13 July 2020

Religion – A Chapter from Russia, 1934

The gaze is struck by a church spire on practically every corner, not just downtown but in the shabbiest outskirts, where the tiny wooden houses squat low, almost submerged in the mud. High above the battered roofs, the innumerable gilded globes glisten in the sun with a purplish glint like a densely packed pile of ripe onions. A church stands on every rise and every square, even smack in the middle of a boulevard. As you step into a courtyard looking for a friend, you stumble into a secluded church; floundering through the maze of alleys and passageways you will soon come up against a chapel wall. Before the war, Moscow had 1,600 churches with a total of 20,000 spires.

Many of them have been demolished, including a few ones “obstructing traffic” that should have been protected as monuments, such as the Christ the Saviour Cathedral destroyed earlier this year. And many have been refurbished for alternative uses.


The demolition of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow in 1931. © Gyula Illyés collection

On my way to the Museum of Ethnography a huge basilica emerged in front of me. I walked around it out of curiosity, and was struck by a sign composed of ten-metre tall letters on the golden dome over the main doorway that spelled out the word KINO. I entered and, indeed, I stepped inside a movie theatre. Across the Moskva River, facing the trade union headquarters building, I found a car repair shop housed in a church; elsewhere it was an artist’s atelier. The state seems to have “taken over the management” of every church without a sufficient number of believers to maintain it.

How many churches remain active in Moscow? Some said thirty; others seventy. Where can I find one? That question nobody could or would answer. All denied any religious “prosecution”.

Not that they held religion in favour. For instance, Patriarch Tikhon was turned down peremptorily when he proposed to hold a mourning service in every single place of worship of the “living church” on the day Lenin died. At first, of course, this field of life was hardly more immune than others to certain excesses, as they readily admit. These days the believers have the right, at least in principle, to found a congregation and secure the services of a priest in their own pay. The Council of Moscow, however, refuses to allocate flats to the clergy in the inner districts. They commute from their dacha in the resort colonies outside the city. “Still, where would I go to find a church still working?” I asked Lyubov Vorontsova on the bus.

She did not know, but a woman hanging on next to us came up with two addresses. She recommended the one on Ulitsa Palashovskavo for its “wonderful choir”.

All we had to find out was what day of the week it was. When will it be Sunday? We called the editorial office of Pravda; it turned out to be a Saturday.1

Next morning I was running late. I bolted through the courtyard in front of the church where a sort of market was set up with vendors hawking scarves, fruit, kvass, potatoes and brooms. I found Lyubov Vorontsova leaning against a door, her face ashen. She was evidently sick. Having greeted her softly, I went searching for a place for her to sit, but churches in Russia have no pews; there was not even a chair in sight. I stood next to her and just kept standing there for all of three hours, forgetting about everything around me, until she begged that we leave before she collapsed. Then I became conscious of what was surely one of the most astounding spectacles my eyes took in during my stay in Russia.

Every inch of the walls and the ceiling was plated in glittering gold. Gilded were the triptych on the altar, the metal flags hanging everywhere, the myriad paintings hung snugly side by side on the walls. The Eyes of the Lord emitted yard-long golden rays, and gold foil covered the six enormous chandeliers which nearly filled all the vast space over our heads. It was like being suffocated in an inflated, gigantic jewellery box. Entering this space through the gilded doorways were the threadbare believers carrying their packages and bags in hand, as if they filed out of a nightmare. They came smelling rank with rain and poverty, and had a distant, vacant look in their eyes. They set down their belongings and, without a word, threw themselves prone to the ground, faces brushing the flagstones, arms stretched forward with open palms. Now raising themselves abruptly to their knees, they swung their arms toward the sky, then fell back to the ground with a thud. Finally they stood back up and lined up in one of two long queues winding their way to the icons on either side of the main altar.

Stairs led to both images, one depicting Mary with the infant Jesus, the other some Russian saint. They, too, were adorned in gold relief. In the one closer to me, from my position only Jesus’s feet and Mary’s right hand were visible, behind a pane of glass.

Making their way in front of the icon, the believers hurled themselves to the ground again, muttered a brief prayer, and waited for their turn to press their lips in a long kiss against the glass. Descending the stairs, they turned an enraptured face of bliss to us.

The first I singled out was a gaunt woman well ahead in her years wearing a fantastic Baden Powell scout hat studded with a colourful ostrich feather. She was followed by another elderly woman donning the kind of puffed-sleeve coat that used to be in fashion at the beginning of the century. Her eyes were flooded with tears. Then came a young mother almost stumbling down the stairs with a baby in her arms, then a corpulent gentleman with an ivory-handled cane. He was crying, too. I gazed around and saw very few eyes that were dry in that church. Next in the line was a woman, a factory worker by her looks, who held a four or five-year-old boy high up to the icon. He started playing with the Sceptre of Jesus but stopped upon being reprimanded by her mother and fell to Mary’s hand with a long kiss. In their wake a man in tall boots staggered down the stairs wheezing and snorting: he was obviously drunk.

