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From Pravda to YouTube

Christian media expand reach and influence in Russia

On 10 October 2010, the Orthodox Church of Russia officially launched its own YouTube channel. The site’s first video features Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow and All Russia blessing the channel.

“We are doing this just to make the word of God … closer to the life of the modern person, especially the youth,” explains the formally vested patriarch.

“YouTube is a noticeable phenomenon in modern cultural life … It is very important that the church use this system.”

The sight of Patriarch Kirill speaking directly to YouTube users represents a striking contrast: the leader of the most prominent bulwark of tradition in contemporary Russia using modern technology to reach his flock.

And there are signs his flock’s interest in this new technology is growing. Patriarch Kirill inaugurated the YouTube channel during the fourth international festival of Orthodox media, entitled “Faith and Word.” Held at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, reconstructed in the 1990’s, the festival attracted several hundred guests from around the world. Less than ten years ago, a similar gathering attracted just a few dozen participants in a modest conference hall.

The growing influence of Russia’s Orthodox Church and its media stands out as one of the most astonishing features of the country’s post–Soviet landscape.

Less than 30 years ago, Soviet authorities had suppressed the church, dissuaded the faithful from worship and outlawed religious publications and media. Editors excised biblical references from all literature. Leaders frowned on writings by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, whose works are imbued with Christian themes.

For most of the Soviet era, scholars did not dare publish anything related to religion apart from disparaging criticisms. It was not until the 1980’s, when Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in his policy of openness called Glasnost, that renowned philologist and historian Sergei Averintsev published a history on Byzantine Christianity.

The Soviets did, however, permit members of Moscow’s closely monitored Orthodox patriarchate to print a magazine during the latter years of the 20th century. Soviet authorities, however, relegated the magazine to restricted stacks in public libraries.

Not surprisingly, Soviet suppression of the church nearly destroyed the country’s Orthodox Church. Many Russians who lived through those years do not know even the most basic principles of the Orthodox faith.

In recent years, the Orthodox Church has risen triumphantly from the brink of extinction and become a powerful, omnipresent pillar of Russian cultural and political life.

After decades of iron–fist Soviet rule, Russia, if nothing else, ranks among the most secular states in the world. Article 14 of the 1993 Russian Constitution declares the country a secular one and prohibits the state from sponsoring or requiring citizens to belong to any religion. But today, the government has begun observing all major Orthodox holidays. Public radio and television regularly broadcasts the celebration of the Divine Liturgy from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. High–level government representatives are expected to attend the televised services on Christmas and Easter; film crews usually make it a point to record officials and their families for a few moments. Given that many of these politicians once belonged to the Communist Party, which propagated an antichurch agenda, this apparent conversion is especially remarkable.

The government’s unabashed support of the Orthodox Church extends into other programming as well. Regular features on public stations educate audiences about, and address issues of concern to, the Orthodox community — which is historically the dominant faith of the nation. In contrast, there are no such programs about Judaism, Islam and other religions — all of which are present in contemporary Russia.

In some regions, public schools now teach students the basics of Russian Orthodox Christianity. This addition to public schools’ curricula remains controversial, especially among Russia’s educated, urban middle and upper classes. The media — both secular and Orthodox — closely follow the debate, often engaging commentators both in favor and opposed to the policy.

In the early 1980’s, Glasnost allowed Russians to explore their spirituality openly for the first time since the Bolshevik coup d’état in 1917. Many desired to reconnect with the faith of their forefathers — Orthodoxy. And when the Soviet Union collapsed less than a decade later and the Russian Federation was established, this privilege became a fundamental right, enshrined in the nation’s constitution.

Free to minister and evangelize, Russian Orthodox leaders and laity began building media outlets to reach out to the millions who grew up without knowing or practicing their ancestral faith. Almost overnight, Orthodox newspapers and magazines sprang up all over the country.

Today, many bookstores maintain a section on Orthodoxy. Numerous shops specializing in Orthodox literature and theology have also opened around the country. Russia’s federal agency for mass communication now registers hundreds of Christian publications, most of which are affiliated with the Orthodox Church of Russia.

The proliferation of Orthodox media both reflects and fuels a spiritual revival in the formerly atheist nation. Sunday schools have multiplied; most parishes offer children and youth classes on the tenets of the faith.

No longer sanctuaries for elderly parishioners alone, churches attract more young families now than in living memory. The average age of churchgoers in rural and urban areas is at its youngest in modern history.

But perhaps Orthodox media’s greatest impact has been in improving the public’s knowledge about the faith and raising the church’s sociopolitical and cultural profile.

The most popular Orthodox news media outlets in Russia are those officially sponsored by the Moscow patriarchate, including, “Foma: An Orthodox Review for the Doubting,” an online and print newspaper, and “Spa,” the country’s first Orthodox television network.

