For 30 years, Lyudmila Ivanovna worked as a specialist in
microchips, building Soviet spy satellites, her life dominated by
the cold war.
Today, she is at peace with the world and with herself. Known
now as Sister Lyudmila, she is a novice in a Russian Orthodox
convent south of Moscow.
Her tale symbolizes the religious renewal that Russia has
experienced since the end of the Communist regime and its atheist
"I retired before it all fell apart," she recalls. "And I had
time to think about what I had been doing, working for the idea of
atomic war. I had spent 30 years in vain; the Soviet Union had lost
the race. And even if I had had all the pleasures in life, riding,
sailing, driving, I came to the conclusion that the most important
values are the spiritual ones."
Her first contact with the Western world reinforced her
feelings. Taking advantage of newly acquired freedoms, she went to
visit her son, who lived in Italy.
"I saw the kind of empty faces people had. One can be wealthy
and live beautifully, but it is an empty life. That's where the
idea of a monastic life came to me, and when I returned, my
decision was made," she says, her face expressing the quiet
confidence of a person certain of her purpose in life.
She joined the Novodyevichy convent two years ago, and now she
runs its farm in Shubino. The Novodyevichy nunnery, once a royal
cloister, was converted into a museum shortly after the Bolshevik
Revolution. It has now resumed its monastic role, like the other
340 monasteries, 10,000 parish churches, and 14 seminaries that
have reopened in the last six years - all evidence of the scope of
the religious boom in Russia.
It started in 1988, with the commemoration of the millennium of
Christianity in Russia. Reversing the traditional Soviet stand on
religion, then-President Mikhail Gorbachev declared the anniversary
a national holiday. Seventy years of religious repression by the
state had come to an end. It had been brutal: In 1995, a
presidential commission concluded that under Soviet rule, 200,000
religious leaders had been murdered and another 500,000 persecuted.
After the millenium celebration, a wind of religious renewal
began to blow across the Soviet Union. The ban on Jewish emigration
to Israel was lifted, and in 1990 the law on freedom of the press
was passed, making it possible to discuss any theme without prior
censorship. Religion was a prominent topic.
Symbolizing the authorities' volte-face, a cathedral was built
last year on the site of Russia's main war memorial at Victory Park
in Moscow. The first stone of a Jewish synagogue was laid nearby a
few months ago, and a mosque is due to be erected there soon as
A recent poll conducted by the All Russian Center for Public
Opinion Research shows that only 37 percent of the Russian people
define themselves as nonreligious. Fifty percent say they are
Russian Orthodox, while a scattering of respondents call themselves
Roman Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Buddhist, or another faith.
Five years ago, a similar survey indicated that 53 percent of the
population was nonreligious, while 30 percent saw itself as Russian
In Soviet times, many people dared disclose their beliefs only
in death, at their religious burial service. Today, baptisms and
religious weddings are in great demand. But clearly not everybody
takes their faith as seriously as Sister Lyudmila does.
Dimitri Shusharin, religious-affairs specialist for the daily
newspaper Sevodnya, thinks that no more than 5 to 10 percent of the
people can be considered truly practicing believers. "Nowadays, it
is fashionable to be religious in Russia. This trend is a way of
establishing oneself in a new society; it meets the need for
identification," he explains.
But this identification is often more ethnic than spiritual.
With the end of the myth of the supranational Soviet individual,
people are reverting to their cultural and historic roots, falling
back behind the dividing lines in a society where ethnic roots are
still recorded in passports. …