Russia backs Orthodox Valentine’s Day alternative to boost births

Categories: Ecumenism

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Sophia Kishkovsky

Moscow (ENI). Senior church members in Russia have deemed as a public relations success the State backing of the celebration of the Feast Day of Saints Pyotr and Fevronia, which is a Russian Orthodox holiday, after strong media coverage of festivities, from concerts to weddings. Held on 8 July, some Russians now believe the holiday could soon overshadow Valentine’s Day.

Still, it will take some months to determine whether this year’s celebration of Pyotr and Fevronia achieved its goal of encouraging family life and stimulating the birth rate in Russia. The country continues to suffer from a declining population that now stands at 141 million.

Young Russians in urban centres have embraced Valentine’s Day despite the disapproval of the Russian Orthodox Church that sees it as purely a commercial holiday that promotes promiscuity.

Russian Patriarch Alexei II issued a statement in June supporting the mass celebration of the feast day of Saints Pyotr and Fevronia, and stressed its importance both morally and in countering the consequences of what Russia went through in the 20th century.

“In the 20th century, Russia endured a succession of events that placed our Motherland on the verge of disappearance,” Patriarch Alexei said. “The family, deprived of higher religious ideas, suffered especially. The consequences of the destruction of this ideal were so severe that today there are grounds to fear for the physical extinction of Russia.”

Demographers report that Russia’s birth rate grew by 8.3 percent, nearly 2 million, in 2007. This is a record for the post-Soviet era but still far too low to compensate for the death rate. According to Goskomstat, Russia’s national statistics service, the number of deaths in the country between 1992 and 2007 exceeded births by 12 million.

The July feast day that the Russian authorities hope will help buck this trend commemorates the lives of Pyotr, a prince from Murom that, with 1146 years of history to its name, is one of Russia’s most historic cities, and Fevronia, a peasant maiden who cured Pyotr of disease on condition that he married her. Russians revere both saints for their acts of charity and marital fidelity.

In his statement, Alexei said the religious holiday, which has also been given a secular name and remains a working day, could help remedy the situation. “I support the initiative to hold an annual day to celebrate the family, love and fidelity, and hope that it will enable the confirmation in Russia of high moral values, without which the life of both individuals and society is impossible.”

The feast day is also developing a commercial side. Russians call Valentine’s Day cards “valentinki”. Now, “fevronki” cards are also on sale.

Metropolitan Kirill, who heads the external relations department of the Orthodox Church, was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying at a press conference, “Representatives of all of the traditional religions of Russia have expressed fervent support for the idea of this holiday.”

The relics of Saints Pyotr and Fevronia are kept at the Holy Trinity Convent in Murom and draw pilgrims to the city, which was a closed military-industrial centre in Soviet times.

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