Soviet churches of all kinds are more heavily attended than at any time since the czarist regime. Young people come in large numbers. Baptisms and church weddings are popular. Bibles and tracts roll off the presses. Church workers provide religious instruction in the public schools as well as chaplain services in hospitals, universities, prisons and the armed forces.
While some Russian Orthodox churches are rich with gilded altars and treasured icons, others, recently returned by the government, are in disrepair. All are short on funds and leadership.
The main seminary in Moscow could accept only half of its 400 applicants this year although priests are desperately needed.
"Religious life is being rebuilt from almost ground zero," said Mikuliak of the Orthodox Church in America team that recently worked with young adults in Smolensk. "There is an exhilaration and explosion of energy. . . ."
But in the post-Communist era, it's as difficult to predict how the pieces of the church puzzle will fit together as it is to anticipate realignments among Soviet republics.
The awakening of historic nationalism and renascent religion portends a clash of great magnitude, according to Mark Elliott, director of the Institute for East-West Christian Studies at Wheaton College in Illinois.
"We're in between the collapse of communism and the re-emergence of state churches," he said. "The breakup of the republics also breaks up the monolithic (Russian Orthodox) church."
A duel for control is already being waged in the Ukraine, birthplace of Russian Christianity, where the Slavs were converted in the 10th Century. The Ukrainian Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholic churches--both banned under former Soviet rule--are locked in a struggle with the Russian Orthodox over jurisdiction and property.
The Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches are virtually identical in doctrine and liturgy. But the nationalistic Ukrainian Orthodox Church, though still a part of the Moscow Patriarchate, enjoys semi-autonomy through its own synod and leader.
Breakaway notions are rumbling through the Baltic states and the predominantly Muslim republics. In the Muslim-dominated republic of Uzbekistan, a new law prohibits missions, missionaries and public meetings for evangelism. Islam is the second-largest religious group in the Soviet republics, with perhaps 50 million followers.
A recent poll found that although some within the church would like to return to a state church, the vast majority of the public would oppose it, said Kent Hill, executive director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington.
"Yet," he said, "the people still trust the Russian Orthodox Church and see it as a repository of truth and the best of culture--a tremendous source of opportunity for moral recovery and getting back to spiritual roots."
Suspicions and hostilities toward the church, however, linger. Some believe the Russian Orthodox hierarchy is too flawed from its compromise with the Communist Party to retain credibility.
"It must undergo its own \o7 perestroika\f7 (restructuring)," said Father Anthony Ugolnik of Lancaster, Pa., a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in America who is closely involved with the Russian Orthodox.
Even Father Vyacheslav Polosin, the Russian Orthodox priest who chairs the Supreme Soviet Committee on Freedom of Conscience, Religion, Philanthropy and Charity, admitted in a 1990 interview that "a lot of bad persons" in charge of the church had "compromised for money and personal reasons. . . . These people are (still) trying to keep power. That is a problem."
Other observers say church leaders became Communist Party mouthpieces only because there was no other way to keep the church from annihilation.
"Westerners don't understand Orthodoxy," said Father George Stephanides, pastor of St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine. "Worship was the mainstay of the church. . . . The masses kept the faith alive. So they acquiesced. What were they supposed to do? How could they revolt?"
The future of Russian Orthodoxy in the emerging federation of republics appears to rest largely on one man: Patriarch Alexei.
Born and reared in Estonia, he was head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Leningrad until his elevation last year--the first free election of a patriarch since 1917. The 62-year-old, white-bearded leader, elected by a church council of 300 priests and laymen, has since publicly apologized for his complicity with Communist agendas.
In recent weeks, he has shown strong mettle.
At the July inauguration service that appeared to cast a mantle of Russian heritage and legitimacy upon Boris N. Yeltsin, Alexei faced the new Russian Federation president, blessed him with the sign of the cross and delivered this challenge:
"You have assumed responsibility for a country that is gravely ill. Seventy years of destruction of its spirituality and internal unity were accompanied by the strengthening of external bonds of excessive statehood.
"At first," the prelate continued, "people were dissuaded from spiritual labor, from prayer; then they were dissuaded from thought, from yearning to independently discern the truth. And finally, deliberately or accidentally, people were dissuaded from work, diligence and initiative."
Patriarch Alexei, says Mikuliak, "seems to be staking out a position where the church says that whatever the form of government. . . people must be able to focus on an ethical framework."