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Orthodoxy Renewed

Russia’s church wrestles with a changing society

Kiril Kaleda remembers 1990 as the year of an unusually abundant harvest of apples in the Moscow region. Then a young geologist, Mr. Kaleda was invited by friends to help pick the fruit at a small orchard near their cottage in Butovo, a village five miles south of the city limits. Approaching the village by car, they drove by a long green fence. Pointing to it, a friend turned to Mr. Kaleda and said, “Do you know what it is? It’s a horrible place. Thousands of people were shot and buried here.”

Little did he know the mass grave was intimately linked to the trials of his own family, which mirrored those the Orthodox Church of Russia endured after the abdication of the tsar in 1917.

For three consecutive generations, members of Mr. Kaleda’s family have served as Orthodox priests. His maternal grandfather, Vladimir Ambartsumov, responded to his priestly calling during his student days in Berlin, where he was involved with Christian youth groups. When he returned to Russia just before the outbreak of World War I, he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1927.

At the time of his ordination, Russia’s Orthodox clergy lived precariously. When the Bolsheviks took power in November 1917, they severed ties between the Orthodox Church and the state. The church was stripped of its special legal status and forbidden to exercise its pastoral responsibilities to the military, prisons and schools. All religions, as well as militant atheism, were placed on an equal footing before the law. This did not usher in a Western-style democratic secularism. Instead, the Bolsheviks launched a “Red Terror,” targeting Orthodox religious along with “counterrevolutionaries” suspected of anti-Bolshevik activity.

“We must put down all resistance with such brutality that they will not forget it for several decades,” wrote Lenin in March 1918.

“The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing … the better.”

From 1918 to 1922, tens of thousands of priests, bishops, monks and nuns were brutally murdered: Near St. Petersburg, henchmen tied one archpriest to a railway car, which dragged him along until he died. Three priests in the Crimea were crucified. Seven nuns in Voronezh were burned in boiling tar. A bishop from Samara was impaled on a stake.

In 1921, Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka, the dreaded secret police of the Bolsheviks, wrote: “The church is falling apart; we should help it fall. … Our stakes are with Communism, not religion, and the Cheka should concentrate on [its] elimination.”

As the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, they institutionalized their onslaught on the Orthodox Church, which one historian of the period, Dimitry Pospielovsky, calls the “holocaust” of the Russian church. Soviet Russian authorities converted monasteries (such as the famous Solovetsky) into prisons, closed churches, dynamited shrines, confiscated plate and pillaged reliquaries. Clergy and religious simply disappeared, their relatives told they had been tried, sentenced and packed off to a penal colony to serve out their sentences.

Among these victims was Kiril Kaleda’s grandfather, Father Vladimir Ambartsumov, who was arrested in 1937 at the peak of Stalin’s purges. When the priest’s daughter, Lidia, inquired about his fate, an agent of the N.K.V.D. (the Soviet government’s secret service agency) told her her father had been sentenced to “ten years of labor camps without right to correspond.” In 1937, few people knew this was a euphemism that generally meant execution by a firing squad.

In 1995, a Russian government-appointed commission confirmed that more than 200,000 clergy, religious and lay leaders were murdered under Lenin and Stalin. A year later, Patriarch Alexei II began the process to commemorate many of these men and women as “New Martyrs, Confessors and Passion-Bearers of Russia,” instituting the celebration of their feast on the Sunday closest to 25 January.

Stalin eased his persecution of the Orthodox Church when Hitler’s armies threatened Soviet Russia’s historic heartland. In April 1942, with the German armies at the gates of Moscow, he allowed Russians to celebrate Easter openly for the first time in years. These gestures in part reflected the pressure of Stalin’s Anglo-American allies, but they also recognized the church’s patriotism and war efforts.

This revival, however, ended when Nikita Khrushchev took power in 1955. Though largely responsible for overseeing de-Stalinization — a period marked by political reform and a greater degree of individual freedom — he reverted to prewar hard-line policies against the Orthodox Church, cracking down on clergy, shuttering churches, monasteries and schools and prohibiting churchgoers from attending services. Many churches were leveled, while others were converted to storage or agricultural facilities. Even in the waning years of the Soviet Union, just as the Communist government began softening on individual freedoms even further, a visit to a church could cost a person his or her career. The nation’s few remaining active parishes consisted mostly of elderly women.

