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With the nation in the throes of economic and social upheaval, especially in its rural interior, parish priests must confront the social ills affecting their parishioners — cynicism, despair, substance abuse and unemployment. In addition, priests struggle to keep their parishes afloat. By law each parish is an independent economic unit; aid from the patriarchate, eparchy or state does not usually cover all expenses, which include support for the priest, his wife and children.

With the rise of nationalism within the many republics of the former Soviet Union, Orthodox priests also have been subject to hate crimes. In 1990, unknown assassins brutally murdered Father Alexander Men near his home in Semkhoz, just northeast of Moscow. One of Russia’s most influential priests especially beloved by the intelligentsia, Father Men was of Jewish origin. And last November, Father Daniil Sysoyev was shot to death in his Moscow church, probably in revenge for his work among the city’s Muslims and his critical remarks of Islam.

Maya Kucherskaya, a well-respected critic, writer and professor of Russian literature at the Russian School of Economics, has spotlighted the many difficulties facing the Orthodox Church of Russia.

Her collection of short stories, “The Modern Patericon: To Be Read in Times of Despair,” was greeted with cheers from both religious and secular circles, but many readers were baffled. Some stories depicted church life as grotesque and dark, and some, posing as children’s tales, plunged into absurdity. In one story, a priest hides under the table during a meal and tugs at his colleagues’ cassocks. When asked what he is doing, he explains he wants “to become as little children.” In another tale, an Orthodox hedgehog decides to baptize a heathen squirrel, drowning her in the process.

“I was astonished that some people chose to take such stories seriously,” says Dr. Kucherskaya, who has also written a children’s adaptation of the New Testament.

“I thought the ‘exercises’ after the text, especially those that called the readers to ‘recreate’ the hedgehog and squirrel story, made the issue obvious.”

In 2007, she published a novel entitled “Rain God,” which documented the spiritual journey of a young protagonist, Anna, and her complex relationship with a priest.

“In the late 1980’s, when I myself was a student in the School of Philology at Moscow State University, taking baptism was still a nonconformist act. These days, it is nonconformist not to be baptized.

“I object being called an Orthodox author,” she adds. “When I see a sign that reads ’Orthodox Lawyer’ or ‘Orthodox Physician,’ I want to make an about-face and go find a good lawyer or physician. If he or she happens to be Orthodox, great. But in our society, there’s a schizophrenic divide between church and nonchurch life, and there shouldn’t be one. I’m trying to show it in my books.”

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Tags: Russia Russian Orthodox Church Priests Soviet Union Revival/restoration