861.404/552: Telegram

The Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Harriman) to the Secretary of State

116. On January 7 my daughter4 and a member of the Embassy staff attended one of the large orthodox church services celebrating the Russian Christmas.5 The service was presided over by the Patriarch Sergei.

The church was filled with the standing congregation so closely packed that no one could move about. Any individual movement was transformed into a swaying motion which traveled like a wave throughout the congregation. There was no large queue outside. The congregation was made up largely of women—a fair cross section of age groups, a smattering of men and a handful of children. The women were of the labor and peasant groups. Aside from the female members of the choir none were well dressed.

The service was conducted by 12 magnificently robed priests half of whom were old men. The youngest men appeared ill at ease and unskilled in the ritual. They wore army uniforms beneath their robes. The service lasted about 4 hours.

The service was most impressive—perfection in music. Some prayers were chanted, others sung, the choir at each end of the church echoing back and forth with beautiful timing and well trained voices and the congregation joined in occasionally. As the service progressed the church became humid and stuffy. The women stood trance-like and teary half listening and half watching the impressive service. There were prayers for the church dignitaries, for “Russia and the Russian people” but no mention of Stalin and other civil leaders or the Soviet Union was made during the first half of the service at which the Embassy representatives were present.

The church pastor delivered more formal sermon on the meaning of Christmas. He called it a “family day” and commiserated with his congregation over their loss or absence of husbands, sons or brothers. With this almost all began weeping. Then came the announcement “The next collection will be for the Red army”. Most contributions were under 5 rubles.

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No other foreigners were present and the church officials outdid religious custom by taking the Americans behind the altar rail and showing them constant attention. The desire to impress and flatter was obvious.

Officers of the “NKVD”6 were noticeably scattered throughout the congregation.

  1. Miss Kathleen Harriman.
  2. The Russian Orthodox Church still functions according to the Julian calendar which, for the 20th century, follows the Gregorian calendar by 13 days.
  3. The Secret Police of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs.