The Americans, the FX series about a Soviet spy couple posing as American travel agents in Reagan-era Washington, has reignited a lightning storm of ecumenical history that had all but calmed.
This week’s episode is blatantly titled “The World Council of Churches.” I could hear the wheezy gasps of my fellow seasoned ecumenists who for years denied right-wing claims that the KGB had infiltrated the council.
In the current episode of The Americans, protagonists Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (actually Mischa and Nadezhda) have arranged to protect their teenage daughter from the influence of Pastor Tim, a socially active Christian pastor, by arranging for Tim to be hired by the World Council of Churches and sent to Argentina.
The daughter, Paige, is amazed that her atheist Communist parents have that much influence over a church organization. But it will come as no surprise to critics who thought the World Council was in cahoots with the Commies all along.
Assuming the current episodes of The Americans take place in the mid-1980s, Pastor Tim’s exile to the WCC occurs shortly after CBS Sixty Minutes 1983 broadcast accusing the World and U.S. National councils of churches of pro-Communist leanings. Council leaders vehemently denied the accusations, which were inspired by the rightist Institute on Religion and Democracy. In the end, Sixty Minutes producer Don Hewitt suspected reporter Morley Safer had been deceived by right-wing zealots and expressed regret for the program. For the councils, the public relations damage was comprehensive.
But the question remains: did the old KGB actively recruit religious leaders in the cause of worldwide socialism?
I have never doubted it. The CIA routinely approached American missionaries with benign requests for their views about what was going on where they were posted in the Congo or India or El Salvador. “Nothing cloak and dagger,” CIA agents would say, smiling. “We’d just be interested in what you see and hear.” Some missionaries thought it was their patriotic duty to comply while others told the CIA to get lost.
Both the KGB and CIA took advantage of any information-gathering opportunities they could find. It was part and parcel of the times.
In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was on the staff of American Baptist Churches USA, we frequently hosted Soviet Baptists in their visits to the U.S. Whenever the Russians visited the American Baptist offices in Valley Forge, Pa., right-wing pastor Carl McIntire would lead scores of sign-carrying picketers to encircle the round building while he shouted anti-Communist slogans into his bull horn. My job was to churn out press releases on an old mimeograph machine to describe the Russians as “Christian sisters and brothers who have no ties to the Soviet government.”
Probably I lied. I’m sure they were Christian; even The Americans has in its cast a Russian Orthodox priest in the U.S. who has KGB ties. But there’s no way the Russian Baptists could visit the U.S. so often without some tie to the Soviet government.
The two Russian Baptists I knew were pastor Mikhail Yakovlevich Zhidkov and General Secretary Aleksey Mikhaylovich Bychkov. Behind their backs, we called them Stitch and Bitch. Zhidkov was a tall, nervous man whose eyes darted anxiously around the room when he talked to you. Bychkov was a compact charmer with a relaxed manner and constant smile. He’s my candidate for closet KGB agent.
I once sat next to Bychkov at a Baptist World Alliance dinner in Washington, probably at about the time the fictional Pastor Tim was hired by the equally fictional World Council of Churches. Bychkov and I walked out together to return to our hotel several blocks away. We got lost in the dark and ended up prowling behind Dumpsters and government buildings. The usually calm Bychkov began to sweat but he didn’t stop smiling. When I watch scenes of surreptitious skulking on The Americans, I replay my walk with Bychkov in my mind. I almost wish the police had stopped us, just to see what he would have done.
Actually, most scenes of The Americans are filmed in New York, not Washington, and filming often takes place – ironically – near The Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive. Some Manhattan parks look like Washington in the dark, and the dome of Grant’s Tomb, if the scene is cropped creatively, might be mistaken for the Jefferson Memorial.
This is good to keep in mind. So much of The Americans is an inventive illusion. This is also true of our memories of the Cold War eighties and the dubious accusations of Soviet leanings that were hurled like shrapnel by the Institute on Religion and Democracy against the World and National councils of churches and many other social-gospel oriented Christian denominations. It may be years before we know the whole truth about who was hoodwinked by the KGB and who was in the pocket of the CIA. (Just as an aside, it’s interesting to note that Mark Tooley, IRD President, used to work for the CIA. But that’s another story.)
In the meantime, The Americans is entertainingly escapist because it is well-written fiction based on vaguely remembered truths. The show will wrap up its fifth and penultimate season next week. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are considering retiring from the spy business and returning home to the Soviet Union with their two thoroughly American teen-age children. That awkward transition might take years, they are told by their Soviet supervisor.
They’d better hurry. If Reagan is in his second term, the evil empire itself is cruising inexorably toward the ash heap of history. Next up: Gorbachev, glasnost, and sudden political collapse.
Both The Americans and the USSR are on the verge of cancellation. And I can’t wait to see how Philip and Elizabeth — Mischa and Nadezhda – and the World Council of Churches handle it.