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Russian Spiritual Revival Will Take Time

(An interview with Fr. George Edelshtein and Fr Victor Potapov)

Lawrence Morahan, CNS Senior Staff Writer

February 19, 2002

To Fr. George Edelshtein, a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, Russia's spiritual revival is not a theory. Ten years ago, Edelshtein's bishop gave him permission to restore a ruined church in Karabanovo, a small village on the bank of the Volga River, 200 miles northeast of Moscow.

"It was a remnant of a church, no roof, no windows, no doors - just three and a half brick walls," Edelshtein, 72, said in a phone interview from Russia.

"I don't think you'll be surprised if I tell you our former president, Boris Yeltsin, didn't give me a penny to restore this poor country church," he said.

But Edelshtein didn't let a lack of funds and broken promises of support by churchgoers overseas prevent him from making a start. Borrowing a little here and a little there, he began work.

Villagers who had been forced to conceal their deep religious beliefs under the atheistic Soviet regime were glad to come out and help.

News of Edelshtein's enterprise also attracted believers from overseas. One day a group of Norwegian Lutherans showed up, eager to take part in restoration work and underwrite the cost. Later, American and Canadian Baptists appeared, then an Irish Catholic priest, who donated enough to restore the second half of the building.

"Now practically all of it has been restored," Edelshtein said.

The church restoration has left Edelshtein free to tackle another project - the renovation of a nearby hospital and orphanage.

Edelshtein's projects, and the support they receive locally and from friends overseas, are commonplace in today's Russia. Since the collapse of communism in 1991, there has been a phenomenal growth in the number of monasteries, parishes, theological schools and academies in the country.

No longer fearful of official harassment, many of Russia's 145 million people, two thirds of whom consider themselves Orthodox, have gradually been finding their spiritual voice.

A trickle of religious freedom began in 1985 with the policies of glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Today, 500 monasteries have sprung up throughout Russia; before 1985, that figure stood at 16, reports Fr. Victor Potapov, rector of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Washington and a commentator with the Voice of America Russian Service.

Russia alone has 20,000 Orthodox parishes today, an exponential increase from the 500 parishes that served all the countries of the former Soviet Union. If Belarus and the Ukraine were included, that figure could be doubled, Potapov said.

The Russian church supports at least 16 seminaries for Orthodox training, and each diocese has a pastoral institute, besides a number of theological academies or graduate schools.

The publication of spiritual literature also has taken off. Before 1985, the church was allowed to publish only one monthly journal; now every diocese has at least one official publication. Publishing houses are churning out thousands of books, and websites offer zip files of entire books, Potapov noted.

Two Orthodox universities have opened in recent years, one in St. Petersburg and another outside Moscow - the famous 14th century Sergiev Posad monastery.

However, Potapov said it was difficult to gauge the impact of freedom to worship on a society that is transitioning from communism to capitalism.

"Building churches and opening theological seminaries and libraries - all the physical aspects of the church - that's the easy part. But building 'the temples of the spirit' is a different story," said Potapov, whose Washington congregation assists Edelshtein's community in Russia by sending shoes and clothing, among other items.

Russians are being baptized in droves, but many participate only because they believe it's the fashionable thing to do. Some do it for superstitious reasons, which indicate to Potapov that the education and inculcation of Christian values is going to take at least a generation more.

The mass importation of Western culture also is presenting the Russian church with challenges. Casinos and topless bars, officially banned under the communists, have been opening in large numbers, especially in cities.

In a country where the real average monthly income is estimated at between $50 and $100, and contraception is not readily available, abortion is used as a form of birth control. "The average number of abortions performed on the average Russian woman is five or six," Potapov said.

Abortion was accepted by the communists, "but now the church is loud and clear on this issue and it's trying to spread the message that abortion is murder," he said.

With unemployment running well into double digits, a lot of young people in Russia are also turning to drug use.

Interfaith bickering also is affecting morale. The Orthodox hierarchy recently denounced an effort by the Vatican to create four dioceses for Catholics across Russia. The Vatican move was an attempt to build a structure to win converts from among Orthodox believers, the Russian Orthodox synod said.

"The Moscow patriarchate calls this activity proselytizing and looks on it as one of the basic obstacles to improving relations between our two Churches," the synod said, further denting prospects of a visit to Russia by the aging Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican estimates there are about 1.3 million Catholics in 212 parishes in Russia, who are served by about 275 mostly foreign priests.

Lutheran, Baptist, Mormon and other Protestant churches also are active in missionary work in the former Soviet Union. Russia's population is 5.5 percent Muslim, 0.6 percent Buddhist and 0.3 percent Jewish. Since the early 1990s, nearly 1 million Jewish immigrants moved to Israel from Russia and the former Soviet republics.

Edelshtein said wealthy churchgoers have been quick to restore glittering domes on churches in Moscow, and even support processional choirs. But in Russia's rural areas, the parishioners' focus remains on getting a roof over their heads at home.

"If you go to a small country church like mine, you will see that most of the population here in these villages are the poor people of our society and it is our duty to help them," Edelshtein said.

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