Russia's Religious Revival

Russian Orthodoxy reestablishes itself - along with Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestant faiths

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For 30 years, Lyudmila Ivanovna worked as a specialist in microchips, building Soviet spy satellites, her life dominated by the cold war.

Today, she is at peace with the world and with herself. Known now as Sister Lyudmila, she is a novice in a Russian Orthodox convent south of Moscow.

Her tale symbolizes the religious renewal that Russia has experienced since the end of the Communist regime and its atheist dogma.

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"I retired before it all fell apart," she recalls. "And I had time to think about what I had been doing, working for the idea of atomic war. I had spent 30 years in vain; the Soviet Union had lost the race. And even if I had had all the pleasures in life, riding, sailing, driving, I came to the conclusion that the most important values are the spiritual ones."

Her first contact with the Western world reinforced her feelings. Taking advantage of newly acquired freedoms, she went to visit her son, who lived in Italy.

"I saw the kind of empty faces people had. One can be wealthy and live beautifully, but it is an empty life. That's where the idea of a monastic life came to me, and when I returned, my decision was made," she says, her face expressing the quiet confidence of a person certain of her purpose in life.

She joined the Novodyevichy convent two years ago, and now she runs its farm in Shubino. The Novodyevichy nunnery, once a royal cloister, was converted into a museum shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. It has now resumed its monastic role, like the other 340 monasteries, 10,000 parish churches, and 14 seminaries that have reopened in the last six years - all evidence of the scope of the religious boom in Russia.

It started in 1988, with the commemoration of the millennium of Christianity in Russia. Reversing the traditional Soviet stand on religion, then-President Mikhail Gorbachev declared the anniversary a national holiday. Seventy years of religious repression by the state had come to an end. It had been brutal: In 1995, a presidential commission concluded that under Soviet rule, 200,000 religious leaders had been murdered and another 500,000 persecuted.

After the millenium celebration, a wind of religious renewal began to blow across the Soviet Union. The ban on Jewish emigration to Israel was lifted, and in 1990 the law on freedom of the press was passed, making it possible to discuss any theme without prior censorship. Religion was a prominent topic.

Symbolizing the authorities' volte-face, a cathedral was built last year on the site of Russia's main war memorial at Victory Park in Moscow. The first stone of a Jewish synagogue was laid nearby a few months ago, and a mosque is due to be erected there soon as well.

A recent poll conducted by the All Russian Center for Public Opinion Research shows that only 37 percent of the Russian people define themselves as nonreligious. Fifty percent say they are Russian Orthodox, while a scattering of respondents call themselves Roman Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Buddhist, or another faith. Five years ago, a similar survey indicated that 53 percent of the population was nonreligious, while 30 percent saw itself as Russian Orthodox.

In Soviet times, many people dared disclose their beliefs only in death, at their religious burial service. Today, baptisms and religious weddings are in great demand. But clearly not everybody takes their faith as seriously as Sister Lyudmila does.

Dimitri Shusharin, religious-affairs specialist for the daily newspaper Sevodnya, thinks that no more than 5 to 10 percent of the people can be considered truly practicing believers. "Nowadays, it is fashionable to be religious in Russia. This trend is a way of establishing oneself in a new society; it meets the need for identification," he explains.

But this identification is often more ethnic than spiritual. With the end of the myth of the supranational Soviet individual, people are reverting to their cultural and historic roots, falling back behind the dividing lines in a society where ethnic roots are still recorded in passports.

Thus Russians join the Orthodox church, people of Polish background become Catholics, those with German roots Protestants, the Tatars Muslims, and Jews define themselves as such.

Sister Lyudmila is no exception to this rule. "I came to Orthodoxy because I am Russian. If I had been born in France, then maybe I would have become Catholic, but I am Russian." By becoming a nun, she has also renewed her family's religious commitment. Her grandfather was a priest killed by the Soviets. "As a priest's child, my mother suffered a lot. She didn't bring me up as a believer, but I discovered later that she had told me a lot about the Gospel without telling me what it was," she remembers with emotion.

Born into Tatar families whose ancestors had settled along the Volga river, Alla and Tanya had a different sort of education,. They dress like many young urban Russian women today, in miniskirts and transparent chiffon blouses, and they don't change their clothes to come to the mosque.

"I didn't come here to pray," Alla says. "I don't know how to. But I came to be with other people like me, to get a sense of belonging to a community." She looks briefly at the books on display at a kiosk outside the mosque - Russian-Arabic editions of the Koran, an essay on Sufism, a manual of prayers with photographic illustrations. She decides to buy a talisman, a prayer in Arabic rolled up in a plastic cover that she hangs around her neck. Tanya goes for another pendant, an Islamic crescent moon inlaid with fake diamonds. A few feet away, devout old men greet each other with the traditional Muslim "Salaam Aleikum - Aleikum Salaam." They enter the mosque for Friday prayers undisturbed by the sight of these two modern girls.

