ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

This Year, Moscow

A trip to Moscow unearths more questions than answers.

And now at last the goal is in sight:
In the shimmer of the white walls gleaming near,
In the glory of the golden domes,
Moscow lies great and splendid before us!

These tender words by Russia’s most beloved poet, Alexander Pushkin, occurred to me as my plane landed at Moscow’s Sheremetievo airport last January on the eve of the Epiphany.

As the bus took me closer to the city, however, I was greeted not by medieval monasteries with golden domes and three-bar crosses, but by wide boulevards, grim office buildings and smokestacks.

Enchantment with things Russian extends back to my childhood, but until January, I had never been to that country. Like Anton Chekhov’s three provincial ladies in his play Three Sisters, I often mused, “Next year, Moscow.”

As my departure for Moscow approached, I thought my visit would answer some questions and confirm a few opinions. I was certain I would have much to write about Moscow, and Russia by extension. I thought wrongly. Instead I am baffled by a city and a nation confused about its past, present and future.

In a land where great numbers of saints once walked on pilgrimage, where writers and philosophers discussed how to improve the peasants’ lot, where revolutionaries gathered to plan an earthly paradise, the victims of corruption, greed and fear now wander. Poverty, political instability and moral and spiritual apathy have generated a loss of self-knowledge. “Holy Russia has lost her soul,” lament her cultural, religious and social leaders.

References to the Russian “soul” abound in this nation’s history, literature and religious philosophy. Today, after more than 70 years of communism, the now-proverbial search for the Russian soul is nothing else than the search for what is authentically Russian.

My hunt began in Red Square (red and beautiful are synonymous in Russian), an immense space filled with shoppers, beggars, peddlers and tourists. In the square’s northeast corner, dwarfed by neo-Russian buildings, stands a small gazebo-like edifice. A temporary structure, it houses a copy of the icon of the Iberian Virgin. As worshippers stand in line waiting to light a candle, others stuff ruble notes into the shell of a glass water cooler that serves as a collection basket. Their offerings will help the Orthodox Church rebuild the famous chapel that housed the icon, which stood on the spot until Lenin ordered its destruction in 1921.

Although Red Square burgeons with pickpockets, the ruble-filled water cooler stands unprotected. Meanwhile a few hundred feet away, an honor guard marches in front of the tomb of Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state; the soldiers’ uniforms sport the Russian tricolor, the flag of the former tsarist empire.

At the square’s base sits the Cathedral of the Intercession, better known as St. Basil’s. A twisted conglomeration of colored tiles, onion domes and golden crosses, it is a moody structure. Depending on weather and the time of day the cathedral can appear foreboding or carnival-like, splendid, even ugly. Many Westerners associate this 16th-century cathedral with communism – its prominent position on Red Square, the site of the former regime’s displays of military might, is a connection they find hard to forget.

Near the cathedral, veterans from the Soviet Union’s failed campaign in Afghanistan peddle their wares: pots and pans, Soviet military memorabilia, souvenirs and primitive paintings of the cathedral.

“For a good price I’ll sell you the real one!” a veteran said to me with a grin.

Since I had arrived in Eastern Europe I had been struck by the hordes of hucksters who aggressively sought to sell their wares. Teenage boys were the most numerous and assertive; their near-perfect English, humor and promises to find furs, medals – even jewelry – disarmed me. I had to remind myself that many of these youths were the pawns of local crime bosses.

The red brick walls of the Kremlin, the former nerve center for the Soviet bosses, border Red Square. The Kremlin’s gilded crosses, erected by the tsars, the red stars, fixed by the commissars, and the tricolor flags, resurrected by Yeltsin, suggest the confusion of symbols haunting Russia today. However when Grand Prince Ivan III rebuilt it in the 15th century, the Kremlin had one purpose, to demonstrate the messianic role of Moscow:

…the church of Moscow, the church of new Rome, shines brighter than the sun…. Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands fast; a fourth there cannot be.

Moscow’s new civic and religious role was ignited by several economic, ideological and military elements: the Turk’s capture of Constantinople, the second Rome, in 1453; Ivan’s marriage to the niece of the last Byzantine emperor; his defeat of the Mongols, the force that dismembered the Kievan Rus state in the 13th century; and his consolidation of the Rus dominions.

However to celebrate this role in stone, Ivan could not rely on his own architects and artisans; he had to import them from Italy.

Although designed by an Italian, Aristotle Fioravanti, the Cathedral of the Dormition is thoroughly Russian: the exterior’s massive and monochrome skin conceals an elegant, colorful and complex interior.

As the pantheon of the Russian nation, the cathedral housed the most important icons of the realm, including the “Virgin of Vladimir.” Vladimirskaya, as the icon is called in Russian, now hangs in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.

One of the most powerful images still enshrined in the cathedral is the “Savior of the Fiery Eye,” a 15th-century icon of Jesus that renders a stern and judgmental Christ. I found it difficult to examine the icon without interruption; a pack of visitors shoved their way to ponder the image better.

In Russia the icon traditionally served as a channel of grace; a means to journey to the interior, the soul. In a culture that seems to revel in exposing her collective “soul” – her desires, needs and pain – the icon, then, serves as the symbol of that soul.

With this thought in mind, I walked down the Arbat, pre-Revolutionary Moscow’s Fifth Avenue. There, I encountered rows of tables stacked with icons, many dating to the 17th century. As I brushed the wet snow from the exposed faces of Jesus, Mary and the saints, the cynical young pawns of the Russian “mafia” shouted prices.

My first reaction was to buy as many icons as I could afford. Reality took hold. My money would not hold out, and even if it did the icons would he confiscated at the airport – the Russian government has imposed strict export regulations to curb the flow of antiques and other cultural valuables to the West.

I then reacted with anger. Many of these icons were stolen from churches. Others were sold by impoverished Muscovites seeking hard currency to purchase much needed commodities. Russia’s patrimony is being sold for a pittance by those who should jealously defend it – her youth – I thought. And if the icon is the symbol of this nation’s soul, is her youth selling out, or is the cry to find the Russian soul a pedantic exercise in self-pity?

Recreating Russia is difficult. Will this task simply employ a romantic yearning for Russia’s pre-Revolutionary past or will it entail an honest self-examination? Will it be imposed by the authorities, religious or secular, or will it sprout from the populace?

I have no answers. I offer no clues, just plenty of questions.

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español