Russian Religion Re-emerges

1999 > Russia

The godless nation finds the light

The church is back!

After 70 years of suppression and active discrimination, religion in Russia
is making a comeback. Of course it is nowhere near as powerful as it
was in pre-revolutionary times, but it is growing.

In Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church is powerful enough to convince Mayor
Yuri Lukov to rebuild the huge Christ the Saviour Church on the banks of
the Moscow River. If I remember correctly, it was a church built to
celebrate the defeat of the Polish Army in the 1800’s and Stalin demolished
it in the 1930’s to make way for a Stalin Building. Stalin wasn’t able
to blight the site with his dream, so the current Mayor decided to rebuild
the church to show the glory of the New Russia.

shit! hare krishnas!Outside of Moscow, all the old religions of Russia,
Orthodox, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism are in a resurgence. Of course,
once they could, the Mormons, Seventh Day Adventist, and even Krishnas came
in droves to convert this nation of atheists. Now, even in the smallest
provincial town, there is at least two Mormons shopping for souls.
The Orthodox Church used all of its power recently to pass a law that
made itself and the other three main religions the only “qualified” religions
in the country, effectively outlawing all the other denominations and causing
an uproar in the West.

Hare Krishnas doing the dance in Moscow

When I talk to the youth of Russia, I see that religion has a long way to
go here. The vast majority of young people are atheist, like myself,
which is such a change from the high religion factor in the States. Here,
they believe in nothing but the dollar and the strength of the Russian soul.
Yes, they do believe in a soul, but as a collective cultural power,
not an individual entity. The churchgoers are usually the elderly who
were religious before the church was completely suppressed, or new parents
looking to raise their children with the structure the church offers. Not
much different than the States actually, except the people who are not in
church are atheists, not lazy believers.

The Electronic Telegraph 31 December 1998

Monks lay foundations of Orthodox revival

By Marcus Warren in Kurovskoye

IT is too early to speak of a new golden age of monasticism, but dozens of
Russian monasteries, many in ruins after years of persecution, are reopening
and rediscovering the great traditions of Orthodox spirituality.

swiped photoThe monasteries have been defiled, looted and abandoned,
their monks and nuns martyred in the gulag or just thrown on to the streets.
They were prime targets of Soviet efforts to root out religion and build
communism. Just a decade ago there were only two functioning monasteries
in Russia. Now there are nearly 300 and their numbers are rising. For monks,
taking vows of obedience, chastity and poverty marks a retreat from the world.
In Russia, quite apart from the spiritual rigours of monasticism, it also
means back- breakingly hard work. Vitaly, a novice monk at the Guslitsky
monastery outside Moscow, said: “The bell tower was completely devastated.
When work started, there were no doors or windows either.”

Here, as elsewhere, work consists of more than restoring the monastery to
its former glory before decades of neglect and vandalism. The immediate task
is to make the place habitable. A lack of funds means much of the work is
carried out by the monks or novices. Carpentry and masonry are skills in
as much demand as icon-painting or a good grasp of theology.

Guslitsky, on the outskirts of the town of Kurovskoye, reopened in August.
Before the revolution it had 50 monks. Now there are only two monks and five
novices. The monastery is a shadow of its old self and occupies a fraction
of its original lands. The huge main chapel stands derelict just beyond the
fence of a forbidding looking psychiatric hospital next door. Work is still
in progress even at monasteries reopened several years ago. At the Holy Catherine
Hermitage, south of Moscow, several of the outhouses are in ruins and workmen
are only now installing beams to support the church roof.

During lunch, monks sit listening to readings from the Lives of the Saints
in silence, dressed not in black habits but wearing paint-stained overalls
and muddy boots after a hard morning’s work. Digging on the allotment, raising
pigs or driving excavators are a far cry from the contemplation and prayer
of the monastic ideal. They come on top of hours spent every day attending
services from 5.30am.

Nevertheless, there seems to be no shortage of volunteers of all ages, keen
to spend the rest of their lives in a monastery. The monastic life may not
be an easy one, but it provides a way of escaping a world that many believe
is rotten with promiscuity, sin and corruption. Father Superior Tikhon, of
Holy Catherine Hermitage, said: “People want to dedicate themselves to God.
They want to test themselves and see if they are equal to the challenge of
living in a monastery. It’s a cry of the soul.”

