Russia’s New Fad—Orthodox Christianity?

October 22, 2010 • Features • Views: 2270

by Tobias Kuene:

Somber, sonorous voices, tinged with devout anticipation of redemption, permeate the church’s vast, tubular vaults. A sea of wax candles bathes the walls in golden light and makes the halos of the larger-than-life icons glare as though inspired by a spark of the Holy Spirit. The icons on the walls solemnly turn their eyes upward, where the countenance of the Savior watches from the ceiling.

In churches like this one, a religious revival seems to be building across Russia. The number of Russian Orthodox believers has more than doubled since the beginning of perestroika and the end of the state’s preaching communism as an ersatz religion in 1986. yet the Church of St. Panteleimon the Healer on Kirochnaya Street in St. Petersburg is far from packed. A woman not far away tinkers with her sleeve absentmindedly, two others are not wearing the mandatory kerchief, and, in general, few men frequent the church. Is the apparent resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy substantial, or is it merely a widespread but shallow trend?

Novodevichy Convent, Kremlin, Moscow. (Kuehne/TYG)

“None of my friends goes to church on a regular basis,” said Alexander Luzhin, a 24-year-old programmer from St. Petersburg. “I wouldn’t call any of my friends religious, even though I can see them say they are Orthodox when asked by a pollster.” Luzhin’s claims are supported by the fact that less than five percent of those who identify as Orthodox Christians regularly attend church services. While the majority of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox believers, very few observe important religious rites and festivals, such as Pascha, or Orthodox Easter Sunday.

The minority that does attend church and perform religious rites consists almost exclusively of women. “I think men don’t want to show weakness by going to church,” said Nelli Bashir, a recent graduate from the Russian Academy of Justice and self-proclaimed believer. “They want to solve their problems on their own, while women count on help from above more often.”

“I think it is mainly superstition,” Sergai, a St. Petersburg taxi driver, said. “My friends gave me this cross as a talisman so I don’t get hit. But I think one of those little trees that spread a good smell would work just as well.” Sergei’s disbelief may suggest that the recent revival is a passing fad. Bashir, however, took a different stance, arguing that God is a provider of moral guidance in everyday life. “Even though I don’t often go to church, God directs my actions because a part of God is in me, and in everybody,” she said.

Independent of the rising numbers of self-identified believers, the Orthodox Church as an institution has become significantly more powerful since 1990. The political elite recognized the Church’s potential to foster pro-Russian sentiments. State media cover joint public appearances of Church and government officials demonstrating closed ranks. According to John Garrard, professor of Russian Studies at the university of Arizona, “the Orthodox Church acquired in 1997 a very special status.” Since then, the Church has received much of the land and property that the Soviet government had confiscated from them. The Church also received state approval to raise revenues by “selling such things as icons and ‘holy water’,” Luzhin said.

Talk of a religious revival in Russia may be exaggerated and ultimately misguided. Only some Russians have adopted a more spiritual lifestyle in recent years, and it is easy to mistake the strengthened Orthodox Church for an indicator of widespread spiritualization. More likely, Russians have experienced an ideological vacuum since the fall of communism and have turned to Orthodoxy, with its universal values of love, altruism, and forgiveness, for a new set of ideological principles. As Russia transitions into a democratic, pluralistic society, Orthodox Christianity may become one of several viable value sets. “A few months ago,” said Dr. Alexei Lidov, research director of the Institute of World Culture at Moscow State university, “the Christian Orthodox Church pushed for the introduction of religious instruction in state middle schools.” The Russian Constitution mandates the separation of State and Church, so that families had to be given a choice between classes in Orthodox Christianity, World Religions, and lay ethics. “Over 80 percent of the parents chose lay ethics,” Lidov said. “This is a clear vote.”

Tobias Kuehne ’12 is a Mathematics & Philosophy and Literature double major in Branford College. Contact him at tobias.kuehne@yale.edu.

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