soul.”

Before my workshop began the following morning, I was briefed by the political and cultural attaches. They strongly advised that, unless I were accompanied by someone from the U.S. Embassy or someone I knew well, that I not be out alone at nightfall.

There had been a surge of skinhead violence, I was told, but there would be no due process as in the U.S. to help or support an American citizen like me should a hate crime be committed against me.

This information unnerved me.

But after seeing skinheads in Red Square in broad daylight in the middle of the week, what was on my mind was to ask about the Seventh-day Adventists and Protestants and their religious liberty, and what the U.S. was doing to advocate and defend their human rights. (Tolerance is low for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Russia; after 102 years, its members have not had an easy time in that country.)

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