Yet individuals resisted in silence, holding steadfast to their Orthodox faith. Among them was Father Gleb Kaleda — husband of Lidia Ambartsumov and father of Kiril. Born in 1921, Father Kaleda belonged to a generation of men, half of whom were killed during World War II. A decorated soldier, he served in the Soviet army from 1941 to 1945. After the war, he enrolled at the university, where he earned a doctorate in geology. In 1951, Dr. Kaleda married Lidia Ambartsumov. They lived according to Russian Orthodox tradition, at times taking grave risks to practice their faith in a nation hostile to organized religion.

In the early 1970’s, Dr. Kaleda felt he was called to live a deeper Christian life. An accomplished scholar — with many major projects and published works to his credit — he secretly entered the Orthodox priesthood. For almost 20 years, he served a small, clandestine congregation from his Moscow apartment, which was consecrated as the Church of All Saints.

After Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985, the status of the Orthodox Church began to change, as did all elements of Soviet life.

The first developments coincided with the public celebrations marking the millennial anniversary of the baptism of the Rus’, which commenced with the full support of the state in 1988. Many desecrated church buildings and monasteries — often in a state of extreme disrepair — were returned to the Moscow patriarchate, which had no funds to rehabilitate them. A year later, President Gorbachev paid an official visit to Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, an event that was unthinkable just a few years before. Religious newspapers also appeared; publishing houses turned to printing biblical, liturgical and theological literature; and Sunday schools, no longer secret affairs, sprouted for students of all ages. Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the number of churches in Moscow alone has increased sevenfold, returning to its prerevolutionary level. Still, huge swaths of modern Moscow, now a megalopolis of 10.5 million people, are without churches.

The situation is worse in Russia’s provinces. “There used to be five churches in our town,” says Father Sergei Kruglov, the prior of the Cathedral of Salvation in Minusinsk, Siberia. “Now, there’s only our church. Under the Soviets, it was converted into a grain depot — thank God not just blown up — and our parishioners find petrified grain in nooks and crannies to this day.

“Have we really considered the experience of our New Martyrs?” he asks. “Have we repented for all the horrible things that had happened in Russia in the 20th century? There’s been much talk about repentance, but I haven’t seen much of it.”

As with everything in post-Soviet Russia, the revival of the Orthodox Church has provoked controversy. Hierarchs now participate in most important state functions. And the highest state officials, including President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, regularly attend major Orthodox celebrations, which air on all state-sponsored television stations.

Many observers fear the church’s return to favor has happened too quickly and its growing dependence on the state has gone too far. Some bishops and priests, anxious about accusations of corruption and xenophobic nationalism, have been marginalized for their criticism.

In the mid-1990’s, a dispute erupted involving several Orthodox bishops and the tobacco trade regarding tax exemptions. And recent plans to introduce the “basics of Orthodox culture” into the curriculum of state schools have fueled bitter public controversy. Opponents claim the project violates the separation of church and state defined by the Russian constitution. A compromise, which proposes to offer classes on Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and secular ethics, has not satisfied any party.

Caught in the middle are the church’s parish clergy, men fired with the enthusiasm and faith of converts, who have entered its ranks with only the basics of formation. For them, life is far from comfortable.

With the nation in the throes of economic and social upheaval, especially in its rural interior, parish priests must confront the social ills affecting their parishioners — cynicism, despair, substance abuse and unemployment. In addition, priests struggle to keep their parishes afloat. By law each parish is an independent economic unit; aid from the patriarchate, eparchy or state does not usually cover all expenses, which include support for the priest, his wife and children.

With the rise of nationalism within the many republics of the former Soviet Union, Orthodox priests also have been subject to hate crimes. In 1990, unknown assassins brutally murdered Father Alexander Men near his home in Semkhoz, just northeast of Moscow. One of Russia’s most influential priests especially beloved by the intelligentsia, Father Men was of Jewish origin. And last November, Father Daniil Sysoyev was shot to death in his Moscow church, probably in revenge for his work among the city’s Muslims and his critical remarks of Islam.

