Spassky is but one of hundreds of monasteries revived in the thaw that began with Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika in the late 1980s. In 1987 there were only three monasteries in Russia; today there are 478. Then there were just two seminaries; now there are 25. Most striking is the explosion of churches, from about 2,000 in Gorbachev's time to nearly 13,000 today. The Russian Orthodox Church has grown into a sprawling institution, with dozens of publishing houses and hundreds of thriving journals, newspapers, and websites.
When I meet him, Father Kirill has just returned from a pilgrimage to the Eastern Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece. A large man with a room-filling voice and a broad black beard, he distributes gifts to his monks like a loving but stern parent. Always on the move, with his cassock swirling around him, he seems the model leader the reviving church needs—a pastor and manager bristling with energy, enthusiasm, and faith. Yet over tea in his vaulted study, Father Kirill is subdued.
Raising money and restoring buildings is the easy part, he says. The pilgrims? Most are "religious tourists" who come to accumulate totems. Even the monks are here today, off to another monastery tomorrow. The church still has no real communal life, no true spiritual revival.
"The Soviet regime was the product of faithlessness, but at least it allowed real believers to live the flame of faith," he says. "Today we are more concerned with fighting sects and 'enemies' than with repentance. These forces are tearing the church from within."
Many of the people who rushed to be baptized in the first flush of freedom ended their religious involvement right there, he says. Other priests and believers voice similar laments about the decline of interest in the faith among the Russian rank and file, as well as the slide of the official church toward xenophobia and nationalism.
Figures on church attendance are sketchy, since the Russian Orthodox Church keeps no membership rolls or parish registers. According to Nikolai Mitrokhin, a historian and critic of the church, about 60 percent of Russians today identify themselves as Orthodox—they may be baptized, married, and buried in the church—but less than one percent actually enter a church at least once a month. Other sources put the figure closer to 10 percent. One reason for the sparse attendance may be that the Orthodox Church is not entirely friendly to people who are casual or clueless about its hallowed traditions—as I discover in Murom.