The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Worshipers Present Irony In Birthplace Of Lenin
Ulyanovsk, Russia The "Babushka," the round little old woman in thick red sweater and knotted scarf, grabbed both my hands and kissed them. Tears welled in her eyes and her voice, melodious and plaintive, beseeched me. I stood awkwardly in her embrace.
"She wishes you long life and peace," said my Russian-speaking companion. "'We lost so many in the war,' she says. She lost all her sons. She thanks you for coming."
"May you keep safe in the body of Christ," the old woman intoned.
Here, in the birthplace of Lenin, scourge of religion, on this bright Sunday morning, we were at church. The ancient Russian Orthodox church, an old wooden structure of peeling blue paint, trimmed in white, nestled in a grove of trees just off a vast square ringed with stark concrete apartment high-rises and dominated by the ultra-modern V.I. Lenin Memorial Center.
Surrounded by dirt roads, lined with worn wooden houses and unkempt borders of weeds and unmown grass, the old church seemed almost to burst with the throng of worshipers.
And worshipers they were not merely churchgoers. Like the old grandmother who embraced me, their eyes glistened and faces shone with a devotion seldom seen in any church.
We followed the sound of the Byzantine chanting up the worn steps and through the wide, open doors, inside were literally wall-to-wall people. There were no pews and they stood shoulder to shoulder, the whole mass swaying gently as the red-bearded priest in golden robes intoned the mass and as a small choir in a low loft sang the responses.
Old women in worn black coats and flowered scarves were constantly blessing themselves with that peculiar Eastern rite sign of the cross, right to left with two fingers pressed against the thumb.
Gradually we realized that the seemingly immobile mass of people was constantly changing: a tide of people ebbing in as others left so that many times the actual capacity of the church were attending the service.
Nor were they only the old as some have said of religion's bare survival here. They were of all ages, male and female, and outside were two score young couples waiting with their children for a mass baptism.
Inside, the faithful took communion bread (actually, fat little biscuits,) from a big basket at the door, and from an old roll-top desk at one side, a stout woman sold slender candles for 20 kopeks, and little tin crosses with glass jewels for a ruble. Other, old worn fingers dropped coins in the slot of a battered tin box.
Most startling of all, the entire surface of the interior walls, ceiling, crossbeams, pillars was covered with icons, great, gilt framed images of the risen Christ, the black Madonna, scores of other virgins, babes, apostles.
What wrenching contrast! For days now we'd been immersed in the cult of Lenin with the 15 million who walk through his tomb in Red Square each year. Mile after mile on Moscow bus rides, Intourist guides had extolled his virtues.
His likeness had besieged us everywhere from portraits covering whole sides of buildings to watch fobs and key chains in souvenir shops. "Is there no limit to the devotion to Lenin?" our companion, Russian history professor Dan Mulholland, had marveled.
But here suddenly, in Communism's Bethlehem Lenin's birthplace (his real name was Ulyanov) now named for him we were confronted with Christ. Of such irony is adventure truly made.
What to make of it? Not that religion prospers here, for it doesn't. It's barely tolerated and well controlled.
One of our Jewish dissident contacts in Moscow had spat contemptuously, "the entire hierarchy (of the Orthodox church) is KGB!" Whatever hyperbole that is, no official we've talked to encourages religion and we've met no one in any official capacity who admits to belief.
Back in Kazan, which boasts a mosque and three Orthodox churches, a young guide informed us that although Jehovah's Witnesses were outlawed as "dangerous," Baptists are tolerated. "There's freedom of religion but you can't advertise religion outside the churches," he said. And if you do? "The militia will come and take you away."
One reason this church is so full, we are told, was that only two remain in the region where there were 28.
Still here we were at mass on Sunday morning in the heart of Russia, testimony to faith's endurance and officialdom's tolerance, however slim.
Mass ended in a crescendo of exultation and another service began at once. In came mourners bearing a shallow, open coffin, covered in lavender cloth, containing the corpse of an old man.
When the brief funeral ended, the coffin was placed in a small bus parked outside, the mourners clambered in with it, and it rolled off, down the dirt street. Then the young parents took their babies in for baptism.
Birth, life, death the cycle goes on, in spite of all officialdom. There were no answers, only an enduring memory of an old woman on the Volga, in the heart of Russia, kissing my hands and blessing me in Christ.
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