& Company


Na postu: E-pistle Two

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

This change in Russia wouldn't fascinate me except for the lasting impression of what it was like all those years ago, when it seemed things would never ever be any different. Then it was more than a matter of Soviet society ignoring Lent.

Back in the 1940s, the Church of Moscow accepted the terms of the communist powers, and in return got the Patriarchate back, limited church openings, some line-items in the state budget, plus all the domain of the "liquidated" Greek Catholic Church. Yet it wasn't all roses. Consider: on-and-off harassment, varying degrees of infiltration, Kremlin control of parish assignments, even ready-made patriotic sermons dispatched from a religion oversight agency. Still some Orthodox Churches in the west expressed horror at what they called collaboration with godless powers and refused intercommunion with the Moscow Patriarchate.

Years of compromise in effect turned the legalized body into a state Church, its clergy becoming, but for the beards and black robes, frowning steely-eyed Soviet bureaucrats. Bishops traveled on state-paid peace delegations dazzling western ecclesiastics from Baptists to Jesuits with the trappings of religious freedom. Then came Gorbachev, glasnost, and the 1988 state-sanctioned celebrations hijacking from Kyiv the Rus' baptism millennium. In the main, however, where it functioned, the Patriarchate's parishes did only what the state allowed: doing worship. Homiletic arts, Sunday-school syllabi, a contemporary Amos or Micah, and the coffee hour — all were Martian phenomena.

Just one more Yekaterinburg church, restored to Orthodox control by local authorities, undergoing capital repairs from the top down. This is the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross, which is connected to a monastery. Throughout the city, many fresh church buildings, plus priests and monks and nuns going public, are signs of the Russian Orthodox Church's assertive role in post-Soviet society.
Yeketerinburg's Church of the Exaltation of the Cross, under repair


2003, and newspaper articles on my desk feature an official Church unfettered. But while free from state control it has been forthrightly forging new links with the state. Some secular-minded Russians worry just what those links will be made of. Has the Church become political, aiming to Orthodoxize Russian society (pravoslavozatsiya)? The Patriarchate recently blessed an agreement of cooperation it worked out with the Ministry of Health, and currently is promoting other partnerships concerning public education and the armed forces.

That Health Ministry agreement, Metropolitan Sergei of Solnechnogorod explained in an interview with Izvestiya (13 March 2003), simply removes any obstacles to priests' ministering to the sick, plus it inserts into nursing school programs something about the Church's role in hospitals. Nothing to worry about.

What about the campaign to introduce into the school curriculum a study of the foundations of Orthodox culture? Again, the churchman saw no reason for alarm. It's no attempt to force conversions, he said. "How can you make someone feel the divine presence? Nevol'nik — ne bogomol'nik." It's just that historically the State has always been linked with the Church. He pointed to the role of ikons throughout Russian history. To understand the value of that premise, I tried imagining what would be the ikon in US history, and what constant linkage would it show. The gun? The wheel? United Fruit? Metropolitan Sergei finished his argument: "who could begin to imagine even secularized Tchaikowsky without his religious feelings?"

The churchman downplayed opposition to the curriculum proposal from Russian Federation Muslims. In fact, he endorsed the idea of Russian students in Muslim regions of the country similarly studying Islam.


In an earlier issue, Izvestiya interviewed the Grand Mufti of all Russia's Muslims, Talgat Tajuddin (15 February 2003), who also found nothing worrisome in the Orthodox Foundations curriculum. In fact, "there where the bear has gone," he spoke idiomatically, "we shall also go." In other words, Muslims would take advantage of the path the Orthodox Church will have cleared through the thicket of government and themselves see to a textbook that would provide information on the cultures of all the historic religions of Russia besides Orthodoxy: Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. The Mufti characterized any Muslim opposition to the school program as marginal.

In Moscow in early January it wasn't bears but six middle-aged men who entered an exhibition hall and defiled art objects, ruined walls, and smashed glass. Upon arrest they identified themselves as "believers" expressing their ire over the display. The exhibition carried a provocative name: "Beware — Religion!" Its theme was (1) carefulness required in relating to religion and (2) danger in mixing religion and state.

