Through Thick and Thin

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Cathedral of Christ the Savior - Sputnik International
For the Russian Orthodox Church, the post-Soviet period began in October of 1990, even before the Soviet Union’s official collapse, when the government adopted a new Soviet law on the freedom of conscience. This law canceled the registration of clergymen with the authorities and turned the Council for Religious Affairs into a consultative, rather than monitoring body.

RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published a new Special Report on the 20 Years since the Fall of the Soviet Union. The reports contains fourteen articles by both Russian and foreign contributors, who try to analyze the many changes that have taken place in Russian society since then and attempt to answer two perennial questions: was the collapse of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, as Vladimir Putin once said, or a blessing for its people? And how far has present-day Russia departed from its Soviet past?

For Many Years, the Russian Orthodox Church Has Been Undergoing a Process of Enculturation.

For the Russian Orthodox Church, the post-Soviet period began in October of 1990, even before the Soviet Union’s official collapse, when the government adopted a new Soviet law on the freedom of conscience. This law canceled the registration of clergymen with the authorities and turned the Council for Religious Affairs (one of the main institutions carrying out Soviet religious policy) into a consultative, rather than monitoring body. This act put an end to the entire system of controlling the country’s religious associations, which the Soviet government had built up since 1918.

This 20-year period almost fully coincides with the first post-Soviet patriarchate. Holy Patriarch Alexy II (Ridiger, or Ruediger) held his post from 1990 to 2008. His patriarchy was a whole epoch in the life of the church. At that time, the church was breaking out of the isolation imposed on it by Soviet power and sustained the consequences of the political, economic and social disintegration on a par with the rest of the country. Let’s recall the main events in the life of the church during this period.

Boosting numbers

First of all, this was a time of quantitative growth for churches, monasteries, dioceses, religious schools and clergymen. The number of parish churches in Russia increased almost tenfold—from 3,000 in 1990 to almost 30,000 today. The number of monasteries grew from several dozen to more than 800 over the same period. However, there is still one church per thousands of believers, which complicates their meaningful communication with clergymen. There are still not enough churches and clergymen to meet the spiritual needs of all those who have turned or are ready to turn to the church.

The reconstruction and construction of churches required huge financial expenditures. The search for funds became a heavy burden on the shoulders of priests and abbots. The contributions of rank-and-file believers—the foundation of the church economy throughout the Soviet years (and still accounting for the bulk of the church budget at parish level)—plummeted in the atmosphere of an almost permanent economic crisis.

So the deans, abbots and even bishops had to find “sponsors”—newly-rich people who could help restore churches. Some of these people were oligarchs, whereas others represented small and at times semi-criminal business. Their contacts with the church were not easy and sometimes cast a shadow on the clergymen, but relations between the church and business played a crucial role in the restoration of church infrastructure.

The church and society were also broadening their relations. People in Russia were getting used to seeing clergymen on television and radio. Central television networks were mastering a new genre—broadcasting religious services.

A New Reality

At the same time, in Russia (and other CIS countries) these contacts did not lead to the formation of a strong and independent Orthodox laity. The movement of Orthodox brotherhoods that evoked great hopes in the late 1980s to early 1990s lost its religious character very quickly. It became politicized, with the majority of brotherhoods turning into extreme monarchist or nationalist groups. This became a big headache for the hierarchy for a long time, and compelled it to restrain all lay movements in every possible way. As a result, today practically any grassroots religious or public activities are taking place at the periphery of church life, and very often overlap with eschatological movements.

The Russian Orthodox Church encountered major difficulties on the world arena as well. The Soviet Union’s collapse led to the invigoration of different groups within the church, which wanted to proclaim their independence from the Moscow Patriarchate following the national independence of their republics. These conflicts flared up in Ukraine, Estonia and Moldova. They escalated and drew other Orthodox churches into their orbit—the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Church of Romania. By the end of the first post-Soviet decade, the church had managed to restrain the centrifugal forces by making considerable concessions—it had to grant de facto semi-independent status to its dioceses on the territories of newly independent states.