Moscow Times December 25, 1998

Patriarch Criticizes Rich Priests

By Andrei Zolotov Jr.

In an unusually frank account of Russian church life, Patriarch Alexy II
scolded priests this week for “assuming the lifestyle of New Russians” by
driving expensive cars and sporting mobile telephones in front of impoverished
parishioners. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who spoke Wednesday
at the annual meeting of the Moscow Diocese, stressed the need for more social
outreach, something that has remained at the bottom of most parishes’ list
of priorities.

The full text of the patriarch’s annual report, which usually names transgressors
and includes a great deal of criticism, has traditionally been a guarded
internal document. But even the excerpts of the text released by the Moscow
Patriarchate were unusually strong. In most documents made public in the
past the Church has painted a far rosier picture.

In another departure from past practices, Alexy II called for greater openness
and transparency in Church affairs in the face of what he called an anti-
Church press. The patriarch attributed the problems in the Church in part
to the “spirit of the time” and the domination of “ethically negative values”
in society such as greed, lies and personal ambitions. Part of the clergy,
he said, has attempted to imitate the lifestyle of New Russians, which generates
resentment on the part of people struggling to make ends meet.

“One has to realize that a mass transformation of consciousness is taking
place among simple impoverished people,” his report said. “They see that
they are not needed by anybody: Neither the state nor the society is taking
care of them, and now the Church too shows that the rich and not the poor
are closer to her.”

a famous one..The annual meeting, at which deans of churches and
heads of parish councils are present, is a major event in the life of each
diocese, but Moscow’s meeting is particularly important because of the
patriarch’s report. In his report, the patriarch, who also is the capital’s
bishop, outlines the main policies of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy.

The call for greater openness marked a noticeable change in policy. “We should
speak sincerely and truthfully about all problems that exist today in our
church life without waiting for these issues to be raised and interpreted
by others, including our ill-wishers,” the patriarch said.

The most famous church

The Church was involved in several high-profile conflicts this year that
drew extensive critical coverage in the media. The Patriarchate also has
faced rumors that Alexy II’s health was in decline and that he was increasingly
isolated by his entourage.

In one of the well-publicized conflicts, a reformist Moscow community was
virtually disbanded and kicked out of its church, while its popular leader,
Priest Georgy Kochetkov, was suspended by the patriarch. In Yekaterinburg,
a conservative bishop was accused of burning books by several prominent Orthodox
theologians, though he denied the allegations.

Also in Moscow, Hegumen Martiri Bagin, who led a parish sponsored by Inkombank,
was removed for disobedience and unsanctioned appropriation of real estate.
But due to the secretive manner on the part of the Patriarchate, the removal
was portrayed by Bagin’s supporters as a clamp down on dissent.

In Wednesday’s report, the patriarch said the need for money has caused some
parishes to have “business contacts with representatives of private companies,
banks and the shadow economy, who are interested in legalizing their business
through the Church. Should one say how much this does not correspond with
Christian ethics?”

He also said some clergymen have attempted to use their relations with big
business and “quasi-political circles” to exert pressure on him, but were
unsuccessful. However, the patriarch’s report continued the Church’s attack
on the liberal religious radio station Sofia, which has been accused of
undermining the Church by ungrounded criticism of the hierarchy and propagation
of Western views.

Alexy II scolded priests for not doing more to help Russians in need. “Every
year I call on deans and heads of parish councils with the request to activate
charity activities at the parish level, but unfortunately my words are not
heard by everybody,” the patriarch’s report said.

addressed criticism that the Church has found money for rebuilding and restoring
churches but not for helping the poor. “Modern life demands new approaches,”
the patriarch’s report said. “Although with difficulty we have found resources
to restore churches and gild iconostases, now we need to find them [resources] for other no less important types of church activities.”

Saint Basil’s

Alexy II urged parishes to cooperate in funding social projects. “What one
parish cannot do, two or three will be able to.” He stressed the importance
of increasing the clergy’s educational and personal spiritual level. He pointed
to the danger of priests abusing their power of confessor by demanding total
obedience from their flock, turning people into “robots” and church communities
into “sects.”