Vladimir Legoyda, editor in chief of Foma, addressed participants at the Faith and Word festival last October. Recently appointed head of the Moscow patriarchate’s information department, Mr. Legoyda stressed the church’s vital interest in keeping up with media trends.

“Today, when even blogs are no longer the thing of the day, when we’re looking into a new level of social networking, it’s unacceptable for our eparchies to have primitive web sites made according to prehistoric standards. Unfortunately, many of us are still living in prehistory, but we need to change.”

Active since 1991, Radonezh is Russia’s first Orthodox radio station and the most popular independent Orthodox media source.

A radio station that broadcasts nationwide, Radonezh also operates a sister television station, a daily newspaper, a web site and three high schools. It receives most of its support from donations and corporate underwriters.

“If Perestroika would have happened a few years later than it did, I and my friends could have ended up in prison,” says Yevgeny Nikiforov, the director and driving force behind Radonezh.

“The radio, by far our most ambitious and successful project, was conceived in Paris, of all places, in 1990. A wonderful man, Father Boris Bobrinsky, had for years financed a tiny radio station with a studio in Paris and transmitter in Portugal, which broadcast two hour–long sessions a week. But the new times provided opportunity for something much more ambitious, and that’s how our Radonezh, the successor of Father Boris’s Voice of Orthodoxy, was born.”

Though it claims its news and commentaries are unbiased and representative of all views within the church, Radonezh for the most part appeals to a Slavophile audience — one that is more conservative and proudly nationalist.

In a recent online broadcast, for instance, Mr. Nikiforov said: “Orthodoxy has hierarchy. It boasts apostolic succession from our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no direct succession of that kind in Judaism or Islam, which have many groups, many synagogues, many movements that often cannot agree with each other. Something very similar happens in Western Christianity, with the Protestant divisions and their billions of heresies, which cannot find any mutual understanding.”

Independent media ventures, which wrap themselves in the mantle of Orthodoxy, promote a xenophobic and anti–Semitic political agenda. Founded in 1993, Rus’ Pravoslavnaya (or, Orthodox Russia) publishes a weekly “Battlefield Report,” which describes the latest developments in what it describes as “the resistance of Russians and other nations against occupational Zionist regimes.”

The owner and chief editor of Rus’ Pravoslavnaya, Konstantin Dushenov, is currently serving a three–year prison term after a federal court found him guilty of “extremist activity.” The controversial court decision prompted outcry from right–wing extremists. To the dismay of many, the case did little to diminish the newspaper’s credibility; the web site receives more hits now than ever before.

Though a flagrant example of right–wing extremism, Rus’ Pravoslavnaya and the ideas behind it have more than enough sympathizers.

“All groups that use Orthodoxy as their political platform can be classified as nationalist,” says sociologist Alexander Verkhovsky. “Some of them directly support ethnic xenophobia and discrimination, others are less aggressive, but there is a strong trend to equal religious identity with national identity.”

Though some prominent members of the Orthodox community view ecumenism with suspicion, an influential contingent has long advocated for greater involvement in international ecumenical efforts.

Renowned Orthodox biblical scholar Father Alexander Men is generally credited as the founder of the modern–day ecumenical movement within the Orthodox Church. During the waning years of the Soviet era, the priest placed ecumenism at the center of his ministry and life’s work. Until his assassination in 1990, he wrote prolifically and gave impassioned sermons on the subject, earning him legions of loyal followers who today carry on his ecumenical message. Among other activities, the group publishes the magazine Pravoslavnaya Obschina (or, Orthodox Community), which features scholarly articles on ecumenism and the Soviet persecution of Orthodox believers — a topic studiously avoided by most Orthodox media.

Another outlet committed to ecumenism is Blagovest Media. Based in St. Petersburg, Blagovest Media produces and syndicates to Russian television networks documentaries about Christianity and the shared traditions of Russia’s churches.

Several of its documentaries have received critical acclaim, winning awards at international film festivals. The late Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow and All Russia publicly commended many of Blagovest Media’s programs.

Blagovest Media also runs Blagovest Info, an online news agency reporting on issues of concern to Russia’s Christian community.

Blagovest Media collaborates with the Catholic pastoral aid agency Aid to the Church in Need and its outreach programs.

“In a country where Catholics were traditionally viewed with suspicion, our work predictably runs into certain difficulties,” explains Yelena Ignatyeva, senior manager of Blagovest Media. “But we find ways to overcome obstacles and establish a viable dialogue. We try to enlighten rather than proselytize and to foster mutual trust on both sides of the Christian conversation. As both Patriarch Kirill and Benedict XVI support our efforts, we are confident about our success.

“When traditional ethical norms and moral principles are under constant pressure or assault,” adds Ms. Ignatyeva, “we find the increasing presence of church in the media a very good thing.”

Contributor Julia Vishnevets live and work in Moscow.

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