Meanwhile, a throng of black-scarfed women in front of the main altar kept regurgitating the litany, repeating in chanting voices the words gospodi pomilui, gospodi pomilui, gospodi pomilui, ten or fifteen times in incredibly rapid succession, while making signs of the cross in the reverse direction as is the custom in Russia.

Two priests in gray silk robes now materialised, one carrying a briefcase, the other a woven rush shopping bag. They made their way behind the altar.

Mass is under way. Russian churches have no organ; at least this one does not. A choir of nine perched on a narrow pedestal erupts in a painful chant. One of the priests, the one who arrived with the shopping bag, stands in front of the altar gate now wearing a gold and green vestment. “The Deacon”, Vorontsova says. As the choir falls silent he starts singing, joined by another voice from beyond the altar gate. The two of them go back and forth like that for a long time until the altar gate is finally flung open, bringing into view the splendid altar and the other priest, who keeps singing with his arms wide open. The two voices, now joined anew by the choir, accompany the rest of the ceremony, which mostly consists of the bringing out, demonstration, carrying around and retirement of the missal. Meanwhile, the icon next to the altar is being inundated with kisses by the believers. A woman wearing heavy make-up strides down the stairs, her neck weighed down by a necklace of large yellow beads nearly banging her knees.

The church is now crammed full, and not just with elderly people as my friends insisted would be the case. There are younger ones among them, mostly women. I count those kneeling in front of me: fifty-two women, nine men, fourteen children. A tall, white-haired man with fire in his eyes enters through the door, casts his gaze to the ceiling, makes a sign of the cross as fierce as if he stabbed a knife in his shoulders, then falls heavily to the ground like someone hit by a bullet.

On the heads swaying in front of me like cereals in the wind I count three red caps and two red scarves – the local revolutionary wear akin to the Phrygian cap of Paris back in the day. The choirboys and choirgirls are standing about enjoying a break, laughing, one of them eyeing herself in a mirror.

A young worker woman next to me is rocking back and forth standing up, without going down on her knees, with hands clasped in prayer but lips unmoving. She is wearing a dark, short-cut men’s coat, a white skirt, stockings rolled down to the ankle, flat-heeled tennis shoes. A likeable face of dark complexion with delicate features. She must be twenty-three or twenty-five. Her long eyelashes glisten with teardrops. She never casts a glance left or right, so I am able to observe her freely as I please. My eyes stray to her fingers. Well-groomed nails; a fine hand. She is the first ci-devant I met. Now she steals a glance at me; I turn away. The choir begins to drone softly.

The deacon suddenly cries out in his eerie voice reminiscent of the bittern’s boom, as if he stepped on smouldering coals. The choir follows suit, now at full tilt. It is like someone turned the sound on in a silent film you think you have been watching. Bodies are flung to the floor everywhere, and the whole congregation begins to wail in despair, as if the ceiling were about to collapse, repeating twenty times in a crazy rhythm: “Gospodi pomilui – Gospodi pomilui – Gospodi pomilui!”

It is the first time they make their voices heard; so far, only the priests and the choir of four registers have been singing. Now the entire vast space is filled with sighs and moans in unison as if the congregation lamented in a single voice. All are lying prone on the floor. The deacon says something to the other priest, who shrugs him off indifferently. The hubbub of the market outside becomes audible.

More singing follows, then the jingle of coins. An unimaginably fat beadle appears stepping over the prostrate bodies, followed by two women wrapped in black scarves, each carrying a tray for donations: one for the priests, one for the choir, and one for maintenance. All I see clinking on the trays are copper coins; no roubles. Vorontsova lurches to the side to lean on me. I escort her outside to get some fresh air. The sun has come out. We sit on the trunk of a felled birch among the stallholders.

No bell ever tolls in Moscow anymore. All of them have been hanging in silence for the past fifteen years in the twenty-thousand spires and towers of a thousand-and-a-half churches in the city. The moment you are told you realise with a start that you have been missing that sound all along, one way or another. This is my fourth week in Moscow, and it is only now, as I am sitting on this log, that it dawns on me that the quiet in the morning and at noon, the absence of bells ringing, has silently contributed to the impression I have formed of this city.

Yet the singing in the church is resounding far and wide. It is a busy weekday outside, but among the church walls the ghost of Sundays is seething in despair. The place is a tiny, crowded island in an infinite sea.

Lyuba Vorontsova is feeling better. She lights a cigarette to muster the strength to stand up. We take a stroll up and down among the stalls and the makeshift vendors’ stands.

I explain to her that I cannot imagine how even the most ardent acolytes of the present political régime – or, rather, especially they – could not feel a measure of respect for the wailing believers inside. Now that the Church has been wrestled to the ground and stripped of material privileges, if I were them I would have nothing but regard for those who persist in confessing to their faith against the odds – in spite of the persecution, or if there is no persecution to talk about as they say, then in spite of the scorn and the reproachful glances that surely follow everyone who enters a church. I take my hat off to whoever in Russia today steps into a church, let alone embarks on a clerical profession, no matter how vastly different my own conviction may be.

