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Glimpsing the divine in St Petersburg

No compromise with modernity (Getty)

Experiencing an Orthodox service for the first time was a stunning revelation

I have seen the future and it is Russia’s past, although not necessarily the bit I expected, certainly not the communist era, which has almost been airbrushed out.

On my jolly holiday to St Petersburg and Moscow, I spotted one public statue of Lenin, one of Marx. Lenin, of course, still has his own private tomb in Red Square, in which he lies like Sleeping Beauty in a glass box: a short chap, red beard, bad nails. The sentinels shout, “No photos! Keep moving!”, and we were hustled outside to the necropolis that lines the Kremlin walls. There a tourist was kneeling down, gently brushing the snow off flowers left for someone who died aged 34. “Excuse me,” I said, pointing at the Cyrillic plaque, “is that Yuri Gagarin?” “Cosmonaut!” replied the fellow, with a big smile. “You want me to take your picture?” And so I have a photo of me and mum standing by the grave of the closest thing the Soviet Union ever got to a genuine saint.

History makes you, doesn’t it? If I’d been alive in 1917 and suffered three centuries of the Romanovs and three years of the Great War, I’d have been a Bolshevik, too. The Winter Palace in St Petersburg stands as evidence for the prosecution: an architectural marvel, yes, an imaginative attempt to copy the best of the West, for sure (just as Our Lady of Kazan cathedral is a replica of St Peter’s), but also inhumanly grand. As we passed over red carpets and under golden chandeliers, Mum said loudly, “It’s just too much,” which is a reflection of national character – theirs and ours.

The Russians embellish. They like thick carpets, big curtains; one restaurant we ate in had a piano accompanied by a bird singing in a cage, while another establishment invited the diners to play with rabbits. Some clichés turn out to be very wrong: we saw no drunkenness, no hitmen in tracksuits, scant evidence, even, that Vladimir Putin was in charge. The people, contrary to their furnishings, are quiet and introspective, rather gentle. Only once did someone try to pickpocket me. He was perfectly charming about it. When he discovered my pockets were empty, he laughed and strolled off.

It was like touring a European city 20 years ago. Yes, capitalism has arrived – a coffee costs a fiver on Red Square – but the ballet is still the hottest ticket in town, the ladies wear fur and the circus, stuffed with wild animals, was so sexist and camp it made Vegas look sober. And then there were the churches. Oh, the churches.

The very first night we arrived in St Petersburg, I insisted we go to Vespers. I’ve never been to an Orthodox service before and this was a revelation. The altar is hidden behind a giant iconostasis, a screen covered in icons that the parishioners venerate with prayers and kisses – babushkas run around with squeegee cloths to keep them hygenic – and the priests pass in and out through doors on either side, like figures on a weather clock. The clerics sing the liturgy, mellifluous and deep. The laity cross themselves and bow low enough to touch the floor. I had no earthly idea what was going on but it didn’t matter. I was witnessing something. By opening myself up to its mystery, I was participating in a way that went beyond words or reason, and in that moment I had a profound, disturbing revelation: this is what I thought Catholicism was when I converted to it.

Orthodoxy smothers the senses with ritual, yet also leaves the individual to encounter it as they wish; there is no compromise with modernity; it is achingly beautiful; it is mystical; it is, and this is so important, masculine and dynamic.

Catholicism was once all of these things too, but experiencing Orthodoxy made me realise how much like the Protestants we have become. The Catholic Church is now obsessed with giving the laity what the clergy thinks we want, translating, stripping out, dumbing down and denying us what we really need – a tantalising glimpse of the divine.

How has Orthodoxy retained its grace? Not just persecution under the communists. What shapes us isn’t only what we live through but also what we don’t, and Russia skipped the intellectual decadence of the Sixties.

We visited Moscow’s main modern art gallery and the works looked like 19th-century masters: very few abstracts, no dissected sharks or unmade beds. Avoiding the liberal revolution of the last century means Russia missed out on some undeniably good things, but also that when the hammer and sickle fell and the country had to establish a new identity, it reached back far further into its past than we in the West would ever dare.

Many of the churches look centuries old but are in fact renovations or rebuilds, because when the Russians gained their freedom, yes, they queued for a taste of McDonald’s, but they also went back to church – and found waiting for them a golden repository of history and culture.

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor