Faith is essential part of being Russian
By Andrei Zolotov, Jr.Originally published at Russia Profile.
On a weekday afternoon in mid-June it took one hour of standing in a quiet line at the Convent of the Protection of Our Lady in east-central Moscow to reach the Russian capital’s most popular shrine—the relics of the Blessed Matrona of Moscow. On weekends and holidays the line may take several hours to get through.
“All, all, come to me, and tell me, as if I were alive, about your sorrows. I will see and hear and help you,” say the golden letters above the silver neo-baroque shrine on the ground floor of the church. Here lies the body of the illiterate clairvoyant Matrona Nikonova, who was born without eyes in 1881 in a peasant family in the Tula region. She started to perform miracles as a girl, had her legs paralyzed at the age of 16 and, from 1925 until her death in 1952, moved from home to home in Moscow while speaking in parables and reportedly healing people and helping them to find spouses, avoid prison or occasionally defend a dissertation.
In 1998, when pilgrimage to her grave became more popular and books were published about her miracles, the church authorities exhumed the body. The following year Matrona was canonized by Patriarch Alexy II on a fast track, despite the timid grumbling of church intellectuals, while particularly dubious, occult-like episodes were edited out of her now official hagiography.
People come here, in thousands, daily, most carrying fresh flowers, as Matrona is believed to have requested. It is enough to look at the line to realize that most are not regular church goers. About four fifths are women, and most of them are wearing pants and ill-fitting headscarves. People make the sign of the cross, kiss the coffin, and get the flowers, now cut in pieces, to take with them. What for? “To put under your pillow, to cure insomnia,” the answer was.
Whether one subscribes or not to the concept of the Russian soul, religiosity, which is considered a substantial element of that soul, is alive and well among Russians. It is largely shaped by the Orthodox Church but not only so, as evident from Russia’s non-Orthodox and non-Christian religions, various “New Age” phenomena, an evident atheistic streak and pagan rudiments scattered all over. “Russia knew neither Reformation nor Counterreformation with their explanations, symbolic interpretations and the uprooting of medieval idol-worshiping,” famous Russian Christian scholar George Fedotov wrote in his 1946 classic “The Russian Religious Mind.” “The Russian peasant, even in the 19th century, lived as if in the Middle Ages. Many foreigners have written that this people is the most religious in Europe. But in essence, it is more about various degrees of maturity rather than about substantial peculiarities of spirit and culture. The same historical factors have preserved the religious perceptiveness of the Russian people in the era of rationalism, while not touching the many pagan customs, cults and even the pagan worldview both within the church and outside it.”
In the 20th century the tragedy of the revolution led to a short-lived religious revival, drowned in the blood of martyrdom on par with the first centuries of Christianity. Religious thought flourished in émigré circles. But at the mass level in Russia, the near-uprooting of church organization and educational system, as well as rapid forced urbanization, have led to a further perpetuation of this medieval mix of Christianity and paganism—a situation that is particularly difficult to rectify in the postmodern age with its pluralism and syncretism of fragmented value systems. Nineteenth century writer Nikolai Leskov’s statement that “Russia was baptized but not enlightened” continues to be cited in church circles to describe the state of mass religiosity, despite evident progress in the growth of religious education, social outreach and the emergence of noticeablly active laypeople in various strata of society over the past 20 years of religious freedom.
It has become commonplace in political science and journalism to say that religion has “filled the vacuum” left in the place of communist ideology. But following Russian religious philosophers of the first half of the 20th century, such as Nikolai Berdyaev or Sergei Bulgakov, one can equally argue that communism took root in Russia as a result of the Russians’ religious striving for the absolute, for the Divine Kingdom that they so vainly tried to build on earth. With the red-bannered processions filing past the “relics” of Lenin and the “Red Corners” in every school, office or factory, the Soviet Union ended up as one of the most ritualistic societies in the world. “The Soviet people lived in the culture of religious forms,” modern theologian and social philosopher Alexander Kyrlezhev said in an interview.
A wider church
An often cited poll shows a wide gap between the 60 to 80 percent of Russians who identify themselves with the Orthodox Church and the tiny single-figure percentage of those who are “churched,” i.e. try to adhere to a Christian way of life as prescribed by the Orthodox Church. There are few places like the Convent of the Protection that give the picture of this “wider church” of 60 to 80 percent, and perhaps bigger. “I am a Muslim, but I come here every week,” said 31-year-old Ravil Subkhangulov, who sat on a bench in the monastery’s court. “I don’t go to any other church, because it’s a sin for me as a Muslim.” Ravil said that for ten years his Christian wife couldn’t get pregnant, and no doctors could do anything about it. Last August the couple came here, having heard from a colleague that Matrona helps in such circumstances, and spent 12 hours waiting in line. “In November, what we had expected so eagerly, happened,” he said. Now he is buying icons of Matrona and giving them out to relatives and friends. “I work in Lubyanka,” he said, referring to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, “and after all the nightmares at work I come here, and my soul rests, and I leave with tears in my eyes.”
Reproductive health appears to be one of the main issues that draw people to the Blessed Matrona. Angelina Zvereva, a surgeon, said that she first came to Matrona after a friend was cured here from repeated miscarriages. “People cannot live without faith,” Zvereva said. “People believe in whatever—some in the [Communist] party, others—in God.”
