The Resurrection Of The Russian Church 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.
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The Resurrection Of The Russian Church

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The Resurrection Of The Russian Church

The Resurrection Of The Russian Church

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Russian Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter this year on April 19th. And from Moscow to Novosibirsk, they will follow a ritual that goes back to 10th century Russia in the ancient city of Murom on the banks of the Oka River and what today is west-central European Russia. Juliana Osorin is revered as Saint Juliana of Lazarevo. She bore 13 children, eight of whom died. And when she died in 1604, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized her in recognition of her steadfast faith in extremely difficult times. Serge Schmemann is one of Saint Juliana's descendants.

Mr. Schmemann, who is the editorial page editor of the International Herald Tribune and a former Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times, recounts his journey to rediscover his religious roots and reports on the state of the Russian Orthodox Church today in the April issue of National Geographic magazine. And he joins us from Paris. Welcome to the program.

Mr. SERGE SCHMEMANN (International Herald Tribune, Former Moscow Bureau Chief of The New York Times): Well, thank you very much.

HANSEN: Not only are you related to a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, your father, Alexander, is a priest, or was a priest - he has since passed -and a theologian. How did he inspire this story?

Mr. SCHMEMANN: Well, my father never really reached Russia himself. He always thought of doing so, but he died in '83, before it became possible for a priest to freely visit Russia. But he broadcast over Radio Liberty to Russia for 30 years and his books were translated into Russian and circulated widely. So he became quite well-known there.

But what is more remarkable is a few years ago we published his diaries in Russian and in Russia. And these have become pretty remarkable sensation among young intellectuals, young believers and older believers. They seemed to have found something they can identify with in the life of a priest to grow up in the west.

It's something that they can see ways in which the church can remain relevant, that it can function in the modern world, that it doesn't have to be something that he's eternally bound in some earlier century.

HANSEN: What was the state of the church when you were the Moscow bureau chief for The Times in the 1980s?

Mr. SCHMEMANN: Well, when we arrived in 1980, the church was in dismal shape. I mean, it was 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. You know, they couldn't hold Sunday schools, they couldn't hold - educate people, the religious books were pretty much barred. So, all they could do is celebrate the services. So, you know, religion was actively repressed. And this huge explosion really began in the revival of the church with Gorbachev, when he came to power in 1987, and began to allow the churches to reopen.

HANSEN: How would you describe the state of the church today?

Mr. SCHMEMANN: The best way to describe it is to compare it to what's happening in Russia in general. Russia came out from 70 years of communism without any preparation. It was not really a transition. One day communism had collapsed and people were on their own. And so there has been a lot of lurching, a lot of going back and forth to try to figure out what their identity is now.

When the church became free, in a way it was like the state. At first, everybody, you know, rushed to democracy in the first years in forming parties, holding elections. It was the same in the church. Everybody was opening churches, everybody was rushing, everybody was learning to sing and iconography. And then it sort of fell back. The church and the state pretty much moved into a kind of a snarling nationalism.

Large parts of the society suddenly felt that they had been somehow betrayed by democracy by the west. Then they were beginning, you know, now, maybe to learn to cope with it. 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.

HANSEN: Do you think that the survival of the church depends on reconciling those elements - that reactionary remembrance of days past - to the days that exist?

Mr. SCHMEMANN: I mean, there are many, many centrifugal forces. I suspect these forces are inevitable. They will continue and there will be breakaway factions, there may even be schisms, and I can't see how that can be avoided in this process.

HANSEN: Serge Schmemann is the editorial page editor of the International Herald Tribune and a former Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times. He's also the author of the book, "Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village." His article, "Soul of Russia," appears in the April issue of National Geographic magazine. He joined us from Paris. Thank you so much.

Mr. SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

HANSEN: To see a photo gallery about the revived Russian Orthodox Church, go to our Web site

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