MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Russia has seen a dramatic increase in Orthodox convents over the past two decades. After the 1917 revolution, all were closed, though some women continued to live as nuns in secret. Since the end of Communist rule, more than 240 Orthodox convents have opened in Russia, and they now outnumber monasteries. Most of the renovated convents, many in remote areas, remained devoted to their particular icons and distant histories.
As NPR's Anne Garrels reports, restoring that past is anything but easy.
(Soundbite of convent)
ANNE GARRELS: The restored convent in the provincial town of Serpukhov, a two-hour train ride from Moscow, is jammed on a Sunday morning. Founded in the 14th century, it became known for its miracle-working icon, which the nuns say has long helped those trying to stop drinking. They believe it can now also help drug addicts, a growing Russian affliction. And they welcome those seeking spiritual rehabilitation.
Mother Superior ALEKSIYA (Serpukhov, Russia): (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: Forty-five-year-old Mother Superior Aleksiya was brought up in the Soviet Union, where she says she was unable to find out much about religion. It was only in the �80s, as restrictions lifted, that she even dared enter a church. As convents reopened in the early �90s, she decided to become a nun.
Mother Superior ALEKSIYA: (Through translator) If I was going to serve God, I had to do it completely. Maybe that's just my character.
GARRELS: Fifteen years ago, she was sent to resurrect the convent in Serpukhov.
Mother Superior ALEKSIYA: (Through translator) They were nothing but ruins, skeletons of buildings, trash and debris.
(Soundbite of choir)
GARRELS: She's since restored one of two churches and a residence. Initially alone, she attracted helpers, then new nuns. Some have since died. Two have been tapped to start their own convents, far smaller than convents in major centers like Moscow. She now has 12 sisters. Nonetheless, this convent is considered a historic monument and rebuilding has been paid for by the government. For daily needs and upkeep, the convent depends on pilgrims, donations, the sale of icons, as well as its gardens and livestock. Mother Aleksiya says attracting new nuns is not as easy as it was a decade ago.
Mother Superior ALEKSIYA: (Through translator) Enthusiasm for becoming a nun isn't as great as it was with the first explosion of interest in the church. But maybe that's not so bad. Some thought it was an escape from poverty in the villages, an alcoholic husband or the loneliness of old age. Now women fully understand what they're really getting into.
GARRELS: Orthodox nuns live within convent walls largely cut off from the world, wearing formal black habits and bound by centuries of tradition. While happy with her vocation, Mother Aleksiya, nonetheless, expresses a little frustration.
Mother Superior ALEKSIYA: (Through translator) The current church does not fully value the role of women. I do not think women should be priests, but in the past, women could be deacons. It's the same in the church as society. Many men don't understand women. They tell us to be quiet. They are wrong.
GARRELS: Orthodox churches have been criticized for being standoffish. Another nun here, 33-year-old Mother Georgia, hopes the Serpukhov convent can be a comforting place.
Mother GEORGIA (Serpukhov Convent, Russia): (Through translator) People finally come to church for the first time. They don't know what to do. It's not right when people snub them for their ignorance.
(Soundbite of bell)
GARRELS: Compared with the modest goals at Serpukhov, the Spaso-Yeleazarovsky convent in distant western Russia has far greater ambitions, and with this, far greater problems. Raisa Shumkina is head of the local government.
Ms. RAISA SHUMKINA (Local Government Head, Serpukhov, Russia)): (Through translator) At first, people were delighted that the convent was restored and they could live within the sound of its bells. But then, the mother superior demanded that the only store for miles be closed because it is on what is now convent land. She started to expand the convent territory even further. People are confused and angry.
(Soundbite of chopping)
GARRELS: Wood is still what heats most houses here. There are 10 tiny, poor villages, a beautiful lake and an abandoned Communist-era farm, where a century ago, there were acres of church territory. Mother Superior Elizaveta wants to get it all back. She says she's willing to relocate villagers. Seventy-two-year-old Grigory Nikolaichuk, who lives next to the convent, says she's intimidated residents.
Mr. GRIGORY NIKOLAICHUK: (Through translator) She told those who didn't want to sell her their houses, they would end up on the hill. The hill is where the cemetery is. That's how she curses and threatens people.
GARRELS: Mother Elizaveta believes God is on her side and she's also got big political support. With pressure from the governor, a recent Kremlin appointee, the entire area was recently declared a protected zone putting limits on what villagers can build. Why, you might ask, so much attention on this remote place? Because it was here that a 16th century monk espoused what many believe is Russia's religious destiny. According to this thinking, ancient Rome fell because of heresy. The second Rome, Constantinople, was brought down by infidels. The third Rome is Russia. And it is to illuminate the world. As Mother Elizaveta explains, there is to be no fourth Rome.
Mother Superior Elizaveta (Spaso-Yeleazarovsky Convent, Russia): (Through translator) Russia is the hope for all mankind. We answer for the whole world. And through the help of the state, we have been able to restore Russia's spiritual legacy.
GARRELS: Though there are only 20 nuns here, she's rebuilt not only the church, but eight substantial buildings with plans for a lot more development. Longtime resident Sergei Borodulin has no intention of being pushed out, even to an apartment with modern conveniences. And he's none too happy with how government funds are being spent.
Mr. SERGEI BORODULIN: (Through translator) Look at what's going on there. This is serious money, millions and millions.
GARRELS: Irina Golubeva, a respected art historian who heads the Pskov branch of the Russian Society for Restoration, says ambition, nationalism and bad public relations have created a huge mess. She agrees this convent has historical importance. But she says Mother Elizaveta has been allowed to create a Disneyland of a convent that may satisfy dreams of greatness, but which has little to do with the past.
Ms. IRINA GOLUBEVA (Art Historian; Head, Pskov Branch, Russian Society for Restoration): (Through translator) And this just adds to the mess. The big two-story buildings in no way resemble what was once there. As a historian, I'm not happy. The local people are unhappy and ultimately she has ill-served the church.
GARRELS: As Russia seeks to restore its past and its identity, nothing, not even a convent is simple and certainly not where property, money and politics are concerned.
Anne Garrels, NPR News.
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