Russian Easter rites befit the rebirth of a nation

April 27, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Above the Kremlin floated the flag of old Russia. From the Ivan the Great Tower the bells peeled forth. And dominating Red Square was a giant four-story-tall, brilliantly colored placard depicting -- not Marx, Engels and Lenin -- but Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the apostles.

Here, in what had been the most sacred precinct of Soviet communism, Russia made Orthodox Easter a national holiday yesterday for the first time in 74 years.

Lest there be any doubt, the city of Moscow had draped across the entire front of the Historical Museum a gigantic banner, which said, "Christ is Risen!"

Rebirth, resurrection, reawakening -- the symbolism could hardly be more obvious.

Russia, intent on building itself anew from the wreckage of communism, went all out yesterday.

The vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, and Mayor Gavriil K. Popov of Moscow attended midnight services. Easter banners were flung across city streets from one end of the country to the other. Recently reopened churches, replete with brilliant icons and lighted by guttering candles, celebrated their first Easter since 1917 -- the year the Commuists proclaimed the triumph of the material world over the spiritual, of atheism over faith.

That triumph has been crumbling for several years and the church has been flourishing, particularly since its 1,000th anniversary in 1988, but yesterday's observances were of a different dimension.

Yet even as the general theme was one of hope, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, struck a decidedly realistic note. Inhis Easter message, he said, "This year we are celebrating the Day of Our Lord at a difficult time that holds troubles, deprivations and trials for many of us." He urged churchgoers "to preserve Christian patience and courage."

And in an interview with the Labor newspaper, Trud, he said, "We must profoundly and impartially come to realize the guilt of the nation, and our personal guilt." But rather than despair, he said, "what is needed is repentance."

Easter is the most important holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church. It is a holiday that looks ahead to better things.

To emphasize the point, believers hold to strict Lenten fasts for the six weeks leading to Easter -- no meat, fish or poultry, no eggs, no dairy products of any kind.

The idea, of course, is to purify oneself before the renewal to come.

How pervasive are the ideas of Easter? A unique view was provided by a helicopter flight Saturday to the ancient city of Novgorod, where the Russian state was founded 1,100 years ago (by a Swede).

The helicopter flew low over dusty collective farms and over ageless villages, nestled along streams and punctuated by church domes. It flew over snowy forests of birch and pine, and over swollen rivers.

At every cemetery, the living had gathered to attend to the dead. From Moscow to Novgorod, men and women bent over graves, clearing leaves and brush and heaping them with bright fresh flowers.

On the ground, at Novgorod, is the oldest kremlin, or fortress, in Russia.There, the 12th century Cathedral of St. Sophia was being readied for its first Easter service since the Bolshevik Revolution.

At midnight, according to ritual, priests led parishioners three times around their churches before entering for services, which lasted about four hours, until the break of dawn.

Then, finally, came the Easter feasts. The fast is broken, according to tradition, with a creamy concoction called pashka, made in molds that imprint it with a cross and with the Russian letters XB, which stand for "Christ is Risen." Pashka tastes like cheesecake, and for the diet-weary faithful, it is made of ample helpings of eggs, farm cheese, milk, butter and sour cream.

But Russia is a diverse place. Yes, the churches were packed. But so was the Arbat, the pedestrian shopping street in Moscow.

And one solitary man nearby, with a long-handled brush, spent the day carefully scrubbing the grime off a fierce oversized bust of Karl Marx, who called religion "the opium of the people."

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