Orthodox Faith Crowding Out Others In Chelyabinsk

The third in a five-part series.

More In The Series

While based in Russia in the 1990s, NPR's Anne Garrels followed developments in the "real Russia" from the provincial town of Chelyabinsk. Returning 10 years later, much has changed. This series charts this transformation.

Russian Orthodox priest i i

The Orthodox Church has grown in Chelyabinsk in the past 10 years, though church attendance remains low. Above, a Russian Orthodox priest blesses a grave in Moscow. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Orthodox priest

The Orthodox Church has grown in Chelyabinsk in the past 10 years, though church attendance remains low. Above, a Russian Orthodox priest blesses a grave in Moscow.

Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

When Soviet rule ended in 1991, there were almost no working churches in the Chelyabinsk area and few former church buildings.

This had been a Soviet city, built around vast metallurgical, tractor and tank factories, and the doctrine of atheism. The Russian Orthodox Church had to start almost from scratch — and it had to compete with a flood of foreign missionaries.

In the early 1990s, foreign missionaries could pack a public hall with hundreds of curious and anxious Russians. The Russian Orthodox Church in Chelyabinsk was not in a strong position to respond. The local archbishop did not know how to take advantage of the new freedoms. There were rifts within the church.

But the Orthodox Church has since grown and expanded.

There are now about 200 Orthodox churches in a region where there had been almost none. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, now wears a cross and is a staunch supporter of the Orthodox Church, which has become the de facto official religion.

Restrictions On Protestant Faiths

Recently at one Baptist church, pastor Vitaly Sobolev, 34, said the freedom of the early 1990s when his church was founded is over.

"The Orthodox Church thinks of itself as the Russia Church and does not like it when we do something publicly," Sobolev said. "They say we are Western, that we are not loyal Russians. We don't have serious problems with the local authorities, but it all depends on the bureaucrat. If there's a bureaucrat who doesn't like us, he can find various ways to make our lives difficult."

Sobolev has an impressive building, a loyal congregation of 500, a vibrant Sunday school program and a choir that can rock. But he is now cautious about taking his message outside the church.

"If we are too active, too loud, I am sure there would be problems," he said. "We understand the need to be prudent."

Religious groups other than the Orthodox Church are no longer allowed in schools.

"We are supposed to be allowed in prisons where we have had success," Sobolev said, "but the Orthodox Church is trying to stop us from working there, too. Access to hospitals can also be a problem."

Sobolev doesn't protest these restrictions, because he fears making the situation worse. He takes what he can get. Right now, the regional authorities find they need Sobolev and other Protestant church leaders to battle growing drug abuse. The officials have allowed the church leaders to open a dozen rehabilitation centers.

Pavel Semikashov, 28, was a heroin addict for 10 years. After successfully going through rehab, he is a new member of Sobolev's congregation.

There have been considerable numbers of Protestants in Russia since the second half of the 18th century. Sobolev's great-grandfather died in Stalin's labor camps for his beliefs. He says his Baptist church has better relations with the authorities than some other, newer denominations.

"I can't say we have a good dialogue with the Orthodox Church, but I think the Orthodox look at Baptists as better than others," Sobolev said. "We are more or less normal in their eyes."

Non-Orthodox 'Sects'

Polling results show that while 70 percent of Russians now identify as Russian Orthodox, regular attendance at church remains low.

Drawing on the success of competing Protestant churches, youth leader Alexander Akulov is trying to bring in more teenagers. Wearing a belted peasant shirt — with trousers stuffed into high boots — Akulov wants the next generation to find their Russian roots. He uses the derogatory term "sect" for many of the non-Orthodox churches in Chelyabinsk.

"Baptists, Lutherans — those who have long existed here are one thing, but we consider other religions like Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists destructive and dangerous," Akulov said. "As for Pentecostalists, who fall about and cry, we don't think they are normal. We don't understand them."

The Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the state-run media often broadcasts Orthodox harangues against so-called sects, suggesting that the West is using them to infiltrate Russia. In many parts of the country, local officials, the Orthodox Church and the increasingly powerful security services have harassed these so-called sects. Chelyabinsk has pretty much left them alone — so far.

Resilient Mormon Faith

It's hard to find the meeting house for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is no sign outside the commercial building where the Mormons rent a floor.

Elder Kevin Pulsifer, 28, is one of 10 foreign missionaries here. Most of them, including Pulsifer, are American. After hearing stories about the problems Mormons have had elsewhere in Russia, he was prepared for trouble on the streets.

"We get that stuff every now and then, but honestly, it's better than I thought it would be," Pulsifer says.

He says it worth it.

"I have participated in a couple of situations where someone baptized — one young man — changed his life around," Pulsifer says. "He quit smoking and drinking. It's a great feeling."

About 200 Mormons regularly attend Sunday services and Sunday school. Kostya Chuvashov, 21, was one of the first converts.

"My brother thought it was cool to meet Americans to learn English," Chuvashov says. "That's basically how it started."

Chuvashov paid a price.

"I had trouble at work," he says. "They threw me out. By law, they can't do that, but they find ways."

The Mormons have hundreds of missionaries across Russia, but they have decided to cut back on the missionary program. All foreign missionaries now have to leave the country to get their visas renewed every three months, and it's taking longer to get those visas. This costs time and money.

Sergei Chuidkov, a crane operator and the Russian head of the local Mormon church, says he will just have to adapt.

After the initial explosion of interest in foreign religions in the 1990s, finding converts now is much more difficult. But Chuidkov says his church is strong enough to provide its own missionaries, and he thinks given growing nationalism, it will be better if the church's message comes from Russians and not foreigners.

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