The report also included statistical data on the Russian Orthodox Church,
which claims jurisdiction over all of the former Soviet Union except for
Georgia and owns property in Europe, Northern America and Israel. The Church
has 151 active bishops in 127 dioceses. About 19,700 clergymen serve in more
than 19,000 parishes. Of 478 monasteries and convents, 299 are on the territory
of the Russian Federation.

In Moscow, the Church has title to 428 churches and 39 chapels, with 539
priests and 206 deacons, which is 72 more clergymen than in 1997.

January 6, 1999, Reuters

Church calls for help on Russian Christmas Eve

By Elizabeth Piper

MOSCOW, – The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, in a Christmas Eve message,
called on the government on Wednesday to find a way out of the country’s
present chaos and ease the suffering of an increasingly desperate people.
Patriarch Alexiy II, whose followers celebrate Christmas according to a different
calendar from that in Western churches, said Russians were struggling to
cope with poverty, crime and ethnic strife after a crippling financial crisis
last summer provoked a slump in the rouble, job losses and rising prices.
“Terrible poverty, the failure to pay people their well-earned wages, the
excessively high level of crime and immorality in society, inter-ethnic strife,
the crisis in education, culture and the health service are all problems
constantly encountered by people,” he said in a statement.

“May God grant that the state authorities, society and every person of goodwill
do all they can to overcome the present chaos.” The Orthodox Church, which
has enjoyed a strong revival since the end of atheistic communist repression
in 1991, marks the birth of Jesus Christ on January 7, like other Eastern
Christian churches using the same calendar. The bearded, 69-year-old patriarch
said the church had to make further inroads into everyday life — a sentiment
unthinkable in Soviet times, when the church laboured under KGB controls
and believers faced harassment and persecution.

“It is essential to revive and strengthen the monasteries, set up new
ecclesiastical institutions of study on all levels, especially Sunday schools,”
he said in a speech posted on the church’s site on the Internet.

“In the coming year we must complete what we have left unfinished, bring
to perfection much of what we have already done and in all things strive
for the maximum benefit of God’s Church.” He also called for Russians to
be more tolerant. The huge country has become increasingly strained by ethnic
and religious tensions, especially over anti-Semitism in certain sections
of the Communist party, which is the biggest grouping in parliament. “It
is our Christian and civil duty to abide in
goodwill and cooperation with each other, to be tolerant of each other and
render every assistance and support to those in need.”

The swank Christ the Saviour Cathedral

The patriarch led a morning service at the huge Christ the Saviour Cathedral,
newly rebuilt to dominate the Moscow skyline after being destroyed on dictator
Josef Stalin’s orders in 1931. Later, he was to lead mass at the Epiphany
Cathedral, which Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was expected to attend.
He was to lead midnight mass in the same cathedral.

The Sunday Times (UK) January 17 1999

Russian priests get rich on back of big business

By Mark Franchetti

LIFE as a parish priest has been good to Alexei Novikov. A former policeman,
he now spends his weekends at a dacha in an affluent Moscow suburb. He has
close friends in the business world and keeps his pager on even during prayer
services. Novikov, 45, has had to make some sacrifices. He recently gave
up his white Mercedes for a Volga after parishioners complained about his
lavish lifestyle.

However, priests are coming under greater pressure from the top of the Russian
Orthodox church to mend their materialistic ways. Last week Patriarch Alexy
II, its highest authority, said he could no longer remain silent about “the
bad influence on some of our priests. This is a sinful display of egotism,
self-confidence, vanity and superiority over others due to a wealth which
is often earned in an illegal and criminal way”.

Indignant at such behaviour when half the population was living below the
poverty line, the patriarch scolded parishes with black market contacts seeking
to legalise their business through the church.

As it rebuilds itself after 70 years of communist repression, however, the
church has not shied away from the less than holy world of Russian business.
Dioceses across the country have formed a variety of lucrative business
partnerships. One of the church’s largest known earners is MES, the International
Economic Partnership, a large oil exporter. Co-founded by the finance department
of the Moscow patriarchy, which owns 40% of its shares, it has an annual
turnover of $2 billion.

