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Russia's new faith... in itself

Russians are feeling a new pride in their country - in their ancient heritage, their Orthodox faith, and the return of some of that sporting success that seemed to disappear with the USSR - finds the BBC's James Rodgers.

When it gets hot, and humidity and pollution hang in the air, it is time to escape.

Church being renovated within Rostov's Kremlin [Photo: James Rodgers]
Russians are increasingly embracing their own, centuries-old, kind of Christianity as part of the country's modern, post-communist identity

Muscovites are wise to the shortcomings of their city. Those who can, send their children out of town for the summer holidays.

This year and last, I have visited parts of the Golden Ring, the circle of cities which were the power bases of medieval Russia.

They may no longer be the places where priests and tsars plotted in the cold stone corridors of the Middle Ages.

They do have a timeless beauty and a lot to say about the way that Russia is today.

Rostov, north-east of Moscow, looks like the Russia of fairy tales.

Centuries-old walls surround its Kremlin. It is on the shores of a lake. The onion domes of the city's churches stand out against the summer sky.

At this time of year, it is light until after 2300. A grey afternoon can turn into a sunny evening.

I stayed in a hotel inside the Kremlin.

Once the other tourists had left, I sat quietly and watched the light and the shadows change on the ancient towers and turrets.

Head-dresses of scaffolding obscured the outlines of the domes.

Beauty

The Kremlin is in the process of a major renovation. Workers laboured late, taking advantage of the long days. The clang of their hammers carried across the still air.

Inside Rostov's Kremlin in 1945
My communist-era guide book praised the proletarian credentials of the medieval craftsmen rather than their religious subjects

More delicate work was under way, too.

In one of the cathedrals, specialists cautiously cleaned the frescoes. The paintings covered the walls, stretching right up into the domes.

The scenes of heaven and hell must have comforted the most miserable peasant, and made the most ruthless medieval conspirator think twice.

Even in our age, overloaded as it is with images, they are still striking.

I was surprised how run-down parts of the Kremlin had been allowed to become.

The atheist Soviet state recognised the beauty of the architecture.

Tourists were encouraged to come here, although my communist-era guide book praised the proletarian credentials of the medieval craftsmen rather than their religious subjects.

Stronger church

In this new Russia, religion is regaining some of its influence.

A Russian Orthodox priest blesses water during a service
In the Soviet Union the teaching of religion was strictly outlawed

Even if comparatively few people actually go to church, at least two-thirds of the population describe themselves as Orthodox Christian.

Many of the female tourists covered their heads, as women are expected to do in Russian churches. Men and women alike crossed themselves.

This is not just about faith, though.

Russian Orthodoxy is something Russian. Yes, there are other Orthodox peoples but Russians are embracing their own, centuries-old, kind of Christianity as part of the country's modern, post-communist identity.

The care I saw in the hands of the restorers must have mirrored that of the masterpieces' original creators.

Rostov is also cursed by some of rural Russia's eternal troubles.

Oil wealth has not trickled far enough down to eradicate dilapidation and drunkenness.

"Do you want to go on a boat ride?" slurred Victor. "You can go for a short trip for 150 roubles (3; $6) a person, or longer for 300, as you like."

Beneath an untidy thatch of dirty-looking blond hair, he seemed to be totting up in his head how much vodka the fares would buy him.

Other residents emerged from their crumbling lakeside homes to beg from passers-by.

There were other, Soviet-era, touches.

The restaurant was open from 0900 to 1700, a relic of the days when such places existed to create jobs rather than to serve food. Anyone looking for dinner tasted only disappointment.

Frescoes and footballers

It is the Soviet era's sporting achievements they recall now.

Russian football fans with flag
Russia reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008 but lost to Spain

I returned to a Moscow thrilled by Russian victories in the European football championship.

When the team reached the semi-final for the first time in 20 years, the party went on until dawn.

That defeat of the Netherlands was special. It was they who beat the USSR in the 1988 final.

"I was at the stadium," recalled the commentator. "And there were only about 20 Soviet supporters there."

The joy shone through his words. Russia had a new sporting achievement to celebrate. This time, thousands of fans were allowed to travel, and could afford the tickets.

Defeat by Spain ended Russia's hopes of the trophy.

Yesterday, as I walked to work, beer bottles spilled out of bins like the contents of an overflowing pint-pot. The party was over.

I caught snatches of conversation.

"If only we'd played like we did against the Netherlands," was typical. The dream may be dented but it is not destroyed.

Russia really sees itself as on the rise. To understand fully this new pride, you have to consider the humiliation which a broken-down former superpower suffered in the 1990s.

Today's new patriotism draws on ancient faith, memories of Soviet sporting prowess and a currency lording it over the dollar.

Frescoes and footballers all have their part to play.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 28 June, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Moscow Diary: Team spirit
12 Jun 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Russia
18 Jun 08 |  Country profiles

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