For my second quarterly report, I took quotes from interviews and from my journal entries from the last three months and responded to them. These two collections of my thoughts, along with my current feelings give a clear picture of how the last three months have been.
I’ve talked to a variety of women who were connected with the Russian Orthodox Church. They were all involved with the Church in varying degrees and the contrast between them fascinated me. I learned a lot about faith from each of them even though the insights I gained varied starkly from person to person.
“Their priests tell them not to read the Bible—that only trouble can come from that.” --Galina, a 77 year old convert from Russian Orthodoxy to Christian Science
Galina had swallowed a lot of anti-Church propaganda some of which had come from growing up in the Soviet system but most of which came from attending Pentecostal services for fifteen years as they were trying to gain converts in Russia. I tried to argue on the Orthodox side but Galina’s mind was made up. She talked about what was wrong with Orthodoxy, but I don’t know that she ever gave it a fair shot since she’d never seen a Bible until 1975. It reminded me that being religious is about effort. How hard are you willing to work? She knew she was baptized Orthodox. She could have learned Church Slavonic, found a Bible and come to understand and love the liturgy. If she had done so would she be working in an Orthodox Church instead of a Christian Science Reading Room?
“Religion has to be ‘rodnaya.’ It doesn’t mean anything if the prayers and the liturgy don’t mean anything to a person. And I don’t know about people in China and India, but here, it’s the Russian Orthodox Church.” --Inga, a 43 year old convert (from Judaism).
The word ‘rodnaya’ doesn’t translate well. The root comes from the verb ‘to be born.’ Your ‘rodnoy brat’ is your brother but the adjective can apply to other things, most specifically countries and religions. As one man explained it, “There’s no one closer than your mother. And she may be good or bad, but she’s rodnaya and so you love her. And we think that about Russia.”
Inga was an interesting person in her own right, but most importantly, she managed to sum up an idea in three sentences that I’d encountered over and over again and couldn’t figure out. Several other women have said that they are Orthodox because they’re Russian—what else would they be? Svetlana, my old host mother from 2001, Tonya, my landlady in Novgorod and people that I talked with on the street expressed this same thought, that Russia and the church that comes with it are ‘rodnaya.’ And while she may not be perfect, people follow her all the same.
“I don’t remember my first service, but I remember my mother telling me, ‘that’s a sin, don’t do that,’ and my grandmother teaching me how to pray over my uncle’s grave when I was seven.” --Evgenia, age 64, works in a Tserkovnaya Lavka (a church book store).
Evgenia, who lives an hour outside of St. Petersburg in Gatchina, was a fantastic resource, friend and grandmother. I went to visit her three times at work and she invited me behind the counter where we’d have tea and sit by the wood oven. There’s so much I could say about her—she’s absolutely fantastic and the most Christianly Christian I’ve met in Russia. She runs her own clothing donation program out of the lavka, prays for everyone that comes through and keeps up a most entertaining scholastic exchange with a local Catholic man.
The thing that struck me about Evgenia’s discussions is how much she mentioned her family. Evgenia said that her mother and her grandmother were the foundations of her having faith, while Svetlana said because her mother and father died young, there was no one to teach her about how to be Orthodox. Even Galina mentioned that her grandmother taught her how to pray. Mothers and grandmothers played an extra important role because some of them were still alive before the Communist Revolution. They had seen Orthodox at its height and were the most invested in keeping the Church alive.
This made me wonder what I’ve taken from my mother’s faith, which is a question I’ve put on hold for the time being.
While those quotations show what I’ve been learning from my project, I want to some of the things I’ve been learning about myself. What follows are some direct quotes from my personal journal entries.
“For the first time since I got here, I just want to be alone. I don’t want anyone to bug me, anyone to talk to me. I just want to sit for ten minutes, completely undisturbed.” (11/26)
I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve really come to treasure the time to be alone, to think or just to appreciate silence. When I came back from Tver, I found I was busy almost all the time, a trend which continued until I left St. Petersburg. I often wished I could just get the alone time back that I had in August and September. I’m glad that I realized how much I value this quiet time. Now when I have it, I cherish it instead of waiting around for something to happen.
“The only problem with having a host family is that you get wrapped up in their lives and it can really hurt the relationship.” (11/4) “Katya gave a nice toast to my leaving…she said I was a good example for her and that I really was an older sister, not just another friend from America. It made me feel like I did the right thing, keeping all my frustrations quiet.” (12/21)
At the beginning of November, I started to realize that my host sister, Katya, and I are two very different people. It was hard for me to not comment on her relationship with her boyfriend which I felt was unhealthy. Still, I decided the best course of action was to keep these thoughts to myself and let her work out her problems on her own. As the second quote from my journal shows, I made the right decision. Dealing with Katya taught me some important lessons about judging others and about when to offer advice and when to keep my mouth shut.
“Went to a big grocery store and I couldn’t get over the product choice, the amounts of stuff. It was scary and amazing all at once.” (12/5, Lithuania)
Being in Lithuania and staying with a well-off family was an interesting contrast to being in Russia. The grocery stores there had so many choices, everything was efficient and the streets were cleaner. I didn’t need to register—I could travel freely without getting six stamps on my passport. I decided that true democracy and free market capitalism, while not for everyone, would benefit Russia. While the solution to Russia’s problems is more complicated, seeing how much more efficient Vilnius was than St. Petersburg reminded me of the benefits of true freedom.
“I will never, ever kick a Mormon off my porch ever again.” (1/13)
I met my first Mormons on a suburban train at the end of October. I hadn’t spoken English in almost two weeks as I had no phone. It was like seeing my family. From then on I’ve been in touch with the Mormons in every place I’ve been to. They’ve provided me with the opportunity to meet Russians who have interesting ideas about the Orthodox Church (including a former priest who’d converted). But more importantly, they offered a church service where I felt comfortable and people I could share struggles with. As foreigners living in Russia, we have the same frustrations with visas, the police and with the Russian mentality towards those who aren’t Orthodox. I’m not sure how I would have made it through Novgorod and on to Moscow without the missionaries there. They helped me with the discernment process as I started to consider going home and as I worked to support my mom from far away. They were good friends that I could laugh with and were good spiritual supports offering prayers and Scriptural references to pull me through. While I have no intention of becoming a Mormon I’m grateful for their friendship and the respect that I’ve gained for their faith and their church.