Soul of Russia

Driven underground for 75 years, the faith of the Russian tsars now enjoys favored status.

This story appears in the April 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The new Russia steadily ebbs away on the drive out of Moscow. The gridlock and pollution, the sprawling malls and billboards of the recent boom years give way to the gray suburbs and rusting factories of the Soviet era. These in turn fade into tall forests of pine and birch, punctuated by meadows and timeless villages of log houses. Now and again a whimsically painted steeple breaks the horizon, its gilded cupola glittering in the bright spring sun. We're back in the glubinka, the "deep" Russia beloved of Slavophiles, exiles, and painters. And we're headed for its very heart.

Our destination is Murom, among the most ancient of Russian cities. Arrayed on seven hills along the left bank of the Oka River, Murom was a proud sentinel on the eastern periphery of ancient Rus in medieval times, before the empire stretched on, leaving behind a poor provincial town rich in monasteries, memories, and myths. Soviet rulers tried to suppress many of these, and part of the story of Russia today is the effort to reconnect with the past. Out here, part of that past is also mine.

Four centuries ago, a pious young woman arrived here as the wife of a "husband of good birth and prosperous." Despite a life of extraordinary trials—a husband ever away at war, the birth of 13 children and the death of 8, the famines, plagues, invasions, and banditry of what history calls the Time of Troubles—Juliana Oso­rin remained steadfast in her charity and faith. After her death in 1604 she was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church as St. Juliana of Lazarevo, after the village outside Murom where she lived. Her canonization was intended to persuade a people in panic and despair that holiness could be achieved in the home and family, not only through escape to a monastery. My mother, born Juliana Ossorguine, is her direct descendant and namesake.

I had been to Murom before, when Russia was emerging from another time of troubles. It was March 1992. The ice on the Oka was melting, and everywhere there was a sense of new beginnings. I had been the New York Times bureau chief in Moscow during the last years of the Soviet state, in the 1980s, and I was back to report on the collapse of communist rule and the rise of a new Russia.

It was a giddy and chaotic period, a time of confusion and great hopes—for democracy, economic freedom, and perhaps most of all, for spiritual revival. The Russian Orthodox Church was rising everywhere from the ashes of the Soviet era, and millions of Russians were rushing to be baptized. Most were only dimly aware of the religious significance of the sacrament but eager to reclaim a past and an identity that the communists had for 75 years worked to erase.

Thousands of ruined churches—including those the Soviets had used as warehouses, factories, or barns—were being restored to their original function, and eventually to their former splendor. The monumental Cathedral of Christ the Savior, destroyed on Stalin's orders in 1931, rose anew on the banks of the Moscow River. Believers who had gone underground during Soviet times emerged and began energetically establishing parishes, orphanages, halfway houses, and schools. Thousands of men were ordained to the priesthood, and thousands more—men and women—took monastic vows, all yearning to recover a guiding faith.

For almost a thousand years the Orthodox Church, with its magnificent liturgy and iconography, had been an integral part of Russian identity and history. I was Russian enough to feel profoundly moved that the faith of my ancestors was coming alive again. At the same time, as a Western reporter, I wondered where this plunge into the past, often idealized and dimly perceived, could lead. Would the Orthodox Church become a potent force for reform, speaking truth to the Kremlin's power? Or would it resume the role it had played over centuries of tsarist rule and again become an ornament and tool of an authoritarian state?

These questions concerned not only the church; the future shape of Russia was at stake. As Russia scholar James H. Billington, now librarian of Congress, wrote a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union: "Whether the Orthodox Church can wrest itself from the state and become the conscience of the nation will be important in determining whether Russia can discover a new, democratic and civil culture or will return to a dark and threatening authoritarianism." Since then, the darker scenario has seemed to play out, with church leaders allying themselves with an aggressive, antidemocratic Kremlin. But as I returned to Murom last year, I wondered if something of St. Juliana's charity and piety lives on in the revived church.

