In troubled region, monks build site for peace
In the heart of the violent Caucasus, an ancient order is building a new monastery.
KURTATINSKOYE GORGE, RUSSIA — Father Anthony and his tiny band of Orthodox monks have turned their backs on the wars and political turmoil shaking the Caucasus region of southern Russia. In a gesture as old as Christianity, they are retiring to this remote North Ossetian mountain valley to build an island of peace.
The small, fortified monastery they are raising amid the ruins of a mountaintop 19th century cathedral, razed by the Bolsheviks 80 years ago, will be almost as isolated and self-sufficient as its medieval predecessors.
Like them, it is devoted to seeking tranquility in a region that is mired in brutal conflict.
"If you walk one day in any direction from here, you will find war and strife," says Father Anthony a gray-bearded and black-robed priest who, like most Ossetians, cleaves to Orthodox Christianity in a part of the world dominated by Muslim ethnic groups. "Society ... needs to be healed by spiritual means. Our mission here will be to spread God's blessings and peace."
Construction began last year amid grieving for the 331 people - half of them children - killed in a violent gun battle between terrorists and security forces in Beslan, just 25 miles away.
Contributions have poured in from people who see the new Uspenskoye [Assumption] monastery not only as a revival of Christian traditions in the troubled Caucasus, but also as a symbol of Ossetian national survival.
Father Anthony says thousands of people have shown up in recent months to seek benediction at the monastery's newly built chapel. That includes many from nearby South Ossetia, a breakaway republic locked in a simmering war of independence with the post-Soviet state of Georgia.
"The Ossetian people are one nation, one people who have suffered terribly," says Father Anthony. "We are not broken. Now we are rediscovering the strength of our faith and our traditions."
But farmers in this high range, steep-sloped river gorge, where the chief source of income is raising hardy mountain sheep, have complained the new monastery itself has become the area's biggest source of discord.
"Grazing land is very scarce and is carefully apportioned among local people, and then along comes a bunch of monks who seize a big chunk of it," says Taimuraz Pliyev, a historian in the regional capital Vladikavkaz. "The Church is a big power these days and you can't argue with it. But people there [in Kurtatinskoye] are upset and angry."
Father Stefan, who meets with the locals, admits there have been problems. "The old generation were brought up in an atheist state, the Soviet Union, and so it's hard for them to understand what we're trying to do," he says. "When we started here, some of them accused us of being land-grabbers. But it has settled down now. People see we are reviving the place."
A few young men from the tiny village of Latz, down the road, have found jobs at the monastery as stonecutters, carpenters and laborers.
"Some people are still griping, but what's the point?" says Aslanbek Gariyev, a shepherd who has found temporary construction work at the monastery. "I think things will turn out well."
The nine mainly youthful monks who have joined Father Anthony are committed to a rigorous regime of poverty, celibacy, and hard work. Some say they felt driven by the stresses and horrors of the post-Soviet world to seek a life of seclusion. "I just dream of a quiet routine of work and prayer," says Brother Serafim, a young former distillery worker, who says modern life "ran out of meaning" for him. "When we've finished construction of the monastery, I want to begin raising medicinal plants and herbs from the mountains around here. I think that would be a worthy life."
The completed monastery will have space for 20 monks, all of whom will be expected to take on some sort of trade. "The first duty of a monk is to pray, and here in North Ossetia there is a great deal to pray for," says Father Stefan.
"But a monastery should also be self-sufficient, like a small country, with its own farming, weaving, and light production. By these means, we hope to light up the righteous path for all our brethren."