A stately middle-aged woman dressed according to church etiquette, in a long skirt and an elegantly matching headscarf, was sipping tea in a small cafeteria outside the convent walls together with Anna Suloeva, a petite retail buyer with an elaborate, multicolored pedicure, clad in jeans. Suloeva said she has been coming here every month for the past four years. “People come to Matrona when they are forced into a corner, when they have nowhere else to go and have no faith left in their own devices,” she said. When was the last time she took communion—the centerpiece of the Orthodox Christian faith and practice? “Never,” she answered. “You know, it’s not enough to just come here, you should stand through the services, make a confession, take communion,” said Zvereva, who appeared to be mentoring Suloeva in church ways. “I know, but I am not good at it,” Anna said.
In his 2004 article “Why People Go to Church,” the social philosopher Alexander Morozov singled out six motivations. One group he described as driven by “loyalty.” “Government officials go to church, just as they go to Luciano Pavarotti concerts, because that is a manifestation of their loyalty to their system,” he wrote. These people don’t connect their worldview with the church, but demonstrate, through the church, their “corporate identity,” as was the case in prerevolutionary Russia. The second motivation is communal. Parishioners, mostly women, “drink tea” together, like they used to in the Soviet workplace. The third are those for whom “belonging to the long historical tradition” is central. These people, mostly men, are more likely to immerse themselves intellectually in doctrinal and historical issues, and most Russian religious nationalists also belong here. There is the “core of the Church”—those for whom “salvation and attaining the Holy Spirit” is the only goal. Finally, there are those who “work in the Church.”
One of the largest groups are those drawn to the church by miracles. “After a long period of atheism, when everything miraculous was excluded from people’s lives and could only be manifested in the form of UFOs, the time has come when the possibility opened up for the legitimate existence of a ‘second reality’,” Morozov wrote. “Thousands of people visit the holy sites, relics heal, icons weep, and testimonies of miracles multiply. That is, there is a vast number of people who participate in church life only because miracle-making has been manifested to them in one form or another: they witnessed it, or heard about it, or never saw it but live in anticipation of seeing it.” Morozov describes the group as “problematic,” because a genuine religious experience coexists here with “treacherous distortions of religiosity”—forgeries, mental illnesses and ideological speculations.
Most experts agree that the quest for miracles and pious veneration of the holy objects and sites are the two most distinctive characteristics of modern Russian religiosity. Kyrlezhev spoke about “religious materialism” as one of the main characteristics of Orthodox religiosity—with all of its holy water, oil, lamps, candles and sand from the saints’ graves. Archpriest Maxim Kozlov, a professor of the Moscow Theological Academy and the rector of Moscow University’s St. Tatiana Chapel, sees “superstition” as the negative side of strength—the ability to sanctify the entirety of daily life. “The negative side is that material things and near-church practices become central instead of the Gospel,” he said.
But church historian Alexei Beglov believes that this combination is more characteristic of the traditional religiosity of the first half of the 20th century—the time of the Blessed Matrona, when millions of Russian peasants moved into the cities. Modern mass urban religiosity, Beglov said, “Is mutating even further, acquiring a consumerist character—you come, light a candle—and get a result without any effort.”
In an extreme manifestation of this attitude, the chairman of a consumer protection group in Yekaterinburg, Alexei Konev, attempted to sue the local diocese in 2008 for what he saw as an improper funeral service for his relative. The church is a service provider, “just like the dry cleaner’s or a dental clinic,” Lenta.ru quoted Konev as saying.
The switch from the rural to the urban is likely the greatest transformation underway in the Russian Orthodox Church. On the positive side, this urbanization has led to the emergence of a visible educated class within the church, which largely constitutes its active group. The general trend is: the bigger the city, the more universities it has and the more active church life there will be.
A smaller church
It is no wonder that Patriarch Kirill came to his post last year with mission and education as his central goals. But this is no easy task, and not only because of the lack of resources. There is a strong isolationist movement within the church which sees freezing the forms of religiosity and preventing any dialogue with the outside world as its main goal. The wide movement in the 1990s for the canonization of Tsar Nicholas II and the royal family reflected not only repentance for the Soviet period, but, to a much greater degree, nostalgia for the lost empire. It is not that unusual today to meet people who venerate the tsar and endorse the Soviet era—and sometimes personally the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin—at the same time. Some members of this group are likely to profess a degree of “Orthodox anti-globalism”—a refusal to accept tax identification numbers, new passports, bank cards or mobile phones.
But even beyond strictly fundamentalist circles, it is typical for the “churched” community to idealize some past period or look elsewhere in search for their ideal. While the idealization of the 19th century is the most widespread phenomenon, some communities try to imitate 14th century Muscovy, or Greek practices. “There is a trend to look for an outside ideal,” Beglov said.
At the turn of the 1980s and 1990s the liberation of the church, as well as other religions, from the Soviet ghetto took place under the slogan that the church would “install morality” into the people. That has not happened—certainly not at the level of mass religiosity, but also, to a large degree, among the “churched” society. “The church shows a way of life that is full of problems, and not what’s good and what’s bad,” Kyrlezhev said. But Kozlov countered that although it is wrong to reduce Christianity to ethics, “when it doesn’t grow even to ethics, it is also bad.”
Analyzing Russian religiosity in the first half of the 20th century, Russian religious thinkers, most of whom were Marxists converted to Christianity, dedicated a great deal of time to deducting Russia’s messianism and love of social justice from Christianity, and considered it one of the central parts of Russian religiosity. Surprisingly, it is hard to find it when observing Russian religiosity today. Most likely, the failed communist experiment has served to dampen this streak and channeled sentiments of social justice away from the Church.
But Beglov said that it may come back. “It is too difficult to say how the social aspect is going to develop—in a political or in a mystical way,” he said. “But the question is out there.
[Photo of St. Basil's cathedral by Richard Seaman.]