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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Sprouts from the Ashes

New life from old roots – the Russian Orthodox Church overcomes the challenges of post-Communist Russia.

Eleven of us were traveling together through Russia: seven members of the Orthodox Church in the United States, a retired Methodist minister, an Episcopal deacon and two Latin Catholics – my wife and me. We were responding to an invitation for “a Christian pilgrimage of mutual encouragement to visit remote parishes and monasteries of northern Russia.” The aim of the journey was “to witness a wounded church, culture and people being reborn.”

Some wounds were already visible as our flight from Finland landed at Petrozavodsk, Russia. Although a city of 300,000, the airport in Petrozavodsk is little more than a bumpy landing strip. Passport and customs inspection occurred in a sagging building with peeling paint surrounded by knee-high weeds. This was only our first glimpse of the debris produced by 70 years of Communism. We would see much more during our trip through Russia.

Petrozavodsk is the largest city in the Karelian region of Russia, an area east of Finland stretching up to the Arctic Circle. At the time of the 1917 revolution, a cathedral and 43 churches served Petrozavodsk population, then 80,000. Only two of these churches survived Communism. The others were destroyed or converted for other uses. The two that survived became “cemetery churches” – small churches in graveyards where prayers could be offered for the dead. We set out to visit them.

Our first stop was the Church of the Holy Cross. Badly overgrown trees shaded the cemetery surrounding the church. Although many of the Orthodox crosses marking the graves leaned precariously, there were some signs of continuing care. Tied to one cross with a name in Cyrillic and the dates 1887-1941 were two bright artificial flowers.

Would this cemetery be the image I would take away of the church in Russia – an image of past life now in decay? Not really. As we walked to the church I saw that its domes, previously hidden among the trees, were freshly painted and glistened blue in the sun. Inside we found a dozen people chanting midmorning prayers for the dead. It was a living church.

There were even more signs of life in the Church of St. Catherine, a small frame building located in the second cemetery. A group baptism was under way as we entered; a priest was reviewing some basics of the faith for those to be baptized and their godparents. With religious education forbidden during Communism, there was a lot of catching up to do.

Our third stop in Petrozavodsk was the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky. Its golden domes rose above the scaffolding, as the church is currently undergoing renovations to become the cathedral of Petrozavodsk. Demolished after the Communist revolution, the original cathedral was replaced by a fine arts theater. The Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, dating from the early part of this century, became a museum. The government returned it to the Orthodox Church; soon it will again be available for worship. We would see scaffolding around many church buildings during our pilgrimage, signs that these historic buildings, at one time secularized, are returning to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Deacon Sergei, part of the cathedral staff, was once an engineer; he then studied music. Today he is a deacon on his way to the priesthood. Deacon Sergei is typical of a number of men for whom the priesthood is a second career or vocation. Previously they were teachers or were engaged in another profession. Now, with seminary studies possible, they have become priests and are staffing newly opened parishes.

We took a day trip to one such parish in Ladva, a village of 3,000. As is generally true of this part of rural Russia, the houses in Ladva are constructed of wood. Most have large gardens; potatoes are a common crop. The people of Ladva live a simple, hard life – probably much like past generations, but for the television antennas sprouting from the roofs of the homes. A statue of Lenin stands in the village square. Later, as we toured the village school, we saw pictures of Lenin in the classrooms and an exhibit portraying how different phases in Lenin life are taught. Perhaps this bespoke a rural conservatism, perhaps a nostalgia for the days when Russia thought it could face a future of certainties rather than unknowns.

The next stop was Ladva community center. A Sunday school class put on a puppet show and sang for us while some parish women served us tea and homemade pastries. The pastor, Father Andrei, said a few words and then excused himself to offer prayers for a parishioner who had died.

After our refreshments, we followed Father Andrei and waited outside the apartment of the deceased. A wooden cross was tied to an old truck, transforming it into a hearse. The coffin, draped in red, was placed in the back of the truck. Then a slow procession made its way on foot to the cemetery.

