More than 500 leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and foreign church dignitaries endured 35°C temperatures in Moscow last week as they attended an elaborate mass celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia. That June 5 ceremony beneath the soaring
domes of the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Epiphany illustrated the remarkable durability of a church that claims at least 50 million worshippers across the Soviet Union—a state that is officially atheistic. And church-state relations appear to be improving under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
For one thing, the Kremlin marked the millennium celebrations by restoring the church’s right to use sections of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, a site that is one of Russian Orthodoxy’s holiest shrines.
The 11th-century monastery overlooks the riverfront site where Prince Vladimir of Kiev ordered mass baptisms of his subjects in AD 988. But, despite the monastery’s partial return to church control, some critics say that there has been only a slight relaxation of the state’s attempts to repress religion. Across the Soviet Union, in fact, only 7,000 of the 70,000 Russian Orthodox churches that flourished during czarist times are still open for religious services. At the same time, an approaching event that is ripe with the possibility of discord underscored the turbulent history of Russian Orthodoxy. Next month, church leaders plan to travel to Finland where they will begin discussions with Vatican representatives on the future of as many as five million Ukrainian Catholics—Soviet citizens who form the largest underground church in the Soviet Union.
At issue is a quest for official reinstatement of that church within the Soviet Union—a state recognition that would reverse the forcible integration of Ukrainian Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy imposed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1946. Ukrainian Catholics, like Russian Orthodox followers, are members of the Eastern Rite—a branch of Christianity that uses the Byzantine liturgy and allows its priests to marry. But, unlike Russian Orthodox followers, Ukrainian Catholics submit to papal authority. Pope John Paul II supports the Ukrainian Catholics’ pursuit of reinstatement. And as Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Agostino Casaroli arrived in Moscow to attend the celebrations, Russian Orthodox spokesmen said that the Vatican’s endorsement could strain relations between Orthodox and Roman Catholic leaders.
Meanwhile, recent Soviet media coverage has whetted public interest in some of the legendary figures who flourished during the conversion from paganism. One of them, a tribal queen named Olga the Cruel, became a Christian in AD 955. But she retained her nickname for such grimly imaginative acts as the live burial of 20 peace envoys from a neighboring tribe. Olga’s deeds are part of the colorful and frequently bloodstained pageant of Russian history. So too is the faith that she embraced. And as church bells confirmed last week, it is still a vital part of life within the Soviet Union.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.