From Russia, With Art

One hundred years after Russia’s communist revolution inaugurated an era of church persecution and state-sponsored atheism.

One hundred years after Russia’s communist revolution inaugurated an era of church persecution and state-sponsored atheism, an Eastern Orthodox novel recently won the country’s top literary prize, and a statue of the country’s first Christian emperor was erected outside the Kremlin walls.

The book and the statue epitomize a trend in contemporary Russia where artists from a variety of disciplines are hard at work to respond to rising interest in the country’s religious heritage.

“In modern Russia, there is an excellent trend: Our churches are becoming not only the centers of spiritual life, but also of cultural life,” said Alexey Puzakov, a leading conductor in Moscow.

“It is joyful that in modern Russia, one can express himself inside the church, both in a spiritual and a creative manner,” he told Catholic News Service.

The movement Puzakov highlights contrasts sharply with active participation in a parish. According to a recent study from the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, only 6 percent of the Orthodox population in Russia attends church weekly.

But, the study reported, 57 percent of Russians believe Orthodox Christianity is an important feature of national identity.

Religious devotion is reflected in a variety of artistic and cultural forms that are not all tied to the institutional church, Puzakov said.

“Human talent can be realized in different ways: through word, through painting and through sound,” the conductor explained. “All these are gifts from God that we cannot find in any hierarchy.”

Puzakov, who directs the Moscow Synodal Choir in performances by composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, said performers and composers need the inspiration of faith in order to achieve excellence.

“The teaching of Jesus Christ is the root of all Christian art,” he said. “Good church singing is impossible without prayer.”

If, in the liturgy, for example, “a singer does not sing the words of the prayers from his heart, the result will be very formal, there will be no real synthesis of the liturgical rite and the prayers,” Puzakov said.

Another artist, Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin, won his country’s most prestigious literature award for his 2012 novel “Laurus,” which is set in religious, medieval Russia.

“I wished to describe a way of life that is far from modern people,” Vodolazkin said, but one that is nevertheless attractive to contemporary readers.

Vodolazkin’s book details the religious quest of a “holy fool” in the Russian Orthodox tradition, a kind of ascetic who humiliates himself in the eyes of others to draw closer to God.

“Humans cannot live only through TV, the internet and shopping,” he said. “This all concerns a horizontal level (of living), while humans are looking for a vertical dimension to life.”

Orthodox Christianity is also influencing modern art in Russia. Andrey Antonov, for example, combines traditional peasant tools, like nails and sickles, as well as household items into cruciform objects and Christian-themed sculptures.

“The Russian peasant’s way of life developed from the Christian way of life,” Antonov explained. “Everything in this life revolved around the Christian feasts.”

Salavat Scherbakov, another sculptor, was at the center of a political controversy in 2015 in the run-up to the unveiling of his most recent sculpture: a giant depiction of St. Vladimir, Russia’s first Christian ruler.

After public debate about where the statue would be situated and whether St. Vladimir was an appropriate figure to represent modern Russia, Scherbakov’s work was placed just outside the walls of the Kremlin.

“We are coming back to our roots,” Scherbakov said. “We still do not understand these roots well enough; it is a kind of new search for identity.”

Because Christianity was persecuted for 70 years under state-sponsored atheism in communist Russia, the sculptor said, it is to be expected that contemporary Russians are rediscovering their heritage.

“A lot of my mother’s ancestors were members of the clergy, and some were rather famous,” he said. “So my interest in Christianity is not something unusual; it is rather natural.”

In the realm of architecture, Sergey Pavlov said he devotes his free time to designing and restoring churches in Russia.

“The majority of projects I’ve seen recently can be called a kind of search for tradition,” said Pavlov, who works as chief architect of the Peterhof State Museum-Reserve.

But true expertise is needed to properly restore churches, he said, and, unfortunately, many architects are simply trying to imitate previous structures without truly understanding their liturgical purpose.

The Soviet period led to the break of handing on traditional church architecture through master-apprentice relationships, Pavlov said. That rupture makes the building of new churches more challenging.

“We are not the direct heirs of pre-revolutionary Russia, but I hope that the process of rethinking is constructive and creative,” he said. “There is demand for such work.”

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