In parallel there was a new exodus from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. For the Russian church this meant the appearance of its flock all over the world. Congregations of the Moscow Patriarchate around the world multiplied, which required the formation of new parishes and construction of new churches. But this changed the composition of the Moscow Patriarchate’s old foreign parishes. Their former parishioners, who were brought up in religious tradition, turned out to be in obvious minority amidst the mass of religiously incompetent émigrés. New conflicts flared up within the church, some of which compelled part of the congregation to withdraw from the Moscow Patriarchate’s

A lesson in eschatology

All these processes took place against the backdrop of eschatological attitudes that were stirring up the church in the entire post-Soviet space. They became particularly widespread on the eve of the year 2000. For the most part, they were expressed as a morbid reaction to such government undertakings as the introduction of new domestic passports to replace the Soviet documents and the Individual Taxpayer Number (INN), as well as the national census in 2002. These eschatological expectations had become so widespread among Orthodox circles that the church’s hierarchs had to make special statements on this score.

Fertile grounds for the spread of the alarmist attitudes were created by the so-called “young elders,” or “mladostartsy,” phenomenon. It was through these charismatic pastors who excessively interfered in the personal lives of their followers and formed groups of fanatics around them that such ideas were propagated. By the middle of the 2000s eschatological attitudes had become less widespread, but still remained radical. Suffice it to recall the drama that unfolded in the Penza Region in 2007 to 2008, where a group of 35 (including four children) radical believers spent six months in a man-made cave awaiting “the forthcoming end of the world.”

Back to the new

Such attitudes appear to be a form of socio-psychological adaptation on behalf of the population to the excessively radical social and cultural transformation that Russian society went through. The church is also affected by it. Today observers usually describe what is happening with the church by using the term “revival,” meaning a return to what was lost or destroyed after the 1917 revolution. Some people think that the last 20 years saw natural and steady growth of the church’s influence on society and the state. Others believe that this was a time of mistakes and lost opportunities for full-scale revival. However, a close look at the events taking place in church life shows that they least of all resemble a recovery of what was lost.

In reality, every single sphere of religious life demonstrates new phenomena that did not exist in the early 20th century. Take new religious schools, such as academies, seminaries and other theological institutions—before the revolution, they primarily educated the offspring of the clerical order that no longer exists today. Religious schools are actively developing and avidly absorbing the achievements of European theology. They are even getting ahead of Russia’s secular schools in the Bologna Process—a gradual unification of academic standards for European bachelors’ and masters’ degrees.

A similar situation exists in icon painting. In the early 20th century, Viktor Vasnetsov’s mystical and romantic modernism was seen as the inaccessible acme of religious painting. Even well-educated contemporaries did not know or understand East Christian icons with their deeply-ingrained symbolism. What is happening now is not a revival of the Vasnetsov School, but a return to icon painting per se—in all of its different periods and styles. Church architecture has also been reborn in the past 20 years using new technology and catering to new tastes.

These are just the most striking examples of the trends seen everywhere in church life, showing that what is happening is not the mechanical recovery of something lost, but a process of enculturation—the creative entry of the church into the modern and post-modern culture of Russia and other CIS countries.

This process began in the 1970s, when educated young people displayed their interest in the church and its culture for the first time. In the 1980s, during the festivities devoted to the Millennium of Christianity in Russia (1988), this interest became legalized, and in the 1990s and 2000s it was further and logically developed. A new church culture is being born in the course of this process, and a new language of communication between the church and society at large is developing.

The Russian Orthodox Church is dealing with this kind of society for the first time in its history. Russian society is now urban (rather than rural), secularized and well educated. It is part of the global information society. These features of our society are objective reality, and the church will have to engage all of its creative potential in order to “translate” its eternal teaching into modern language. It is abundantly clear that enculturation is a long-term process, and we will see its results only in several generations. However, one of its most active phases seems to have taken place in the past 20 years.

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