The Independent, London, 28.1.04
The Orthodox Church warms the Russian
By Paul Vallely in Kazan
28 January 2004
All at once there was a surge for the door. The Russian Orthodox
priests in their heavy, brocaded vestments of gold and ivory had
passed ceremoniously through it, accompanied by altar servers
carrying candles, crucifix and an array of icons fixed to flags of
Now the packed congregation funnelled itself dangerously after
them. The great wooden doors of the monastery church creaked
menacingly as their hinges were forced back. A blast of sub-zero
air rushed into the incense-heady atmosphere of the tall-vaulted
nave. Undeterred, shrunken old ladies - fat little bundles of wool
and fur with sharp babushka elbows - pushed their way to the
There was, to Western eyes, something medieval about the
atmosphere as the huge procession left the monastery cathedral in
its solemn stampede. But this is modern Russia, which has in
recent years been seized by a spasm of religious revival.
Before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, there were some 54,000
churches on Russian soil. When Communism fell there remained
barely 7,000 throughout the entire Soviet Union. But over the past
decade there had been an extraordinary mushrooming of religious
institutions. Churches are back up to 24,000 and monasteries,
seminaries and theological institutes are springing up everywhere.
Raifa monastery in Kazan in the republic of Tartarstan is one of
them. It was closed in 1928, and its monks executed before it was
turned into a Soviet labour commune. Its cathedral, four other
churches and tall, tiered bell tower fell derelict.
But then in 1991 a group of monks arrived and, using money from
local people, began to rebuild it. Last week its 50 monks, who
adhere to the old pre-Gregorian calendar, were celebrating
Epiphany which in the Eastern church commemorates the baptism
of the adult Christ. Which is why the huge congregation was
making its way from the cathedral to a nearby lake. For Russia it
was, at just minus 5C, considered warm. Even so, the lake was
frozen solid and a large hole had been cut - as it has been every
year for 400 years - to expose the dark, 30m deep waters beneath.
Around had been built an open-air church of solid, clear ice walls,
shrines, statues and a 15ft frozen crucifix, on whose transparent
frame hung the figure of Christ carved in ice which was clouded
As the priests and acolytes moved across the snowy surface a
terrible deep thudding crack was heard. A dark fissure shot like
lightening across the surface. The congregation, held on the bank
by fur-hatted police, let out a collective gasp.
But the men of faith carried on walking. The archimandrite abbot,
Fr Vsevolod Zakharov, then blessed the water with great solemnity
before, with equally great mirth, showering his fellow monks with
copious quantities of the now holy water. "This ice is 40cm thick,"
he said afterwards. "You could drive a truck over it."
Then, a few at a time, people were allowed through the barriers to
the ice pool. There, behind a single cotton sheet to divide the
sexes, they removed their clothing, in sub-zero temperatures, and
plunged into the icy waters. The trickle of people was steady and
unceasing. This was just the first of three days. Last year some
100,000 people came to take the waters.
Not everyone gives thanks for the revival of religious faith in
Russia. To some, it seems more like the rebirth of forms of
superstition which they had thought better dead. Polls show that
the majority of the population call themselves Orthodox. But they
also show more people say they are Orthodox than say they believe
There is something about Orthodoxy as a central part of the
Russian soul. "If you are not Orthodox, you cannot be Russian,"
said one priest, quoting Dostoevsky. Certainly Boris Yeltsin, in the
immediate post-Soviet era, deferred to the church in an attempt to
help build a post-Communist Russian identity. President Vladimir
Putin, although more religious than his predecessor, is trying to
create more distance between church and state.
Today the 50 monks at Raifa run an orphanage, home to 25 boys
found living on the streets, and minister to the inmates of an
institute for delinquents aged 10 to 14. They also run the district's
fire engine, which is manned by four monks and two novices. "We
don't restrict ourselves to saving souls," one monk said. "All of
this is nothing if the candle of love is not burning in our hearts."