& Company


Na Velikom postu: The Church In The Kitchen

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

Our dear friend Hadicha, early in her study of English, was always getting the nouns "church", "kitchen", and "chicken" confused. The chicken choir. The kitchen service. The church sink. We always found that hilarious.

The presenting topic here can be funny, but not in quite that way. The dizzying change in the Church's place in this formerly Soviet society, in less than 15 years, tickles old biases. Think of it, every daily newspaper in Yekaterinburg carried notices announcing the Lenten period. Printed as routinely as would, say, the Eagle-Times of Reading, Pennsylvania!

"Workers of the World, Unite!"

"Lent" doesn't translate the Russian Orthodox term velikiy post, which is "The Great Abstinence". And no Yekaterinburger – Muslim, Jewish, Baptist or incorrigibly Bolshevik – could escape knowing the first full day of this year's velikiy post was Monday 10 March 2003. Even the Ural'skiy rabochiy, i.e. "The Urals Worker", still ornamented with the hammer and sickle just to the left of its masthead – even this newspaper carried the notice. Front page, no less. Twice.

Masthead of the Ural'skiy Rabochiy is The Urals Worker, Yekaterinburg
The Ural'skiy Rabochiy is The Urals Worker, founded in 1907. Records show that the doomed tsar, Nicholas II, saw an occasional copy of this newspaper in 1918 when under house arrest with his whole family here in Yekaterinburg.

Worker. Whoever of you remembers Gus Hall and "The Daily Worker" will easily resonate with the redness of "worker" in Ural'skiy rabochiy. A perfectly innocent lexical item hijacked by yesteryear's enemy. So imagine: early in the first week of Eastern Orthodoxy's velikiy post, the daily Ural'skiy rabochiy goes and prints Lenten Rules of Diet right alongside other practical matters like – it's time to get the snow off the roofs; better dislodge those icicles preemptively, before they fall and kill someone. Then, in its special Thursday tabloid-sized publication (the main attraction of which are the TV listings for the following week), Ural'skiy rabochiy included yet more Lenten coverage.

It's the only newspaper in town with color on the front page. And on March 13th's front page? A full frontal view of a wooden chapel with countless cupolas and crosses on its roofs, nested in snow. Directly in front the chapel, her back to the reader, a lady stands and crosses herself in the Orthodox manner, her ritual gesture so clear it seems specially made for a primer showing potential converts how to accomplish it. Up in the left-hand corner — the hammer and sickle in red, gold and green!

Old Knowledge.

Your e-mailer here is the son of Greek Catholics, also known as Eastern-Rite Catholics. The Soviets used the historically pejorative term, Uniates, when referring to us. We are the descendants of the Orthodox Church of Kyiv whose head, along with almost all the bishops of that old metropolia, brokered a new union with Rome in 1596. An heir to that history, I thought I was fairly familiar with all the old Lenten practices.

My maternal grandmother, Evfrozina, abstained from meat and milk products through these half-dozen weeks. By the time our generation came of age the requirements came down to no meat during the first and last weeks, as well as on all Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays of the intervening weeks. Hardest for me was the prohibition against milk and other dairy products (including eggs), but that – just on Day One and on Good Friday. If I had had children, they would now have it even easier. Lent in the West seems to have become, regardless of your church, something less to do with proscribed foods and more to do with an invitation to customize it for yourself using older traditions for inspiration.

The Lenten Scoop.

What an irony to be getting more information about Orthodox piety, present and past, from this paper with a long proletariat past preceding even the Bolshevik revolution. The "Urals Worker" feature accompanying the full color photo reports about olden times, how the pious fasted totally the first day, were allowed bread, salt and water the second day, could add juice from cooked dried fruit to the third day's ration of bread, but on the fourth were back to only bread and water; on the fifth there was a porridge cooked from whole kernels of wheat, or peas or rice, to which honey, raisins or berries were added, a concoction the priest blessed after that first Friday's liturgy. (Siblings older than I have a dim recollection of similar ritual food served in church.) Only Saturdays and Sundays allowed use of vegetable oil in preparing Lenten foods.

"Such rigor in today's world would be excessive," says Ural'skiy rabochiy. Nowadays, the regime for the first five days is supposed to be only cold unheated food (without shortening) and cold drink, and for the rest of Lent it's a general meatless milkless fare: mainly borshch made from potatoes, carrots, beet and onion, prepared in sunflowerseed oil; also any kind of salad from vegetables and fruit. Oblastnaya gazeta, the regional newspaper subsidized by the governor's office, adds that pious Orthodox eat these kinds of things only once or twice a day, dropping a third meal. All the media report that these "requirements" are lightened for the sick and the elderly, as well as pregnant or nursing mothers.

Ural'skiy rabochiy then takes on the tone of a bishop's pastoral letter, explaining that such mortification of the flesh without some spiritual component would be like plowing a field without sowing seed, which would then yield only weeds. Wow! It goes on to cite liturgical chants appropriate to the season that call us "to break off all links with falsehood", and "to put aside physical pleasure and to increase spiritual gifts". Double wow! Velikiy post, it says, is, for church people, "a springtime for the soul." This old organ of the revolution indulging in Christian homilies. Will wonders never cease!

There's yet more religion. The last paragraphs inform us that, because so many government workers are observing a strict Lent, the cafeterias (stolovye) in these various bureaus and agencies of the Russian state are now offering milkless porridge, baked cabbage, potato cutlets with mushroom sauce, burgers made from beets, vegetable puree, and low-salt pickles.

Dining Out In Lent.

In our lunchroom the other day (conveniently located across the hall from our apartment) I asked two of our local hires whether they knew anyone on our staff keeping the velikiy post. They mentioned two women whom I was acquainted with. They didn't reciprocate asking how the Bride and I are doing Lent.

At Gradara, the Bride's favorite Yekaterinburg restaurant, besides their book-like menu, each table displayed a stand-up menu, a list of Lenten fare.

In the scheme of things, not all that major, is it? Yet has anything that you know of come about in US institutions that's that radically different from the way we used to live 15 years ago?

yours, MDS
March 19, 2003

P.S. Hadicha has just about mastered "church", "kitchen", and "chicken". (No, Hadicha, no fried church!

Hadicha directs Tashkent Kirche choir; inset: Barbara, Matthew, & Hadicha
Hadicha works as soprano in both the State A Cappella Choir of Uzbekistan and the Tashkent Conservatory Opera Chorus. Here, however, she directs the church choir of the Tashkent Kirche, her project from 1998 to 2001. ("Not chicken choir, Hadicha!") Inset: Hadicha, on your right, with Barbara and Stremba. ("That's our kitchen behind us, Hadicha, not the chicken!")

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