April 21, 2006

Easter Reborn

Easter Reborn

Russia Gets Ready For Easter

Even in the Soviet Union, Russian Easter, or Paskha, never fully disappeared, despite the shuttering of churches and persecution of believers, but it did take on a more secular tone amongst average Russians.

A week before Easter, Soviet bakeries started selling Keks Vesenny, Spring Cakes, a thinly-disguised traditional Easter sweetbread known as kulich. Preparation for the holiday would include a major house cleaning and a visit to relatives' graves, both disguised as seasonal spring cleaning. On Saturday night or a perhaps even a couple of days prior, the cooking began. If the woman of the house had time, or was in a baking mood, she would make her own kulich, if not, Keks Vesenny would do. But most houses would decorate eggs, to the great delight of the kids. Eggs boiled with dried onion peels turned different shades of brownish-red, and Russian ingenuity found a way to achieve patterns: by boiling eggs in nylon bags, along with rice or parsley leaves. On Sunday morning, the family would eat Easter fare, with kids entertaining themselves with egg fights and sometimes quietly wondering what the real deal was with kulich. Family visits and exchanges with colored eggs and slices of kulich filled the rest of the day. Few kids cared about the religious side of the holiday.

The tide turned after the Soviet Union expired, as the country obviously needed a new ideology. Since the early 1990s, Russian officials have openly displayed their support for the Russian Orthodox faith and make regular church appearances during major holidays, to the consternation of the representatives of other major religions in the country. Television stations have started broadcasting church services during holidays, especially at Easter, as well as speeches by church leaders. Announcing upcoming church holidays has become an indispensable part of newscasts.

Today, over half of Russia's population call themselves Russian Orthodox believers, while the Russian Orthodox Church now has some 12,665 parishes, 207 monasteries, 226 nunneries and 4,696 Sunday schools.

However, until recently, this religious comeback was more of a superficial influence among common people. Many would go to church without really knowing the order of service or the rites, just to make an appearance. Some would watch a TV broadcast from the midnight service on Easter eve over a glass of beer and a hearty meal. All would idle the day away after learning it is a religious holiday, because "it's a sin to work on a Holy Day." But few would know or care for the real meaning of the observance.

Russia has never been a vegetarian heaven, and one can tell that religion is now taking hold based on the growing observance of the Great Lent. As more and more people fast before Easter, restaurants around the country have introduced Great Lent menus, with food excluding any animal products. Grocery stores have caught on: marking food as a "Great Lent choice" and trading "Lent daily sets" - Patriarch-approved prepackaged fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

As Easter approaches this year, supermarkets are flooded by egg-shaped decorations and kulich, with competing bakeries offering samples (during the most strict week of the Lent). And a special website Paskha.ru will get you in the true Easter mood with advice, downloadable church bell ringtones and appropriate wallpaper for your computer desktop.

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