Staunton, January 31 – The conflict between the Russian Orthodox Church and the people of St. Petersburg over the possible return of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, long a museum on the northern capital’s most important boulevard, has raised new questions about how many believers there really are in Russia and why they are acting so aggressively.
In a conversation with Yuliya Galkina, a journalist for The-Village.ru portal, Zhanna Korminova, a specialist on the anthropology of religion at St. Petersburg’s Higher School of Economics, argues that the Russian Orthodox are acting like an embattled minority because they are one and feel themselves to be (the-village.ru/village/people/city-news/255979-orthodoxy).
Despite claims that more than 80 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox, only a tiny percentage, far fewer than five percent, actually participate in religious life, Korminova says; and that minority knows that it is both small and different from others and behaves in the ways one expects such people to do.
“Church people,” she continues, have chosen a particular style of life, “one that sociologists would call a sub-culture. They have their own style of dress their own marriage patterns and their own biographic strategies, they have a specific language and other specific practices as well.”
Given all this, Korminova says, “they feel themselves as a minority” that is both misunderstood and mistreated. At the same time, “they are certain that it is they who are preserving the spirit of the nation … and have the right to count on gratitude or at least respect from their non-church compatriots.”
“And this bitter feeling sometimes leads to quite sharp and even aggressive expressions as happens with any minority which feels itself to be stigmatized” as different from the norm.
There are of course different kinds of identification with religion. In Moscow, people are overwhelmingly loyal to Orthodoxy but this loyalty is “on the level of official ideology.” For people in some smaller cities, like Lipetsk, Orthodoxy is a way of life. S). And in St. Petersburg there is still a third pattern.
The northern capital “was built as a window on Europe,” and along the Nevsky Prospekt were “a Catholic church, an Armenian church, a Swedish Lutheran one … and of course an Orthodox one” (St. Isaac’s). Thus, the religious diversity of the population was institutionalized “in the city’s landscape,” a very different pattern than the one found in Moscow.
The reason that the recovery of St. Isaac’s from the state is so important to the real Orthodox believers, Korminova continues, is that they believe that this is a sign that they are making progress and that if they have a church, it will be filled. But most of the population view the situation differently.
They aren’t opposed to the appearance of new churches, but not in their backyard, in their recreational spaces or where the church is followed by the building of a cemetery, she says. “No one wants a cemetery where he walks with his child.” In general, these two sides can’t reach an agreement, but the Orthodox often make the situation worse for themselves.
They tell the residents: “Everything has been decided” by the authorities and then they act “like conquerors.” They see the recovery of a church as evidence that “this land as becoming Orthodox” and so reacquiring churches performs much of the same function for them as does missionary activity.
As far as the restoration of ruined churches is concerned, something the opponents of the Orthodox often say the religious should focus on before trying to take back existing ones in the middle of cities, the facts are these: almost all of such churches are in places where there are no longer any people or any parishioners.
In her concluding remarks, Korminova throws cold water on one of the most fervent expectations of Orthodox believers who think that the return of churches will lead to an upsurge in church participation. For those who are genuine believers, she says, that isn’t going to matter, and an increase in the number of churches won’t boost the size of their flocks.