The Moscow Diaries II: Religion and state

This is my second and last column on my trip to Moscow, hosted by the Moscow government, Aeroflot and Hotel Katerina from August 24-31. Eight Canadian journalists were invited to explore the city. The tour lasted 5 days, and I took two extra days to explore on my own. Here are some of my impressions.


My guidebook, Dorling Kindersley’s Moscow (formerly Eyewitness), notes that religion is returning to Moscow and Russia and that young people are flocking to the Orthodox church.

There are many, many Russian Orthodox churches in the capital, over 1,000 in this city of 9 million residents. So it gives young and old alike many choices as to which church they’ll attend.

Because churches are ornately beautiful with their Renaissance, Early-Russian, Baroque and Rococo styles, they are magnets to tourists.

So it was no surprise that our extremely competent tour guide, Marina Pavluck, took us to several. Included was a visit to one during a Sunday service. The women among our group covered our heads with the requisite scarf, then entered the lofty interior.

Stillness. No pews. Simply people standing, heads bent in reverence, eyes averted, motionless.

Chanting. Behind the altar, priests chanted in the sanctuary. Sepulchral tones wafted through the church. Suddenly, the small, hidden choir burst into song: women’s harmonies sent shivers down my spine.

Fragrance. Beeswax candles not only cast their flickering light upon the iconostasis (walls filled with golden-coloured icons) but perfume the air with the familiar, homey fragrance of beeswax.

I enjoyed the service and was fortunate enough to witness another one, a few days later, in the company of Canadian photojournalist Vincenzo Pietropaolo. We were exploring Moscow’s famous Novodevichiy Cemetery and Convent, “founded by Basil III in 1524 to celebrate the capture of Smolensk from the Lithuanians” notes my guidebook.

The service that Vincenzo and I witnessed turned out to be a funeral. We had had no idea: after being invited in, I had simply covered my head, entered the church and watched, awestruck, while the now-familiar chanting, lighting of candles, and ceremony unfolded before our eyes. The congregation here in this convent cathedral included many nuns, shrouded in floor-length black habits, their faces pale, stern-looking as opposed to serene. After about ten minutes we left and, while I purchased a beeswax candle to light for my late father, we suddenly became aware of a procession entering the church right behind us.

Mourners somberly walked past carrying an open casket in which a body rested, in full view. Crossing themselves, people such as us bowed their heads to honour of the departed soul and grieving family.

Once outside in the sunshine, we visited the cemetery, a simply astonishing final resting place for ordinary through to such famous individuals as Anton Chekhov the playwright, composers Sergey Prokofiev and Dmitry Shostakovich.

Why was it astonishing? Because apart from some extremely old gravestones in the shape of crosses, the crowded, treed cemetery boasts tombstones which celebrate the individuals who have died. Gravestones displayed photos, busts or insignia (such as a treble clef, for instance) which depict the individual who is buried. Therefore, graves display little religious symbolism.

The same day, while Vincenzo and I explored on our own, we visited a mosque. At first, unthinkingly he and I wandered through its gates, heading for the front door. In so doing, we passed by a group of men who we supposed had just completed their prayers. We smiled and nodded to them and -- quite unlike the more severe Russian Orthodox worshippers -- they warmly returned our smiles.

All of a sudden I halted, grabbed Vincenzo’s arm, thinking that we’d better ask permission to enter the mosque. Would I, as a female, be welcome? Would Vincenzo, as a stranger?

We headed back through the gates and, because we speak no Russian, I gestured with my hands, pointing at myself, my photographer colleague, and the mosque. They smiled, grabbed my outstretched hands, and brought me through the gates to an elder. He took us both, welcoming us into the mosque, asking us by pointing, to remove our shoes and, swirling his hand over his head, reminded me to cover my hair. I did, my little cardigan doubling as a scarf.

He invited us to take pictures of him, of the interior and, when we’d looked around and asked him for his address (to send him some shots) we departed. The crowd outside smiled, nodded and waved us off.

It was a moving, welcoming experience: two cultures exploring one another’s ways.

So what is the relationship between the everyday Moscovite with religion?