Boris Yeltsin granted the church tax breaks that enabled it to receive imports
of spirits and tobacco marked as “humanitarian aid” which it sold, duty-free,
through middlemen. In 1996 the church imported one in every 10 cigarettes
sold in Russia, and netted an estimated ú6m from the sales of alcohol
and cigarettes. Alexy II was forced to put an end to the privileges after
the trade became public, but its finances remain a closely guarded secret.

“In terms of its leadership and secrecy, the Russian Orthodox church is the
most Soviet of all Russian institutions,” said Larry Uzzell, of the Keston
Institute in Oxford, which monitors religious freedom in eastern Europe.
“The place smells of money but it is useless to ask where it’s coming from.”

Officially, the Russian Orthodox church denies involvement in most of its
business activities by claiming that its financial branches are separate.
Last August, Archbishop Iov, the highest representative of the Russian Orthodox
church in the city of Chelyabinsk, received death threats from criminals
believed to be pressing him for a cut of the church’s commercial operations.
“What we have now is a church born out of the KGB,” said Gleb Yakunin, a
dissident priest and gulag survivor who was defrocked by the church.

Mon, 18 Jan 1999, Johnson’s Russia List

Re Mark Franchetti: Russian priests get rich on back of big business

By Thomas Anthony Greenan

The article: “Russian priests get rich on back of big business” (JRL #3020,
Sunday Times 17/1/99) is puzzling. We are told that a Fr. Alexei Novikov
“now spends his weekends at a dacha in an affluent Moscow suburb”. Most
surprising, since the weekend is just the time at which the duties of Christian
priests, including Russian Orthodox, tend to be concentrated. (For that matter,
dachas are generally situated in the countryside outside town, not in the
suburbs.) Does Fr. Alexei absent himself from the Sunday Liturgy and Saturday
Vespers? If he does, what do his congregation have to say? We know that he
has a congregation, since, apparently, they have taken exception to his choice
of automobile – the white Mercedes, we are told, had to be replaced by a
Volga, presumably black. Does Fr. Alexei take his pager (mobile phone?) only
to weekday “prayer-services” when he happens to be in town?

are a few of the questions posed by Mark Franchettis somewhat implausible
case-study. They lead to a further query: what are his sources? I deduce
from the article that he is not a parishioner of Fr. Alexei Novikov and therefore
has no direct knowledge of the circumstances he describes. Has he copied
the report from the Russian press?

What is worrying is that this example is extrapolated to illustrate a serious
point. The title too is misleading. When the Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow
reproved rich, comfort-loving clergy, this was just part of an address lasting
over four hours, given to the Moscow clergy at the Moscow Diocesan Assembly
on 23 December 1998 (Moscow Times 25/12/98, JRL #2533, 27/12/98, “Patriarch
criticizes rich priests”, a fuller account in “Russkaya mysl”, 7-13/1/99).
Condemning this “baleful infuence of the spirit of the times on a “certain
part” of the clergy, who strive to imitate the life-style of the new Russians,”
flaunting their foreign cars and mobile phones in front of their impoverished
flocks, he in no way suggests that this is the general rule. (Incidentally,
all the Moscow priests I know, personally or by repute, are poor.)

The Patriarchs appeal to the clergy to undertake more social and charitable
work was pursued further in his Christmas eve message (JRL 3005, 6/1/99,
Piper: Russia calls for help), in which he speaks movingly of the sufferings
of the Russian people and calls on people of good will to alleviate their
poverty. At a time when, according to the Patriarchs figures (quoted by Mark
Franchetti), half the Russian population are living below the poverty line,
it is unfortunate that his article should lump together the church, corruption
and humanitarian aid, giving the impression, perhaps unintentionally, that
humanitarian aid is inevitably sold for profit.

Some of us are working to send aid to Russia (in my case in the St. Gregorys
Foundation, England, but there are others doing equally valuable work, such
as the Cameron Foundation, Scotland, Aide aux croyants, France). The distribution
of clothing is carried out by honest people, Russian clergy and laity, who
are all getting poorer. None of our aid is sold. But we do have tremendous
difficulties getting it past the bureaucrats of the Russian customs; anything
that reinforces the view that humanitarian aid = corruption can only add
to our difficulties and to those of the poorest 50% of Russians we are trying
to help.

