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A US student's film survey of religion in USSR

Candle in the Wind PBS, Monday, 9-10 p.m. Narrator: John Carradine. Writer/director: Arthur Barron. Producer: Eugene B. Shirley Jr. Presented on PBS by South Carolina ETV. This is, pure and simple, a propaganda film. But it does not proselytize for God, Buddha, Allah, or any particular religion. It propagandizes for human rights, dignity, and freedom of choice, as it surveys religious conditions in the Soviet Union since 1917.

This is a miraculous film for many reasons - for its amazing underground footage of secret ceremonies in the USSR and for scenes of gulag life, for its interviews with the Soviet religious hierarchy as well as dissidents and refuseniks, for rare archival footage from before and after the Russian Revolution.

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It is also praiseworthy for the straightforward honesty of its assessment of the current state of religion in the USSR, for its excellent background material, and its attempt to achieve an accurate perspective. And, perhaps, mostly for the fact that it got made at all.

First conceived as a master's thesis by producer Eugene Shirley, ``Candle in the Wind,'' evolved into a four-year study backed financially by Mr. Shirley's family and then a month-long filming session in the USSR - after many nyets.

Shirley and his crew managed to document the current situation of the three major Soviet religions - Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Islam.

Other Christian denominations constitute small, less accessible segments of the population.

The film estimates that there are around 100 million members of the various religious groups. The largest, the Russian Orthodox Church, is managing to survive by acceding to tight restrictions; the Jewish church is almost totally suppressed and in constant conflict with authorities; and the 50 million Muslims are handled gingerly by the government, since by the year 2000 they will constitute one-third of the entire Soviet population.

Shirley's film makes it clear that Marxism-Leninism still attempts to replace traditional religious forms with the cult of Lenin. But despite that, religion has become ``the only form of ideological dissent allowed in the Soviet Union,'' according to Shirley. The film stresses the subtlety and sometimes amazing openness of some of this dissent.

The overall situation is surveyed with surprising candor, as the pragmatic leaders of some of the church organizations make clear that they are willing to make accommodations in order to survive at all. ``The state giveth and the state taketh away'' is the wary philosophy. But Russian 'emigr'e Alexander Solzhenitsyn accuses the Russian Orthodox hierarchy of ``subservience to the state.''

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One of the most touching segments of the film occurs at the conclusion, with a secret ceremony in a snow-covered cemetery in Moscow, where a dissident priest conducts a candlelight service for those adherents of religion executed by the regime. ``When it is darkest, one can see the stars,'' the narrator intones, as the camera focuses on a candle blowing precariously in the wind.

``Candle in the Wind'' is itself a brilliant star in a dark sky. A chat with producer Eugene Shirley

``We did not start out with an anti-Soviet agenda,'' insists Eugene Shirley Jr., ``and I feel strongly that the film is balanced. But the reality is that freedom of religion is a subject in which the USSR doesn't stack up very well.''

Shirley, a 28-year-old who began his research for the film as a graduate student at Claremont College in California, believes his youthful appearance and seeming ingenuousness helped convince Soviet authorities that he was naive enough to be trusted shooting footage there.

``We knew our rooms were bugged'' he says, ``so we used that to our advantage, hoping they would not catch on that we were saying things for their benefit. Somebody came up to me on the street in Moscow and whispered that there was going to be a human rights demonstration outside the US Embassy. We didn't go there, because we had told the officials we were not going to be filming dissidents, and we didn't want to jeopardize our official trip. Soon things opened up, and they allowed our `naive' crew to visit many places.''

How did he manage to get the underground footage that would likely bring retribution down on the cameramen, if discovered?.

``We found a Russian Orthodox believer who collected such film secretly from tourists on the black market in Russia. When he emigrated, he managed to smuggle the film out. Through various consultants, we let it be known that we needed this kind of footage, and, without having to smuggle film in or out, we were able to deal with organizations which had been arranging for such footage. We played according to the rules, using a Soviet film team in Moscow. They insisted upon developing our film for us, but fortunately, we were using a new high-speed film and they didn't have the proper processing facilities.''

Shirley says he does not consider the film biased. ``Well,'' he adds on reconsideration, ``maybe it does reflect my own bias that people ought to be able to freely practice religion according to the dictates of their conscience. Where that is not the case - and certainly that is not the case in the USSR - people ought to be concerned. This film is a reflection of my concern. If you want to call that a bias, so be it.''

Might not the Soviets claim that atheists are not given the same freedom that the faithful are given in the US?

``True. Free thinking is at times interfered with in local situations despite the fact that our Constitution prohibits that. I could be very critical . But there is no moral equivalence. After all, in the USSR it is state-approved intolerance.''

Shirley hopes the film will bring people up to date on the state of religion in the USSR. ``There are tremendous misconceptions, depending upon people's individual perspective. But what seems apparent to everybody no matter what their perspective, is the tenacious, vibrant religious faith which has survived in a determinedly antireligious environment for the past 70 years.''

This filmmaker/academic says he was not surprised to discover that there is a whole generation of young Soviet citizens who seem to be religiously illiterate.``But the system has been ineffective in making them antireligious.

``There's a reawakening of Russian Orthodoxy and Judaism because, as many people indicated to me, Marxist-Leninism just doesn't have the ... dimension which religion can bring. But never forget that in the USSR religious freedom is defined in such a way that there is a fundamental right to be free from enslaving superstitions. So, while one supposedly has the freedom to believe as one wishes, if the Communist Party is really doing its job, it will really liberate people from enslaving superstitions, i.e., religion.''

Shirley doesn't like to discuss the possibility that adversity may be an inspirational force in religion.

``There may be some element of truth in that, but I would hate to emphasize the value of persecution. ... One Soviet official did say: `Religion is like a nail - the harder you strike it, the deeper in it goes.''

Shirley has great admiration for the dissidents because he suspects he himself is not the martyr type. ``If I lived in the USSR, I suspect I would be more inclined to accommodate.''

The interviewer points out that it wasn't very accommodating of Mr. Shirley to struggle against Soviet bureaucracy to make ``Candle in the Wind,'' which gives dissenters the opportunity to state their case before the world.

``But it is much easier to go to their country,'' he insists, ``and make a film than it would be to live there under the present regime and practice their kind of firm and unswerving loyalty to religion. They are undergoing an experience of the spirit,'' he says, perhaps just a bit enviously, ``even more profound than any experience of the senses.''

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