Russia: Holy Relic Visits Nation Emerging From State-Sponsored Atheism

During the past few months people from across Russia traveled great distances and endured freezing temperatures in order to view the belt said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary. Such a display of religious fervour in Russia is remarkable, given that the country only stepped away from an atheistic form of government 20 years ago. However, the fact that this particular Holy Relic is known believed to promote fertility might explain why a nation enduring a demographic crisis would take an interest in it.

Kievan Rus adopted Christianity in the late 10th century from the Byzantine Empire, and for almost a millennium until the early 20th century, when the Romanov Dynasty was overthrown and a communist government was put in its place, Russia was among the most devout nations in the world. During the eight decades of communism, religion was discouraged and a new moral code was instituted based on respect for the working class. When the Soviet Union fell and the communist sense of morality no longer had as many proponents, Russians were tasked with deciding for themselves what they thought about spirituality and religion.

Russia Blog quoted an Izvestia article in a 2006 post entitled, “Are Russians Becoming More Religious?” The author noted that an alternative explanation for the increase in the number of Russians who claim to be religious was reflective of the comfort level of those polled in divulging their religiosity rather than an increase in religiosity:

In 2006, 15 years after the fall of the atheist Soviet Union, 84 percent of Russian citizens said they believed in God, according to a study conducted by Izvestia and the polling agency, VTsIOM. A similar VTsIOM poll in the early 1990's found that 34 percent believed in God. Among respondents, 63 percent considered themselves Orthodox Christians, 6 percent were Muslims and 1 percent Catholics and Buddhists. Another 16 percent said they were atheist. The percentage of Russians who attend religious services has grown from 4 percent during perestroika to 10-12 percent today.

Fr Stephen Smuts, a TAC Clergyman in Southern Africa, posted a blog entry in March 2011 entitled, “Religion Will be Studied in All Russian Schools by 2012″:

After a trial year, “Foundations of religious culture and ethics” will be taught in all Russian schools throughout the country next year, the Russian Ministry of Education announced at a press conference held on March 23 in Moscow with representatives of the four major religions. According to authorities and religious leaders, especially from the Russian Orthodox Church, the trial year was a “success”, but nobody was able to respond to journalists questions with exact figures on the course participants and the degree of satisfaction.

Banned during the Soviet era, religion made a comeback in schools in April 2010, but only in some regions, with an initiative strongly supported by the Patriarch of Moscow and blessed by the Kremlin, which aims to a cement national identity on shared values. Students of primary and secondary schools may choose to study between the history of one of the four traditional religions – Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – or more general courses on “foundations of religious culture” or “fundamentals of public ethics”. So far the lessons were held for only one semester of the school year, but the Orthodox Church has asked that in 2012 they be extended over the year.

Such is the societal and governmental context present to receive the Holy Relic. And Amazing Grace Blog described the relic's visit to Russia in a November 25, 2011, post:

The Virgin Mary's Cincture, a belt that Christians believe was worn by Jesus’ mother, was brought to Russia last month from Mount Athos, a monastic community in Greece. Kissing the relic, which is encased in an ornamental box, is believed to help barren women conceive and heal other ailments.

The line of people, mostly women, waiting to enter the golden-domed Christ the Savior Cathedral stretched for 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) along the Moscow River despite temperatures that dropped to below minus 5 Celsius (23 Fahrenheit).
Hundreds of buses brought pilgrims from other Russian cities. Some 150 buses were parked along the embankment with their engines running so the faithful could get warm as they waited. The city provided free tea and food and put up portable toilets. Police officers announced through bullhorns that it will take worshippers 24 hours to get to the relic as the line swelled to tens of thousands.

People queueing to see the belt of the Virgin Mary, which was on display‎ in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior for a week last month. Photo by Veronica Khokhlova, Nov. 22, 2011

People queueing to see the belt of the Virgin Mary, which was on display‎ in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior for a week last month. Photo by Veronica Khokhlova, Nov. 22, 2011

Ruth Institute Blog quoted a Voice of Russia report last month, which contained an interview with Vladimir Yakunin, the head of the Council of Trustees of the St. Andrew Foundation, the organization that facilitated the artifact being brought to Russia from Greece:

“We did no expect to see such a great number of people willing to pray before the shrine. We saw a lot of pilgrims in Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Ussuriysk, Tyumen and other cities. And those were not only orthodox Christians but people of different beliefs. For example, in Saint Petersburg we saw a Muslim woman, who was taken from a hospice to see the shrine. This proves that more and more people are striving for spiritual revival, and they believe in better. Monks who accompanied the shrine from Athos were astonished at such a huge number of believers arriving to pray before the Belt”.

In the Russian-language LiveJournal blog of user Alliruk, there was a discussion pertaining to the relic that brought forth several issues that affect religion in Russia. There was talk of the generational divide between those who had been socialized under atheist communism and the younger generation. Members of the generation socialized under communism suggested that this religious fervor associated with the relic is a sign of a form of ‘de-modernization’ in Russia. They seemed to believe that it's not rational to look to a relic for help.

Alliruk had this to say [ru] about modernization:

Modernization in a culture is described as the narrowing of the sphere controlled by religion, and a consistent policy of secularization of politics, life, work, family relations, etc. That is – if people are praying less to be relieved of certain ailments, but are eating more antibiotics instead – it is part of the modernization process. […] You may not like modernization, [that's okay], it's an argument about values, but modernization includes secularization, nothing can be done about it.

The Soviet project was […] one of the most consistent of all modernization projects in history. This includes secularization (again – this statement is not my assessment of the Soviet experience as positive or negative, I'm just stating the facts. It is bad to persecute priests, if you want to know my opinion). As a result, the Soviet society was more or less modernized (in addition to the attitudes towards religion, this, of course, also involved upgrade in terms of education, industrialization, social mobility, and much more).

What we've seen in the last two decades – is many indicators of de-modernization. We've seen crises, the crash of high-tech industries, a fall in the level of education, the elimination of social mobility, and the transformation of state mechanisms into what euphemistically have been referred to as the proliferation of “alternative methods of solving problems” (in fact, methods taken from the traditional, pre-modern society). And finally, we have this triumphant return of orthodoxy in the form of a quasi-public religion. All this together is described with the word ‘de-modernization’.

Francis Phillips wrote in a blog associated with the British-based Catholic Herald about how if one were to focus on the authenticity of this artifact one would be in danger of missing out on its significance:

Before sceptical people point out that venerating a belt allegedly worn by the Virgin Mary in order to become pregnant displays the worst kind of medieval Christian superstition, I will add that whether the relic is authentic or not is not quite the point: it is a vivid and reverent reminder of the supernatural, telling the faithful that this world, its woes and social ills, is not all there is: and who can say that new life might not spring from heartfelt prayer in its presence?

The Nov. 28 post went on to cite an article written by demographer Nichols Eberstadt for Foreign Affairs, which claimed that of all of the tragedies that have occurred in Russia since the Soviet collapse, the country's demographic decline has been the most catastrophic. Ms. Philips added:

Obviously a religious relic alone cannot change things; healthcare, housing, employment are all involved. But it can provide the inspiration to change the climate of despair that makes people choose not to have children and the spur for individuals to think of creative solutions.


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