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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Expanding Monasteries: More Bodies Than Soul?

After 70 years of persecution under communism, monastic life in Russia is blooming, with five new convents and four monasteries opening within one week in late December.

But with active priests remaining few and far between, critics accuse the church of misdirecting its priorities, striving for symbolic gestures rather than spiritual development.

"I don't think a new monastery should be the top priority," said Alexei Bodrov, rector of the independent Biblical Theological College. "In the past they played a very important role but now it sometimes seems that they exist only for themselves and with very rare exceptions they are concentrations of conservative forces."

But Andrei Yeliseyev, a spokesman for the Moscow patriarchate, said he saw the expansion of monasteries as a sign of religious renewal. "The number of monks and nuns is growing extremely quickly ... Finally, things have become a lot easier for young people who want to join a monastery and who in the past had no place to go."

He said Russia is now home to 337 monastic establishments, compared to 21 in 1988. He could not provide any figure on the costs of the expansion.

Today, Russian monasteries are small -- with about five to 10 members each -- but Yeliseyev said church leaders were nevertheless pleased with the surge in monastic vocations following the end of communist restrictions on freedom of expression.

"Church preaching is now actively encouraging young people to adopt spiritual lives that are apart from the outside world. But it's pointless to worry about numbers. It's much more important that our novices are well prepared and sincere," he said.

Despite the apparent revival, some see the church's more extravagant projects -- such as the reconstruction of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior -- as a glamorous exterior, hiding serious flaws in the Orthodox Church and hindering its true development.

"I wouldn't see all these developments as a sign of revival," Bodrov said. He said that because the church desperately lacks educated priests who know how to communicate with their parishes, it should spend its funds on training and literature, rather than extravagant new projects.

Mikhail Men, son of murdered Orthodox priest Alexander Men, agreed. "Of course, it's important to have new cathedrals and monasteries, but if Jesus Christ isn't in peoples' hearts then they won't help," said Men, who recently won a seat in the Duma.