AT LEAST 7000 religious buildings still await reconstruction in Russia, three decades after the end of Communist rule, despite the rapid recovery of the country’s once-persecuted Orthodox Church.
“Many people think these ruins are all a big headache — that it would be easier for everyone if they didn’t exist,” the chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Council for Church Art and Architecture, Archpriest Leonid Kalinin, said earlier this month.
“But these ruins contain the memory of our ancestors: a thread connecting us with past generations. Behind every collapsing temple there are great layers of local history, stories of people who built them and saints who worked in them.”
The priest was speaking after a meeting in Russia’s State Duma on the preservation of ruined churches, attended by delegates from 115 Orthodox dioceses.
In an interview with his Church’s press service, he said that he had helped to compile a list of “ownerless churches” needing urgent conservation, but said that an “emergency response programme”, launched by Patriarch Kirill in 2018, had been impeded by the pandemic, and by a lack of trained experts and unified management.
“The programme is aimed not at what’s already under state protection, but at village churches not included in the register of monuments and now practically doomed to destruction,” Archpriest Kalinin said.
“We count on local church organisations, communities, and youth groups to show greater concern for these unique monuments to our antiquity and spirituality before they disappear from the face of the earth.”
Barely 100 of Russia’s 60,000 Orthodox churches remained open by 1939, when there were just four surviving bishops. The Orthodox Church has revived substantially since the collapse of Communist rule in 1991, doubling its dioceses to 309 in the past decade, with 382 bishops and more than 40,000 clergy, according to 2019 church data.
The Church now has 39,000 functioning places of worship in Russia itself, together with 972 monasteries and convents; but it will still take until 2050, by some estimates, to regain the infrastructure that it had before the 1917 revolution.
In his interview, Archpriest Kalinin said that new city churches were being constructed when “demanded by the people”, with a “completely modern style” that sometimes had “high artistic merit”.
He cautioned, however, that new churches would never arouse the same interest “among pilgrims, tourists, and those wanting to see something authentic in Russia”, and said that the country needed restoration funds comparable to the €3 billion assigned by the European Union to screening and scanning historic buildings.
“Their collapse is a matter of time; but, if Russia is some day able to allocate sufficient resources to reviving these wonderful monuments of history, we will not have wasted our energy,” the Moscow Patriarchate specialist said.
More than 200 new Orthodox churches are currently being built in Moscow, where an Orthodox military cathedral was dedicated in June 2020, in addition to the city’s existing 535.
The state-funded restoration of the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at Chelyabinsk, which has frescoes from Russia’s Vasnetsov School, and was used as an organ-concert hall under Soviet rule, is set for completion in 2023. Other large church reconstructions are under way in Kostroma, Nizhny Novgorod, Tver, Vologda, and other cities.