"We have developed a unique breed of Islam here," explains Farid Assadoulin, the assistant to Moscow's mufti. "It is a soft sort of Islam that came from being a minority religion for so long."

Moscow's main mosque illustrates the effort that Muslims have made to blend into the Russian landscape. Four minarets dominate a building which otherwise looks like a Russian Orthodox cathedral, painted blue and white in the 19th-century neo-Baroque style.

For 1,000 years, the Tatars and their Bashkir cousins have lived on the periphery of the Muslim world, in much closer contact with Christians. Many have assimilated. The Communist regime tried to strike them a fatal blow by closing their schools. Knowledge was passed down from father to son and through self-education.

The Muslims of the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia have always maintained closer geographical and historical links with the Muslim centers of Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus, and have largely preserved their traditions. Two Islamic schools function in Uzbekistan, for example.

With approximately 20 million Muslims in Russia out of an overall population of 160 million, and with the number of mosques around the country growing from 192 in 1985 to 2,500 last year, the need for a trained clergy has become acute.

A college was opened in Moscow in 1994 to meet this need. Twenty students are currently enrolled in a four-year program which includes religious education, such as studies of the Koran and of the Hadiths, as well as a secular curriculum. The students learn Arabic, Tatar, Turkish, and English as well as history, philosophy, basic law, and civics.

"We hope that our students, after they graduate, will not only be religious leaders but that they will be able to manage the interests of their communities outside the mosque, with other faiths and with the authorities," says Marat Murtazin, rector of Moscow's Muslim college.

Rustam Batrov, an unassuming teenager, is in his second year of study. He has no doubt about his future. "I'll go back home to Nizhni-Novgorod. I'll do research in philosophy and the theology of Islam and teach at the madrassa where I studied," he says with a large smile. "There has to be a balance in this world. If everybody gravitates around material things, some have to push the world toward spirituality."

But Mr. Assadoulin worries that the conflict in Chechnya has made many Russians suspicious of Islam. Some separatist fighters in the North Caucasus province of Russia have strengthened their nationalist demands with a call for jihad, or holy war.

Jewish believers

Suspicion is something that Jews here have had to live with for centuries, along with massive discrimination. The plight of the refuseniks who were denied the right to emigrate to Israel was the cause clbre of the human-rights struggle in Soviet days.

"We see a normalization of community life now," says Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow's chief rabbi. "At the end of the '80s and early '90s, the Jews were sitting on their suitcases," ready to emigrate at a moment's notice. "Now the community is more institutionalized. There are about 50 Jewish organizations registered in Russia," he says.

In a sign of this normalization, the Russian Jewish Congress, an interest group similar to its American counterpart, the American Jewish Congress, was founded last year with the help of prominent Russian Jewish businessmen.

Those are the Jews who stayed in Russia - about 1.5 million. But in less than a decade, and especially since the opening of the Iron Curtain, 600,0000 have emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel, while tens of thousands more have left for Germany or the United States.

Jewish renewal is caught here in a paradox. On the one hand, it is now possible to lead an observant Jewish life, at least in Moscow or in St. Petersburg. On the other, Russian Jews often regain their cultural heritage so as to prepare to emigrate.

The renewal was spearheaded by minority Sephardic Jews from the Caucasus who have better kept traditions. The majority, European Jews, have assimilated to the point that only 9 percent of St. Petersburg's Jews define Judaism as their religion, while 25 percent say they are Christian and 50 percent say they are atheists.

"We Jews from the mountains have more experience in Jewish life," says Angela Piesakhova. She keeps kosher, celebrates the high holidays, and recalls proudly how well her son Isaac read the Torah in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where he celebrated his bar mitzvah last summer. He is now studying at the Jewish school attached to Moscow's main synagogue. After having left the troubled Caucasus, she wants to prepare him for the family's coming emigration to Israel.

Married to a Russian, Ira Elizarova didn't get a Jewish education, nor is she observant. She chose, nevertheless, to enroll her sons Vladik and Kostia at the synagogue school for a variety of reasons, many of them pragmatic. "It's an all-day school, with small classes, strong English, and it's free," she explains. "For me, being Jewish was a burden. Our children won't have this fear. Through the education they receive here they realize that being a Jew in the full sense is not bad. They will live with this upbringing, it will be their spiritual heritage."

Many religious leaders put their hopes in the young generation. The Baptists, for example, have targeted students in their missionary work. "There is a demand," explains the Rev. Anatoly Sokolov. "And now we have to define our role in this society. We are here to serve the Lord by doing charity work, by bringing comfort, but also through missionary work."

Missionary activities

Ela Motovilova, a teacher by training, was in need of comfort when she became an Adventist four years ago. Born in Tajikistan to an Uzbek Muslim father and a Russian atheist mother, she was living in the Siberian town of Tomsk. She had been abused by her alcoholic former husband.

Ms. Motovilova's sister had been baptized during one of the crusades launched by the Adventist Church when missionary activities were at their peak between 1992 and 1993. She took her to church. "I was touched by the kindness of the people. At first I took their love. Only afterward did I accept Christ," she says.

