For almost a thousand years the Orthodox Church, with its magnificent liturgy and iconography, had been an integral part of Russian identity and history. I was Russian enough to feel profoundly moved that the faith of my ancestors was coming alive again. At the same time, as a Western reporter, I wondered where this plunge into the past, often idealized and dimly perceived, could lead. Would the Orthodox Church become a potent force for reform, speaking truth to the Kremlin's power? Or would it resume the role it had played over centuries of tsarist rule and again become an ornament and tool of an authoritarian state?
These questions concerned not only the church; the future shape of Russia was at stake. As Russia scholar James H. Billington, now librarian of Congress, wrote a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union: "Whether the Orthodox Church can wrest itself from the state and become the conscience of the nation will be important in determining whether Russia can discover a new, democratic and civil culture or will return to a dark and threatening authoritarianism." Since then, the darker scenario has seemed to play out, with church leaders allying themselves with an aggressive, antidemocratic Kremlin. But as I returned to Murom last year, I wondered if something of St. Juliana's charity and piety lives on in the revived church.
I also had reason to think that an open and questioning spirit may have taken root among some believers. My father, the Reverend Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest and theologian who, like my mother, was born of Russian émigrés, had been well-known among dissidents and intellectuals in the Soviet Union for his books and his broadcasts over Radio Liberty, which the U.S. government beamed behind the Iron Curtain. Both thoroughly Russian and proudly Western, he lived most of his life in the United States and dedicated much of it to stripping his faith of its ethnic crust and focusing on its universal message. In 2005 the diaries he kept from 1973 until his death in 1983 were published in Russia. To my astonishment, they became an instant sensation among many Russian believers and thinkers. Why, I wanted to learn, were the thoughts of a Western priest resonating so powerfully?
The Murom I return to is little changed. Some nightclubs, ATMs, service stations, and billboards, to be sure, but whatever wealth seeps out of Moscow seems to stop somewhere short of here. There's still no permanent bridge over the Oka, only a pontoon bridge in summer. The potholes are still treacherous, and the old wooden houses are weathered and listing. There is one dramatic change, however: The monasteries and churches on the high bluff above the river now gleam in restored grandeur.
Dating to the late 11th century, Spassky Monastery is one of the oldest in all of Russia. The army used it as a barracks until 1995, leaving behind a sad and stinking ruin. The Russian Orthodox Church assigned a dynamic priest, Father Kirill Epifanov, to resurrect the historic religious center. He began by building a bakery to sustain his handful of monks. Then, finding funds and labor where he could, he rebuilt the churches and restored the grounds. The results are stunning: Busloads of pilgrims arrive to marvel at the medieval splendor. The immaculate grounds include an aviary with peacocks, and the thriving bakery fills the air with the aroma of freshly baked bread.