Zyuganov and Yeltsin vie for the holy vote

Church and state: As the Russian presidential election nears, the main candidates are courting the resurgent Orthodox clergy
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The Independent Online
Father Andrei Coshel fingered the heavy gold cross that lay on his long black robes, and thought carefully. Yes, he was concerned about what might happen if the Communists took over the Kremlin. But it was "dangerous" when any politicians began using the Orthodox Church for political ends. And that, quite clearly, was what they were now doing.

Recent years have been good to the priest and his colleagues in Vladimir, once an ancient ecclesiastical capital of Russia, and now a provincial tourist city. Hundreds of churches, closed during Soviet times, have reopened. Worshippers come freely to the 800-year-old Dormition Cathedral, whose golden domes shine across the central Russian landscape.

But doubt and worry have set in among the vaults. The Orthodox Church is at the centre of a tug-of-war between the two main candidates in the forthcoming presidential election, Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader. Although there are some Communist supporters in the clergy, the church is leaning towards Mr Yeltsin. "What happens if Gennady Zyuganov becomes president, but is shoved aside by some of the hard-line people around him?" Fr Coshel said.

No one knows how many millions belong to the Orthodox Church, but their numbers are thought to be rising. These days, being a believer is fashionable. People are queuing up to be baptised or married, especially the young. It is a constituency that any self- respecting presidential contender would want to snap up.

Both sides have pulled out the stops. Although he was baptised (by a drunken priest who almost drowned him), Mr Yeltsin has never pretended to be devout. But these days few big religious festivals pass by without him putting in a televised appearance at the altar. He rarely misses the chance for a photo opportunity with the head of the church, the Patriarch of All Russia, Alexy II.

And - perhaps his greatest triumph, this, in the eyes of the faithful - Mr Yeltsin was a driving force behind the reconstruction in Moscow of the Church of Christ the Saviour, which was destroyed by Stalin. It now stands as a monument to Russia's religious renaissance.

Mr Zyuganov has also been diligent. In his campaign literature, he describes himself as "a man of faith", a reference to his commitment to religious freedom, as he is not thought to be a "veryushi" - a believer. As he tours from city to city, he often drops into churches.

The message is plain enough. Under Soviet rule, the Orthodox Church co- existed with the Communist regime but there were also periods of brutal repression, imprisonment, and destruction. That grisly chapter in Russia's history will not be repeated under Mr Zyuganov.

This is a key component of Mr Zyuganov's neo-nationalist position, his role as the leader of a "popular patriotic bloc". The Orthodox Church - with its long nationalist tradition - sits consistently with his ambition to promote the return of Russia's great power status.

Putting this message across has not always been easy, not least because of the lack of enthusiasm among some of the clergy. Earlier this month, he visited a monastery in central Russia where Tsar Nicholas II once worshipped. Far from welcoming him, the head of the monastery, Metropolitan Nikolai, made it known that he was in prayer when Mr Zyuganov's entourage swept in.

With little more than three weeks to go before the first round of the election, Mr Yeltsin appears to be ahead on points in the battle for the cloth. The leader of the church has made his support clear.Alexy II warned that "if the old regime comes back to power, the country will suffer new tremors".

To what extent this will effect the voters is impossible to say. The Orthodox Church is well versed in pragmatism and is quietly backing both horses. Mr Zyuganov may be a pro-Church nationalist, but his ranks include many diehard Leninists.

Into this category falls Yan Blinov, first secretary of the regional Communist Party in Vladimir. "The Church is against us, we know that," he said, in an office overlooked by his own icon, a huge effigy of Lenin. "I have been to Orthodox churches and heard the priests telling people to vote for Mr Yeltsin. But the congregation is mostly old women and members of the KGB."

He went on to reveal that evidence that Stalin murdered millions was "doubtful" and to recommend the renationalisation of almost all industry. All this, after announcing - with just a trace of a wry smile - that he, and everyone else in his organisation, were "all absolutely new Communists".