Orthodox monasteries as pilgrimage sites in contemporary Russia

Ksenia Medvedeva


Since the 1990s, Russia has witnessed a complete inversion in the religious identification of its population: in 1991, 61 percent of the population called themselves non-believers and 31 per cent identified as Orthodox Christians, while after a decade in 2003, polls reported 30 per cent non-believers and 61 per cent Orthodox (Dubin 2004, p. 35). Although the Pew Research Center defines Russia as a country with ‘moderate’ religious diversity,1 as of 2018, the religious market there is largely represented by Orthodox Christians (63 per cent), non-believers (23 per cent) and Muslims (8 per cent); some other minority groups comprise less than 1 per cent each.2

Along with the relatively high levels of religious belonging in the Orthodox church, religious participation among that membership is low. Many scholars have been trying to explain the discrepancy between religious self-identification and such classical sociological indicators of religious participation as, for example, frequency of church attendance and the taking of communion. Let us examine some of these explanations.

One version suggests that mass conversion to Orthodoxy in the 1990s is not a sign of renaissance or formation of mass religious culture but rather an integral part of post-Soviet identity (Zorkaya 2009, p. 65). The discrepancy between church membership and participation is explained by ‘Orthodox’ being not only religious but also part of national, civil and cultural identity (Zorkaya 2013, p. 92), that is, when religious and ethnic identity are intertwined in the formula ‘being Russian means being Orthodox’.

Another possible explanation is given by religious market theory. The laws of religious market theory say that a diverse market stimulates religious activity among the population; the higher the number of religious groups competing for their members, the higher the general indicators of religiosity. Although religious interest has increased since the market became open in the 1990s in Russia, Pankhurst concludes that general church attendance remains low. He writes that ‘the domination of the Russian market by the Russian Orthodox Church so far seems to be confirming this expectation of low participation’ (Pankhurst 1998, pp. 134-5).

Some scholars apply the theory of religious economy to show that the reason for low participation of believers is not the low religious demand from the population but rather an insufficient number of priests in the Church, that is, ‘the low religious supply’ (Emelyanov 2016, p. 194). As Emelyanov writes, the existing number of priests in parishes is not enough to engage more people in parish life. If there were more priests with more time available for confessions and/or conversation with people, there would be more church practitioners (Emelyanov 2016).

Finally, the discrepancy between religious belonging and participation can be explained by a core-periphery model that emphasises the different positions of believers in relation to the parish. In this model, ‘participating Orthodox believers’ are part of the community core, people ‘identifying as Orthodox’ comprise its periphery and the remaining Orthodox are not part of the parish at all (Zabaev, Oreshina, Prutskova 2012).

What is common about all these explanations is that they define Orthodox Christians in terms of various degrees of their engagement with the parish. However, the paradox of contemporary religious life in Russia is that the majority of Russian Orthodox Christians do not belong to a parish. Parishioners comprise, according to various calculation methods, from 1 per cent to 11 per cent of the population (Zabaev, Oreshina, Prutskova 2012, p. 46; Chesnokova 2005), while the total number of Orthodox as of 2018 is much higher - 63 per cent.3

The picture of involvement in religious life becomes more complex if we consider other forms of religious participation ‘beyond the walls of the church’, such as, for example, ‘pilgrimage processions, organised pilgrimage tours and the veneration of “travelling icons’” (Naletova 2007). The traditional way of religious life in a parish turns out to be only one of several possible ways of religious involvement and - among the least popular ones in Russia. Using Turner’s terms, structure and anti-structure (Turner 1974: 166-230), ‘anti-structured’ religious life is more popular among Orthodox believers in Russia than the ‘structured’ life of the parish. ‘“Structured” Orthodox believers’, according to Kormina, ‘who choose a regular religious life in a church community (...) became a minority in contemporary Russian Orthodoxy. Most of them choose other forms of affiliation with the Church, allowing for personal choice and minimising institutional control over their lives’4 (Kormina 2019, pp. 31-2). She calls other forms of religious life ‘nomadic’ and analyses four modes of Orthodox sociality, that is, four social Orthodox regimens:5 parish, pilgrimage, network and flashmob (Kormina 2012). Briefly, they mean the following. Some Orthodox believers enjoy a regular religious life as parishioners, being members of a church community. Occasionally, thousands of people stand in long lines to venerate significant ‘travelling shrines’ (relics and icons) brought from other places to local churches and monasteries for a few days, Kormina calls these events ‘Orthodox flashmobs’.6 Some believers seek spiritual guidance from certain monastery elders and join communities (networks) of their ‘spiritual children’. Finally, pilgrims set off on a journey to visit ‘holy places’. These forms of religious life might be practised independently or they may complement each other.

1 find this way of analysing contemporary religious situation in Russia heuristic because it decentralises the perception of religious involvement and acknowledges the diversity of forms of religious life. Pilgrimages can be additional to typical parish life, not essential, but they can also be independent forms of religious life. Apart from that, this perspective is also fruitful for my research about the role of monasteries which I see as locations that accommodate various modes of contemporary religiosity and cater for various types of visitors, believers and non-believers.

In this chapter, my purpose is to analyse Orthodox monasteries as pilgrimage sites in contemporary Russia. 1 suggest that monasteries are popular pilgrimage destinations because they play a significant role in accommodating and supporting diverse forms of contemporary religious life in Russia. The paper draws on fieldwork conducted since 2012 in Russian Orthodox monasteries in the regions of Leningrad, Yaroslavl, Kaluga, Ivanovo and Moscow in Russia. 1 give particular attention to two months of fieldwork undertaken in the tiny village of Diveyevo in Nizhny Novgorod region where 1 lived in the house of a local woman, a ‘nun in the world’, and the monastery there. Holy Trinity-Saint Seraphim Monastery, popularly known as Diveyevo after the name of the village, is one of the largest, most famous and most visited monasteries in Russia. It is home to around 480 sisters.7 Further, I discuss the fieldwork and my research methods in more detail.

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