Posted by: cochinblogger | October 4, 2012

Russia and Kerala: A Shared Orthodoxy

My younger son had just been baptized, and the priest was giving us final post-baptismal instructions. There was one point that he stressed: the baby should not be handled by a non-Christian for a certain number of days (I forget the divinely ordained time period) following the baptism. I received this fiat in stunned silence. It was clear enough why he’d brought this up: my son’s nanny was a Muslim, and dressed as she was in a hijab, perhaps to the priestly eye she stood out among the sari-clad worshipers in church like a sore thumb. Of course, needless to say, his injunction was not followed.

I belong to the Syrian Christian Orthodox church; I wonder if other churches have a similar rule regarding handling of the baby after baptism. I doubt it. Orthodoxy is an ancient faith, and perhaps some traditions that survive once served some purpose but have now outlived their utility. One example: Christmas used to be celebrated on January 7 by the Orthodox churches in Kerala (as indeed, by Orthodox churches worldwide) due to the 13-day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, and the shift to December 25 occurred in Kerala only in the 1950s or 1960s. As far as I know, Russia, a bastion of Orthodoxy, still celebrates Christmas on January 7. So, I was puzzled when I read the following in The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy:

25 December. Christmas Day. Everyone has been in a festive mood all day, and everybody has been busy decorating the Christmas tree.

I can only imagine that Tolstoy decided to celebrate Christmas on December 25 to cock a snook at the Russian Orthodox Church, with whom he had carried on a running feud all his life.

The Russian Orthodox Church is, of course, one of the cultural mainstays of Russia even today, and Sofia’s diaries reveal the stranglehold it once had on Russian society. Tolstoy earned the wrath of the church for his radical (un-Orthodox!) interpretation of Christianity, and Sofia’s diaries tell of his run-ins with the church before he was finally excommunicated in 1901. I give below two snippets from the diaries that offer interesting insights into how the church operated in Russia in Tolstoy’s day:

I was lying in bed yesterday when three more Molokans from Samara came yesterday to see L.N. [Tolstoy], begging for letters of introduction to take to St. Petersburg. They are going there to plead once again for their children who were taken away from them by the government and sent to monasteries. Those poor children, and their poor mothers! What a barbaric way to convert people to Orthodoxy! It won’t convert them at all, quite the opposite.

The Molokans were a Christian sect that did not accept the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church. Hats off to Sofia Tolstoy for condemning this inhuman practice of kidnapping children and packing them off to Orthodox monasteries so that they could be brought up in the one true faith and “saved” for God.

Here is an anecdote that Sofia heard from Tolstoy:

Lev Nikolaevich [Tolstoy] was telling us today about a woman who was giving birth in the Kremlin. It was a difficult birth and she was thought to be dying, so they sent to the monastery for a priest. A monk came with the sacraments, and it turned out that this monk had once been a doctor, and saw that he could save the mother and baby with the standard forceps procedure. It was the middle of the night; he went back to his cell, fetched his surgical instruments and performed the operation, and both mother and baby were saved. It is said when this news reached the ears of the Metropolitan he was going to defrock the monk, but in the end he was merely transferred to another monastery in another town.

A punishment transfer for doing the right thing. Now, why does that sound so familiar? 🙂


  1. Fascinating..

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