Russia's Religious Revival
Russian Orthodoxy reestablishes itself - along with Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestant faiths
For 30 years, Lyudmila Ivanovna worked as a specialist in microchips, building Soviet spy satellites, her life dominated by the cold war.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
"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.