I climbed on the podium for journalists and looked around. In the beautiful spring weather, the broad street in front of the Christ the Savior Cathedral was filled with people as far as one could see. There were thousands, tens of thousands, many more than the expected 25,000. Police eventually counted 65,000, but even if there were less people (probably there were less), still, never-ever have I seen so many Orthodox Christians gathered in one place. There were church banners, Russian Imperial black-golden-white flags, flags of a church-leaning pro-Kremlin Georgievtsy youth group and of an extravagant “Holy Rus” movement – I saw these flags at a pro-Putin rally. But no posters, except one with a quote from a popular Civil War-era song: “Stand up for the faith, ye Russian land!” And most people – just your normal church-going crowd, quiet and concentrated.
I have to confess: I was very concerned about this event – a mass prayer service combined with a special kind of rally that the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church called for April 22nd – the first Sunday after Easter. It was meant to “defend the good name of the Church” which came under a lot of criticism lately after the patriarch’s support of Vladimir Putin in the electoral campaign was followed by the anti-Putin performance by a self-proclaimed punk-feminist group in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, which was followed by the arrest of three women suspected of participating in the performance and a couple of scandals in the media and blogosphere involving the patriarch’s apartment and expensive watch. Parallel to this series of events in the capital, two churches were vandalized in the provinces – one in the country’s North, another in the South. But these events have galvanized the society, both outside and inside the church community, to such a degree that I was afraid the prayer service would only lead to further conflict and further attacks on the church in the blogosphere and the media. The “dressed up” Cossacks and the extravagant ultra-conservative Union of Orthodox Banner-Carriers would come and generate ample photos for the liberal blogs with some ridiculous and xenophobic posters, I feared.
As I was driving to the cathedral along the embankment of the Moscow River, a good stretch of it was filled with buses with license plates from various regions of Russia. So, they would bring people from the regions, as they had done during pro-Putin rallies, I feared, because they could not muster enough Muscovites.
Yes, what I saw around was different. There were somewhat more men in the crowd compared to the number of women that you’d see on average in a Russian church. There were so many people around that no buses would suffice to bring that many. A Moscow City government official behind me was on the phone saying that another street had to be closed for traffic because “people keep coming and coming.” A journalist for the religious program from Krasnodar in southern Russia who said she came with a group of 500 people by train said everybody in the group were very enthusiastic over coming. Meanwhile, a prominent charismatic Moscow priest also came to the journalists’ podium joking that this is a better location to manage the event. He boasted that he alone brought 3,000 people to the square. Giant video screens around the cathedral showed a film with celebrities condemning the “blasphemy” and highlighting the church’s leading role in Russian society.
Then the bells tolled and a procession, including Patriarch Kirill and a dozen or so bishops, came out of the cathedral, preceded by the priests vested in red Easter robes carrying the icons damaged by vandals. To establish the connection with the Soviet-era persecution, an icon with bullet holes dating back to the 1920s was also included. The service began with Easter hymns broadcasted through the loudspeakers and within minutes Patriarch Kirill was giving a homily in his ordinary forceful manner. It was on today’s Gospel lesson – on Apostle Thomas receiving his affirmation of faith. Christian faith, he said, was the “main nerve of human history” and a war had been waged against it from the very first days; it included the brutal persecution and murder of priests in the Soviet times, and stretched all the way to our days.
Today, the patriarch said, millions of people “cannot think about the future of their country without reliance on the Orthodox faith.” And although today’s “attack of persecutors” is incomparable, he said, to that of the Soviet period, it is “dangerous” because the very fact of “blasphemy” is being presented as a “lawful manifestation of human freedom, as something that has to be protected in modern society.”
“What are we doing here, my dear ones?” the 65-year old church leader asked. “We have not come to a rally,… we have come to pray for our country and its people, so that never again would Christ the Savior Cathedral be blown up [as it was in 1931], that our holy objects are not defiled, that our history is not falsified, that our spirit and moral strength are not distorted. We are not threatening anyone, we are not demonstrating our force. But no one can prevent us from gathering for a common prayer in pivotal moments of history.”
He then read a pensive prayer based on the one written by St. Patriarch Tikhon in the years after the revolution and at the conclusion, led the giant crowd in an impromptu singing of the Niceo-Constantinopolean Creed.
People prayed for real – you could feel it. When it came down to the Creed singing, I myself could not but choke on my tears.
As people were leaving, they were mainly happy. The spirit of the event – despite some passionate passages by the patriarch, including the one where he accused unnamed priests who disagreed with him of being the “traitors in cassocks” – was a peaceful one.
“When I saw the defiled icons, I could only cry,” said Tatiana Levina, a Moscow retiree. “We had to pray together.”
Anton Alyalichev, a young man who runs a Sunday school in a Moscow suburb said: “We had to do it, if we don’t want 1917 to repeat. We cannot express our position through rallies, we can only get together and pray together.” That same very thought – about the importance of praying together and seeing so many of one’s brethren and sisters around was dominant in all the replies I got.
“I am so moved!” said Yevgenia Zhuravleva, a musician who came from the town of Smolensk 400 kilometers West of Moscow. “It is most important that we were together and prayed together.”
Was it not a rally indeed? It depends on how you see it. The church was able to avoid an outward politicization of the event. But Patriarch Kirill clearly needed to command the loyalty of church members and see how many people he could line up. So, the mass prayer service follows in the series of last winter’s rallies, in which various groups were competing in how many people they could bring to the streets. For the church hierarchy and Patriarch Kirill in person, it was a demonstration of their might – both before the Kremlin and before the public.
On the other hand, people themselves felt they had to – and could – come to the streets to demonstrate their hopes and grievances. As well as their prayers.
It remains to be seen, however, what effect the event is going to have on the climate in the society in general. Many liberal bloggers were only further angered by what they saw as the church’s show of force. Some people welcomed the event as a step for the church towards becoming a civil society force, albeit a conservative one. Yet others saw in it the Kremlin’s policy of dividing and ruling society. In any case, the competition for the hearts and minds of people will go on.
Add to blog
You may place this material on your blog by copying the link.
Weekly column by Natalia Antonova
I knew it. I just knew it. After a U.S. spy in a blond wig was taken into custody in Moscow – and the inevitable jokes and references to Austin Powers began pouring in – I knew that we were in for a bigger scandal all along.
Bi-weekly column by Fyodor Lukyanov
Weekly Column by Daniel Kalder
What will future historians make of our age of mass protests? Since the stolen Iranian elections of 2009 the masses have revolted repeatedly in radically different countries with radically different results. Some governments have collapsed; others have been shaken; while still others have carried on regardless. It’s a bewildering time, akin to the era of revolutions that briefly turned Europe upside down in the mid-19th century.
Bi-weekly column by Simon Saradzhyan
President Barack Obama’s decision to pick Susan Rice and Samantha Power as his next National Security Advisor and US envoy to the United Nations respectively must have prompted international affairs scholars across the globe to wonder whether a more interventionist US foreign policy might be on the cards.
Weekly column by Natalia Antonova
Divorce is never a happy occasion – except when it is. Moan about traditional values all you like, but the truth is, the announcement that Vladimir Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, were separating was a win for both family and common sense.