Gerd Ludvig/Courtesy of National Geographic
When Serge Schmemann arrived in Moscow in 1980 as the bureau chief for The New York Times, the Russian Orthodox Church was in dismal shape. Since then, he says, the path of the church has followed the fate of the country.
In April's issue of National Geographic magazine, Schmemann examines the return of the church in Russian society. Under communism, the church had barely been allowed to function.
"There were a few churches open here and there, but priests were really only allowed to do what they called the 'cult,' " Schmemann says. "They couldn't hold Sunday schools, they couldn't educate people, their religious books were pretty much barred — so all they could do was celebrate the services."
In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed churches to reopen — and the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church began as explosively as communism failed.
"Russia came out from 70 years of communism without any preparation," Schmemann says. "There was not really a transition. One day, communism had collapsed and people were on their own."
There was a lot of lurching back and forth as Russians tried to figure out what their new identity was. "When the church became free, in a way it was like the state — at first everybody rushed to democracy." Schmemann says it was the same with the church.
"Everybody was opening churches. Everybody was rushing. Everybody was learning to sing." But then, he says, the enthusiasm receded. "The church and the state pretty much moved into kind of a snarling nationalism. Large parts of the society suddenly felt that they had been betrayed by democracy, by the West."
But Russians are learning to cope with it, Schmemann says, though the role of the church has yet to be settled. "Many of the new, younger bishops are far more nationalistic and far more narrow in their vision than some of the older bishops who had to somehow manage to function under the Soviet regime."