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 Gorodnya-Russian Orthodox Church

The road from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
Use map to navigate documentary.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which wields huge influence and sees itself as the bastion of Russian culture, contends no other import is as dangerous as that of so-called Western religions.

When Soviet religious restrictions were lifted in the 1980s, the Orthodox churches were besieged, but after the first wave of religious fervor, attendance has dropped off. The Orthodox Church resents and fears foreign competition for Russia's heart and soul and has tried to restrict its activities. Radishchev, who vehemently opposed any form of censorship, argued long ago this kind of attitude arrests progress.

In the small town of Gorodnya the orthodox priest Father Aleksei has no time for the foreign visitors—he says outsiders will never understand Russia or Russians. He attacks what he believes to be Western meddling in the spiritual and political life of his country—in response he is fighting back. This competition is what Radishchev would call this progress.

Father Alexei has started a church school to help feed, clothe, and educate the area's poor. This is not the traditionally authoritarian and fatalistic Orthodox Church, which has often seemed more comfortable restoring cathedrals than people's lives.

Father Alexei's charges are not only learning prayers, old-church Slavonic, and church history. They are also being prepared for a competitive world, and, despite his anti-Western sentiments, that includes learning English.

From the front of the church's classroom, a teacher calls on students to read the roles of Tom and Aunt Polly. The text the school children have memorized is from the most American of writers: Mark Twain. They act out the moment when Tom Sawyer manages to dupe his pals into painting the fence.

"Tom! Tom! Where is the boy? Tom!" Aunt Polly calls out.
"Here I am!" he replies.
"Oh, you've been to the closet!" she scolds him. "What is that? What were you do there?"

The teacher starts to correct her, but Aunt Polly corrects herself—"doing there"—almost simultaneously.

Dr. Galina Stepanovna. Click to enlarge

Photo: Rob Rand
Across the street, Dr. Galina Stepanovna is the local pediatrician who looks after the health of these children. She is also one of Father Alexei's most devoted parishioners. She's seen it all. Under the Communists she was assigned to the Soviet Arctic for 25 years; when medical funding dried up in the early '90s, she moved here.

Her middle-aged husband died, and she thought there was nothing left to live for. Father Alexei gave her hope, and she says the church here has responded to the social earthquake.

"These families have learned how to take care of themselves now," she says. "I tell their neighbors don't give them anything for free. Ask them to help you, so they understand what responsibility is. In the village, the attitude in the past was: Get what you can for nothing. People understand they have to work."

With that this tiny imp of a woman leads us to a bluff overlooking the nearby Volga River. The wind is strong, and the waters run clear and blue. On the ridge she skips and spins exuberantly like a young Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Galina Stepanova has faith in God and man.


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