Russians are free to practise whatever religion they desire. In 1997, a law was passed which officially recognised the Russian Orthodox Church as the leading faith and also encouraged respect of other religions in Russia, namely Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.

The Russian Orthodox Church
In 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated its 1,000 year anniversary. In 988, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev baptised his people in the River Dnepr, and was later declared a saint. The church is now enjoying a period of revival after years of Communist oppression, and its following currently numbers around 50 million. The rise in church attendance is proportional to the rise of Russian nationalism, as the church is seen as an integral part of being Russian. Deserted, neglected churches throughout the country have been restored and churches and monasteries which had been converted into museums were returned to divine service. There are currently 25,000 active churches, whereas in 1988 this figure was just 7,000. In 1917 there were 50,000 churches in the country, but the rise of Lenin, who followed the Marxist belief that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’, was disastrous for religious life in Russia, and Lenin’s successor Stalin was even more anti-religious. He tried to smother the religion entirely until 1941, when he decided that religion may help to increase patriotism and help motivate the Russians in the Second World War. In 1950, Khrushchev closed 15,000 churches, and the 1970s saw the Russian government sharpen their anti-religious stance, and from 1975 onwards it became illegal to hold religious services at home. This was characteristic of the KGB’s desire to keep the whole of society under control. However, Gorbachev’s famous Perestroika reforms gave the church more breathing space and the relationship between church and state began to improve from 1985 onwards.

The Russian Orthodox Church is very traditional and the atmosphere in the churches is very formal. Priests dress authoritatively and the scent of candles and incense fills the air. Old women keep the buildings clean. The churches have no seating or images, but there is a lot of iconography. The Virgin Mary is widely worshipped. The services and texts are in a Slavic dialect, the same text used from the time that the bible was first translated into Slavic. The singing in Russian Orthodox services is particularly unique and the texts are sung without musical accompaniment; there are no organs in Russian churches. The choirs often perform their breathtaking a capella artistry during the services. They bring church music composed by people such as Piotr Tchaikovsky to life every day. The liturgical texts which are sung in the Russian Orthodox services are centuries old, most of them dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries. Easter is a very important religious holiday in Russian Orthodoxy, and Christmas is held on the 7th of January (the church still uses the Julian calendar which the state stopped using in 1918).

The churches are decorated with icons, mosaics and frescos (murals painted onto wet plaster). The various subjects depicted have a fixed place in the church’s traditional decoration. For example, images of the Last Supper are always painted on the west wall of the church. Every church has an iconostasis (‘icon wall’) which separates the main area of the church (the ‘ship’) from the altar. The iconostases consist of a number of rows of religious icons. The bottom row has a gateway (known as the ‘Beautiful Gates’ or ‘Holy Doors’) which are opened during the service to give worshippers a glimpse of the altar. Above the gateway there are icons of the four evangelists, to the right of the gates an icon of the patron saint of the church and to the left the Virgin Mary.

In general, the churches are open to the public, although visitors are expected to make sure they do not disturb the worshippers and also to dress appropriately. A headscarf is compulsory for women (in churches outside Moscow and St. Petersburg). Permission must be asked to take photographs in churches, and sometimes you must pay a fee to do so. Taking photographs during services is forbidden, as is taking photos of priests/monks.

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