I also had reason to think that an open and questioning spirit may have taken root among some believers. My father, the Reverend Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest and theologian who, like my mother, was born of Russian émigrés, had been well-known among dissidents and intellectuals in the Soviet Union for his books and his broadcasts over Radio Liberty, which the U.S. government beamed behind the Iron Curtain. Both thoroughly Russian and proudly Western, he lived most of his life in the United States and dedicated much of it to stripping his faith of its ethnic crust and focusing on its universal message. In 2005 the diaries he kept from 1973 until his death in 1983 were published in Russia. To my astonishment, they became an instant sensation among many Russian believers and thinkers. Why, I wanted to learn, were the thoughts of a Western priest resonating so powerfully?

The Murom I return to is little changed. Some nightclubs, ATMs, service stations, and billboards, to be sure, but whatever wealth seeps out of Moscow seems to stop somewhere short of here. There's still no permanent bridge over the Oka, only a pontoon bridge in summer. The potholes are still treacherous, and the old wooden houses are weathered and listing. There is one dramatic change, however: The monasteries and churches on the high bluff above the river now gleam in restored grandeur.

Dating to the late 11th century, Spassky Monastery is one of the oldest in all of Russia. The army used it as a barracks until 1995, leaving behind a sad and stinking ruin. The Russian Orthodox Church assigned a dynamic priest, Father Kirill Epifanov, to resurrect the historic religious center. He began by building a bakery to sustain his handful of monks. Then, finding funds and labor where he could, he rebuilt the churches and restored the grounds. The results are stunning: Busloads of pilgrims arrive to marvel at the medieval splendor. The immaculate grounds include an aviary with peacocks, and the thriving bakery fills the air with the aroma of freshly baked bread.

Spassky is but one of hundreds of monasteries revived in the thaw that began with Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika in the late 1980s. In 1987 there were only three monasteries in Russia; today there are 478. Then there were just two seminaries; now there are 25. Most striking is the explosion of churches, from about 2,000 in Gorbachev's time to nearly 13,000 today. The Russian Orthodox Church has grown into a sprawling institution, with dozens of publishing houses and hundreds of thriving journals, newspapers, and websites.

When I meet him, Father Kirill has just returned from a pilgrimage to the Eastern Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece. A large man with a room-filling voice and a broad black beard, he distributes gifts to his monks like a loving but stern parent. Always on the move, with his cassock swirling around him, he seems the model leader the reviving church needs—a pastor and manager bristling with energy, enthusiasm, and faith. Yet over tea in his vaulted study, Father Kirill is subdued.

Raising money and restoring buildings is the easy part, he says. The pilgrims? Most are "religious tourists" who come to accumulate totems. Even the monks are here today, off to another monastery tomorrow. The church still has no real communal life, no true spiritual revival.

"The Soviet regime was the product of faithlessness, but at least it allowed real believers to live the flame of faith," he says. "Today we are more concerned with fighting sects and 'ene­mies' than with repentance. These forces are tearing the church from within."

Many of the people who rushed to be baptized in the first flush of freedom ended their religious involvement right there, he says. Other priests and believers voice similar laments about the decline of interest in the faith among the Russian rank and file, as well as the slide of the official church toward xenophobia and nationalism.

Figures on church attendance are sketchy, since the Russian Orthodox Church keeps no membership rolls or parish registers. According to Nikolai Mitrokhin, a historian and critic of the church, about 60 percent of Russians today identify themselves as Orthodox—they may be baptized, married, and buried in the church—but less than one percent actually enter a church at least once a month. Other sources put the figure closer to 10 percent. One reason for the sparse attendance may be that the Orthodox Church is not entirely friendly to people who are casual or clueless about its hallowed traditions—as I discover in Murom.

The relics of St. Juliana now repose in the bright yellow Church of St. Nicholas on the Embankment, perched precariously on a steep bluff. As I enter to pay my respects, two babies are being christened. The portly priest, sweaty and impatient with the young parents and godparents, shows less interest in making the rite understandable than in getting it over with.

"Come on, come on, undress them," he barks. "How can I put them in the water like this? Let him hold the candle. No! In the right hand! What are you doing?" The babies scream, the cameras flash, the parents fuss, and soon the baptisms draw to a close.

On the other side of the church, a middle-aged woman with a white kerchief tied fiercely around her head berates me for photographing the relics of St. Juliana. "Did the priest bless you to take photographs?" she demands. "Photographing without a blessing will only bring evil!"

