March 17, 2012

Russian Orthodoxy In Iran

Milena Faustova
March 9, 2012
The Voice of Russia

The once numerous Russian-speaking community in Iran has shrunk dramatically to a few hundred people. Nearly all of them live in Tehran. These are the descendants of Russian émigrés and the permanently accredited staff of diplomatic and trade missions.

The search for compatriots began near the St. Nicholas Church located on the northern outskirts of Tehran. The city’s Orthodox Community traces its history to the late 16th century. Before the 1917 revolution in Russia, there had been two embassy churches in Tehran plus a belfry at the Russian cemetery. Later, both of the churches were shut and destroyed.

The St. Nicholas Church was built the 1940s on donations from Russian émigrés. It was designed by émigré architect and Iranian Army officer Nikolai Makarov. As soon as the crosses appeared on its cupolas, the half-finished church opened its doors to parishioners. There were several Orthodox priests in Tehran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the early 1980s, all of them were expelled. It was not until the late 1990s that the St. Nicholas Church received its new head priest. Hieromonk Alexander Zarkeshev was appointed by the Moscow Patriarchate to serve in Tehran.

When a Voice of Russia correspondent visited Tehran on March 3, 2012, the church gate was locked. The crosses on the gate and the cupolas rising above the fence were the only signs indicating that this was an Orthodox church. Russian embassy officials explained that liturgies are held every Sunday but that often no one comes.

There are no Russian language courses or Russian cultural center at the embassy any more and of all the Russians who had once settled in Tehran Faina Lvovna Noniyaz was the only one that could be reached by phone. Pleased at the rare opportunity to speak Russian, she gave us her story:

"My husband is Iranian. He lived in Russia for a long time as a political emigrant. But then we returned to Tehran in 1994. At first I found it hard to adapt. I was deeply nostalgic. It was difficult to get used to the local climate and local way of life. I only meet Russians in church, mostly during major feasts like Christmas, for example. The Christmas liturgy is very beautiful and the choir is really good."

The church is the only place where Faina Lvovna can speak Russian. There is no Russian club in Tehran. Ukrainians are luckier. The Ukrainian women married to Iranians have recently set up a cultural center of their own. Olga Sosnova arrived from Kiev 16 years ago. She met her future Iranian husband in Ukraine and fell in love with him. So when he proposed to her, she didn’t think twice before accepting.

"I do not regret it a bit. I feel fine here. True, it was very hard to adapt. The culture and the mentality are different. Despite the fact that I had been morally prepared, everything looked different from what I had imagined. What struck me most is a nice attitude to foreigners. No matter if you are a man or a woman, they do their best to make a nice impression on a foreigner."

Like the Iranian women, Olga wears a headscarf and body-covering clothes, but this doesn’t irritate her. She spends much time in the Odnoklassniki social network, chatting to women like herself, former Soviet citizens married to Iranians. They often celebrate Russian holidays together.

"We celebrate New Year’s, March 8th, the May 9th Victory Day and all main Orthodox feasts. Iranians are very tolerant to this. We have never encountered any problems. Incidentally, you can see not only Orthodox believers but also Muslims in the Russian church during feasts. They come to watch the Christian liturgy."

Olga’s children regard themselves as Iranians but are proud of having a Ukrainian mother.