When it came to finding suitable cells for the "enemies of the people" in Josef Stalin's day, the Russian Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine's was ideal. In the early 1930s, monks were given 24 hours to leave, and operatives of the future KGB transformed the place of worship into a secret complex of torture and execution chambers.
Few places in Russia today better exemplify the extraordinary path of the church, from the depths of 70 years of enforced Soviet atheism - during which an estimated 200,000 clergy were systematically murdered, according to a presidential commission - to the feverish rebuilding of the past decade.
Russia's new president Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent once steeped in atheistic ideology, has filled many top government posts with KGB cronies. But St. Catherine's today is an example of how those days of persecution - at least of the Orthodox - have passed.
Scaffolding and the smell of fresh paint swath the 350-year-old onion-domed church complex here, bringing a sense of renewed mission, as gilt Orthodox crosses poke above the forest south of Moscow. But on ground level, evidence of a dark past is hard to ignore. The thick walls and small doors of monastic life made the work of Stalin's agents easy: Walls were reinforced with nondrillable concrete; all corners were rounded so victims could not commit suicide by throwing themselves at them.
The famous one-time dissident Alexander Solzhenitzen, writing in "The Gulag Archipelago," noted that parish-cum-prisons were "ideal for isolation," and that St. Catherine's was "the worst."
"Our church has gone through its own Golgotha [the Biblical mount where Jesus was crucified], and it strengthened in those years of persecution," says Maxim Demakov, stepping over a line of pipes in the church courtyard. Dump trucks, stacks of wood planks - even a half-carved new cross - make this an active construction site. "The church is building its foundation upon the prayers of those who were tortured," says Mr. Demakov, clad in black Orthodox robes, his ears turning red in the late autumn chill. "People aspire for the church, and the church speaks to people. But we can't shut our eyes to the problems. There are questions that need solving." Among issues that church leaders are grappling with: making the church relevant to Russians in a modern era.
Today, the jewel in the crown is the gleaming, newly refurbished Christ the Savior cathedral - blown up in 1931 on Stalin's orders - which looks out over the Moscow River in unabashed splendor, not far from the Kremlin. Russian leaders such as President Vladimir Putin - a former KGB agent once steeped in atheistic ideology - pay homage to church leaders.
And on paper at least, the results of rebuilding appear impressive: The 40 parishes in Moscow that existed in the 1980s have blossomed into more than 300, church officials say. The 18 monasteries that survived across the Soviet Union are now more than 500.
But while polls once showed that 55 to 65 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox, just 5 percent - some estimate only 1 or 2 percent - are regular churchgoers.
"People have come back, discovered that they have religious roots, and that they were deprived of this history for 70 years," says Hegumen Hilarion Alfeyev, head of external relations for the Moscow patriarchate. "But most are nominal believers. They know how to light candles and give donations, but they don't know the essence of the church."
The millions of baptisms carried out in the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union haven't translated into deeper spirituality, church officials say. And they say it's partly their fault. "The last 10 years have been marked by a revival of the church and its buildings, but not much was done to develop a new strategy of how the church should adapt itself to modern society," says Mr. Alfeyev.
A "first step" in addressing that, he says, came during a Bishop's Council in August. While hundreds of new martyrs were canonized - including Russia's controversial last Czar, Nicholas II - the bishops also, for the first time in church history, approved a 200-page "social doctrine" that speaks on everything from bioethics and abortion to globalization.
"It's a sign of renovation of the church, that it is not an antique from the 17th century, but an institution living in society that understands its problems and can comment," says Maxim Kozlov, dean of Moscow State University's St. Tatyana Chapel, and assistant professor at the Moscow Theological Academy.
Still, the transition from church-under-attack during the Soviet era - when the class "Basics of Atheism" was required for all students, and priests and believers alike hid their crosses - to a role as a central, moral pillar in society has not been easy. "People expected that the church would be a more miraculous phenomenon in their life, that when the church doors opened, something wonderful that they did not know before would happen," says Mr. Kozlov.
With many yearning for spiritual nourishment but disappointed with Orthodox religion, Russians have been turning to other faiths. In an effort to win back believers, the church is trying new methods of outreach, including television and the Internet. It has even restored the tradition of a roaming, proselytizing church train. Church boats and barges are also plying rivers. One aim is to "establish every parish as an open and warm society - not a closed society of professional Christians." After centuries of often serving as a state church - Peter the Great even had a ministry devoted to the church - the doctrine enables the church to take a moral stand against any government, and even calls for civil disobedience.
The doctrine enshrines a basic historical conservatism in the church, which holds that Russian Orthodoxy is the last bastion of "true faith" in an otherwise un-Christian world: "The very concept of tolerance in matters of faith," the doctrine declares, "is unacceptable."
The church, in fact, has been behind a law that restricts, and is likely to ban, many of the 17,000 non-Orthodox religious groupings in Russia, except for those deemed "traditional," like islam, Judaism and Buddhism. According to a law signed by Mr. Putin, those groups not registered by the end of this year - in a difficult process that has so far left several thousand unregistered - will be "liquidated."
Critics charge that the church can't overcome its history of overt Russian nationalism, and find fault with the new social doctrine. "This doctrine will not make a difference, because it is more liberal than many priests, and they will simply ignore it," says Yakov Krotov, a former church historian and columnist for Itogi magazine.
But basic Christian precepts such as the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," he contends, are compromised in the doctrine, which sanctions "justified use of force" and killing "as an extreme measure," when there is "a victory over the evil in one's soul."
While that may help justify Russia's ongoing, brutal war against separatist Muslim rebels in Chechnya, Mr. Krotov says, it is also a sign that the church has yet to find its post-Soviet moral bearing. Decades of persecution "has not made the church better. Communism was simply a tragedy that you can't come out of smiling and better. You are always worse off. We need more time." The Soviet legacy decimated the church. There were 300 bishops before the 1917 revolution, but by the end of the 1930s - when St. Catherine's monastery was one of the most notorious prisons - only four remained.
Forty-eight thousand churches in Russia were cut down to 7,000 by 1969. The turnaround began in 1988, during Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, when the church was allowed to celebrate its 1,000-year anniversary. The popular response was overwhelming. But today, in many ways, the church is in uncharted waters. "This is the first time in 2,000 years the church is adapting to a new environment, because the 20th century was missed, in terms of renewal," says Andrei Zolotov, a senior writer for the English-language Moscow Times who follows church issues.
While "in many ways, the church is still arguing the debates of the Middle Ages," he says, the challenge is to adapt "without losing itself in the new environment."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society