Russia’s Orthodox Church has been at the center of a storm of controversy of late – from Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin “punk prayer” in Moscow’s largest cathedral to the comical “now you see it, now you don’t” saga of Patriarch Kirill’s luxury watch.
Things have gotten so heated that the Church felt it necessary to hold a nationwide “defense of the faith” prayer on Sunday, to counter what its Supreme Council called attacks from “anti-Russian forces.”
“The Orthodox Church isn’t the synod or the patriarch – it’s the people within it,” Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida said last week while fending off another question about religion and politics (this time from me).
And while I’m not 100 percent sure that answer will be sufficient to answer many of the criticisms the Church’s opponents have over its ties with the authorities, it does lead me nicely into the real purpose of this week’s column – to bring to your attention a pretty cool book on the Russian Orthodox Church and, yes, the ordinary people “within it”. Most of whom happen to be priests.
“Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy” by Maya Kucherskaya became an unlikely bestseller when it was published in Russia in 2008. Its English-language release late last year by the Russian Life publishers failed to make anything like the same impact in the West, which is understandable – if a shame.
The book utilizes a series of anecdotes, stories and sketches to introduce the reader to some of the oddest collection of priests you are ever likely to find in print.
Among the pages of literary critic Kucherskaya’s book are a cannibal priest, a computer addict priest, an ex-junkie priest and a manic depressive priest. Just to mention a few of the weird characters she describes in what she says are stories drawn from or based on real life.
It’s hard to pick favorites, but among the most memorable are the ex-meth addict priest who describes to a junkie his previous drug-induced vision of hell. His description shocks the addict out of his passion for getting high – he had had the same diabolical vision just days previously.
Or the story of the priest who almost gives into the temptations of the flesh and visits a high-class Moscow prostitute – only to begin to pray before her. Intrigued, the girl seeks the priest out and gives up her previous life – but is murdered, presumably by her enraged pimp, some time later.
Or the one about the priest who gets bored of nuns’ dull confessions - “Oh Father, I ate a sardine on a Wednesday” – and confesses of his fantasy to a fellow priest. “Oh how I wish a nun would turn out to be a murderer.”
The overall effect is hard to pin down – the book doesn’t make you feel any particular warmth towards the Orthodox Church, but it does make you stop and think about the unknown priests going about their daily prayers and services all across the Russian Federation, far away from Moscow.
And although the book is mainly about priests, priesthood is not the defining character of the heroes and anti-heroes within her pages. The priests are, well, just people. With all the good, bad, bland, disgusting, admirable and ambiguous traits that ordinary folk possess.
No wonder then that this book was, as the author recalls in her preface, “burned at the stake” at one convent. But such is its appeal that it is also little surprise that “at a Seminary in another small town, it was added to the curriculum that helps future priests understand problems within the Church.”
The stories, Kucherskaya says, were written over a period of some fifteen years, with the first penned in the early 1990s. The book was called Modern Paterik in Russian, taking its name from the ancient form of “moral tales about Christian fathers.”
For me, the stories, especially the shorter ones, resemble nothing so much as the surreal tales penned by Daniil Kharms, the absurdist Soviet writer banned by Stalin for his sheer oddness. There is often the same almost nihilistic element to the stories, strangely enough for a book about, on the face of it, religion.
Kucherskaya says she hopes English-speaking readers will see the book as a story “about people who ardently believe something and who carry this belief out into the real world.” But belief does not jump out of these pages. Which only, if the truth be told, adds to its power. And, yes, its deep sense of spirituality – although not necessarily or exclusively of the Russian Orthodox kind. Like all great works of art, Kucherskaya’s book is a contradiction in terms – and extremely confusing.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).
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