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Russia’s Return to Orthodoxy

Russians rediscover their Orthodox roots.

Now that the Russian Federation has cast off its communist yoke, the world’s largest nation can get on with the business at hand – sustaining and reconstructing its broken society.

To spearhead these efforts, government leaders and members of the intelligentsia have enlisted the aid of a former enemy, the Russian Orthodox Church, and her leader, Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow.

The evangelization of Russia – the traditional heartland of Slavic Orthodoxy and the center of the former Soviet Union – is an enormous task. Russians feel they have become morally corrupt; unadulterated laziness plagues an already inefficient system; corruption is rampant; and alcoholism and crime have reached epidemic proportions. After 74 years of poverty and “overtake and surpass” rhetoric, Russians are exhausted and bitter.

“All we hoped for, all we believed in, all we sacrificed for – were lies,” confessed a babushka (grandmother) to Anthony Ugolnick, an American Orthodox deacon and Soviet specialist. “We have lost our faith.”

Although some Russians claim they have lost the faith, many hanker for what was lost – pravoslaviye russiya, Orthodox Russia.

The few churches that the Soviets kept open are packed with both the young and old. The number of baptisms is innumerable. Each day, the Church receives notification of the return of yet another warehouse, vodka factory or scientific museum – all former churches.

While visiting John Cardinal O’Connor in his New York residence in late November, Patriarch Alexei received a cablegram informing him that Moscow had returned to the Church St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square and the Kremlin cathedrals of the Dormition, Annunciation and Archangel Michael – the sites where Russia’s tsars were christened, crowned and buried.

Throughout this vast empire, churches buzz with the hum of workmen’s saws and the rich deep basses of the chanting choirs. Where is the money and energy coming from to regild the onion domes, restore the whitewashed frescoes and replace the fallen crosses?

The defeat of Soviet socialism has unleashed a reaction to things scientific and rational. Suddenly Russians have begun dabbling in the occult; new age and spiritist movements compete with fundamentalist sects imported from the United States. Faith healers and the like are the darlings of the new Russian media. This “acute fever,” as described by Sergei Kapitza, a respected Russian scientist, is a serious threat to Orthodoxy’s mission.

“…the disappointment of life lacking in spirituality is not yet a spirituality,” Patriarch Alexei reflected in a speech at Georgetown University on Nov. 15. “The Church is to 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 human dignity.”

To restore human dignity, the Church needs sufficiently trained priests, trained lay catechists, bibles and other religious literature to support charity and religious education. Denied the opportunity to fulfill its Christian mission under communism, orthodoxy must start from the beginning.

“This is no easy task,” the patriarch has declared. The flood of western funds supporting the fledgling faith healers and fundamentalist sects complicates the Church’s efforts. History is also a problem.

Since its adoption in the lands of Kievan Rus in 988-89 A.D., Byzantine Christianity has firmly rooted itself in the history and culture of what was formerly the Russian Empire. Orthodoxy lies at the core of the Russian identity.

Intimately united with the tsarist government, the Orthodox Church was employed to carry out the tsar’s policies of russification. Although the marriage of tsar and church is historically considered a happy one, little known evidence cites Orthodoxy’s attempts in the early 20th century to sever its ties with the government and re-establish the patriarchal system abolished by Peter the Great. The Revolution forced the Church to act.

After 74 years of intermittent persecution and tolerance, Orthodoxy has resurfaced as the unofficial state church of post-glasnost Russia. Like his medieval predecessors, Patriarch Alexei has taken the Russian bull by its horns.

At Boris Yeltsin’s pompous inaugural ceremonies (which featured a choral rendition of “Glory to our holy Rus’, Glory to our holy tsar” from Glinka’s opera, A Life for the Tsar), the patriarch grimly reminded Russia’s newly elected president that he was assuming responsibility “for a country that is gravely ill. Three generations of people were raised in conditions stripping them of the will and ability to work.”

The patriarch then stepped in front of Yeltsin and blessed him with a broad sign of the cross; a demonstration reminiscent of the Church’s significant role in tsarist Russia.

Another ghost from Russia’s pre-Revolutionary past appeared with the patriarch on the eve of the 74th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution – Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich Romanov, a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, and heir to the Russian throne.

The grand duke attended a liturgy celebrated by the patriarch in the extravagant Cathedral of St. Isaac in the rechristened city of St. Petersburg. “All my life I have followed closely what our country suffered,” announced the 74-year-old grand duke to a crowd of monarchists and the merely curious. “With my whole heart I hoped, to the extent of my power, to be useful to the nation.”

With two leaders of the reform movement in attendance, mayors Anatoly A. Sobchak of St. Petersburg and Gavriil K. Popov of Moscow, Patriarch Alexei used the occasion to again address Russia’s anguish:

“We have gathered in this great church to pray…that they [the saints] would heal our infirmities and give us the strength and courage to overcome all the trials and tribulations ahead.”

Critics cite these events as attempts by the Church to assert its pre-Revolutionary status. The patriarch has denied these charges, reaffirming the separation of church and state and guaranteeing the rights of all believers and non-believers.

The Orthodox Church’s concentration on internal matters is complicated by new challenges fueled by external fundamentalist sects. Like victorious armies moving in for the spoils, hordes of these western-aided sects are descending upon Russia in an attempt to evangelize “the godless.”

For ten centuries, the Orthodox Church has stood by the Rus. During times of foreign domination, Orthodoxy wedded itself to the land. It alone preserved the identity of the Rus during the Mongol, Polish and communist occupations. The church erected magnificent cathedrals and humble churches, painted exquisite icons and frescoes, composed haunting hymns and educated the masses.

Proselytization has confused the Russian populace. The Orthodox Church, the traditional faith of Russia, needs material, moral and spiritual support from her sister churches in the West. Rendering this support, all Christians would rediscover their common goal:

to bring glad tidings to the poor…
to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.

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