Finding a Life With God in Russia

As a young girl growing up in Finland, Kirsti Ritoniemi could see Russia from her grandmother's home near the border. Little did she know that she would not only go to Russia to live, but would find a new faith and even a new name there.

The former Kirsti now goes by the name of Mother Yuliana, abbess of the Convent of St. Catherine in Tver, about 160 kilometers north of Moscow. A convert to Orthodoxy, she is a rare foreigner holding a position of authority in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Nationality, she says, does not matter among people of common faith. "I have never felt any different attitude toward me, in any way," she says. "My foreign origin doesn't play any role in my relationships to other people."

There's plenty to do at the convent without worrying about nationality. The nuns have had to restore the ruined church and an adjacent two-story house with little outside help. "When we moved in back in 1993, you could see the sky through the roof," she said during an interview in her modest but cozy quarters. "All we do here, we do without financial support. So we have to look for donations and people who will donate their work."

Mother Yuliana and the 19 other nuns take care of eight girls from broken homes, and still have much restoration work to do on the church building, which was turned into a machine repair shop under the Communists. The building next door was in such bad shape that the city authorities had condemned it and simply gave it to the nuns when they asked for it.

Mother Yuliana found a place in the church not long after becoming a nun in Smolensk in 1992 - a period when the church was rapidly reopening monasteries and convents. Later that year, she was named nastoyatelnitsa, or head nun, at the Orsha Convent outside Tver. When St. Catherine's Church was converted into a convent, she became its nastoyatelnitsa, and in 1998 received the somewhat more elevated title of igumenya, or abbess.

Having grown up in Heinola, a small town in southern Finland, she came to Russia in 1986 from Helsinki University to study Russian at the Pushkin Institute, and then Old Church Slavonic at Moscow State University.

Though raised a Lutheran, she began attending Orthodox churches and, after being baptized according to the Orthodox rite, sang in the choir at a parish church. She became a nun, she says, when she realized that she "cannot live without God."

Even though Finland has an official Orthodox Church that enjoys government support and has its own nuns, she decided to stay in Russia, citing the Russian church's adherence to the Julian Calendar - a rallying point for traditionally-minded Orthodox, though some Orthodox churches have adopted the modern Gregorian calendar.

Her excellent Russian has no doubt eased her transition into life here, though she has retained her Finnish citizenship. Her family, she says, understood her decision to adopt a radically different lifestyle, and her mother works to raise funds for the monastery back in Finland.

But otherwise, she has lost contact with her compatriots - something that doesn't trouble her. Although her mother and sister visit her regularly, she has not been back to Finland in five years.

"I have never suffered because of the difference between life here and life in Finland," she says. "That is because I found something here that I lacked at home. All the rest doesn't matter to me."