Russia’s Rocky Road to God

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Despite the communists’ often violent attempts to destroy it, the Russian Orthodox Church, the only prerevolutionary institution to survive somewhat intact, albeit scarred, is striving to bring hope to this nation’s confused and bewildered populace.

“The worst thing is despair, and if despair could be alleviated, it would solve 98 percent of Russia’s problems,” says the Rev. Alexander Borisov, pastor of the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, located across the street from Moscow’s city hall.

“Despair is a principal sin: it is to be without God,” the priest continues.

Despair controls the lives of many ordinary Russians. Yet coupled with this sense of despondency is a resurgence of interest in the Orthodox Church. The Mysteries of Initiation – Baptism, Chrismation and Eucharist – are once again a rite of passage for most Russians.

But do parents and godparents understand their responsibility to rear their children as Christians? With its elaborate forms of worship, most of which date to Russia’s medieval past, Orthodoxy often seems incomprehensible to Russia’s nascent Christian community.

Today, Russia’s prerevolutionary symbols, whether Christian or secular, have lost their meaning – Russians no longer know who or what to believe.

The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, has repeatedly called for “an intensive evangelization aimed at filling the enormous spiritual vacuum in the people, the descendants of former Orthodox Christians.”

One priest tackling this challenge is Father Borisov.

A believer since his late teens, young Borisov worked as a geneticist in the Soviet Academy of Sciences until he was 33. That year he entered into religious life at the renowned monastery of Sergei Posad in Zagorsk, near Moscow. The novice was ordained to the diaconate in Moscow one year later.

For 16 years, Deacon Borisov served the church in a variety of pastoral ministries, including a brief stint as a deputy in the Soviet Politburo. However it was Borisov’s book, The Fields Are White for Harvest, circulated in the 80s in samizdat, or underground form, that brought attention to the young deacon.

Critics of the book claim the author paints a dismal picture of the Russian Orthodox Church, a church more suitable for the uneducated masses of pre-revolutionary Russia than the highly educated populace of modern Russia. And indeed the book cites the lack of catechesis given to those who seek baptism as well as the general unfamiliarity of believers with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the nature of the church.

With the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, the restrictions placed on the Orthodox Church, which included conditions on lay catechesis and seminary instruction, were relaxed. In 1989, Deacon Borisov was ordained a priest. Two years later he was assigned to the central Moscow parish of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, then only recently returned to the patriarchate. With this assignment, Father Borisov was given the opportunity to implement the practices he called for in his provocative book.

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Tags: Russia Russian Orthodox Church Communism/Communist