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Russia: U.S. Island Of Orthodox Christianity Keeps Traditions Alive

(RFE/RL) JORDANVILLE, New York; June 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Tucked among serene pastures and birch trees near Jordanville in the northeast corner of New York state, The Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary is one of the largest Russian Orthodox cultural centers outside Russia.

Established in 1928, the seminary offers a program focusing on the Russian language and religious culture and attracts applicants from around the world.

Every morning at 5 a.m. a church bell pierces the crisp morning air. Twenty minutes later, the monks gather for the divine liturgy.

Listen to the liturgy (32 seconds):
Real Audio Windows Media

After morning prayers, breakfast is served in the refectory. Today, the menu includes the typical Russian dish of boiled semolina with milk and butter, tea, coffee, cheese, bread, and jam. Healthy habits have also crept in. On the table, there is soy milk as well as regular.

Brother Yevtikhy, a 43-year-old former economist from Odesa, Ukraine, briefs visitors on the rules: remain silent, show respect, dress modestly, no alcohol or tobacco. Women are not allowed on the premises after dusk and must always keep their heads covered.

Yevtikhy says that after breakfast, the monks separate for their daily chores, which may involve prayers or study, or various work on the monastery grounds, which occupy around 120 hectares of land.

"There is a monastery charter -- prayer, fasting, glorifying God, which is man's purpose. We are an open monastery, a missionary monastery. We are involved in missionary activities such as printing and distributing books in old Russian orthography and also in English. Our main purpose, of course, is to provide soul food for the Russian diaspora in America," Yevtikhy says.


The seminary offers a program, which leads to a bachelor of theology degree conferred by the State University of New York. In 2005-06, there were 30 full-time students from around the world, including the United States, Brazil, and Kazakhstan. The seminary also offers correspondence courses.

The monastery's refectory (RFE/RL)

Room, board, and tuition amounted to somewhere in the region of $4,000 in 2005-06 -- a fee that by U.S. standards is modest.

Some of the seminary graduates become monks, but they are in the minority. Many become Orthodox priests -- in the Russian, Greek, or other Orthodox churches. A few move back into the secular world.

Brother Aleksei, a student at the seminary, is a handsome 23 year old. He says that he's been interested in Orthodox Christianity since his teenage years in Germany where he grew up. His family left Omsk in Russia when Aleksei was 9 years old.

Spiritual Education

After graduation from high school, Aleksei studied sales and worked for a while at a local distribution company. But the call of his heart, he says, led him to a local Russian Orthodox Church where he met a young priest with a captivating power of persuasion.

"I was a parishioner at a local Russian church where I met a young priest who was very interesting to speak with. I was trying to attend as many church services as I could to immerse myself in the church's life," Aleksei says. "Then the desire to study at the seminary arose. The priest was very supportive, he did all he could so I could come and study here."

Brother Aleksei has completed two years of study and has two more until graduation. The usual course of study is five years, but those with advanced knowledge of the Russian language may be admitted to the second year directly. Aleksei says that life at the seminary is not as monotonous as it may appear and that meeting people from different backgrounds has broadened his horizons.

Brother Eugene, an icon painter, at work (RFE/RL)

"Although all the seminarians have arrived from different countries we are finding a common approach, we are getting used to each other. I'd say that more or less we all have good relations among ourselves," Aleksei says. "It's interesting to meet people who have grown up in other countries, other continents, many of us speak Russian as a native language. As time passes by we are striving to live as one family."

Search For Truth

Brother Aleksandr, a 32-year-old from California, studied anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. With his thick, dark beard and inquisitive eyes set behind rimmed spectacles he could be a rock star.

Indeed, Brother Aleksandr says, in his younger and more restless years he lived with several women in a hippie community. Life, he says, did not hold much meaning and satisfaction until he met a homeless man under a bridge in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The man, with his deep knowledge of spiritual matters and with his Christian-themed poetry, left a profound impression on him.

"Catholicism didn't seem like it was Christians of old and much less Protestantism. And so from there that idea was implanted in me and I couldn't figure it out -- where are the early Christians, where's the oomph of Christianity, where's the power, where's the glory? Where are the martyrs? Where are those people, the martyrs of yesterday, here and now, in our time? And I couldn't answer because I didn't know about Orthodoxy," Aleksandr says.

In search of truth and guidance, Brother Aleksandr says he's been working hard on his Russian and trying to immerse himself in the life of the monastery. Now, he says, he feels much more liberated and at peace with himself.

Panel On Religious Freedom

Panel On Religious Freedom

Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrating Orthodox Christmas (CTK, file photo)

RELIGION AND SOCIETY: On December 21, 2005, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a panel discussion on issues related to religious freedom in the former Soviet Union. Panelists included CATHERINE COSMAN, a senior policy analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; FELIX CORLEY, editor of the Forum 18 News Service; and JOHN KINAHAN, Forum 18 assistant editor.
Cosman argued in her presentation that the Russian Orthodox Church receives preferential treatment from the government. She also expressed concern about the estimated 50,000 skinheads active in Russia. Corley focused on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, arguing that many governments in the region "fear institutions they can't control." Kinahan's presentation concentrates on the Uzbek government's assertions that Islamist extremists were behind the May uprising in Andijon.


Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 90 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

See also:

Central Asia: Region Returns To Muslim Roots

Central Asia: Regional Leaders Try to Control Islam

Unholy Alliance? Nationalism And The Russian Orthodox Church

THE COMPLETE STORY: A thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.