It Takes All Kinds

On their final day in Kazan, students learn about Orthodox and Muslim worship and a faith from outer space
Posted Tuesday, March 25, 2003; 10:15 a.m.

An exterior view of the Temple of All Faiths, the first piece of a planned development devoted to promoting peace among the world's religions, which is being built by Ildar Khanov, a Tatar artist and faith healer. PHOTO: Sara Leitch

KAZAN - As both a Russian Orthodox priest and a new age healer proved today, Russians of all convictions are hungrily embracing their new freedom of faith.

The final day of the class's investigation of religious life in Russia, during which students ate lunch in a monastery meal hall where monks and imams were executed by Communist cadres, offered a glimpse of how religious life has recovered in Russia during the last ten years.

An early-morning bus ride through bleak, frozen fields littered with jarringly bright turquoise and green painted dachas lead to the secluded grounds of the Raifa monastery near Kazan. Stray dogs prowled outside the monastery's walls, but inside the wind-whipped snow banks yielded to pristine monastery grounds.

Pilgrims slowly shuffled over the slick ice into the church of Our Lady of Georgia, where worshippers lined up to receive communion at the climax of the Sunday morning Holy Eucharist service. Priests in gold embroidered saffron robes and tall black hats dolled out spoonfuls of bread mixed with wine and water to lines of believers bundled up in winter coats and fur hats. Dozens of people stood in line to kiss Our Lady of Georgia, a silver icon of Mary and Jesus, while others clustered around a priest on a carpeted platform as he extended a golden cross for worshippers to kiss. As people exited the church, peals of bells rippled through the cold, still air.

The monastery's peaceful atmosphere draws visitors from all over Russia, said Abbott Archmandrite Vsevolod Zakharov, the monastery's director. But although the monks are isolated in a forest outside Kazan, they are far from solitary.

"We're convinced that this is not a time to cloister yourself," Vsevolod said. The monastery, which once relied on the nearby juvenile correctional facility for bread, now provides social services for a rural population where the average monthly salary is 2,000 Rubles, about $70. Besides training monks, the monastery houses orphans, maintains schools, works with drug addicts, and boasts of running Russia's only monastic fire brigade. Raifa, named after a ruined monastery in the Sinai, was destroyed under communism in 1922. The compound was being used as a juvenile prison when Zakharov made it his personal mission to restore it in 1990.

"There was a wooden fence, barbed wires and towers for machine gunners," he said. "To say it was horrible is to say nothing."

The first patrons of the monastery's reconstruction were Muslim men whose imams were imprisoned and executed inside the compound with the monks. Now, the monastery gets money from Tatarstan's government and from pilgrims. When asked how the monastery managed to raise funds so successfully, the Abbott smiled wryly and said, "I'm a racketeer."

Vsevolod spoke enthusiastically about the 20 orphan boys who look on the monastery as their family. Professor Ari Goldman remarked that the class has become like a family during the course of its journey. The abbot nodded in agreement. "You all look alike," he said.

A tour of the boys' home brought students into the monastery's familial atmosphere. The cozy wooden building was decorated like a Swedish ski lodge and housed pets, computers, and toys. A large television, a ping pong table, drum set, and other donated equipment seemed to keep them entertained.

The orphans are no doubt better off than they were on the streets or with impoverished parents unable to care from them, but adjusting to life in the home is still difficult.

"At first, I missed my family and wasn't used to it," said Roma, 12, a thin, pale boy with hunched shoulders who came to the monastery five years ago when his elderly aunt became too infirm to care for him.

He and the other boys are provided for through college and are not pressured to become monks, said Mother Anastasia, whose stern, square jaw softened with smiles as she snapped pictures of the boys singing spirituals and traditional Russian songs.

The orphans travel and sing in competitions all over the world, but at this performance they needed help with percussion, so Kodi Barth joined in on the bongos while Tim Lavin played the tambourine. The resulting sounds were surprisingly mellifluous, if uncharacteristic of a church boys' choir.

"It sounds more like a 60's protest song," said adjunct professor Celestine Bohlen.

But Father Vselvolod's success in turning the ruins of Raifa into a center of spiritual and social services has not spread to the impoverished surrounding district, according to Sergei Ushenin, a short, mustached man who earns 3,800 Rubles, or $120, a month, for his work as mayor of Belibezvoda, a village near the monastery.

Standing in front of a grey brick apartment complex as a stray cow wandered through the snowy streets, Ushenin spoke of the economic hardships the village has faced since its main source of income, a state sponsored fur farm, disappeared in 1997, when 40,000 mink and 60,000 rabbits died of disease.

Now, Ushenin said, the young people move away and the village's aging population is dwindling - 30 people have died in the last 10 years and only five babies were born. The village is relying on the monastery's charity to construct a mosque. Currently, Muslim services are held in the school gym.

Efforts to reconstruct Russia's religious life and moral backbone in the post-Communist era have taken drastically different forms. While Vsevolod chose to refurbish a desecrated monastery through vigorous fundraising, Ushenin's effort to keep his village alive is a lesson in quiet endurance. Perhaps the entire trip's most striking reaction to the end of repression of religious life was manifested in the work of Ildar Khanov, a faith healer who lives outside Kazan and envisions a Russia unified under a single, universal religion.

For the past eight years, Khanov has been building the Church of All Faiths, a temple he hopes will house 16 different religions, an astronomical society, a puppet theater and a school of classical philosophy. Most of the worship halls are still under construction. Khanov, who financed the entire project himself, relies on donations of brick and glass from the people he heals, while patients he treats for drug addictions help with the construction.

With unblinking intensity, Khanov explained how he witnessed the destructive power of war as a child and became convinced that only a unified religious ideology could ensure peace. A wiry, spry man of 69, Khanov looked comfortable in a t-shirt and khaki shorts while the class shivered in coats and hats inside the half-built temple.

"We're in a hard condition in Russia," he said. "That's why I had the idea to create a universal church; to create a new ideology for Russia."

Khanov's plan to include a Catholic cathedral equipped with a separate bedroom for the Pope, whom he says has already agreed to visit the temple, left some students skeptical.

"He really had me going until he started talking about a separate room for the Pope," said student Dan Evans.

Others found Khanov's regimen of two hours of sleep, three hours of meditation and one meal a day strange. His insistence that he sees UFOs and communicates with Jesus Christ was met with skepticism by still more members of the group. But some were impressed by Khanov's dogged pursuit of his vision.

Celestine Bohlen spoke to one of Khanov's patients, the father of two small children. She asked him if he thought Khanov would ever complete the temple.

"Look at what he's done already," the man answered.

Behind him, one of Khanov's colorful oil paintings stood out in stark contrast to the view of the frozen Volga. In the painting, a cluster of bronze figures with contorted, angular limbs were gathered into the powerful arms of a larger man. Crushed together in a breathless embrace, they stood on the skulls of those who perished in the struggle for unity. Their determined faces, twisted in agony, looked up toward the light.

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