I recognize her kind from my years in the Soviet Union. There were always women like her in the few churches that were open in those days, women who scrubbed the floors, tended the candlestands, and stood through all the services when Soviet disapproval had frightened off everyone else. In a sense, they nursed the church through its long incarceration. They were the custodians of propriety and custom: Stand like this! Face the altar! Cover your head! Cross yourself! They were insufferable, but the church owes them a great debt. So I do what other Russians do when confronted by these vigilantes: I meekly bow and put away my camera.

Obedience and ritual have ruled the Russian Church ever since the pivotal day in 988 when Prince Vladimir, ruler of Kievan Rus, ordered his people to be baptized in the Dnieper River. According to the legend familiar to every Russian, Vladimir had sent envoys abroad in search of a faith for his pagan nation. Those dispatched to Constantinople returned home awestruck by the Eastern Greek ritual they had witnessed in the Hagia Sophia, then the largest cathedral in the world. "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported.

The religion imported by Prince Vladimir shaped the Russian nation and was, in turn, shaped by it. Orthodox monasteries became the spiritual, economic, cultural, and at times, defensive core of the nation. The churches that spread through Russia were awe-inspiring in their magnificence and immutable in their ritual. To this day the language of the church is an archaic but mellifluous Old Church Slavonic. Priests in their glittering vestments are separated from the congregation by an elaborate icon screen, and choirs sing most of the liturgy, often with hymns by Russia's greatest composers. For worshippers, the experience is as otherworldly as a Baptist service is direct and unadorned.

On my first visit to Murom, in 1992, I stood in wonder before the reliquary of St. Juliana, who was then ensconced in a just reopened cathedral. Alongside were the reliquaries of two 12th-century princes, St. Constantine of Murom and his son St. Michael. Constantine had come to what was then a hinterland to plant his religion and his rule. This was the ancient narrative of Russia: righteous warrior-princes who spread the Orthodox Kingdom, and tireless workers of the church who sustained it through times of crisis. Over the centuries Russians came to perceive themselves as a people with a unique spirituality and mission, as "Holy Russia."

The intimidating grandeur of Holy Russia was much in evidence at the Moscow residence of Patriarch Alexy II, the late leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Hushed clerics in black cassocks referred only to "His Holiness." Huge oil canvases on the dark paneled walls depicted epic events in Russia's religious history. Acolytes instructed visitors where to stand when His Holiness entered the room.

But the patriarch entered with a smile and a hearty greeting (we had met several times in the early 1990s). He rang for tea and solicitously recommended the chocolates. Although he suffered from heart and respiratory problems that would prove fatal in less than a year, Alexy was still robust and active for a man of 79. "After my illness I officiate at services a bit less, but I still serve 150 times a year," he told me. Then, with a twinkle in his eye: "Doctors who measure my blood pressure say it's a bit high before a service, but always normal afterward."

Alexy presided over the Russian Orthodox Church from its rebirth in 1990 until his death in December 2008. His story is the story of the church and its struggle with the state. Born in Estonia in 1929 to a family of Russian émigré nobility, Alexy served as a priest and bishop for 40 years under a Soviet regime that reduced the church to a barely tolerated "cult" and compelled "servers of cult" to play a constant, humiliating game of collusion and deception. Alexy never denied that he cooperated with the state "organs," but he insisted that everything he did was to safeguard the essential functions of the church. "In the most difficult days of repression the church did not flee into the catacombs," he said. "It sustained the sacraments, the prayers."

Alexy made it his personal mission to identify the "new martyrs and confessors"—the victims of communist persecution who, in the eyes of the church, died for their Christian faith. He set aside the fourth Saturday after Easter for a special service to commemorate at least 20,000 "enemies of the Soviet state" who, at the height of the Great Purge of 1937-38, were shot and buried in mass graves just south of Moscow.

There I joined thousands of Muscovites as the patriarch, along with scores of bishops and hundreds of priests, celebrated the Divine Liturgy. Some people pushed lit candles into the grassy mounds that now cover the trenches where the victims were felled and buried. A modest billboard displayed photographs of some who died here: a bearded monk, a tousled peasant, a Jewish woman, a student—their eyes either wide in horror or half-closed in surrender. A chart chronicled the numbers killed day-by-day, month-by-month. December 10, 1937: 243 executed. Total for the month: 2,376. May 28, 1938: 230. Total for the month: 1,346.