Metropolitan Kirill, head of the department for the Patriarchate's external relations, in commenting on the actions taken by the six believers, called the exhibit criminal! A provocation! (Kommersant, 22 January 2003) The assembled art had not respected the worldview of others, he said, but rather insulted religious feelings in a way that leads to inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict.

The churchman, like me, had not himself seen the artwork.

[Metropolitan Kirill presides in a weekly column, where he answers readers' religious questions. The newspaper? Komsomolskaya Pravda!]

The monument is Yakov Sverdlov. Just before the city's 280th birthday, celebrated 16 August 2003, the public works department coated him in black. This fresh coat covered the variety of paints that had been tossed up on him over the past months, a favorite activity of those who would like to see the worst of the Bolshevik heritage removed. Sverdlov was known for having set early Soviet fashion: he dressed in leather from head to toe. It is not for that he gets splashed. He was a principal in the murder of the Tsar and all the Tsar's family, several blocks from this monument.
Yakov Sverdov, principal in the murder of the Tsar and the Tsar's family, sporting a fresh coat of black to cover the paint splashed on him in protest


Yekaterinburg. This winter a gay nightclub opened. A huge fuss in town. Poor-taste advertisements, a location in center-city, a finger-in-the-eye for a conservative society. TV and newspapers ran stories of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, except Oblastnaya gazeta, which felt there were "more important and socially significant themes" to cover. When, however, that newspaper, subsidized by the office of the oblast governor, received a copy of a letter penned by the local archbishop addressing the governor himself on the matter, the editors felt they had little choice but to join the rest. They printed its seven long paragraphs.

Archbishop Vikentiy's case against the club makes interesting points. (1) The gay community picketed the Church because of the Church's outspoken opposition and claimed their picket to be an expression of democracy and a fight for human rights. This, says the Archbishop, was the first time in all Russian history that "perverts advocated their right to vice right in front of the walls of God's church." (2) AIDS and drug abuse are symptoms of moral collapse and result from promoting depravity and homosexuality. All these problems, he declared, are intertwined with criminality, prostitution, STDs, population decrease in Russia, decline of birthrate, millions of abortions, homeless children.

Addressing the governor with honorifics once reserved for the Tsar and the Grand Dukes, the Archbishop demanded action on his list of sins, crimes, and diseases.

The club was closed.

Mid-February, Archbishop Vikentiy took up another fight. The churchman charged in missives to oblast authorities regulating schools that Valentine's Day "propagandizes for sexual promiscuity". He worried about school children on whom teachers were imposing the holiday. A staff writer with Podrobnosti, a local daily not subsidized by some governmental entity, pointed out that only students studying English learn anything about Valentine's Day — familiarity with western customs deepens language mastery.

The same article had gentle fun at the Archbishop's expense. What's promiscuous, it wanted to know, about exchanging Valentines, and then proposed a more effective Church campaign: go straight to Russian lovers by printing special Valentines whose message would be — "Dear Sweetheart! From this day forward — all depravity (razvrat) is out!" — Any fun with church leaders in the previous regime was never so civilized.

Last month, an Orthodox brotherhood of university students declared themselves ready to patrol the streets of center city at night to discover and detain those surreptitiously pasting illegal advertisements to utility poles. The brotherhood faulted the mayor's office and local police for not taking the matter seriously enough. The ads in question were the bane of all big cities: phone numbers for sexual services. Podrobnosti wondered whether this student vigilantism might not be named "Ku-Klux-Klan Urals-style", which struck me as the wrong analog. The "Saudi Sabbath Police" seemed much more apropos.


The change in Church role here is certainly in some category other than that of new women in American society, is much more dramatic than the effects of microwaves, cell phones. And it's not so much going ahead as it is going back, which one of you suggested to me — back to the way things once were. It all bears watching. Especially if the Church of Moscow is to remain the singularly privileged voice of Christianity in a country spreading from Europe into Asia across a dozen time zones.

Anybody wanting the Russian originals to check for bias in my Englishing, send me a line.

Watchfully yours, Matthew-Daniel Stremba
27 March 2003

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