In Russia, a religious revival brings new life to Orthodox media

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 less than two decades ago, there are again hundreds of newspapers, magazines and newsletters covering the world's largest Orthodox church. There are also as many as 3,500 Russian Orthodox Web sites. Some priests are blogging.

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

When Sergei Chapnin, a journalist who edits the Moscow Patriarchate's official newspaper, 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," said Chapnin 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."

And the Orthodox media, like the church itself, have not always fallen into step with the Kremlin line. The Moscow Patriarchate 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.

Vladimir Legoyda, the editor of Foma, the most influential of the Orthodox glossies, 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 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 the main topic of 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.

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.

Kommersant was the journalistic training ground for Yulia Danilova, editor in chief of Neskuchny Sad, another Orthodox glossy. It has editorial offices in a church located on the grounds of Moscow's Hospital No.1 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 glossies, but moved to Neskuchny Sad when those publications began to conflict with her deepening religious faith.

Foma, Legoyda's magazine, is named after the Apostle Thomas, or "doubting Thomas," who needed to touch Jesus's ribs before believing in his resurrection. A large icon of that scene hangs in the conference room at the magazine's office, which looks like the newsroom of a successful college newspaper.

The 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 glossy, with a print run of 30,000, but it is small compared to secular publications. Chapnin said his newspaper, Tserkovny Vesnik, or The Church Herald, had a print run of about 20,000, the same as Neskuchny Sad printed in November.

Successful diocesan publications might print about 10,000 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 towards offers of icons and religious literature. And the financial crisis is taking its toll on Orthodox publications as well, requiring some belt-tightening.

Legoyda is also the chairman of the department of international journalism at 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, then, 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 esthetic to talk about Orthodox themes.

Back in Russia, 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, 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 and prompted debates about the dangers of "Orthodox glossies" and "Orthodox glamour" and the absurd juxtapositions that often arise when secular glossies touch on Orthodoxy.

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

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."

Neskuchny Sad features many articles about charity, but also addresses other issues of spiritual and general interest from the point of view of Orthodox theology and practice. Recent issues include stories like "What do angels look like?" and "Should Communists be put on trial?"

Orthodoxy turns up in some of the most unexpected places. Nikolai Uskov, editor of the Russian edition of GQ magazine, has an unusual accent among the magazine covers hanging on his wall: 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 hangs surrounded by GQ covers featuring Jennifer Aniston and Hugh Jackman.

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 glossy magazine editor in Russia, he said, could not escape Orthodoxy, 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 such as Optina Pustyn and Valaam and tell everyone about this," he said referring to two famous Russian Orthodox monasteries.

But Orthodox glossies feature stories that will never be found in GQ.

"Our No.1 subject is veneration of the 'New Martyrs,"' said Legoyda, 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," Legoyda said.