Later Father Andrei showed us his church. He told us there had been an Orthodox Church in Ladva since the 1400. At the beginning of the 20th century Ladva had three parishes and a monastery; all were closed. The village had no priest for 50 years until Father Andrei moved to the village two years ago as pastor of St. Nikolai Church. As was customary in this part of Russia, the parish had a wooden summer church and a winter church of stone or brick. The wooden church was converted into and remains a government office; the winter church, dating back to the 1830, became a movie theater, then a warehouse. After the fall of Communism, however, it returned to the Orthodox Church.

Another day trip took us to the island of Kizhi in Lake Onega. On the island is the Church of the Transfiguration, one of the oldest and most picturesque wooden churches to survive in Russia. Built in 1714 and adorned with 22 domes, it was preserved by the Communists because of its architectural and historical value. Several other churches on the island were likewise preserved; historic wooden buildings were moved there from other parts of Russia, turning the three-mile island into an open-air museum. Cruise ships dock and unload tourists during the summer; from November to April, however, the island is locked in ice.

There had been no liturgy on Kizhi since the 1930, yet Russian Orthodoxy has been reborn, even in this state museum. The Church of the Intercession, built in 1764, is again a living parish, with Father Nikolai as its newly assigned pastor.

We met with Father Nikolai as he prepared the baptism of Sergei, a young man from a neighboring island. The baptism took place on the shores of Lake Onega. After the prayers of exorcism, Father Nikolai blessed the lake waters with holy oil. Then he waded in with Sergei and plunged him three times into the water in response to his threefold profession of faith. It was baptism such as St. Hippolytus described around 200 A.D.

Father Nikolai congregation is small and spread out over a number of islands. Few live on Kizhi during the winter, when Lake Onega is completely frozen; in fact, Father Nikolai must commute by helicopter to celebrate the liturgy.

Kizhi transformation from flourishing parish to museum to living parish once again parallels the fortunes of the Russian Orthodox Church over the last century. At one time, the Russian Orthodox Church enjoyed a place of privilege under the Tsars – Orthodoxy was part of Russian national identity. At the beginning of the 20th century, the church was the major contributor to the social services in Russia. There were up to eighty thousand churches in the country, including the beautiful wooden churches of Kizhi.

Then came the revolution. The Communist party set out to eradicate the church, which was seen as a rival. The government imprisoned or killed priests and closed parishes and monasteries by the thousands; only a handful of churches and monasteries remained. The Communist party instituted a systematic prohibition of church activities, including charities and schools. Church buildings, also, were destroyed or put to other uses: Kizhi, for example, became a museum and Moscow magnificent Cathedral of Christ Our Savior was replaced by a swimming pool. Those who went to church or had their children baptized were harassed and denied decent employment.

Though the government suppressed and marginalized the church it could not eradicate the faith of Russia Christians. Some, like Nikolai and his wife, Lucy, openly practiced their faith despite the cost. The couple was repeatedly threatened with the loss of their teaching jobs for having their two daughters baptized, but they stood their ground. Others followed suit or worshipped as best they could – in secret. The church was reduced to a nominal existence, but it did not die.

Now the pressure is off. Many churches have been returned to Orthodox control and bishops are once again free to assign priests. The Cathedral of Christ Our Savior was rebuilt in Moscow: the government is favorable to the Russian Orthodox Church as an expression of Russian nationalism. Today there is a new generation of young priests, such as Father Nikolai at Kizhi and Father Andrei at Ladva. There is a new generation seeking baptism, such as Sergei, who swell the ranks of those who persevered in their faith despite Communism. There are youthful faces in choirs and liturgies.

The image occurring to me as a symbol of our pilgrimage was that of a once-mighty forest devastated by fire. Only a few blackened trees survived. But around these charred trunks sprouts of green push through the ashes – new life springing forth from old roots.

George Martin is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.

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