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Orthodoxy and the Internet in Russia

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  • Graham (Elias) Reeves
    I just found an interesting article in English on a Russian site. The author s use of the word progressive is a little off. But, an interesting commentary
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 2, 2005
      I just found an interesting article in English on a Russian site.
      The author's use of the word "progressive" is a little off. But, an
      interesting commentary nonetheless.
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      Father, Please Press "Reply"! Orthodox Progressives Go Online
      Created: 01.02.2005 19:14 MSK (GMT +3), Updated: 15:44 MSK, 5 hours
      6 minutes ago

      Maria Antonova

      MosNews


      People tend to view religion and the church as rather conservative,
      providing a steady mumble against society's evil technological
      progress and general degradation of morals. Historically, the church
      in Russia has not been an exception, holding back progressive czars
      like Peter the Great. Surprisingly then today's Russian Orthodox
      Church is an institution with an active and creative internet
      presence, and one of the strongest voices against Internet
      censorship.

      The first orthodox websites appeared in 1996, two years after the
      historical birth of the .ru domain. One year later, the Moscow
      Patriarchy opened their official website with a welcome to the
      internet congregation from the patriarch and the hope that the new
      resource would be used with a good conscience.

      Maybe my views of what the Orthodox Church is are utterly outdated,
      but hearing priests arguing against censorship on the web, excitedly
      praising the Internet as a great resource, and keeping LiveJournals
      somehow does not fit with traditional images of Orthodox silent
      vows, hermit monks, and ascetic desert elders. Generally, Orthodox
      Christianity has always been more concerned about communicating with
      God than about community service, and during soviet years, the
      community would rather have sent you to Siberia than be serviced,
      anyway. The USSR's official atheism has had more than one effect on
      the church and its relationship with the Internet.

      Firstly, with relations as tense as those between church and state
      in the USSR, there was no tradition of religious media in the
      country, nor an established way of disseminating official
      information pertaining to church business. Many priests kept in
      touch with their parishes from prison via letters and the rest
      preferred verbal discussion with only a few trustees to avoid
      unnecessary problems.

      As a result, even today informational printed religious magazines
      are few and far between. Finding out about this or that icon, a new
      book or a heartfelt sermon is done by word of mouth: traditional
      media like television and printed press are neither capable nor
      interested in covering this information in a way that the church
      wants. There are no established channels for the church to reach a
      wider audience, so the internet is becoming a useful alternative,
      and Orthodox writers often seek to be published on leading websites,
      rather than in the printed press, while magazines frequently reprint
      online material.

      Another consequence of state atheism is the Orthodox Church's
      fragmentation. To an outside observer, it's identical everywhere:
      the rituals are the same, the priests' outfits are the same, the
      doctrine is the same. Almost everything is uniform, except politics.
      Here is a necessary historic side note: after the revolution, a new
      patriarch had to write a declaration of loyalty to the Communist
      Party. People who did not recognize this new patriarch were either
      shot or fled abroad, so the church separated into the Moscow
      Patriarchy, which remained in Russia, and the Russian Orthodox
      Church Abroad, that positioned itself as the true church and a self-
      proclaimed martyr. For decades these two churches and their
      respective followers were at war with one another, and today their
      skirmishes have gone on to the Internet as well.

      This side note sheds light on the Orthodox Internet phenomenon: if
      the Church were uniform, there would hardly be as many Orthodox
      websites, each marching to the drum of their respective
      jurisdiction. So the fragmentation in part explains why the Internet
      became so popular with priests and parishes. One of the most
      interesting trends is the number of different priests on
      LiveJournal.com, the giant blog community, who each have their
      virtual congregation in the "friend of" section.

      "The Internet is, of course, one way of initiating people into
      religion," says Nune Barsegyan, a writer who is working on a book
      about Orthodox priests and the Church's inner politics. "Before you
      had preachers that went to bazaars to reach a wider audience, now
      the Internet is like a giant bazaar, limitless for missionary work."

      The bazaar-like atmosphere is sometimes recognizable at internet
      forums, where people of different confessions and branches of
      orthodoxy are trying to come to terms with one another, not always
      successfully. But these forums also serve another purpose: they
      provide information about orthodoxy to people who are scared of
      actually physically going to churches.

      The hardest audience for the church to attract — young people — is
      generally not enthusiastic about going to mass. "There is usually an
      atmosphere in our churches that isn't entirely hospitable to
      newcomers," says Marina, a university student. "I get reprimanded by
      these old ladies when I don't do something correctly, like wear a
      head scarf. But how am I supposed to know about all details if I am
      in church for the very first time? And after you get yelled at, you
      don't want to come back…"

      The Internet is one way of reading more on religious topics thus
      bypassing the inhospitable old ladies, and then maybe coming back to
      church with the ability to ignore them altogether. In any case,
      having a conversation with a priest is often easier online (many
      websites have the so-called 'question-answer' sections), than trying
      to catch him by the frock after mass along with dozens of other
      parishioners. So, the Internet provides a variety of different
      religious resources: from huge web portals to parish websites, and
      web magazines.

      Deacon Andrei Kuraev, a well-known professor at the Moscow
      Theological Academy said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio
      station that the Internet teaches people how to live in a
      pluralistic society. "The more opinions you see, the fewer stones
      you have in your pockets," he opined, adding that censorship turns
      citizens into "reality show participants". The forum on Kuraev's
      website is one of the biggest Russian religious forums, numbering
      over 7000 registered participants and discussions on anything from
      fixing a printer and fighting bedevillers to the historical dating
      of the Book of Daniel.

      Other examples: a website with a large library of religious texts,
      where one can listen to choral audio recordings simultaneously
      glancing at the notes, or the chance to see a live broadcast from
      the Christ the Savior Cathedral. There are even websites where you
      can request a special prayer or a burial service. And if you live in
      Moscow and prefer actually going to church, you can consult the city
      map and service schedule.

      Although there are numerous progressive Orthodox priests like Deacon
      Kuraev, there are also people like Anatoliy Berestov, a priest who
      wrote a book about the dangers in the twenty-first century, when
      technology alienates people from church, and the Internet is
      a "garden of delights more suitable for demons than God". But let's
      face it, if he stays offline, his book will only be read by those
      who purchase the printed version.

      One Russian saint, Theophanus the Recluse, spent the last twenty
      years of his life secluded from the outside world, keeping in touch
      with his pupils through letters. Today he is being considered as
      potential patron saint for the Russian Internet. Many Orthodox
      monasteries today have computers with Internet access: my friend
      Ivan, who helped one monk install a computer in a Mount Afon
      monastery cell, says, "A monk with a laptop is as natural as a monk
      with a book." With technology's advances, maybe a modern recluse
      would keep in touch over LiveJournal.
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