An unemployed lumberman of Vazhini. (photo: Sean Sprague)
A mourning woman comforts her granddaughter at the grave of the child’s mother. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Vazhini at dusk appears idyllic. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Father Michael concludes liturgy. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Homegrown produce is a staple. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Train travel resembles time travel in contemporary Russia. Last autumn Sergei Bassehes, my travel companion and interpreter, and I took such a journey from the city of St. Petersburg to the village of Vazhini, 150 miles northeast of the city.
The contrast was striking. Store windows in St. Petersburg displayed expensive Western-made goods. Well-dressed entrepreneurs in German-made luxury cars, shielded by body guards, attested to the growing wealth of a few of the citys inhabitants. Meanwhile, Vazhini resembled the villages described more than a 100 years ago by the Russian writer Gogol forsaken.
As we clambered out of our railroad car, a dozen young men armed with buckets of wild berries scrambled to sell their wares to the passengers remaining on the train. We were greeted by my friends Victor and Irene, who explained that most of the villages men were unemployed:
The lumber industry, our main livelihood, declined after the forests were depleted or sold to American or Finnish investors, the couple explained.
For those who have jobs, there is rarely work. Victor is a crane operator at the railroad station, but he is seldom needed. He receives a monthly stipend of $17 from the state. Irene receives a teachers pension, which is just a few dollars more.
Sergei and I spent our days strolling through this village of 8,000, sometimes stopping for a cup of strong, dark tea and a few cookies with a friendly family. And in the evenings we occasionally shared a bottle of spirits, potatoes, fresh fish and cucumber-and-tomato salad.
Our conversations, though mixed with irony and laughter, were intense and often touched with despair. And while we frequently discussed God and the church, more often than not the subject was entangled in economic and political frustration and cynicism.
Beneath the few basic possessions that help make life bearable lies extreme poverty. For the average Russian outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, like Victor and Irene, the oppressive but comfortably predictable Brezhnev era has vanished, replaced by a free-market free-fall. For example, poor quality meat, produce and other supplies, if they can be found at all in the villages meager shops, are comparable in price to first quality goods in New York City! Victor and Irene survive, together with the majority of Russians today, thanks to their garden and their rivers and streams.
One 73-year-old pensioner, now an avowed atheist, wished for a return to the good old days: There are no certainties in life anymore, he said as he fertilized his small plot with pig manure. Nothing can be taken for granted: health care, work and food are no longer obtainable. What freedoms do I have today in my poverty?
For Father Michael, the 30-year-old priest who staffs the villages parish church, freedoms today include the right to worship God, celebrate the sacraments, preach, teach catechism and instill Christian values.
There were once some 60 churches in the region. Of the six remaining structures, only the church in Vazhini survived the Soviet period as a functioning one. Built by local craftsman more than 365 years ago, it is a lovely wooden structure that benefits from a unique wood-splitting technique that makes the logs watertight.
Father Michael took us through the lovingly cared-for interior, dominated by a multitiered iconostasis. Initially suspicious, the priest warmed up as he took us through the church. A priest for five years, Father Michael explained that in a previous life he had been a leader in the Communist Youth League and a folk singer.
Not unlike other Russian Orthodox converts, Father Michael, in converting to Orthodoxy, was also rejecting all things traditionally viewed as anti-Orthodox and anti-Russian which are synonymous in Russian nationalist circles. Western-initiated gestures, especially the ecumenical movement, received harsh words from this zealous priest. Nevertheless, he invited us to attend liturgy the following Sunday.
The two-hour liturgy drew about 50 people, most of whom were middle-aged women and the elderly. Very few understood the responses and the structure of the service. The sermon and choral singing were inspiring, but the flood of worshippers, so evident in Moscow and St. Petersburg, was but a trickle in Vazhini. One young man, who introduced himself to us afterward, began attending church five years ago. Although he did not understand the Bible, the man said, he attained a degree of solace from the readings in church.
While the liturgy drew to a close, groups of villagers tended the graves of their loved ones in the village cemetery that surrounded the church. We met a couple standing sullenly over the grave of their 24-year-old daughter, who had died of liver disease. A little girl, about three years old, stood in silence, her vacant face tucked in the leg of her grandmother. The childs father, an alcoholic, abandoned her after his young wife died, leaving his in-laws to care for the tot. We heard many sad tales that day in that cemetery, personal tragedies usually involving alcohol.
When I visited Moscow in the autumn of 1995, 1 spoke with a dynamic parish priest, Father Alexander Borisov, who believed alcoholism in Russia was a symptom of a larger evil despair.
The worst thing is despair and, if despair could be alleviated, it would solve 98 percent of Russias problems, the priest said. Despair is a principal sin: it is to be without God.
Although grasped intellectually at the time, the full impact of Father Borisovs observations was not felt until we traveled to Vazhini.
To most people with whom we spoke in Vazhini (indeed it could be said of many people throughout the country) the church had little relevance to their daily lives. More than 75 years of dialectical materialism the Marxist theory stressing the material basis of reality and the priority of matter over spirit, which had been repeatedly hammered into them has erased the hopes of many post-Communist Russians. They have been robbed of their dignity.
The disappointment of a life lacking in spirituality is not yet a spirituality reflected the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, in a speech given several years ago at Georgetown University.
The church [will] go through much pain and effort to bring millions of people, poverty-beaten and trodden by ideological and administrative oppression back from the ashes and ruins to a life of dignity.
But the Patriarchs efforts to re-Christianize a confused populace are hampered by limited finances and personnel shortages.
Behind the cynicism, despair and misery of contemporary Russia, however, lies the mystical Russian Soul, that unique sense of self and purpose that has traditionally characterized the Russian. Throughout history, the Russians have waged war with invaders and oppressors. Now, throughout the land, in villages like Vazhini, Russians must slay the sin of despair and embrace the freedom of hope.
This is photojournalist Sean Sprague’s 50th contribution to ONE magazine.