Vorontsova keeps nodding, even though she thinks otherwise. It is not about chivalrous sentiments here, she says, with a faint smirk in the corner of her decidedly Tartaresque lips. The Russian Church sided with the counter-revolutionaries. The priests, armed with machine guns in the spires, shot at the Red Guard as they fought their way through the streets.


A poster of the Soviet anti-religion campaign: “counterrevolutionaries” shooting from a church spire. Courtesy: Antal Babus

I saw this poster myself in the anti-religious museum, my dear Lyuba”, I counter. “It was worthless, like all the others they came out with. Pathetic and empty. Oh and I think you didn’t shirk from running those machine guns up those turret steps yourself if the opportunity presented itself.”

She cites the neutrality that should be mandatory for any Church, then goes on and on about the backward priests who still keep the people of the countryside in the dark. Not to mention squeezing the last drop out of them with their age-old practices like selling devotional articles, usury and vodka distillation. Villagers near Novosibirsk beat to death a team of physicians dispatched to overcome a typhoid breakout, simply because the doctors insisted that prayers alone would not suffice to combat the disease.

Now we glimpse the believers flocking out of the church. I want to speak with a priest. The deacon, a towering man with broad shoulders, must bend his back as he leads us into a room with a low ceiling. Once we are all inside, he relaxes and turns to face us. I need to look up at him, even though I am used to speaking to most people with my head bowed down. Lyuba Vorontsova delivers a long introduction paraphrasing my excuses. I apologise to him for not being sent here by the profane curiosity of a journalist. Then I apologise again and a third time for asking a few questions. I understand his position.

Don’t hesitate to ask, Sir”, he says politely, pulling himself up straight, wrinkles hinting at mockery appearing around his eyes. I cannot see his lips from his beard. He is fortyish, no more than forty-five. But I am still not satisfied. I ask Vorontsova to tell him we are ready to leave the minute our company becomes a burden. A burden? Far from it, he suggests, his face once again composed into that supercilious smile with a faint tinge of relishing confrontation.

Go ahead, put those questions of yours. It’s not going to be the first time I am asked questions.”

How is life treating you?” I blurt out.

Just fine”, he replies, squaring those immense shoulders again. Thinking I heard him wrong, I repeat my query.

Ochen kharasho!” he repeats in turn, this time almost shouting, and laughs out loud.

In the minute of silence that follows I notice his small black eyes scrutinising my face, even staring at my shoes for a second. I am overcome by the definite sense that he sees through me, that he knows me inside out. There are moments like this in life.

Do you believe that religion has a future?” I formulate my next question slowly. He casts another inquisitive glance at me.

Not any more or any less than you do!”, he hollers, bursting out in another fit of laughter over his own enigmatic answer.

Being a priest must come with great sacrifices. Have you ever thought of changing careers?”

Sir”, he begins softly, “I used to have it like a king back then, you see.” Suddenly he begins to roar, his forehead glowing red, flushed to the top of his great ears. “I should spit myself in the face if I turned my back on them now! They brought me up. I am from Tula!”

After a brief pause, I ask him how long he has been a priest, sending him into another fit of rage. For reasons of association unknown to me, he begins to vociferate about the Pope in Rome, using expressions of which I would not dare to write down the few I understood. Two or three minutes pass before I can speak again. Sheepishly, I restate my question about what he thinks the future has in store for the Russian Church. He returns a vacant stare without an answer.

Are there seminaries? Are there novices?” “Seminaries, yes there are some. No novices, though.”

It’s all over”, he adds. “We are fewer by the day. We are lost”, he concludes, resting his exhausted gaze on my face. I bow and bid farewell to him.

Vorontsova and I walk slowly toward Pushkin’s statue. On the far side of the square, almost directly across from the revolutionary museum, I glimpse yet another church. It has a cross on top – according to some, a sign that service is still held there. It is not. We enter a muddy courtyard; not a soul in sight. Looking through the church window, I see devotional objects of gold, icons, vestments. Around the building, a tiny girl is relieving herself. The windows and open balconies of the tenements next door overlook the courtyard, but no one is visible in them. Coming almost full circle around the church, at last we chance upon a tiny wooden shed attached to one of its doors. In the window, an old bearded man is mending a doormat so tattered that it would be ignored by a vagrant rummaging through the streets.

Is mass still held here?” Lyuba Vorontsova inquires. “I don’t know.”

Is there anyone who could tell us?” “I don’t know.”

May we at least take a peek inside?” “I don’t know.”

Who is the manager of this building, then?”

I know nothing”, the old man says without so much as glancing at us.

Would you like a cigarette?” Vorontsova asks him gently. This time, the old man refuses to reply.

Would you like a cigarette?” I repeat presently, louder. He rises to his feet, turns his back, and begins to fiddle with something inside that tiny hut of his, which is barely larger than a wardrobe.

Translation from the Hungarian by Péter Balikó Lengyel


 

Note:

 

1 As part of the anti-religion campaign, the seven-day working week was eliminated in the Soviet Union. From 1929 a movable week was introduced. Employees worked five days in a row, and they rested on the sixth. Thereby the seventh day of the week was again a workday, which made it well-nigh impossible for Christians to attend church on what used to be a Sunday. (Note by Antal Babus.)

 




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