Volume 17 Number 3
A First Taste of Russia
01 June 2004

Easter in Russia introduces Mary Lean to the resilience of faith and the power of grandmothers.

There’s no hope of squeezing into the church in the centre of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, when we arrive late on Easter Saturday night. Instead we join the crowds waiting outside with their candles.

Then, around midnight, the church bells start ringing, and the priests emerge slowly from the church, carrying icons and followed by the congregation. The crowd joins the procession round the church. When it returns to the porch, the priest calls out ‘Hristos voskrese!’ (Christ is risen!) and the crowd replies ‘Voistinu voskrese!’ (He is risen indeed!). The greeting is repeated several times. It is the Russian equivalent of ‘Happy Easter’ and I hear it again and again next day as people greet each other, often exchanging hardboiled eggs dyed with onion skins. In a country where faith was to all effects banned for 70 years, it’s not something to take for granted.

Many of those in the procession around the church will not have observed the strict vegan Lenten fast favoured by the Orthodox Church. Nor, one imagines, have all the politicians solemnly lined up at the all-night service broadcast on TV from the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. For some the Easter celebrations may be more a question of Russian tradition than of Christian faith. But even so, they represent the reopening of a door which only a generation ago seemed to be closed for ever.

The Easter celebrations are a testament not only to the irrepressibility of faith but to the steadfastness of all those grandmothers, who kept on praying and seeing that the babies were secretly baptized. Both my hostess, now in her late 40s, and her daughter were among those babies. My hostess remembers coming home from school to tell her grandmother that the cosmonauts had looked for God in space and found he wasn’t there. Grandmother kept her counsel—but 40 years later, it seems that she and the other babushkas have won out.

On Easter Day, Russian TV catches one of the cosmonauts dyeing eggs with his grandchildren. Does this mean he has changed his mind about God? The cosmonaut reveals that when he went into space, he had a cross in his pocket all along—given to him by an aunt for his protection.

My first visit to Russia is full of similar snapshots and contrasts. With no knowledge of the language, or even the script, I am completely in the hands of my hosts—and overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of their welcome.

We arrive in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s third city, in the snow, getting off the night train from Moscow at 2am. The city stands on a hillside at the confluence of the Volga and the Oka rivers, and is an ancient trade centre with a 550-year-old Kremlin (citadel). Its centre is full of beautiful 19th century merchants’ houses, some restored but many decaying. The writer Maxim Gorky grew up here and the city carried his name during the Soviet period. During the Cold War, it was a closed city, because of its military industry, and the dissident physicist, Andrei Sakharov, was exiled here.

We cross the rivers to drive to the 17th century Makariev monastery, with its silver cupolas. Like many religious buildings its beautiful churches, with their ancient icons, are slowly being restored. During Soviet times it was a sports centre,with a swimming pool in the largest church. On the way we pass through villages of wooden houses, whose inhabitants still collect their water from wells on the roadside. In a shop, there is a well-thumbed abacus on the counter. It feels as if our drive has taken us back a century.

Any foreigner who stays in one place for more than three days has to register with the authorities (as do any Russians from outside Moscow who stay in the capital). The experience is an introduction to Russian bureaucracy—a day spent queuing and shunting from one building to another, in the driving sleet. All official business involves the same struggles with uncooperative officialdom, my hosts explain. In the old days, people would be given paid leave to deal with bill-paying or registration. This arrangement was often abused and has now been abolished, but the system has not been reformed. So the people now fuming in the queues are also watching their wages drip away—and accumulating horror stories to swap with their friends afterwards.

The way around the system is to make an arrangement with someone who knows someone. Money will not necessarily change hands, but a gift of chocolate or produce from one’s dacha (country cottage) shows one’s appreciation. Something similar happens with doctors, dentists and other professionals. Quite where the line runs between gratitude and bribery is hard to judge.

The hospitality is humbling. After an Easter feast with three generations of my hostess’s family, we are invited for the evening by the director of the nursery school where she teaches. Here we are faced with a groaning table of homemade delicacies—pies and pastries of every possible kind; the traditional tall Easter cake with its accompanying sweet cheese; mushrooms and strawberries picked on her dacha. She tells me that there should be 48 products on the Easter table—one for each day of Lent.

And behind the warmth and humour, there are glimpses of the past, with all its contradictions. My hostess remembers weeping when she learnt, at the age of 26, that Lenin—who, she had been told, never told a lie and always cleaned his plate—had had a mistress. She was in her twenties, too, before she learnt that her grandfather had spent much of the 1930s in a labour camp. He, his wife and their nine children eventually ended up in a communal flat in Nizhny Novgorod—a rich seam of stories in itself. Years later, her sister returned to the building to open her first art studio.

One evening I am invited to a concert by a local publisher, who then takes me home for dinner. Her husband has prepared a dish from Uzbekistan, which traditionally must be cooked by a man. It turns out he has relations in Uzbekistan—and when I enquire more, I’m told the story has been written up as a novel. His grandmother, it turns out, grew up in Uzbekistan and was sent to a labour camp for eight years after her husband, one of Stalin’s generals, was killed in a purge. On her release she travelled around Russia searching the orphanages for her children.

We visit churches to admire the ancient icons, creep into the entrance of the city’s impossibly grand 19th century bank, compare prices in the western clothing stores on the city’s main street, offer a couple of classes of schoolchildren a chance to practise their English and visit the studios and exhibitions of local artists.

I’m asked more than once whether the visit has changed my view of Russia and Russians. And, yes, perhaps it has. It has awakened me to the vastness of the country, and the heavy weight of history carried, often so lightly, by its inhabitants. I had not expected so much laughter in face of a life that is still so difficult, both logistically and economically. And I am moved by the generosity and courage I encounter.

On my first morning in Russia, we visited the Kremlin in Moscow, with its seven cathedrals. As we looked around the icons in the Archangel Cathedral, burial place of Ivan the Terrible and his family, three men and two women walked in and burst into the heart-wrenching unaccompanied harmonies of Russian church music. In the past, you could be sent to Siberia for singing these chants. Today such moments offer a hope of resurrection, in the midst of all the problems of this vast and ancient country.

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