With Orthodoxy’s Revival in Russia, Religious Media Also Rise

24 2008 .

By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, there were nearly 600 newspapers and magazines throughout Russia devoted to Orthodox subjects. They were all shut down by the Soviet regime by 1918.

Today, in a country that was officially atheist about two decades ago, there are again hundreds of newspapers, magazines and newsletters covering the world’s largest Orthodox church. There are about 3,500 Russian Orthodox Web sites, and some priests are even blogging.

The Russian Orthodox media, like the church itself, have not always fallen into step with the Kremlin line. The Moscow Patriarchate, its official newspaper and most Orthodox media have addressed the war with Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia as a tragic misunderstanding between two countries that share an Orthodox Christian heritage.

After 70 years of state-imposed atheism and 20 years that have run the gamut from glasnost to post-Soviet chaos to a revival of Russian pride, Russians have increasingly embraced their Orthodox roots.

When Sergei Chapnin, editor of the Moscow Patriarchate’s official newspaper, Tserkovny Vesnik, organized the first Russian Orthodox media festival in 2004, a government bureaucrat called to inquire about the event.

“I could tell he thought we would have 50 people or so attending,” Mr. Chapnin said about the first festival, which brought together 400 journalists. “I said there are about 500 publications with up to 10,000 journalists connected to them. There was silence at the end of the line.”

This month, after the death of Patriarch Aleksy II, the head of the church, nearly an entire day of live television coverage was devoted to the funeral. The days before and after were dedicated to documentaries about Aleksy II’s life and talk shows discussing his death.

Vladimir Legoyda, the editor of Foma, the most influential of the Orthodox magazines, said that Kommersant, a business newspaper, inundated him with phone calls after the patriarch’s death.

“That they came to us and are paying very active attention to this theme, this is a change,” he said. But he adds: “I want to be a realist. I understand that society doesn’t change so easily and maybe so quickly.”

The revival of Orthodoxy is reflected both as a trend in the secular media and in a stable of publications that have appeared to discuss religious faith both with newly devout believers and those who are still finding their way in the church.

Kommersant was the journalistic training ground for Yulia Danilova, editor in chief of Neskuchny Sad, another Orthodox magazine. It has editorial offices in a church located on the grounds of Hospital No. 1 in Moscow and is known for its charity work. A colleague from Kommersant who works with her at the magazine is an ordained Russian Orthodox deacon. Another editor used to work for Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Soviet newspaper turned tabloid, and secular magazines, but moved to Neskuchny Sad when those publications began to conflict with her deepening religious faith.

Foma, Mr. Legoyda’s magazine, has a staff of about 30 and a monthly budget of over $100,000 for all of its expenses and projects, which include a Web site and radio program. It is financed mostly by sponsors, with some money coming from advertising and subscriptions.

Foma is the most successful Orthodox magazine, with a print run of 30,000, but it is small compared with secular publications. Mr. Chapnin said Tserkovny Vesnik, whose name means The Church Herald, had a print run of about 20,000, the same as Neskuchny Sad’s in November. Successful diocesan publications might print about 10,000 copies, while others in the provinces average about 3,000.

While the magazines are most easily found in churches and religious literature stores, Foma can be found on many newsstands, next to secular papers.

The Orthodox magazines are supported by advertising, which is weighted toward offers of icons and religious literature. The financial crisis is taking its toll on Orthodox publications, requiring some belt-tightening.

Mr. Legoyda is also the chairman of the department of international journalism at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a training ground for future diplomats.

He began going to church as a student in Moscow in the early 1990s. Later, as an exchange student in California, he met punk rockers turned Orthodox monks and helped them put out a magazine called Death to the World that used the punk aesthetic to talk about Orthodox themes.

Back in Russia, Mr. Legoyda started to reach out to young people outside the usual church context. He has published a collection of his articles in a book titled “Do Jeans Stand in the Way of Salvation?”

As Orthodoxy has become more ingrained in Russia, Mr. Legoyda said Foma had addressed different levels of religious skepticism.

“We were never didactic,” he said. “We always said that we have doubts too. But if before someone might have said they doubt the existence of God, now they don’t. Instead they wonder if they should go to church.”

The popularity of Orthodoxy has created new problems.

“Today a person easily calls himself Orthodox but doesn’t change his life,” he said. “Orthodoxy, as any religion, means changing your life.”

That has especially become an issue in the coverage of celebrities, both in the Orthodox and secular media. That has prompted debates about the dangers of “Orthodox glossies” and “Orthodox glamour” and the absurd juxtapositions that often arise when secular magazines touch on Orthodoxy.

Foma often features interviews with celebrities who now speak openly about how important religious faith is in their lives.

Ms. Danilova, the editor of Neskuchny Sad, says she worries that glossy Orthodox magazines risk reducing religion to an attractive lifestyle.

“There is a danger that people will organize a very nice Orthodox lifestyle and stop at that,” she said. “Bake the right pies, have the right braid like in the old days. But this is avoiding the problems of contemporary life.”

Orthodoxy turns up in some of the most unexpected places. A magazine cover hanging on the wall of Nikolai Uskov, editor of the Russian edition of GQ magazine, has an elaborate, medieval-looking certificate of honor from Patriarch Aleksy II, given to him for his work as editor of the Catholic section of the Orthodox Encyclopedia. It is surrounded by GQ covers featuring Jennifer Aniston and Hugh Jackman.

Mr. Uskov was a scholar specializing in the history of Christianity and monasticism in early medieval Western Europe before he switched gears and became editor of GQ. But even a magazine editor in Russia could not escape Orthodoxy, he said, because it had been embraced by the elite.

“The church has become part of public ritual,” he said. “Glamorous people must believe, go to church, have icons and go on pilgrimages to places like Optina Pustyn and Valaam and tell everyone about this,” he said, referring to two famous Russian Orthodox monasteries.

But Orthodox magazines feature articles that will never be found in GQ.

“Our No. 1 subject is veneration of the ‘New Martyrs,’ ” Mr. Legoyda said, referring to victims of Bolshevik and Stalinist terror who died for their Orthodox faith and were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000. “Just as in the first three centuries of Christianity, people in this country, in Soviet times, were martyred for Christ, except many more were martyred here.”

Foma writes about the martyrs in every issue. “This is our sacred treasure,” Mr. Legoyda said.