Faith blossoms m Russia
I RECENTLY returned to Russia a year and a half after my first visit. That had been in the depth of winter with deep snow on the ground. Now it was summer. The increase in prosperity between my trips was unbelievable and the resurgence of the Orthodox church equally surprising.
My stay in Leningrad was only too short, but I was delighted to wander alone around the Hermitage for a couple of hours. I also went to two of the great palaces on the outskirts of the city which had been closed in the winter.
Petrodvorets, or Peterhof as it used to be called, as well as the Hermitage and the other palaces, were almost reduced to ashes during the 900 day siege of Leningrad in the last war, but the restoration and rebuilding is so perfect that it is almost impossible to believe the photographs of the ruin and desolation in which they were abandoned.
The ingenious system of pools and fountains which adorn the huge grounds of Peterhof are all working and fill the air with the
tinkling of falling water, enhanced when I was there by a long avenue of white lilac in full flower.
These summer palaces are superb examples of eighteenth century luxury and Tsarskoye Selo, now called Pushkin, is particularly delightful. Only one room wide, the immensely long enfilade of great rooms with windows on either side gives a perfect impression of lightness and of grace.
Then by Aeroflot to Kiev the capital of the Ukraine — a lovely city set on the wide river Dnieper. It was here that I realised the full impact of the revival of the Orthodox church. The great Lavra or Monastery of the Assumption was founded in 1073 and at its zenith in the 18th century the community numbered 250 monks. Returned to the Orthodox at the beginning of this year there were already 55 monks and 100 novices at the beginning of June.
The group of golden oniondomed churches and low buildings painted white below viridian green roofs are built above a series of underground caves or catacombs containing the tombs of leading members of the monastery, all set within a large park as is usual with monastic foundations in Russia. The bell tower is notably large and very tall and painted in the same vivid colours.
This Lavra is on two levels situated above the river connected by a long ramp and flights of shallow steps. Monks are walking about and the whole huge complex is obviously alive and very much a going concern. The main church is circular with an especially fine
iconostasis before which a young monk in a black habit . and a tall brimless black hat was intoning litanies and constantly crossing himself.
It is a well-known fact that persecution increases vocations and revitalises the church. But unlike its Roman sister, the Russian Orthodox church is rising again in exactly the same manner which it has followed since the Great Schism of 1054. Kiev cathedral is an unattractive late Victorian building but it was sizzling with life. A double wedding was taking place, the brides in conventional white dresses and the place was filled with worshippers. It was likewise packed when I went there on another day when no weddings were going on.
The city is lovely, filled with parks and gardens, the people cheerful and the girls well dressed and very much made-up. The large covered market was filled with country people selling mounds of.
excellent fruit and vegetables, home-made cheeses and sour cream, so much used in Russian cooking, to their fellow citizens. On my previous visit the official rate for the rouble was one to £1. Now it is ten to the pound with the result that the tourist is not constantly offered black market currency in the street. This time I was only once approached in this way.
So the four roubles I was charged for a kilo of splendid cherries was not excessive, though I am sure the local buyers would have bargained as
wages and salaries are still incredibly low by western European standards though rents, transport and food are heavily subsidised.
I was told that the main reason for the shortages of food stuffs in many parts of the USSR are not only due to the immense distances, but more to the fact that there are so few roads. The railway system is based on Moscow, so there is no network to take goods from one province to another. To get from Leningrad to Kiev by rail passengers or goods have to go through the capital.
Moscow is far more strange and interesting to me than either Leningrad with its sumptuous palaces or beflowered Kiev. Moscow has grown outwards from the fortified Kremlin for the last 1000 years and more. The whole city reflects this in the architecture which ranges from the marvellous fifteenth century cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin to the lightest of art nouveau like the Riga railway station which is long and low and painted in an elegant Wedgwood blue and white.
This time I was determined to see the inside of St Basil's cathedral in Red Square, crowned by eight candy-striped, whirled onion-domes in vivid colours like a child's ice cream. However, as in so many Russian churches, the interior is a maze of small chapels linked by arches with no central space as we are used to in the west.
The wall paintings are memorable and the whole feeling is one of mystery, for the Orthodox have always held that the sacred mysteries should not be exposed to the casual gaze, hence the iconostasis, the doors of which are closed at the most solemn moments of the liturgy, so that the worshippers can hear but not actually see when the sacred elements are consecrated.
Eighteen months ago there were 20 churches open and functioning in Moscow including the famous Lavra of St Daniel, the first monastery to be built in Moscow, which was returned to the Orthodox in 1983. Now there are 70 churches open for worship. I went to the Smolensky convent, not yet returned to the monks, though ceremonies are taking place in one of the churches. The large grounds are dominated by yet another high bell-tower, painted a deep pink and green. Oddly
enough 1 did not hear of any convents of nuns, yet they must exist.
I asked at the reception desk at Intourist Hotel Kosmos where I could go to a Catholic mass on Sunday. The helpful girl at once looked it up in a guidebook and told me that the French church of St Louis had mass at 11 am.
I took a taxi to this charming early Victorian church which was like a church in the French countryside 50 years ago, the side chapels full of plaster statues and long tapering candles. The pews were filled with a congregation of men, women and children, Russian and foreigners.
As the notice board outside stated that mass was said in French, Latin and Russian, I was not surprised when an elderly priest came on in an old-fashioned chasuble with a much younger assistant and celebrated in Russian with his back to the faithful. The
younger priest preached for at least half an hour in Russian
and, before the distribution of Holy Communion, he read an immensely long prayer in the same language from the steps of the altar.
Everyone knelt at the rails and two laymen in short cottas held the plate and lighted candles to accompany the priest. I was interested to see that the local ecclesiastical authorities in communion with Rome must have realised that the new liturgical ways of the west would not have been suitable against the background of the immemorial and unchanging rites of the Russian Orthodox church.
I was fortunate in having an introduction to a Russian family to whom I telephoned through the good offices of the telephone girls at the hotel. I arranged to call on them at ten that evening, which is I gathered the usual time at which to pay calls, and engaged a taxi and asked the man to return in an hour.
There are now plenty of taxis in both Moscow and Leningrad and all the drivers have a little English, at least enough to say "five dollars", apparently the going rate whatever the distance.
My new Russian friends were delightful, the husband a writer and a reviewer, the wife must have had a job but I did not ask what it was, the schoolboy son of around 14 spoke some good English. The small yet perfectly viable flat, reached by two lifts in an unadorned block with long corridors, was filled with books and seemed to have two or three rooms in addition to a kitchen where I sat down to drink tea and eat jam from a small saucer set beside each place.
Being "intellectuals" they may have been privileged, but the Russian government, with all its excesses, has had for many years the sensible theory that house building should be a first priority. The results of this policy can be seen on the outskirts of the big cities where large numbers of apartment houses are set around landscaped squares and treelined avenues.
Susan Lowndes Marques is the Lisbon correspondent of the Catholic Herald.