“You are lucky: the snow has arrived in time to welcome you. Everything is clean and bright – for us, the first snow is always a joy!” After two hours of traffic jams, I meet again in Chtchoukinskaya the hospitality of Olga, Micha and Katia. In their district, the buildings of the Sixties, still proud behind their curtain of silver birches, are gradually being demolished and replaced by huge constructions, forty storeys high, like heavy meringues, with crenulations, gables, spires, and facades in pink, blue green… Outside the Metro station, the stalls where the local market gardeners and the Caucasian sellers once offered fruit and vegetables, have disappeared. Two supermarkets and a shopping mall have signs with huge, illuminated letters. Escalators and marble corridors lead to sumptuous shops.
Property, motorways, the towers of business parks; everywhere construction bears witness to a sustained dynamism. In the Metro, adverts for bank credit, financial investments and ‘dream’ holidays reflect the latest preoccupations of a more wealthy section of the population. However, this remains a privileged minority. People humorously describe the economic situation: “Everything we were taught about communism was false but everything they told us about capitalism was true!”
A meeting with forty or so young adults in the premises of a club for adolescents, near the Belarus Station. They have suggested the theme for reflection: “How to live each day with an open heart?”
“’Happy are they who believed without having seen’: in what way is this joy given to us?” This was the question for a sharing about the meeting of the Risen Christ with Thomas. Tea in the kitchen, then small sharing groups; a report back, and then tea again… Fifteen young people for a reflection and sharing session held in a family home: in an apartment, the exchange is more natural and the formula seems promising.
A four hour flight from Moscow to Novosibirsk in moonlight: forests, snow-covered fields, frozen rivers. With the three hour time difference, it is already six o’clock when we arrive. Genady and Oleg are waiting for us in a temperature of minus 10˚C. “With global warming of the planet, our winters have been getting milder for several years. You are lucky: it is still warm for the time of year!”
With one and a half million inhabitants, Novosibirsk is the third city of Russia and a sort of capital of Siberia, founded 120 years ago where the Transsiberian crosses the river Ob. The evacuation of civilians and the transfer of production, during the Second World War, accelerated the development of Novosibirsk.
It is the spirit and bravery of pioneers that drive those who live in these parts. “We are in the South west of Siberia, on the same latitude as Moscow, but due to the hardness of our life and the continental climate we are classified as the North zone.” The winters are long and hard, transport is difficult; there are lots of huge coal-heated greenhouses, but people live mainly from salting gherkins, cabbages and potatoes from their vegetable gardens. Retirement pensions are tiny.
The vitality of the Church is witness to the strong faith of these people who have begun again, from nothing: building but also training, publishing, the media; supporting adolescents, the sick, prisoners, soldiers. Orthodoxy allows one to forge one’s world vision and to find one’s bearings: through its liturgy, its feasts, its veneration for tradition, and its popular customs, but also from the meaning it gives to hierarchy and to obedience. It is the showcase of the heart: the remembrance of the Saints reawakens a sense of the podvig: the challenge to accept, which allows one to surpass oneself and may even demand sacrifice. This can often be seen in the commitment to their ministry of priests and their wives; but many people show great generosity, as well as the hope that life has meaning, even in adversity. This feeds patience and inner freedom.
In St Petersburg a novel meeting brings together secondary-school teachers, who have taken groups to Taizé, and some priests: Father Arkady Skripkine, who has responsibility for youth in the diocese and is chaplain to students of the faculty of Education; Father Alexander and Father Dimitry from the parish of the Icon of the Virgin of Feodorovskaya – where they have, for the second time, launched an adaptation of the Alpha course; and Protodeacon Serge of the Trinity – a physician by training – who tells how he owes his vocation to a meeting with Brother Roger in the early 1990s…
Excerpts from the sharing: “What difficulties and what hopes are there in your work with the young people today?”
“A recent study shows that religious practice is growing in Russia. Twenty years ago, 6% of young people declared themselves to be believers, now it is 60% - but we are not ready to welcome them. This religious feeling comes from inside the person and is in conflict with the trend that thinks a society becomes richer as it becomes more secular. If we don’t decide to introduce into schools some lessons about the foundations of religious culture, we shall be missing an opportunity. Young people are waiting and thirsting for us to talk to them about faith and prayer.”
“At Taizé, everything began with the commitment of one person. Here, they have begun to return our buildings to us. ‘If you want to get back this monastery, go ahead!’ I was the bursar at the monastery of Konovets… Who turned up to live and work there? Tramps and drug addicts! We need resolute personalities.”
“You have to go out to meet people. That’s how the Tchaika Club developed at the monastery of St John of Kronstadt.”
The Russian winter seems to freeze nature. Snow envelops fields, forests, lakes and frozen rivers; sometimes there is so much snow that the little houses almost disappear. A great silence covers everything. Yet life goes on. Under their windswept crust, the rivers follow their courses; anglers break through the ice to spend hours by their fishing lines, seated on a case, their backs to the wind. The tits and magpies search for sustenance around the houses. In temperatures as low as minus 30˚C, the children continue to attend school; concrete is laid on building sites; pipes are welded. When circumstances seem to dissuade all relationships between Christians from different denominations, it is in the form of reserves and prudence that we must seek the signs of living fraternity. Throughout these three weeks it has been possible to offer an attentive and grateful presence. A simple presence can call out. In the surprised faces of our hosts we often discern the question: “Brothers from the West! Are there still believers over there? Why have they undertaken such a long journey?” Time is not taken up in debating ideas or in big projects, but long liturgies, shared tables, and times of travel are practical opportunities to give priority to the people, and to the work of God in them. Let’s repeat our gratitude for the courage, enthusiasm, self-giving, commitment to the service of God – and the communities will open a way.