Wednesday, March 6, 2013

march 3rd, 2013

On March the 3rd, our group left the comfort and the splendor of St. Petersburg to embark on the adventurous, over 400 km voyage towards the city of Vytegra. As we began to exit St. Petersburg, it was striking to observe how quickly the city’s infrastructure and architecture changed drastically. As soon as the bus abandoned the historical center, empty lots and shabby, Soviet-era communal apartment complexes confronted us. If in the historical center, the imperial project constantly surrounded us, in the outskirts of Petersburg, the ruins of the Soviet project engulfed us. At one point, a thick forest of concrete and steel overwhelmed us. Yet, most of the apartment complexes appeared cold, unwelcoming, dirty and inhuman. We were confronted with the ultimate paradox, when just as we left the outskirts of St. Petersburg, we caught sight of the construction of new, communal apartment complex built right next to the old Soviet era units.
However, before we had the time to process this stark contrast, the Russian forest swallowed us only 30 or so minutes into our trip. As far as the eye could view, one was surrounded by long, thin trees occasionally interrupted by rolling plots of land dotted with hay stacks or small settlements of 10 or so houses. For long stretches of time, we crossed entire areas with not a single human inhabitant. This experience highlights the isolation of the provinces from the major federal administrative and economic centers, i.e. Moscow and Petersburg, and further explains why the provinces are undeveloped. As Craig correctly pointed out, the remoteness of the Russian heartland reinforces the vertical distribution of power since the government is unwilling to invest money where no one lives or has anything to do. Furthermore, the problem is aggravated by the fact that young people abandon provincial centers like Vytegra.
As a result, the government is reluctant to concentrate its resources and wealth on the provinces. The ultimate expression of the government’s attitude towards the provinces is the fact that as soon as you cross from the Leningrad into the Vologda oblast, the highway turns into an unpaved road covered in a thick layer of ice and snow.
There are few if any rest stops or bathrooms along the way to Vytegra and the signs lining the highway are not driver-friendly. Therefore, it becomes easier to understand why Russians have little desire to travel into the provinces.
In the midst the remoteness of the Russian heartland, we were greeted by the site of the Alexander Svirsky Monastery. The monastery is composed of two complexes and a small hut in the middle of one of two lakes formerly occupied by a hermit. In my opinion, the monastery is a symbol for the current situation, which the Russian Orthodox Church faces. On the one hand, the monastery has rich tradition dating to the 16th century and has experienced renovation efforts to preserve its rich iconography. The monastery is filled with many pilgrims, primarily women, who come to pray and to venerate the relics of St. Alexander of Svirsk. Yet, on the other hand, the monastery has a long, intimate relationship with Russian history; needless to say, the monastery was converted into a psychiatric ward during the Soviet regime.
What does this mean concretely? It means that the Russian Orthodox Church faces a crucial challenge: how to approach modern Russian society without transforming itself into an ethnic institution much less a piece of trite spiritual culture. And in its efforts to approach modern Russian society, will it welcome its former persecutors even at the expense of corruption or will it become a sect of pious individuals who live according to an austere life-style which many see as archaic.

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