Contemporary Issues Last Updated: Feb 8th, 2011 - 05:50:02

The phoenix is reborn. It's time to fly
By Andrei Zolotov, Jr, founding editor of RUSSIAPROFILE.ORG
Jun 30, 2009, 10:00
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Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines

Growing up in 1970s Moscow, I had a nanny who had lived in our family for 45 years. She died in 1981, when she was 93 and I was 13. Like most Soviet people, my family was not religious. My grandfather prided himself in becoming an atheist in prerevolutionary Russia and refusing to attend the Orthodox doctrine class at school. It scandalised his father, a priest's son turned high-ranking civil engineer. In Soviet Russia, it was a norm enforced by persecution, education and all-encopassing atheistic propaganda.

But my nanny, Yevdokiya Frolova, was different. She was a nun. After her convent was closed in 1927, like all of her sisters she spent time in a labour camp. Unlike many, she survived and ended up serving four generations of our family selflessly and lovingly, quietly maintaining a rigorous monastic discipline of strict fasting, daily prayers and regular church attendance. Thanks to my nanny, for me it has always been the Russian church, the church of my ancestors, which somehow had an existence in this world parallel to the Soviet reality. But much had to happen before it became a faith of my own: an appreciation for the Russian liturgical music and icons; the 1988 celebration of the Millennium of Christianity in Russia, when the church was let into public life; a trip to the US as a student, where I met a prominent émigré Russian priest, Protopresbyter Alexander Kiselev. Ultimately, it all came into one with my baptism into to the Orthodox church - my faith in God, the immense beauty and profound meaning of Orthodox liturgy and belonging to my family's and my nation's past and present, to the Russian civilisation as a part of the European civilisation, to the whole world around and, hopefully, to God's kingdom. Ask any Russian, and you will likely hear a similar story.

It will rarely be a happy, conclusive or coherent one. Many would simply see Orthodox Christianity as a "Russian faith", but not know much about Jesus, our brothers and sisters around the world or the basic doctrine. Others see no contradiction between declaring themselves Orthodox, going once in a while to a church to light a candle and, at the same time, reading horoscopes or keeping a lover. There would be quite a few whose Orthodoxy equals nationalism and those who see the Orthodox church as a medieval force isolating Russia. There would be people from all over the political spectrum and every possible ethnic background or social strata. Alas, only about one tenth of them in big cities and an even smaller percentage in small towns and rural areas would be regular churchgoers. These stories, told and untold, would be diverse, but would have something in common. There would usually be a grandmother, or a nanny, or another who managed to keep the faith through Soviet times. There would be the painful identity search: "Where do I come from?" or "Where are we going?" There would be an occasional bow before the beauty of Orthodox ritual and art - often without understanding. There would be that prettiest building with domes in town, once destroyed, now rebuilt. There would be a major disappointment with the government and political institutions, placing the church as a beacon of hope and an object of trust. There would be the wise patriarch on television and a local bishop, an influential figure in the region. There would be uncertainty over the changing world and the institution, seemingly the same over centuries and even millennia. There would also be a lack of knowledge about the church and its teaching and a spread of superstition. Or the uncomfortable realisation that, once you finally join the church, you'd have to change your life. So it's easier to hang around maintaining a sense of belonging, but not straining oneself too much. At the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, getting baptised became fashionable and we dreamt of a church that would bring morality and morale to a divided nation in crisis. The church, in turn, saw the opportunity to rebuild its infrastructure, banking on its status of a national symbol and a state willing to repent for past sins. The late Patriarch left the church much stronger than he received it in 1990. But although the programme of rebuilding has been fulfilled, the programme of changing society has not. If the venerable institution wants to be relevant, if it wants to narrow the gap between the two thirds of nominal Orthodox Christians and single percentage points of practising ones, much needs to be done in the field of mission, education and social ministry.

This is the mandate of Patriarch Kirill - the church's most outspoken and dynamic leader. At his installation in February, Kirill said: "The witness to the truth and beauty of Orthodoxy can be received and accepted only when people clearly understand the meaning of this witness for their private, family and public life and learn to connect the eternal divine words with the realities of daily life, with its concerns, joys and sorrows."

Well, that's like my nanny did.


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