Out of Russia: A small flame, burning brightly

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MOSCOW - Alexander Solzhenitsyn has finally reached Moscow after his train trek across Russia and he is in for a shock. The provinces may still retain some of their innocence but the capital has become a mean city where people will sell their own mothers to make a fast rouble.

I use the expression literally. Recently my neighbour's son got involved with a group of gangsters and brought them home to rob his old mum.

This is by no means the whole picture, and Solzhenitsyn must not despair. Just as he found reserves of spirituality in Siberia, so he will find people rising above brutal materialism in Moscow. He may have to look hard, however.

The great writer will find his own way, of course. But if he were to ask for directions, I would point him down a lane running by the side of the American embassy to the Church of the Nine Martyrs.

This shell of a building does not look much like a church. We thought it was an abandoned factory when we sheltered under its crumbling portal as bullets flew round the White House last October. But if its priest and congregation succeed, it will be again an enormous and wealthy Russian Orthodox parish church.

The 18th century church was seized by the Communist state in the 1930s and handed over to the KGB. Father Anthony Serov, the priest who has just claimed it back for the faithful, is almost certain that secret policemen used the building to eavesdrop on American diplomats working across the road. The KGB divided the huge building with walls and partitions and built metal walkways as in a prison. All this is now being demolished to restore the original form.

Services are presently conducted in one small corner of the building. The walls are bare and the temporary iconostasis is made of plywood, plastered with holy images cut from calendars. There is something touching about the simplicity.

But Father Anthony, a descendant of the Russian painter Valentin Serov, sees no virtue in puritanism and says the church will have gold and frescoes and icons as soon as it can afford them. 'We are following tradition. In the Orthodox Church we believe that if you put on your best clothes to visit the President, you should do no less for God.'

Father Anthony dismisses suggestions that his Church should reform itself to appeal more to modern people. Routine services last for four hours at a time, to say nothing of the rituals on feast days, and the language is Old Slavonic which few Russians understand. But the priest, who abandoned a career as a film-maker because he said art too often pandered to human pride instead of glorifying God, insists the Church does not exist for the convenience of its congregations. 'Those who are truly seeking God soon find they understand - with their hearts, not their minds,' he said.

Last Wednesday evening, the congregation consisted of six women and two men. There was also a small choir including Vitaly Matveyev, a classical musician and recent convert to Orthodoxy who was struggling hard to master the intricate forms of the sacred chants.

In the dying days of Communism, religion became fashionable among Russian youth as a means of expressing protest, but now with so many other attractions to choose from, many have drifted away from the Church again and only the really faithful attend more often than at Christmas and Easter.

Father Anthony does not care for Western missionaries, mostly from Protestant sects, who are coming to Moscow trying to capture Russian souls. But equally he finds distasteful extreme Russian nationalists who seek to use the Orthodox Church for their political goals.

If Solzhenitsyn finds himself on the one hand revolted by the Americanisation of Russia, and on the other put off by rabid nationalists who would love to be associated with him, he might feel at home at the Church of the Nine Martyrs.