Editor's Note: The second article of the "Resurrecting a Culture" series by Svetlana Kargetta, an educational series about Russian and Slavic culture, will focus on the strength and significance of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Russian Orthodoxy: Resurrecting a Culture
By: Lana Kargetta
Religion is one of the most influential factors in culture. It provides a sense of community, teaches its followers a code of conduct, and initiates many traditions, such as the celebration of religious holidays. The Russian Orthodox Church, a traditional and strict type of Christianity, has shaped Russian culture for over 1,000 years. Even though the church suffered suppression and outright persecution throughout most of the 20th century, it is a faith flourishing in number and tradition during this millennium.
While Russia’s Christian heritage goes back to 998, A.D., its Christian identity is rooted in the Great Schism of the Roman Empire of 1054 which split between modern-day Catholics and the Orthodox Christians. The Russian Orthodox Church instilled common Christian principles that became traditional Russian values, such as humility, hard work, forgiveness, and charity. When Vladimir the Great converted the Slavs to Christianity in 988, A.D., he commenced a stronghold of Christianity in the East that lasted until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Sadly, with the rise of Communism in Russia came the attempted annihilation of the church over the 70-year reign of the Soviet Union. Not only did Soviet leaders like Vladimir Lenin demolish glorious churches and Orthodox artifacts, but they also killed thousands of Christians. Religion was scorned at best, destroyed at worst, and mostly ignored.
The Library of Congress states, "The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of faithful. Nearly all of its clergy, and many of its believers were shot or sent to labor camps."
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia became a Christian country once more. Today, many Eastern Orthodox denominations with roots in the Great Schism exist around the world, but the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest with 180 million followers in 2017, according to Patriarch Kirill, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Common cornerstones of Christianity, such as the Ten Commandments, the concepts of mortal sin and guardian angels, the commandment to "love one another as [Jesus] loved you," and the Resurrection of Christ, are, of course, important aspects of Orthodox teaching.
One of the greatest roles of Russian Orthodoxy is the introduction and practice of Christian morality. Like many other churches and religions, the Russian Orthodox Church aims to better its people and teach a holy way of life. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, a Russian Orthodox priest, explains, “[The Orthodox Church] has one purpose: to bring every human purpose into the love of God so that everyone can be healed of their brokenness and woundedness . . .” The priest also identifies a person's potential is to “become like God” by participating in prayer and sacraments.
The Russian Orthodox Church closely follows biblical commandments and remains as Russia's 21st century link to its Byzantine heritage with its roots in the Roman Empire. Moreover, this faith follows ancient Christian traditions, such as fasting and standing during mass, that are becoming increasingly scarce. The Basics of Orthodoxy, a book published by the Pochayiv Monastery House, states, "The main life of an Orthodox Christian consists of fasting and prayer."
Prayer is an integral part of Orthodox Christian life. The Basics of Orthodoxy mentions that the [Orthodox] Church prays “daily for all and for everyone” (54) and teaches the recital of many common prayers, such as Our Father, Hail Mary, and Apostles' Creed.
Photo by Lana Kargetta
St. Seraphim of Sarov, a popular Russian saint, created praying guidelines for those who could not follow the traditional, complex ones. His teachings on prayer, as recorded in part in The Basics of Orthodoxy, are, “Upon arising from sleep, stand before the holy icons and thrice say the Our Father in honor of the Holy Trinity. Then recite to the Blessed Virgin the Hail Mary [prayer], also three times." As the Bible reveals, Jesus Christ, the founder and God of Christianity, prayed and fasted regularly Himself. By following Christ's example, Orthodox Christians hope to fulfill their potential as their church teaches.
These beliefs are seen in the church's adherence to traditions, such as modest, gender-oriented dress to church and encouragement to fast. For instance, the Church follows four main fasts annually and two weekly fasts on Wednesday and Friday to remember Jesus Christ's betrayal by Judas Iscariot and His crucifixion.
Religious influence tends to linger for years, even affecting secular communities decades hence. While many consider Russia a conservative country, it is the widespread and long-lasting effect of Orthodox Christianity that created much of modern Russian culture. For example, RT, a news channel formerly called Russia Today, analyzed the survey of a major poll that showed 74.5 percent of Russian youth prioritized family values. Meanwhile, the Department of External Church Relations revealed that for the past 28 years, 1,000 churches have been built annually in Russia.
By investigating the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, one will gain a better understanding of the nation itself. Few cultural factors are as influential or enlightening as religion. Indeed, if one contemplates the significance of a thousand-year Christian presence, then Russia's conservative nature and respect for its heritage become unsurprising.
Photo of Russian Orthodox Icons, Left to Right: St. Panteleimon, The Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus, Virgin Mary as a child, St. Nicholas
Photo by Lana Kargetta