I climbed on the podium for journalists and looked around. In the beautiful spring weather, people filled the broad street in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour as far as one could see. There were thousands, tens of thousands, many more than the expected 25,000. Police eventually counted 65,000, but even if there were less people (probably there were less), still, never-ever have I seen so many Orthodox Christians gathered in one place. There were church banners, Russian Imperial black-golden-white flags, flags of the Church-leaning pro-Kremlin Georgievtsy youth group, and of an extravagant “Holy Rus” movement… I saw these flags at a pro-Putin rally. However, no posters, except one with a quote from a popular Civil War-era song, “Stand up for the faith, ye Russian land!” Most of the people were just your normal church-going crowd, quiet and concentrated.
I have to confess that I was very concerned about this event… a massive molieben combined with a special rally, which the MP hierarchy scheduled for 22 April, the first Sunday after Easter. It was meant to “defend the good name of the Church”, which came under a lot of criticism lately after the Patriarch supported Vladimir Putin in the election. That was followed by an anti-Putin performance by a self-proclaimed feminist punk rock group at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was followed by the arrest of three women suspected of participating in the performance, along with a couple of scandals in the media and blogosphere involving the Patriarch’s apartment and an expensive watch. Parallel to this series of events in the capital, two churches were vandalised in the provinces… one in the Russian North, another in the Russian South. These events galvanised society, both outside and inside the Church, to such a degree that I was afraid the molieben would only lead to further conflict and further attacks on the church in the blogosphere and the media. I feared that “Full-Dress” Cossacks and the extravagant ultra-conservative Union of Orthodox Banner-Bearers would come and generate ample photos for the liberal blogs with ridiculous and xenophobic posters.
As I drove to the cathedral along the embankment of the Moskva River, buses with licence-plates from all over Russia filled a good stretch of it. Hence, they’re bringing in people from the provinces, as they’d done during pro-Putin rallies, I feared, because they couldn’t muster enough Muscovites. Yet, what I saw around me was different. There were somewhat more men in the crowd compared to women than you’d see on average in a Russian church. There were so many people around that no buses would’ve sufficed to bring in that many. A Moscow City government official behind me was on the phone saying that they had to close another street to traffic because “people keep coming and coming”. A journalist for a religious outlet in Krasnodar in southern Russia, who said she came with a group of 500 people by train, said that everybody in the group was very enthusiastic over coming. Meanwhile, as well, a prominent charismatic Moscow priest came to the journalists’ podium, joking that this was a better location to manage the event. He boasted that he alone brought 3,000 people to the square. Giant video screens around the cathedral showed a film with celebrities condemning the “blasphemy” and highlighting the Church’s leading role in Russian society.
Then, the bells tolled, and a procession, including Patriarch Kirill and a dozen or so bishops, came out of the cathedral, preceded by the priests vested in red Easter robes carrying icons damaged by vandals. To establish a connection with the Soviet-era persecution, the procession included an icon with bullet holes dating back to the 1920s. The service began with Easter hymns broadcast through the loudspeakers, and, within minutes, Patriarch Kirill gave a homily in his usual forceful manner. It was on today’s Gospel lesson… on Apostle Thomas receiving his affirmation of faith. He said that Christian faith was the “main nerve of human history”, and that people had waged war against it from its very first days; it included the brutal persecution and murder of priests in the Soviet times, and stretched all the way to our days. Today, the patriarch said, millions of people “can’t think about the future of their country without relying on the Orthodox faith”. Although he said that today’s “attack of persecutors” isn’t comparable to that of the Soviet period, it’s “dangerous” because some say that “blasphemy’s just a manifestation of people’s free will, it’s merely commonplace, something that modern society has to protect”. The 65-year old church leader asked, “What’re we doing here, my dear ones? We’ve not come to a rally. We’re here to stand before God to pray for our people, so that never again would they blow up the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour[as it was in 1931], that no one would defile our holy objects, that no one would falsify our history, that our spirit and moral strength remains unbroken. We don’t threaten anyone; we don’t use force. However, no one can prevent us from gathering for common prayer at a pivotal moment of our history”.
He then read a pensive prayer based on one written by Patriarch St Tikhon Bellavin in the years after the revolution, and, at the conclusion, led the giant crowd in an impromptu chanting of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. People prayed for real… you could feel it. When it came down to the crowd chanting the Creed, I myself couldn’t but choke on my tears. As people were leaving, they were mainly happy. The spirit of the event… despite some passionate passages by the Patriarch, including one where he accused unnamed priests who disagreed with him of being the “traitors in riassas”… was a peaceful one. Tatiana Levina, a Moscow retiree, said, “When I saw the defiled icons, I could only cry. We had to pray together”. Anton Alyalichev, a young man who runs a Sunday school in a Moscow suburb said, “We had to do it, if we don’t want a repeat of 1917. We can’t express our position through rallies; we can only get together and pray together”. That same very thought… about the importance of praying together and seeing so many of one’s brethren and sisters around was dominant in all the replies I got. Yevgenia Zhuravlyova, a musician who came from the town of Smolensk, 400 kilometres (@250 miles) to the west of Moscow, said, “I’m so moved! It’s most important that we were together and prayed together”.
Was it not a rally, indeed? It depends on how you see it. The church was able to avoid an outward politicisation of the event. Nevertheless, Patriarch Kirill clearly needed to command the loyalty of church members and see how many people he could line up. Therefore, the massive molieben followed the playbook of last winter’s rallies, in which various groups competed in how many people they could bring to the streets. For the church hierarchy and Patriarch Kirill personally, it was a demonstration of their might… both before the Kremlin and before the public. On the other hand, people themselves felt they had to… and could… come to the streets to demonstrate their hopes and grievances, not only their prayers. However, what effect the event’s going to have on the climate in the society in general is still undetermined. What they saw as a show of force on the Church’s part only further angered many liberal bloggers. Some people welcomed the event as a step for the church towards becoming a force in a civil society, albeit a conservative one. Yet, others saw in it the Kremlin’s policy of dividing and ruling society. In any case, the competition for the hearts and minds of people will go on.
24 April 2012