Russians use a special term to describe the state officials who pay brief visits to the glorious liturgies that mark the holy days of Orthodox Christianity.
This politician is called a “podsvechnik,” or “candlestick holder.”
“He walks in, lights a candle at an icon, stands around awhile, makes the sign of the cross, and he usually messes that part up, and then leaves as soon as the photographers have taken his picture,” said journalist Lawrence Uzzell, who leads the Keston Institute at Oxford University, which monitors religious-liberty issues in Russia and the old Communist bloc.
“He’s paying his respects to the church, but he’s just going through the motions.”
These “photo-ops” are especially poignant when they occur during news events that offer glimpses into the Russian soul. Witness the recent funeral of Lt. Capt. Dmitri Kolesnikov, who wrote a note describing the last moments of 23 doomed sailors trapped near the rear of the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk.
The funeral was a cathartic moment for millions as they wrestled with their grief and fears about the state of their country and its military. The candlestick holders had to be there.
It’s easy to be cynical. But the truth is that the ancient symbols of Orthodoxy continue to hold great power, even if Russia and its leaders are not completely sure what they mean or why they matter so much. It’s true that 1 percent of Russia’s 146 million citizens regularly attends church, said Uzzell. But it also is true that 50 percent now claim some link to Orthodoxy.
“Russia today is much more like Sweden than America,” said Uzzell, who frequently works out of Keston’s Moscow office. “Russia still is profoundly secular. … At the same time, it’s clear that modern Russia is a nation of spiritual truth-seekers. People are asking the big questions and searching for answers. There is a sincere spiritual hunger there.”
And Russian Orthodoxy? “Serious Orthodox Christianity is a counter-cultural movement inside modern Russia,” said Uzzell.
Outsiders must remember that this is taking place only a few generations after the Communists closed 98 percent of Russia’s churches and, in one brief period, killed 200,000 bishops, priests and nuns and then sent another 500,000 believers to die in labor camps. Millions later died in Stalinist purges. KGB records indicate that most clergy were simply shot or hanged. But others were crucified on church doors, slaughtered on their altars or stripped naked, doused with water and left outdoors in winter.
The KGB records also contain the stories of clerics who yielded. Russian Orthodoxy was a complex mosaic of sin and sacrifice, during the era of the martyrs. The Keston Institute has been at the center of efforts, for example, to document the complex interactions between the KGB and the Russian church’s current leader, Patriarch Alexy II.
Many ask, in effect, if some of the church’s bishops are mere candlestick holders — or worse. Two weeks after the 1991 upheaval that ended the Soviet era, I visited Moscow and talked privately with several veteran priests.
It’s impossible to understand the modern Russian church, one said, without grasping that it has four different kinds of leaders. A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.
“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”
This analysis is sobering, but the facts back it up, said Uzzell, who is an active Orthodox Christian.
“There are signs of hope, mostly at the local level,” he said. “There are wonderful priests and wonderful parishes, if you know where to look. But you will find ice-cold parishes and others that are vital and alive, in the same city or town. … I think the Russian Orthodox Church has a glorious future, just as it has had a glorious past. But I must admit that I’m not terribly optimistic about the near-term prospects.”