Faith is essential part of being Russian
But at the mass level in Russia, the near-uprooting of church organization and educational system, as well as rapid forced urbanization, have led to a further perpetuation of this medieval mix of Christianity and paganism—a situation that is particularly difficult to rectify in the postmodern age with its pluralism and syncretism of fragmented value systems. Nineteenth century writer Nikolai Leskov’s statement that “Russia was baptized but not enlightened” continues to be cited in church circles to describe the state of mass religiosity, despite evident progress in the growth of religious education, social outreach and the emergence of noticeablly active laypeople in various strata of society over the past 20 years of religious freedom.
It has become commonplace in political science and journalism to say that religion has “filled the vacuum” left in the place of communist ideology. But following Russian religious philosophers of the first half of the 20th century, such as Nikolai Berdyaev or Sergei Bulgakov, one can equally argue that communism took root in Russia as a result of the Russians’ religious striving for the absolute, for the Divine Kingdom that they so vainly tried to build on earth. With the red-bannered processions filing past the “relics” of Lenin and the “Red Corners” in every school, office or factory, the Soviet Union ended up as one of the most ritualistic societies in the world. “The Soviet people lived in the culture of religious forms,” modern theologian and social philosopher Alexander Kyrlezhev said in an interview.
A wider church
An often cited poll shows a wide gap between the 60 to 80 percent of Russians who identify themselves with the Orthodox Church and the tiny single-figure percentage of those who are “churched,” i.e. try to adhere to a Christian way of life as prescribed by the Orthodox Church. There are few places like the Convent of the Protection that give the picture of this “wider church” of 60 to 80 percent, and perhaps bigger. “I am a Muslim, but I come here every week,” said 31-year-old Ravil Subkhangulov, who sat on a bench in the monastery’s court. “I don’t go to any other church, because it’s a sin for me as a Muslim.” Ravil said that for ten years his Christian wife couldn’t get pregnant, and no doctors could do anything about it. Last August the couple came here, having heard from a colleague that Matrona helps in such circumstances, and spent 12 hours waiting in line. “In November, what we had expected so eagerly, happened,” he said. Now he is buying icons of Matrona and giving them out to relatives and friends. “I work in Lubyanka,” he said, referring to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, “and after all the nightmares at work I come here, and my soul rests, and I leave with tears in my eyes.”
Reproductive health appears to be one of the main issues that draw people to the Blessed Matrona. Angelina Zvereva, a surgeon, said that she first came to Matrona after a friend was cured here from repeated miscarriages. “People cannot live without faith,” Zvereva said. “People believe in whatever—some in the [Communist] party, others—in God.”
A stately middle-aged woman dressed according to church etiquette, in a long skirt and an elegantly matching headscarf, was sipping tea in a small cafeteria outside the convent walls together with Anna Suloeva, a petite retail buyer with an elaborate, multicolored pedicure, clad in jeans.