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Indeed, Russia has become much more religious. Between 1991 and 2008, the percentage of Russians who identified as Orthodox more than doubled, to 72% from 31%, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center. Although the majority of Russians surveyed did not attend church regularly in 2008 — just 7% said they went at least once a month — 54% described themselves as “somewhat religious,” and 56% said they believe in God.
On my last full day in Novgorod I took a walk through town. Novgorod’s apartment buildings were as bland, decrepit and crumbling, as they had always been. The side streets were potholed and uneven. I crossed Lomonosov Street, where the steel skeleton of a new shopping mall was already taking shape; I wondered who in Novgorod could possibly afford to shop there when it opens. I passed underneath the railway tracks and then made my way up the broad avenue that runs toward Novgorod’s kremlin. During the 1990s this was Karl Marx Street, but it had now reverted to its pre-revolutionary name, Voskresenski (Resurrection) Boulevard.
I crossed the bridge into Novgorod’s kremlin, marveling at the citadel’s enormous brick walls and majestic towers. As the bridge gave way to cobblestones, the enormous bronze, bell-shaped monument to the Millennium of Russia, built in 1862, came into view. The figures on the monument — Russian rulers, generals, artists and writers — were dusted in a light covering of snow. Among the figures was the Viking prince Rurik, who ruled Novgorod in the ninth century and gave birth to what would later become the Russian state. Looming over Rurik was the cross, held upright by an angel.
I turned and crossed the street toward the Cathedral of St. Sophia, an elegant whitewashed church decorated with gold and silver domes. The cathedral, built almost 1,000 years ago, was the first Russian Orthodox Church I’d ever visited, and easily my favorite.
Inside, the air was heavy with incense. My eyes had to adjust to the low light as they traced the iconostases several dozen feet up into the cathedral’s gloomy cupolas. Elderly women stood and prayed next to the sarcophagi of long-departed princes and bishops; candles flickered in front of the icons.
At the main iconostasis, in the center of the cathedral, an elderly woman stood, murmuring a prayer and crossing herself continuously. She was in her 80s or 90s; her face was creased with a lifetime of suffering and struggle. Before the church there was the party, I thought. But before the party there was the church.
That evening, at his apartment, Denis took me into his 18-month-old son Kolya’s bedroom to show me an icon that Dyadya Sasha had carved by hand. It was a painstaking copy of an icon of Saint Nicholas that Denis had seen and photographed in a monastery in Kostroma. It had taken Sasha one year to re-create the icon, right down to the delicate lines of Russian script at the bottom.
It seemed somehow fitting that he had progressed from carving the medieval adventurer Sadko to this Saint Nicholas. Christianity was a part of the family, as it was a part of Novgorodian history and of Russian identity. Just as Judaism was a part of me.
Several weeks after my return to New York, a question continued to niggle at me: Why had Nadya and Sasha not reacted more strongly to my declaration? Perhaps, I thought, they accepted my Jewishness because at least it was a belief in God.
In February I called Tanya in Moscow to ask why her parents did not seem surprised to learn that I was a Jew. “Because I told them you were Jewish,” she said.
I had disclosed my Jewishness to Tanya back in 1995, but I had asked her not to tell anyone else. She said that she could not remember when she finally told her parents — perhaps after I got my job at the Forward, in 2011.
That still did not explain why Nadya and Sasha would not have been curious as to why I had not said anything about being Jewish earlier.
“I think that it’s not that big of a deal for them,” Tanya said. But she offered to call her mother to find out for sure.
A few minutes later, my phone rang.
“My mum says, ‘I really don’t care,’” Tanya said. “‘He’s a good person. Everything else is not important to me.’”