Visiting Churches -- Moscow and its environs boast hundreds of beautiful Orthodox churches, many reopened in the 1990s after decades as storehouses, offices, or abandoned lots. Don't hesitate to wander into any church that appeals to you, as long as you do so respectfully. Dress codes are rarely enforced, but men are expected to remove their hats, and women should keep their heads covered (a hood or small scarf is enough to deflect critical glances). Both genders should wear clothing covering legs and shoulders. You will be rewarded by a hushed hall covered in frescoes and illuminated largely by candles. If you enter during a service, you're likely to hear the pure, hypnotic melodies of the priest or a choir, always a cappella. Services are held frequently throughout the day but attendance is generally low; believers often prefer to come and pray individually.

Old Believers

Russian Orthodoxy is among the world's most ritual-oriented religions, yet almost since its birth more than 1,000 years ago, believers have differed over which rituals are more spiritually "correct." In the 1600s, a century after the Protestant Reformation began sweeping western Europe, the powerful and popular leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Nikon, introduced major reforms to church ritual. Ironically, many of the changes were intended to bring the church back to its earlier traditions, but he set off a furor among many believers who accused him of tampering with their faith. The period of reforms later became known as the Schism. Even today, pockets of Old Believers who refuse to accept the "new" rules can be found in remote Russian forests and even in a few big-city congregations.


Nikon's reforms eventually gained sway, so that believers now cross themselves with two fingers instead of three, and church architecture abandoned the tent-roofed tower (or shatyor) used in St. Basil's Cathedral and other pre-Nikonian cathedrals. A few decades later, Peter the Great further modernized and westernized the church by ordering Orthodox men to shave their beards -- previously considered a sin. Peter also introduced the Julian calendar, which dated from the birth of Christ instead of from creation as the earlier Russian calendar had. Implementation of the new rules was unforgiving, and thousands of Old Believers fled into the forests to escape forced conversions. Those who were caught often burned themselves to death, singing hymns as they went up in flames. The Old Believers eventually won the freedom to worship under Catherine the Great in 1771, and some families returned to the big cities, though they were often marginalized.

The Old Believers (staroobryadtsy in Russian), also known as the Dissenters (raskolniki), eventually split into subsects, including the relatively liberal popovtsy, who were willing to deal with Orthodox priests; the bezpopovtsy, who totally rejected the official church and the state; the skoptsy, who castrated themselves to demonstrate their faith; and the khlisty, who believed in salvation through sin. Grigory Rasputin, controversial advisor to Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, was rumored to belong to this last group.

For a glimpse at the Old Believers' world, visit Nikolsky Old Believers' Commune (Nikolskoye Staroobryadtsoye Kladbishche) in eastern Moscow. The striking Gothic-style church was commissioned in 1790, and its aristocratic sponsors included the respected Ryabushkinsky and Morozov families. They spent fortunes acquiring the religious art -- dating from before the Schism -- displayed in the church. Its unusual architectural features include sunburst windows, obelisks, and elaborate reliefs. The commune, at 29 Ulitsa Rogozhskiy Posyolok, holds services at 8am and 6pm Monday through Saturday, and at 7am and 10am Sunday (tel. 495/361-5198; metro: Ploshchad Ilyicha, Taganskaya).


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