Russian space city builds new route to heavens
New church in once-atheist Baikonur readies for Orthodox Christmas
By James Oberg NBC News space analyst
Source: Special to MSNBC, January 6th 2006
For almost half a century, Russian rockets and space travelers have
assaulted the heavens from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soviet spaceport in Central
Asia that was portrayed as the shining symbol of a communist future. Now one of
the last sights for departing space crews is the shiny domes of a new Russian
Orthodox church - where they have their own way of reaching toward heaven.
The city of the space workers was originally named "Leninskâ" in honor
of the founder of the Soviet state, a champion of the official atheism under which
priests were imprisoned and churches were burned. Cosmonauts in the Soviet era were
often quoted as joking, "We have been to heaven, and didn't see God there."
But in a radical cultural revolution, the collapse of the Soviet
regime in 1991 unleashed a long-underground religious impulse even among the elite of
Soviet society, "rocket scientists" and the military hierarchy.
Within months of communism's fall, a small Russian Orthodox church was
organized at the space center in an abandoned sporting goods store. A young Russian
priest came to town, held religious services and at the request of officials began
blessing rockets and space crews. Cosmonauts began carrying traditional Russian
icons into orbit.
Senior military officers back on Earth also began to come out of the
closet on the issue of respect for the long-suppressed Russian church. Writing in a
just-published armed forces commemorative chronicle of 50 years of rocket launches
at Baikonur, space program veteran Major General Anatoliy Zavalishin observed that
"in the opinion of many people, in Russia there stand only two really active forces
that are close to the common people - these are the army and the church."
"Almost every cosmonaut brings with him into space his personal
icons," said Gennady Padalka, who commanded the 9th expedition aboard the international
space station in 2004. In addition, a copy of the famous icon of "St. Mary of Kazan" is
displayed on a panel in the Russian segment of the station. It was placed there in
2000 by the very first long-term crew.
This remarkable religious surge will be celebrated spectacularly this
Saturday, the Russian Orthodox Christmas. It will be the first time Christmas
services are held at Baikonur's new church, just completed in the middle of last year.
The glistening gold and blue domes are clearly visible from a concrete
overlook located behind the "Cosmonaut Hotel," where space crews and their support staff
live prior to launch. Often, on the day before the launch, those bound for space walk
past lines of memorial trees planted by earlier generations of cosmonauts and look
out over the Syr Darya River and the surrounding steppes, to fix in their minds the
sights and smells of the world they are leaving. South of the overlook, about a mile
downstream along the river, the shiny new church now glistens.
The return of the church
During Soviet days, religious celebrations in the city were forbidden.
But as soon as Kazakhstan declared its independence, a small group of people at the
spaceport petitioned the Russian Orthodox bishop of the nearby city of Akmolinsk to open
a parish and send an ordained priest.
The bishop consulted with church officials in Russia, and in June
1992 they sent Father Sergey to Baikonur. With the Russian space program nearly bankrupt,
the situation wasn't the easiest. The congregation grew rapidly, however, and soon there
were too many attendees to fit into the small store during services.
Easter 1994 marked a major turning point for the congregation, when
about two thousand people crowded the street outside the makeshift church and city
officials approved a live TV broadcast of the services.
One particular new member had a unique request. Aleksandr Viktorenko
was preparing to blast off for the Mir space station that October. He asked the
priest for a special blessing of the crew and rocket before launch, a revolutionary
ceremony that has since become routine.
The congregation's next goal was a real church, and they set about
raising money and scrounging supplies. They laid out a budget of 4.5 million rubles
(about $150,000), augmented with truckloads of cinderblocks and other surplus building
materials left behind when official construction projects were cancelled. Ground was
broken late in 1997.
A church in Voronezh, Russia, donated bells. A monastery at Sergeyev
Possad near Moscow donated icon panels. Cranes from space construction sites were loaned
for the mounting of the domes. Last June, the church structure was completed and
Father Sergey also trained his aides and successors, including five
retired military officers who entered the priesthood at Baikonur (Lenin's name was taken
off the city in 1995). The priest is now dean of all Orthodox parishes in the northern
half of Kazakhstan, where most Russian citizens are concentrated.
He attributes the church's success to the highly educated populace,
most of whom work at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. "Nearly ninety percent of the population of
Baikonur is comprised of people with a higher education," he told the Ekspress K newspaper
in June. "I am convinced that educated people are able to progress much faster on a
spiritual ladder, and the Baikonur parish is a shining example of this."
Father Sergey is also an enthusiast for space exploration, which he
sees as making manifest the glory of God. "Man can go into space, that's good," he told
the newspaper." "He can view unbounded horizons, other planets, and appreciate how wisely
this entire gigantic "mechanism" was constructed, in which everything is
computed literally to the millimeter. And every sane person, discovering all this
knowledge himself must say, 'Glory to Thee, O Lord, Who hast so wondrously made