A Save the Earth Summit in the USSR

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Red Square in Moscow has seen its share of history, but what is now unfolding here is certainly a first.

Moscow, USSR–During mid-January a most ecumenical group of spiritual leaders–ranging from severely garbed rabbis, long-bearded Russian Orthodox priests, and robed Hindu swamis to brilliantly plumed Native American shamans–together with parliamentarians from around the world and a collection of environmentally concerned scientists, met in Armand Hammer’s conference center on the snowy banks of the Moscow River for the Global Forum on the Environment and the Survival and Development of Humanity.

The forum itself constituted a kind of global consciousness raising–with environmentalists trying to get parliamentarians and spiritual leaders on their side for a worldwide campaign to save the earth, while the spiritual leaders were admonishing the scientists and technologists to mend their ways and to learn how to protect the environment. All of us looked forward to the concluding address, which, it was promised, would be delivered by President Mikhail Gorbachev. So, at the end of the last session, the delegates were bussed to the Kremlin, where, once inside the fortress walls, we were led into the old meeting room of the Supreme Soviet–the one you see in old newsreels, where a huge statue of Lenin, standing with upraised arm and clenched fist, looms over the speakers.

After an appropriate wait, first Gorbachev, then Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, entered the room and, as we stood to applaud, took their place on the speakers’ platform. Times obviously had changed from the antireligion campaigns of Lenin and Stalin, for, along with Gorbachev, Shevardnadze, and academician Evgeuniij Velikhov, there sat on the speakers’ platform Bishop James Park Morton of New York and–resplendent in black robe, tall white hat, and full beard–Metropolitan Pitirim of Volokolamsk. This juxtaposition of political, scientific, and religious leadership was calculated; in fact, the Global Forum was officially cohosted by the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and the “Religious Communities of the Soviet Union.”

But even though by then we were more or less prepared to see a Russian Orthodox priest in such a place of honor, we were not really ready for the spiritual invocation that opened the meeting. A frail Hindu swami, draped in an ochre robe and daubed with white body paint, mounted the rostrum and, after a few carefully reasoned and thought-provoking words, asked us to “repeat after me, three times: Ommm…ommm…ommm.” No one was taken aback. In no time, this Gandhi-like figure had Gorbachev, Shevardnadze, and all the rest of us from around the globe ommm-ing away in this citadel of failed materialism while Lenin, frozen in time, glowered in the background.

After a number of speeches, including a rousing call to action in the name of Allah by the chief mufti of Syria, Gorbachev had his turn and delivered a carefully crafted speech asking for the protection of the environment and, among other things, the destruction of all chemical weapons. Following his speech, we were led to a huge reception hall, where tables laden with caviar, wine, and other earthly delights awaited. While we filled our plates and glasses, none other than Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, entered the room to greet us personally. For the next hour and a half the two proceeded to press the flesh, sign autographs, and trade witty remarks with the adoring crowd–while the great empire forged by the czars and enlarged by the Red Army was disintegrating all around them.