Tony Greenan Department of Russian & Department of French University
of Liverpool (retired)

April 6, 1999, AP via Johnson; Russia List

Unorthodox church seeks change in Russian Orthodox Church

MOSCOW — Just inside the Church of Saints Kozma and Demyan, a bulletin board
bursting with notices announces that this is far more than a cloistered place
of prayer. Alongside congregants’ invitations to religious discussions hang
offers of free medical services to the community. A hand-lettered sign appeals
for blood for a sick child at a hospital where one of the parish priests
has established a chapel, an aid fund and a team of volunteers.

Inside the sanctuary, friends greet one another with hugs and kisses, and
press forward to hear the soft-spoken senior priest, the Rev. Alexander Borisov,
read the Gospel. Children slither around their parents’ legs, or perch atop
their shoulders to get a better look at the icons of saints reaching practically
to the 18th century dome.

The church provides a respite from the roar of traffic and crowds of pedestrians
on nearby Tverskoy Boulevard, which passes Moscow’s City Hall and ends at
the gates to the Kremlin. It’s also a place of fellowship for a small flock
of believers yearning to do away with the formality — some say the hidebound
adherence to ritual — that characterizes the Russian Orthodox Church, the
country’s predominant religion.

Echoing the earlier liberalization movement in the Roman Catholic Church,
reform advocates want to break down the barriers between Orthodox priests
and their congregations. They say that the Russian language should be used
more often in place of old Church Slavonic and that priests should read the
Gospel facing the congregation rather than the altar, as is the practice
in most Orthodox churches. They want Bible groups, parish involvement in
the community, and an ecumenical approach, rather than the isolationism preached
by many vocal leaders of the Orthodox hierarchy.

All this goes against the grain of Russian Orthodox tradition, where doctrine
is handed down from the patriarch to the bishops to the parish priests and
finally to believers. A renewal effort by the hierarchy itself was ended
by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and more recent reform attempts by individual
priests have been quashed.

Borisov has been careful not to challenge the Patriarchate, and he says wearily
that time, not pressure, will bring change. Yet some see his church as a
model for renewal. “The service is a ritual that we should preserve — it’s
beautiful and mystical– but for most worshippers it still isn’t a real means
of active faith. The service isn’t the only thing,” says Borisov, a biologist
who served as a deacon for 17 years before becoming a priest.

Church of Saints Kozma and Demyan supplements its worship services and children’s
Sunday schools with an array of Bible discussion groups, catechism classes
for adults and youth clubs. Much of its charity work is focused on medical
aid, in the tradition of its namesake saints, the Russian patron saints of

Nearly 400 of the 500 people who make up the core of the church have come
to the faith over the past decade. Most have come through friends or through
acquaintance with the work of the Rev. Alexander Men, a popular priest and
writer who was murdered in 1990. The crime has never been solved.

Some members were attracted by the church’s ecumenical approach _ Protestant
and Catholic worshippers are welcome — and others by the priests’ outspoken
defense of democracy, propagated over an independent religious radio station.
“People want not just to attend church, but to have brothers and sisters
with whom they can share their faith,” says Karina Chernyak, a parishioner
who with her husband Andrei founded Russia’s first school to train Orthodox

The Orthodox Church has traditionally enjoyed such dominance in Russia it
didn’t have to seek out converts. With the collapse of communism, however,
it is having to compete with dynamic evangelical faiths that took root as
underground movements during Soviet times. Reform advocates fear that in
its campaign to protect the faith, the Orthodox Church is becoming increasingly

“Soviet people were brought up with the struggle against the enemy being
a very important part of their internal world. Today, instead of the fight
against world imperialism, they’re presented with a new form of struggle
— against the enemies of Orthodoxy,” says the Rev. Georgy Chistyakov, another
priest at Saints Kozma and Demyan.

The missionary school, housed in an apartment near Saints Kozma and Demyan,
has just 10 students each year, ranging from age 18 to 25. The school is
a sharp departure for the Orthodox Church, where serious religious study
was traditionally restricted to seminaries and, before the Bolshevik revolution,
the bulk of ordinary worshippers could not read. The Soviet era brought 100
percent literacy but a dearth of religious literature.

“An absolutely new situation has arisen over the past 10 years, when this
absolutely literate country has enough sacred texts and we can talk about
internal missions or evangelism,” Chernyak says. “We have plenty of reason
to hope that life is returning to the Church.”