There has been some grumbling that the church has singled out its own for honor when so many others were killed. Indeed, the thousand bishops, priests, deacons, and nuns who died here lie alongside Bolsheviks, monarchists, Trotskyites, accused counterrevolutionaries, Jews, German communist refugees, kulaks, "social misfits," and even Moscow's Chinese launderers, all caught up in Stalin's orgy of death.

But Patriarch Alexy was resolved: "We are now returning to our history. We have to remember it." He talked as if those long dead were his brothers and sisters: "Can you imagine? Archimandrite Kronid, the last deputy abbot of the Trinity–St. Sergius Lavra, was 83! They brought him out on a stretcher and shot him!"

The hatred for clerics that burned among communist revolutionaries was fueled by a fact of history. For centuries the Russian Orthodox Church had served as a handmaiden of the tsars. The emperor was head of the church, and all awards, promotions, and appointments passed through the imperial court.

In 1990 Alexy became the first patriarch since the Russian Revolution to be elected without the direct interference of the government. "We have managed to establish an entirely new relationship with the state," he said, "one which never existed before." He insisted the church had no intention of becoming a state church, noting that he banned his clergy from elected office.

But critics argue that Alexy and other senior prelates have been all too happy to accept the trappings of a state church and have done little to resist the Kremlin's drift into authoritarianism. Although the Russian Constitution calls for the separation of church and state, Russia's three post-Soviet presidents—Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, and Dmitry Medvedev—have made regular, well-publicized appearances in church, and Orthodox bishops and priests are fixtures at state functions.

This closeness has fed an impression abroad that the Orthodox Church has teamed up with the Kremlin to create a new Russian autocracy. Church officials deny this. They cite a host of differences and unresolved disputes between the church and the government, from control over religious antiquities to religious education. If the church and state are intertwined, they say, it is in a profound and complex search for a new, post-Soviet identity. In that search Russia's imperial history offers only a partial template, and the final result is far from certain.

Still, the Orthodox Church's favored status often works to the detriment of other denominations and faiths—especially those perceived, rightly or wrongly, as Western.

On the fringes of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, Alexander Kirillov unlocks the gate to a large Baptist church that his community recently finished building. The authorities, the elder says, seized on a bureaucratic glitch—failure to submit an annual form—and shut down the association to which the church belongs. "We're at fault, of course. But they could just as easily have sent us a notice reminding us to file it." The real reason for the ban, he says, is that his church doesn't belong to the mainstream Baptist group sanctioned by the government.

"They're not used to the fact that there are denominations other than the 'official' ones, so they don't think we have the right to exist," Kirillov says. "The Orthodox Church is the dominant denomination, so of course they are represented in every sphere of authority. I watch the news: They open a new artillery institute, new entrants are arriving, and there's an Orthodox priest. Why?"

One reason traces back to the early post-Soviet years, when the euphoria of freedom gave way to disillusionment with the consumerism, corruption, and chaos that followed. Reactionaries in the government and the church accused the West of deliberately humiliating Russia, fuel­ing suspicion of denominations and groups with ties to liberal democracies. In right-wing circles, the call went out for Holy Russia to return to her roots.

Some astoundingly dark and retrograde notions openly circulate in reactionary churches and on nationalist websites. One is a drive to canonize Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible, two of the more noxious characters of Russian history who have been reinvented by extremists as "defenders of Holy Russia."

Outside St. Petersburg, the decaying summer palaces of old Russia's tsars and grand dukes overlook the Gulf of Finland. Behind the ruins of one such palace stands a tiny, half-restored chapel. Inside I come face-to-face with a spectacle that makes me gasp—a large icon of Joseph Stalin. He's not wearing the halo of a saint, but a saint is blessing him.

The icon depicts a legend in which Stalin, at the outbreak of World War II, secretly visits St. Matryona of Moscow, a blind and paralyzed woman to whom many people came for spiritual guidance until her death in 1952. According to the legend she counseled the Soviet dictator not to flee Moscow before the invading German Army, but to stand firm against the onslaught.