Maya Kucherskaya, a well-respected critic, writer and professor of Russian literature at the Russian School of Economics, has spotlighted the many difficulties facing the Orthodox Church of Russia.

Her collection of short stories, “The Modern Patericon: To Be Read in Times of Despair,” was greeted with cheers from both religious and secular circles, but many readers were baffled. Some stories depicted church life as grotesque and dark, and some, posing as children’s tales, plunged into absurdity. In one story, a priest hides under the table during a meal and tugs at his colleagues’ cassocks. When asked what he is doing, he explains he wants “to become as little children.” In another tale, an Orthodox hedgehog decides to baptize a heathen squirrel, drowning her in the process.

“I was astonished that some people chose to take such stories seriously,” says Dr. Kucherskaya, who has also written a children’s adaptation of the New Testament.

“I thought the ‘exercises’ after the text, especially those that called the readers to ‘recreate’ the hedgehog and squirrel story, made the issue obvious.”

In 2007, she published a novel entitled “Rain God,” which documented the spiritual journey of a young protagonist, Anna, and her complex relationship with a priest.

“In the late 1980’s, when I myself was a student in the School of Philology at Moscow State University, taking baptism was still a nonconformist act. These days, it is nonconformist not to be baptized.

“I object being called an Orthodox author,” she adds. “When I see a sign that reads ’Orthodox Lawyer’ or ‘Orthodox Physician,’ I want to make an about-face and go find a good lawyer or physician. If he or she happens to be Orthodox, great. But in our society, there’s a schizophrenic divide between church and nonchurch life, and there shouldn’t be one. I’m trying to show it in my books.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Father Gleb Kaleda continued to shepherd his tiny parish. Free to live openly his priestly vocation, he undertook a variety of charitable works, becoming one of the first priests to minister to Russia’s prison population. Sadly, his work did not last long; he succumbed to cancer in 1994. While his children followed in his footsteps and studied geology or medicine, a few, including geologist Kiril, have left their professions and entered religious life. Today, Father Kiril is the rector of the church in Butovo built as a memorial to the thousands executed there.

In 1956, when Stalin’s crimes were officially condemned, Father Kiril Kaleda’s parents were told that his grandfather, Father Vladimir Ambartsumov, had died of kidney failure 13 years earlier. Only in 1990 did they learn the truth: The priest had been executed by a firing squad on 5 November 1937, two days before the 20th anniversary of the Bolshevik coup d’état. At that time, his place of burial was unknown.

Details outlining the gruesome truth of Butovo were leaked to the press a few years later. As a result, in 1995, the K.G.B. handed over to the Orthodox Church some 500 acres of land in Butovo, where more than 20,000 people, including Father Kiril Kaleda’s grandfather, were shot and buried in 1937-38.

“I’m here because my grandfather, Vladimir, is buried here,” says Father Kaleda. “I see it as my mission.”

A small wooden church now stands at the edge of the killing fields, which otherwise remain empty and featureless. One side of a nearby fence is covered with memorial plaques, detailing the names of the executed Russian Orthodox clergy. Some 1,000 priests, monks and nuns were shot in Butovo.

In 2007, Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow and Metropolitan Laurus of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia consecrated a new church dedicated to the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. Built of white stone with funds donated by pilgrims, it stands across the road from the place of execution.

A few weeks before Christmas, the Butovo church was filled with worshipers. The demographics of Russian churchgoers have changed since Soviet times. While elderly women still play a significant role (they are usually the most knowledgeable about the rites and everyday life of the parish), the number of young men and women, many of them with children, has grown.

After the Divine Liturgy, Father Kaleda spent almost an hour offering blessed bread to a long line of believers. In spite of the solemnity of the Orthodox liturgy, the interior of the church in Butovo was airy and full of light. Notices posted on its whitewashed walls addressed parishioners informally; “My dears,” they read instead of the more official, “Brothers and sisters,” of Orthodox parlance.

“My mother loves to come to Butovo,” says Father Kaleda. “She says that though her father was murdered here, it’s a serene place now.”

Contributors Victor Sonkin and Julia Vishnevets live and work in Moscow.

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