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Relics Of Russian Orthodox Saint Set To Spend Six Months In Space

The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country's political and social life has grown markedly in the 15 years since President Vladimir Putin came to power. But the church's intrusion into the realm of space exploration has particularly raised eyebrows.

After spending nearly nine decades forgotten in a Moscow storeroom during the Soviet era, some relics of Russian Orthodox St. Serafim of Sarov should soon be circling the globe aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

When the next mission to the ISS blasts off, a box containing a tiny relic of Serafim's body will be strapped to the chest of the commander of the Soyuz rocket, cosmonaut Sergei Ryzhikov. Russian Andrei Borisenko and American Robert Kimbrough will fill out the mission's crew.

"Many cosmonauts are believers," Father Aleksy Pestretsov, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church's metropolitan of Nizhny Novgorod, told military channel Zvezda TV on September 16. "And when a believer sets out on a long journey -- and space is definitely a long, very difficult, and serious journey -- such a person wants somehow to brace himself physically and also spiritually."

St. Serafim's relics will perform what church officials are calling a 155-day "krestny khod," or religious procession, around the entire planet.

The saint's remains were transferred to the Zvyozdny Gorodok (Star City) cosmonaut training center outside Moscow on September 18. Liftoff from the Russian-rented Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan was initially scheduled for September 23, but the launch has been postponed at least until mid-October following a short circuit on the spacecraft.

The relic will spend 155 days orbiting Earth in a specially designated place aboard the ISS. When it returns to Russia, it will be given a place of honor at the Cathedral of the Transfiguration at Star City.

"For us cosmonauts, this is a holy event that will strengthen our spirit," veteran cosmonaut Sergei Zalyotin told journalists during the September 16 handover ceremony. "To some extent, it will help Russians get over the period of militant atheism and return us to the true faith."

Reversing Soviet Atheism

The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country's political and social life has grown markedly in the 15 years since President Vladimir Putin came to power. But the church's intrusion into the realm of space exploration has particularly raised eyebrows. The space program was one of the great achievements of the communist and atheist Soviet Union. A Soviet slogan of the 1960s hailing the first man in space, Yury Gagarin, said, "Gagarin flew into space -- and didn't see God."

It was a truism of Soviet ideology that the country's scientific and material progress was only possible after the Soviet people broke free of "religious superstition and dogma."

Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin "flew into space -- and didn't see God."
Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin "flew into space -- and didn't see God."

"During the Soviet period, we lived for a fairly long time under an absolute cult of science, progress, and reason," Gasan Guseinov, a professor of humanities at the Higher School of Economics, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Though it wasn't always real science. Therefore, together with our successes in natural sciences, mathematics, and so on, ideology itself was also touted as a science. We had 'scientific communism.'"

Guseinov fears that the influence of the church in science might well go too far.

"Orthodoxy is stepping into a role of some power, even becoming equivalent to science, to technical calculations, and so on," he says. "This is completely unacceptable. What if it comes to the point where we have to ask whether a cosmonaut has undergone some religious ritual or is being advised by a priest on when to fly or even if a priest is deciding that someone else should fly who has greater spirituality?"

Science, Guseinov says, "is a world that must be completely free of all sorts of cults and mythologies."

Aleksandra Arkhipova, who researches popular culture and folklore at Russia's Presidential Academy of Economics and State Service, is also concerned.

Arkhipova draws parallels between Serafim's "krestny khod" and a World War II legend that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin flew over Moscow with an Orthodox icon as Hitler's army was on the verge of taking the city. In late 2013, when three suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd killed about 40 people, a rumor quickly spread among locals that Putin had performed a similar ritual in a helicopter.

"Such rituals traditionally arose in the face of a real danger. The Germans are threatening Moscow. Terrorist acts in Volgograd. A house is burning. Cattle are falling ill. A village has the plague," she tells RFE/RL. "That is, there is a real danger from which people need protection. But here [in the case with Serafim] there is no essential danger. This is not being done to protect us from some real misfortune. The flight of the relics of Serafim of Sarov is a symbolic expansion of Orthodox values. Those values are circling the planet."

Sarov's Symbolism

It has become traditional for Orthodox priests to bless Russian space missions and other technological achievements. About a decade ago, cosmonauts began the tradition of visiting Russia's most important monastery, Trinity-St. Sergius, before setting out into space.

A modern icon of St. Serafim of Sarov
A modern icon of St. Serafim of Sarov

Serafim will not be the first Orthodox saint whose relics have experienced weightlessness. In 2008-09, a relic of St. Sergei Radonezhsky spent 178 days in space. In 2009, a cosmonaut took a piece of wood believed to be fragment of Jesus Christ's cross to the ISS. The next year, relics of Saints Fyodor Stratilat and Fyodor Tiron made the journey. In 2011-12, relics of Saints and former Moscow Metropolitans Filipp and Pyotr visited the ISS. Most recently, in 2013, a relic of St. George the Victorious was taken to the ISS.

St. Serafim's fate is symbolic of Russia's 20th-century transformations. He lived in the late 18th and early 19th century, joining the Sarov monastery at the age of 19. He lived most of his life as a hermit under conditions of extreme asceticism. Later in life, he became a celebrated confessor and believers from across Russia made the pilgrimage to see him. He is said to have died while kneeling before an icon that is now in the personal chapel of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

Serafim was made a saint in 1903 in a lavish ceremony that was attended by the Russian royal family. Tsar Nicholas and his wife donated a coffin for his relics, which were venerated in a church in Sarov, near the city of Nizhny Novgorod. Ironically, legendary Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of the Soviet space program, published his landmark paper on the theory of rocket flight the very same year.

In Soviet times, however, Sarov became a closed scientific city, devoted to the development of nuclear weapons. The Sarov monastery was closed in 1923 and the saint's remains were moved to a storage room in the Museum of Religion and Atheism in Moscow. They were rediscovered in 1991 and taken by foot in a major Orthodox ceremony to the Diveyevo Monastery near Sarov.

Patriarch Kirill gave a reliquary with some of Serafim's relics to Pope Francis earlier this month as a sign of goodwill following the successful meeting of the two religious leaders in Cuba in February.

The ISS is a $150 billion joint project of five international space agencies, headed by the United States and Russia.