The chapel's pastor, Evstafy Zhakov, is a fiery nationalist highly regarded by his flock for his charismatic sermons. In an interview with the right-wing newspaper Zavtra, he defended the icon by explaining that Russia has a long tradition of saints blessing warriors before battle.

"But Stalin was an atheist," the interviewer interjected.

"How do you know?" Father Evstafy retorted. Two wartime patriarchs proclaimed Stalin a believer, "and I will believe them before I believe all these liberals and democrats."

While in some dark corners of the church priests such as Father Evstafy recast mass murderers as champions of Holy Russia, many mainstream pastors pursue a more enlightened agenda: rehabilitating drug abusers, rescuing neglected children, and extending Christ's forgiveness to criminals.

In a brightly lit foster home in St. Petersburg, four-year-old Nikita shows me his toys and proudly tells me that his mama will soon give him a gift. He doesn't yet understand that he has just been placed in this home because his mother is a drug addict—a fast-growing blight in Russia—and she can no longer care for him.

Father Alexander Stepanov has been caring for castoffs ever since he left a job in physics to join the priesthood some 20 years ago. "I was ordained right into prison," he quips, recalling how he started his ministry by discussing the Bible with inmates. "I had no idea about that world of gold teeth and tattoos."

All private humanitarian work had been strictly banned in the Soviet Union—social problems don't exist in a workers' paradise—but after the collapse of communism, Father Alexander found no shortage of people willing to plunge in, and Western churches were quick to offer help. Today, working out of two restored buildings on St. Petersburg's waterfront, Father Alexander oversees a parish church, a foster home, an orphanage, a halfway house for teenagers in trouble, and a corps of volunteers who visit hospitals and prisons. He also has a radio station in the attic, and the offices of a summer camp in the basement. No space is wasted, and no time—his cell phone rings (to the tone of church bells) repeatedly.

Many churches now have some form of outreach, and there are plenty of volunteers, Father Alexander says. But the government is jealously seeking to reclaim its monopoly on social work. "The government doesn't want to support the social initiatives of the church," he says sadly. "It forces us to beg for scraps."

In offering little or no resistance to the "dark and threatening authoritarianism" James H. Billington warned of 15 years ago, the church has failed a crucial test. Yet no one who has witnessed the enormous love and labor that has gone into restoring churches and reviving charitable work can doubt that something good and promising has also awakened in Russia.

As I walk through an orphanage in St. Petersburg or a restored monastery in Murom, I am amazed at the mere fact that a religion so ruthlessly repressed for so long has been born anew. And I begin to understand why my father's diaries have had such resonance among many Russians. The journal he kept for the last ten years of his life was a voyage through the ideas, books, discoveries, struggles, and joys of an Orthodox believer and priest. He endured many of the same frustrations and sorrows Russians have known in this latest time of troubles, yet however tough the battle—even his final battle with cancer—he, like St. Juliana, accepted them as the norm of a Christian life. That was the heart of it: In this Western priest's daily life and thought, the Russians found an affirmation that their own doubts and frustrations and confusion were not wrong, that they were, in fact, normal, as long as they remained steadfast in faith and charity.

It's Sunday morning in Murom, and I wake early to the tolling of church bells. Pilgrims are gathering in the monastery, but Father Kirill's kindly housekeeper offers to drive me to Lazarevo, St. Juliana's village. The old church where she worshipped has finally been reopened.

We drive past abandoned Soviet military factories to a muddy cluster of wooden houses around the large, battered church, still undergoing restoration. Piles of bricks and bags of cement are stacked by the walls, and the door is reached over a bridge of wobbly boards. Inside, a modest icon screen has been set up at one side altar; on the other side rests an icon of Juliana.

Two dozen local people, most of them women, gather for the Sunday liturgy. There is no fuss, no politics, no soul-searching, just a quiet appeal to a modest woman who lived, prayed, and suffered here, much as they have: "O blessed one, intercede also for the Russian land, and for all who are in dispersion, that they may receive peace and prosperity, and all the more return to thine ancient piety. …"