Sprouts from the Ashes

Severely pruned by the Soviets the Russian Orthodox Church springs to new life.

text and photographs by George Martin

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Eleven of us were traveling together through Russia: seven members of the Orthodox Church in the United States, a retired Methodist minister, an Episcopal deacon and two Latin Catholics – my wife and me. We were responding to an invitation for “a Christian pilgrimage of mutual encouragement to visit remote parishes and monasteries of northern Russia.” The aim of the journey was “to witness a wounded church, culture and people being reborn.”

Some wounds were already visible as our flight from Finland landed at Petrozavodsk, Russia. Although a city of 300,000, the airport in Petrozavodsk is little more than a bumpy landing strip. Passport and customs inspection occurred in a sagging building with peeling paint surrounded by knee-high weeds. This was only our first glimpse of the debris produced by 70 years of Communism. We would see much more during our trip through Russia.

Petrozavodsk is the largest city in the Karelian region of Russia, an area east of Finland stretching up to the Arctic Circle. At the time of the 1917 revolution, a cathedral and 43 churches served Petrozavodsk population, then 80,000. Only two of these churches survived Communism. The others were destroyed or converted for other uses. The two that survived became “cemetery churches” – small churches in graveyards where prayers could be offered for the dead. We set out to visit them.

Our first stop was the Church of the Holy Cross. Badly overgrown trees shaded the cemetery surrounding the church. Although many of the Orthodox crosses marking the graves leaned precariously, there were some signs of continuing care. Tied to one cross with a name in Cyrillic and the dates 1887-1941 were two bright artificial flowers.

Would this cemetery be the image I would take away of the church in Russia – an image of past life now in decay? Not really. As we walked to the church I saw that its domes, previously hidden among the trees, were freshly painted and glistened blue in the sun. Inside we found a dozen people chanting midmorning prayers for the dead. It was a living church.

There were even more signs of life in the Church of St. Catherine, a small frame building located in the second cemetery. A group baptism was under way as we entered; a priest was reviewing some basics of the faith for those to be baptized and their godparents. With religious education forbidden during Communism, there was a lot of catching up to do.

Our third stop in Petrozavodsk was the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky. Its golden domes rose above the scaffolding, as the church is currently undergoing renovations to become the cathedral of Petrozavodsk. Demolished after the Communist revolution, the original cathedral was replaced by a fine arts theater. The Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, dating from the early part of this century, became a museum. The government returned it to the Orthodox Church; soon it will again be available for worship. We would see scaffolding around many church buildings during our pilgrimage, signs that these historic buildings, at one time secularized, are returning to the Russian Orthodox Church.

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Tags: Russia Russian Orthodox Church Pilgrimage/pilgrims Communism/Communist Revival/restoration