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  • Jerome Kocher

59. Russian Orthodox Resistance

When the Soviet Union expanded its domination last century it was based on the principle that the Past was outdated in its expression of reality. A new scientific and political evolution needed to erase previous childlike perceptions like religion and cultural biases. Tradition, myths, and cultural icons needed to be swept away for a new Society, the next phase of Darwinian evolution, Homo Sovieticus. This gave rise to a rational State organization which replaced earlier, more primitive perceptions of purpose and being.

In the steppes of Kazakhstan the Soviets met a challenge. Even though the Kazakhstan region had been under the protection of the Russian Empire since the mid 1800’s, the Kazakh culture had a tradition of being nomadic, populated by independent spirits who in the past did not want to be controlled by khans or central rulers. They were on the move, with people, animals, and homes, having little trace of architectural or agricultural stability, while well known for their yurts. They were called Cossacks. Today Kazakhs. The suffix “stan” means land, hence Kazakhstan. Free spirits. Free men and women.

Just because there were no cities, the steppes were not empty. They were populated by the spirits of Nature and their Ancestors. The expansive void was full of life. Animism and a nomadic connection to the earth was their guiding principle. And the horse was their iconic symbol, representing mobility, protection, even food.

On top of this nomadic ethnic identity, came other traditions. From the Russian empire period the Russian Orthodox Church became the heart and soul for those of Slavic heritage.

So after the Russian Revolution the installment of communism in its former colonial territories met the resistance of these two streams of purpose, a deeply rooted sense of nomadic independence and religious devotion. By now there were cities and the Orthodox Church was the social center for many communities of Slavic origin. 

On Sunday I visited the oldest Russian Orthodox Church in Almaty, in the much older neighborhood of Malaya Stanista. Ironically our taxi driver missed the entrance street and took a wrong turn. This is not without significance because the Soviets, while they could not exterminate Orthodox devotion out of the souls of its more Slavic citizens, it made it as difficult as possible to exist. It built other institutions around the Church, like social halls and community centers to weaken the church’s role as a social hub. Also the entrance was reduced to a small lane to make it difficult to find, or even miss if you were a taxi driver.

The Orthodox service was familiar with its iconostasis screen separating the altar and sanctuary from the people in the nave. It’s symbolic of the veil that covers the threshold between our daily physical existence and the spiritual realities that nourish us. Unlike Catholic or Christian churches with pews, where people sit, genuflect and bow in unison, an Orthodox service is an open space with the devout walking around making their own devotions by prayer and kissing the icons as a way of contact with “the other side.” 

Beneath this particular church is the “cave temple.” This is symbolic of the early Christian catacombs with relics and devotional chapels dedicated to saints and martyrs. This one is a fabrication under the foundation modelled after a real temple cave in Kiev. Upon entering and throughout the space you have to bow your head to avoid the beams. This is not only practical in a small underground space, but reminiscent of the nomadic yurt construction where the tribal leader sits directly opposite the entrance. A low threshold forces guests to lower their heads out of respect for the elder.

Ironically, the cave leads directly to the space below the altar area above. So while the sanctuary is inaccessable in the church above, its lower space is indirectly reachable through the cave temple below. You could hear the service above and inhale the incense as well.

But this church is not only about the revered past. It truly is a contemporary community center with an adjacent tea garden park for after service "meet and greets” as well as Q & A sessions with the priests. This unique park on church grounds has sculptures that pay homage to diverse ethnic backgrounds. One shows a Russian fairy tale of a little girl with a bear in the forest. Another pays tribute to the Jewish roots of an older man with his milk container. Here we took a break and enjoyed a fresh apple pastry and savory cabbage roll with a dark roasted fermented wheat drink. 

This church has a separate baptistry area with both an immersion pool for adult baptisms and a pedestal bowl for infants. In the upper corner I noticed an on-demand water heater that gave some creature comfort to the sacramental experience. It was definitely not a cold Finnish plunge.

Outside was a memorial to a martyr priest who after being forced out of the Church by Soviet soldiers continued praying the service. This act of devotion was his last. 

And finally, I had the privilege of ascending into the bell tower where a multitude of bells are not just rung by hand, but played like a musical instrument. The priest demonstrated at first, then I tested my humble musical skills. In most churches this is not accessible by the congregation, but here there was an open atmosphere of inclusion. The priests also used broadcast media as well as podcasts and instagram to share the Gospel.

( If I can figure out how to add video I'll share my musical belfry talent. The bells were awesome.)

This particular Russian Orthodox Church is very unique. While being a touchstone to the past it has a fresh contemporary outreach. I want to thank Antonina of "WalkingAlmaty" for guiding me through this experience and introducing me to this very alive community.

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May 15

Real live bells, what a rare treat. Beautiful.

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