I asked Fred Weir, Canadian journalist and correspondent who has lived in Moscow for fifteen years.

“There never was an independent church here in Russia. From Peter the Great’s time [1682-1725] the church has been a wing of the state bureaucracy.”

He referred to the reconstruction (to the tune of US $300,000 million) of a colossal church called the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer. Demolished by Stalin in 1931, the grounds were turned into a park -- and a heated swimming pool which Fred Weir enjoyed in the depths of the Moscow winters!

During Stalin’s era, the church and believers were “forced underground during the soviet era” notes my guidebook.

So it is extremely symbolic that this church is now rebuilt -- significant of a new return to acceptance of religion. The state could hardly of demonstrated this acceptance more, for the interior of this colossal cathedral holds 10,000 worshippers. I can only imagine what it must be like to stand among them, listening to the choir and chanting.

I asked our tour leader, Larissa Mahotkina, who now lives in Vancouver and operates Charisma Travel, a travel company that offers tours to Moscow. Larissa grew up in Moscow, and responded in her typically enthusiastic delivery to my question regarding religion in the capital. “But of course, there is no religion here!” she exclaimed.

How odd, I reflected. Surely the iconography, the seriousness of the worshippers, the prevalence and high-visibility of the over 1,000 churches with their gleaming, onion-shaped domes would argue otherwise. And what about the guidebook’s insistence that the young are returning to organized religion, I enquired? “Nyet! No, this is not happening,” she said.

Hmmm. What’s the story?

I asked Vincenzo’s friend Olga, now my new Muscovite friend, who spent an afternoon and evening with three of us Canadian journalists. Do her friends worship? Do young people go to church, I asked?

“Yes. Many of my friends are returning to religion. They are choosing, now, to get baptized. Why? Well, for the past many years, our grandmothers have baptized us. But today, now we can enter the churches and be baptized properly, by a priest.”

But Fred Weir cautions, “Putin makes a purpose of visiting the churches during Christmas, Easter. It’s a potentially explosively dangerous symbolic alliance between Church and State.”

What do the Muslims think of this, I asked?

“There will be problems ahead. Putin is aligning himself with the Orthodox religion, clearly. But there is a 20-30% ‘minority’ particularly in the republics, that are not of this faith.”

Change is in the wind. On the surface the freedom to worship in the faith of one’s choosing appears to be a positive thing.

But what of Fred Weir’s concerns? What of the alliance of Church and State, who collectively control people’s bodies and souls? Food for thought, that’s what. I don’t pretend to have answers, only some new insight into the realities that make Moscow one of the most fascinating travel destinations in the world.


I strongly recommend visiting Moscow. Our sponsors, the Moscow government plus Aeroflot, Charisma Travel, Hotel Katerina and others all deserve thanks for inviting us, our group of eight Canadian travel writers and photographers. We serve as your eyes and ears abroad: we took their guided tour and some of us lingered extra days, to explore the city freely, on our own.

Moscow is a beautiful, friendly city. Its residents were just as intrigued with us as we were with them. I found Moscow easy to get around in: subways are safe and even without any Russian or understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet, I was able to find my way around.

The architecture is stunning: Art Nouveau and Neo-Classical buildings are everywhere, perhaps adorned with a gigantic Coca-Cola sign, but nonetheless they are still standing. As well, cranes dot the horizon, for the city is in the throws of expansion and rebuilding.

Art is everywhere: adorning buildings and on show in a host of museums. I particularly was enthralled with the Tretyakov gallery, whose pictures included depictions of the suffering of the people under the time of the Tsars as well as the Revolution and its aftermath

If you go to Moscow, contact me if you wish. Contact, too, Larissa Mahotkina, President of Charisma Travel for assistance, if you want to have a guided tour, at 202-1128 W. Broadway, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6H 1G5. Telephone toll-free at 1-866-714-4001; e-mail: The Hotel Katerina is a new, Scandinavian style hotel: check it out at


Katharine Fletcher is an award-winning journalist who telecommutes from her farmhouse near Quyon, Québec. Contact her at