She now works in Moscow for a humanitarian branch of the Adventist Church and also leads Bible classes. Direct contact with the Gospel has become essential to her. "I didn't want to go to church just to listen and repeat," she says. "I realized that I have a choice given by God. And to find the truth we need to study the Bible".

This missionary work displeases the Russian Orthodox church, which is lobbying with all its renewed strength and friendship with the authorities to limit the presence of what it calls "nonhistorical religions" in Russia. Its concerns find substantial echo in the political class. Three years ago, the Duma amended the law on freedom of religion, but President Boris Yeltsin vetoed it. Another law aimed at restricting the activities of foreign missionaries in Russia is currently being examined.

Mr. Sokolov argues that Protestantism has been rooted in Russia since the 19th century and that the Evangelical-Lutheran Church even established itself here in the 16th century. He adds that there are 150,000 Protestants today and that "no religion owns the souls of the people."

The Russian Orthodox hierarchy is worried about the spreading of various sects in Russia. It puts totalitarian sects such as Aum Shinri Kyo, responsible for the 1995 nerve gas attack in Tokyo's subway, and the local mystic group "White Brotherhood" in the same bag with the missions of the various Protestant groups.

These missions have prompted very public criticism from nationalist figures outside the Orthodox Church. During the recent presidential campaign, Gen. Alexander Lebed said in his usual blunt way that "sects are a direct threat to Russia's national security" and that only traditional religions should be allowed to develop. "All these Mormons are mold and filth which have come to destroy the state. The state should outlaw them. They should not exist on our soil," he argued in an attack that prompted President Clinton to complain publicly.

But after a boom in the early 1990s, a plateau seems to have been reached. Russia "is far more religious than Western Europe and about as much as the US," says Lawrence Uzzell, who monitors religious freedom for the Keston News Service.

"The atheist regime destroyed the spiritual life of the whole nation," says Archbishop Tadeus Kondusiewicz, the head of the Catholic Church in Russia. "For 70 years there was a privatization of faith. In this, we lost the middle generation, which is now busy making money. But the young and the old come to us and say, 'We have never seen the Book. We want to know, we want something permanent.'"

Now hangs a cross

Those of Polish, Lithuanian, and Belarussian descent tend to come to the Catholic Church. There are now 93 parishes, and a seminary was opened in 1993, but all of the church's 90 priests are foreigners. However modest the Catholic renewal, Archbishop Konduziewicz thinks Russians have a deep spiritual quest. "On the walls where portraits of Lenin, Stalin, or Khrushchev used to hang, now hangs a cross. People cannot leave the nail empty, they need to hang something on it," he says.

Although Lenin was portrayed as the savior of humankind by Communist propaganda, very few people come today to the mausoleum in Red Square where his body lies. Many more gather a few yards away, at the little Orthodox cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, recently rebuilt.

Father Kiselyov is one of its priests. The young former English student was tempted by the Baptist faith but he felt more at home with Orthodoxy.

"There is an inner sense rooted in the Russian tradition, and that's what I want to explain to young people," he says. He feels sorry that so many of his fellow priests spend more time in the physical task of rebuilding their churches than on pastoral work.

Father Kochetkov, whose parish church is located nearby, approaches the challenge from a different perspective. "It is a crucial moment for the Russian Orthodox Church. There is a competition of spiritual values.... That means radical changes in church life, and people who want to repeat mechanically what was done in the 19th-century are not ready."

Father Kotchekov belongs to the minority "progressive" group within the church, challenging the "nationalist tendency" of Father Kiselyov. With the religious renewal and new freedoms, a debate is raging over the role the church should play in Russian society. The hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church has avoided taking a clear position in favor of one side or the other, fearing an open crisis.

It prefers to busy itself with reestablishing its physical strength and its prerogatives, courting the national authorities and being courted by them. It wants to fill in what its sees as a mere historical hiatus. "If you see Russia in the context of its old roots, then we can say that if it is not Orthodox, it is not Russia," says Archbishop Sergi, chancellor of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Yakov Vidyapin and his wife, Masha Pokrovshai, could not agree more. They didn't get married in church simply to make a social statement, nor did they baptize their daughter only because it is now fashionable. Their faith gives meaning to their lives and sense to Russian history.

They favor the canonization of the imperial family and explain why they are monarchists. "It is ... in accordance with the teaching of the church. A legal ruler of a nation is a person anointed by God.... I understand that the restoration of the monarchy is not possible now or in the near future; it is the only form of government I recognize," Mr. Vidyapin says.

On a practical level, "religious renewal in Russia is different from the West," argues religious affairs writer Dmitri Shusharin, pointing to the relative social impact. "In the West you can have a low church attendance, but the impact of the believers is high. In Russia you have a mass religiousness, but weak institutional and moral influence."

On an individual level, however, faith in Russia offers answers to the same universal questions as anywhere else. Motovilova looks for them in the Bible. "When I read it, I feel alive," she says.

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