Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Moscow Diary: A Christian revival

After decades in the wilderness under the Soviet system, Russia's Orthodox Church is basking in a new, more prominent role. But are Russians really embracing a spiritual revival, asks the BBC's James Rodgers in Moscow.

His diary is published fortnightly.


One institution of ancient Russia now stands as a symbol of change.

Patriarch Kirill at his investiture on 27 January 2009
The new Patriarch wants Russians to be more spiritual

The last time the Russian Orthodox Church elected a leader, the Soviet Union still existed.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow did not.

Its golden dome has since taken its place on the skyline of the Russian capital. It was rebuilt in the 1990s, a sign of the Church's resurgence after decades of a difficult co-existence with communism.

The cathedral was completely destroyed during the time of the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. Bolshevik revolutionaries blew it up as part of their drive to establish an atheist state.

Great revival?

In 1990, the Church chose Alexiy II as its leader. He remained Patriarch until his death last month. The reconstruction of Christ the Saviour is the centrepiece of a huge programme of church restoration and rebuilding which has transformed the appearance of towns and villages across Russia.

But appearances can deceive. While the vast majority of Russians now readily identify themselves as Orthodox Christians - opinion polls regularly suggest around two-thirds - it seems largely to be a question of culture, rather than faith.

Icons may have replaced soft-porn pictures as the most common sight on a Moscow taxi dashboard, but there is no real sense of a great spiritual revival.

As he prepared for the vote which would eventually place him at the head of the Church, the new Patriarch, Kirill, noted this gap between gesture and deed.

"Millions of people have been baptised, and consider themselves Orthodox Christian," he told the Russian newspaper Trud. "But the degree of their observance leaves much to be desired."

Pro-Lenin demonstrators in Red Square in January 2009
The Church is resuming its place at the heart of Russian life

As well as spiritual challenges, the new Patriarch faces diplomatic ones too. Some hope that under Kirill, the Russian church will enjoy better relations with its Roman Catholic counterpart.

Although Russia is nominally a secular state, the Church has played a huge role in shaping the country's post-communist identity. The collapse of Marxist-Leninism left a huge ideological and - given the way that Lenin was all but deified - spiritual vacuum. The Church has sought to fill that, even it has not yet succeeded in filling up the churches.

Because of that role, the political authorities have kept a close eye on the Church's influence. There was a reminder of that when the Kremlin chief of staff, Sergei Naryshkin, arrived at the cathedral to read out a message from the president.

With Kirill's appointment confirmed, the Kremlin announced that President Medvedev had telephoned the new Patriarch, and "expressed the hope of further development in the dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state".

The previous Patriarch ensured that the Church's profile in Russian society continued to grow. In a country where political influence can sometimes be measured by appearances on state television, Alexiy II got a good share of airtime.

Kirill is likely to build on that profile, but also to change it.

Preserving influence

"In Russia, a new political force has appeared which doesn't depend on any format of authority and has its own internal conception of the construction of Russia," the broadcaster and commentator Maxim Shevchenko told the radio station Ekho Moskvy.

As that process of transformation continues, many here will look to see how the Church is preserving its influence.

Late last year, I interviewed Vagit Alekperov, president of the giant oil company Lukoil.

Mr Alekperov is a huge success story in the often difficult - and sometimes dangerous - business climate of Russia over the last two decades. People who have prospered understand very well where power and influence lie.

In the room where he received me, I noticed three photographs: Mr Alekperov with Dmitry Medvedev, with Vladimir Putin, and with Patriarch Alexiy II.


A group of demonstrators were stopped by the police as they tried to make their way onto Red Square last week. It was the anniversary of Lenin's death, and they were demanding that the body of the first Soviet leader be removed from its mausoleum and buried.

The police detained 25 protesters, and confiscated... a cardboard coffin.

Your comments:

It is unfortunate that the Orthodox Church, after being the victim of suppression by the Communist state for years, is now turning around to suppress the burgeoning Protestant movement in the country.
John, Madrid, Spain

As a Catholic, I welcome the new Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. May his holiness through his examples in the past bridge the divide between the West and the East. Another point though - his holiness, Kirill was not appointed, he was elected.
Carlos Fornier, New York, NY, USA

The church has always been an important part of Russian life but it was replaced with another religion - Communism, with its own saints and values. But the church has always been a very corrupt institution. And today it is no better. Standhal describes very well the church in "Red and Black".
George, Moscow

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James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow

MAY - OCT 2008

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