Today Christianity is practiced by 70% of the country’s population, of which Orthodox Christians account for the lion’s share. It is impossible to overstate Christianity’s influence on the culture, art, and architecture in both old Russia and today’s Russia. Many temples seized by the government in the Soviet era are now being returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. In most temples and cathedrals, even in those that still have the status of a museum, liturgical services are held. All monasteries have been turned over to the Church.
If you travel in a tourist group, you have nothing to worry about. The guide will explain what and where things can or cannot be done, and what to do in particular situations. Nonetheless it is worthwhile to get to know some peculiarities beforehand, and for those who travel on their own, it is a must.
Most of the active churches that do not have the status of a museum are open from 7 or 8 AM util 8 PM 7 days a week. During this time anyone can enter the temple free of charge, look around and approach the relics in the temple. The possibility of photo and video shooting can be discussed with the candle shop keeper or the local priest.
Remember that the morning liturgical service usually begins at 8 AM and lasts for 1.5-2 hours. The evening liturgical service begins at 5-6 PM and lasts about the same amount of time. On Sunday there may be two morning liturgical services, at 7 AM and 10 AM.
What is all this information for? It is for the following reason. You should refrain from visiting temples at these times (unless you want to attend the service), it will save your nerves and contribute to your mental health if you follow this recommendation.
The cause for your embarrassment (or sometimes shock) can be the proverbial Russian babushkas™. Despite their frail, angelic appearance, they can really blow their fuse or turn aggressive if you do something wrong during the service.
You can enter temples and cathedrals that are officially recognized as museums by buying tickets. In some of these museums morning and evening liturgies are held. Important information: during a liturgical service you can enter the temple free of charge. But mind the Russian babushkas™. If there are none of them in the vicinity, don’t lower your guard. Any women in her forties can potentially turn babushka™.
You can avoid awkward and unpleasant situations if you know some simple rules:
1) Anyone is entitled to enter the temple during a service.
2) In the Orthodox tradition a lot of attention is paid to the details. Women are allowed to enter churches in a skirt and a head-dress, while men are prohibited from entering with a head-dress. A baseball cap or a scarf can serve as a head-dress. Skirts are unnecessary.
3) If you don’t have anything to replace your head-dress, you can borrow a handkerchief and an apron (as a skirt) at the entrance. It is a free service. And sometimes it is offered very insistently. Don’t be afraid of the women sticking those items out at you. They just want you to put on the handkerchief and the apron. You don’t have to put them on, but if you decided to visit the temple during a liturgical service, don’t forget to bring a scarf, a hat or a baseball cap. A head-dress that has already been used by hundreds of people is not the most hygienic garment in the world. They are washed and treated regularly, but you don’t want unexpected problems, do you?
4) Once you are inside, don’t stand in the center (in front of the altar’s doors), move to either the left or right side. You are allowed to change sides, but never turn your back to the altar, nor to the altar screen.
5) You are allowed to walk around the temple to study the murals and icons, but you should do it in a discrete way, trying not to disturb the worshippers.
You can take photos or shoot video of the service only if you have the priest’s permission (which you receive before the liturgy or before shooting).
If despite all these precautions some old lady still tries to give you a bad time, don’t try to listen to her. Tell her “Sorry” with all your heart. Say it just like that in English, even if you know the Russian “izvinite”. Normally this is enough. Foreigners are traditionally forgiven for their ignorance.
It is not advisable to use the French “pardon”, as this word has a disrespectful connotation to Russian ears.
If you are interested in the worship of relics, but you haven’t found out which is kept in this particular temple, you will find the most important relic easily, since the central place is usually dedicated to it, to the left or right of the entrance to the altar, or in one of the temple’s chapels. You can also spot it by the abundance of the candles, icon-lamps, and (sometimes) flowers.
Important note! If you decided to approach the relic, follow one simple rule. You will note that worshippers, as they approach, kiss the icon or the reliquary where the saint’s relics are kept. Don’t do it. It is enough to kiss the air above the subject without touching it with your lips. Reasonable worshippers perfectly know and observe this rule. The same goes for the kissing the cross and the blessing palm of the priest, in case you decided to take part in the liturgical service.
You can visit temples and monasteries not only to enjoy the architecture or artwork, but also to listen to the choirs. In Orthodox services musical instruments are not used, all chants are performed a cappella. You can listen to and enjoy the chants during liturgical services. The best thing to do is go on Sunday morning (if there are two services, it is the second one that you need) or on Saturday evening in a large enough temple or monastery. On other occasions liturgical services feature a small choir, oftentimes made up of the congregation itself. There is little liklihood that you will enjoy this performance.
One of the types of Orthodox tourism is a monastery tour (pilgrimage). If you decide to go on such tour, don’t forget to learn more about the hotel that is booked for you: find photos and information. For some reason it is assumed that a pilgrim should suffer some hardships. Unfortunately, hotels oftentimes become the biggest hardship, let alone accommodation in private houses. It depends on how lucky you are. You can find yourself in a tidy cozy house, or not…you know what I mean. Making a pilgrimage is for enthusiasts. It is better to be taken care of by companies that have no direct religious motivation.
If you follow these simple rules, you will be able to visit temples and monasteries without any issues. Be polite and friendly! Have a nice vacation!
A final word: if you see somebody on the street or in a bus, zealously crossing him/herself, don’t worry. He/she is not mentally ill, but recently religious people have gotten into the habit of crossing themselves whenever they see a temple.