by Marina Lakhman

New York Times, 4 January 1998

MOSCOW -- In the cozy top floor of the Vysoko Petrovsky monastery, where Russian Orthodox monks once immersed themselves in ancient manuscripts, Natasha Nikolayeva and her classmates were taking their final exams in Russian housing law recently. The icons that adorn the walls of the tiny lecture room comforted Ms. Nikolayeva, who came from Ukraine to study here.

"I knew that here I would find people close to me in spirit, faith and style of life," said the 21-year-old senior. "The jurisprudence was secondary, but I was looking for an education that would be a mix of the spiritual with the practical."

In Soviet times, it was common for church buildings to be confiscated by the state and turned into government offices, schools, museums or even granaries. But now, for the first time, people are studying secular subjects in a Russian religious institution. Ms. Nikolayeva is one of the students at the Russian Orthodox University of St. John the Theologian, the only church-run university in the country that is training young people for the professional world of the new Russia rather than priests.

"We did not create this university to train people to serve the church," said the rector of the university and head of the monastery, Ioann Economtsev. "Our purpose was to bring about a synthesis between scholarship and faith, and religion and morality, because scholarship without morality at its core is dangerous."

Despite the university's religious name and leanings, Economtsev said most of the applicants are seeking to enter the law and economics department, and as a result the competition is steeper than in other departments. In contrast with Soviet times, law and economics have become prestigious careers as the Russian media publicize the growing wealth and political influence of the country's top bankers.

Based on the traditions of the Academy of Slavonic, Greek and Latin Studies, a church university in pre-revolutionary Russia, the Russian Orthodox university is a major departure from the kind of schooling the church was able to involve itself in during the Soviet era.

It also reflects the church's attempt to consolidate its hold on Russian society and turn itself back into the country's official religion.

Although Russia's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, President Boris Yeltsin signed a hotly debated bill last year -- at the urging of the Russian Orthodox Church -- that limits the growth of new religions in Russia and gives priority to the Russian Orthodox Church. The bill drew fierce criticism from international human-rights groups and a threat from the United States Congress to cut off aid to Russia.

The financing of the university is indicative of the church's willingness to involve itself in politics. Though the church oversees the university, it is primarily financed by private sponsors, the largest of which is the powerful Oneksimbank.

The bank's president, Vladimir Potanin, one of the most politically influential figures in the country, is a major donor to the church. His annual gift of $100,000 to the Russian Orthodox university makes up 40 percent of the university's budget.

Anna Parshikova, a spokeswoman for Uneximbank, said that the bank hopes to employ future graduates of the university's law and economics departments.

"They have attracted a great number of Moscow's elite scholars to teach there,'' she said. "There are few institutions that can compare."

With religion experiencing a revival since the fall of Communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the university's religious leanings are an attraction for many students. So is the prospect for a free education, a mainstay of the Soviet Union, an opportunity which is slowly diminishing as the cash-strapped government finds itself unable to finance higher education.

With departments in law, economics and ecology as well as philosophy and theology and related fields, and with a new medical department to begin next fall, the university has increased its enrollment 10-fold to 500 students since it opened in 1993.

The university offers a rigorous academic program. Students in the departments of philosophy and theology, and history and philology are required to study ancient Greek, Latin and Russian in addition to a modern language, while Bible students are required to add ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, to their studies.

Yulia Butskikh, 20, who is in her third year of study in the philosophy and theology department, said the university had found an educational niche that is not available at other institutions.

"MGU does not have the religious depth and religious academies do not have the scholarship," she said comparing the university with Moscow State University, one of the country's best-known universities. "This is a good combination of the two."

The faculty includes professors from Moscow State University, two from England -- who give their lectures on literature in English -- and Nikita Tolstoy, who until his death last year headed the Slavonics specialty in the history and philology department. Tolstoy is the son of the Soviet novelist Aleksei Tolstoy and a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy.

Unlike religious universities elsewhere, the Russian Orthodox university does not require its students to attend services and there are no stringent housing rules since the school does not have dormitories for its students. Nonetheless, all students are required to complete courses in the history of Christianity as well as the Old and New Testaments. In addition, economics students also have the opportunity to take courses like "Economics in the World of the Bible" and "The Economic Views of the Fathers of the Church."

Irina Pankova, who is in her last year of study in the university's law department, said she hoped the education she received at the university would allow her to bring about change in Russia.

"I think this education allows us to look at the future with a human view," she said, "not the way things are now, like in economics, where there is no humanity."

Economtsev said he too hopes to see his graduates transform Russia. "My goal is to prepare the intellectual and spiritual elite of Russia," he said. "We are not preparing students for the Russia of yesterday, and not the Russia that exists today. We are preparing students for a regenerated Russia, for a highly cultural, highly moral Russia of great intellectual and scientific potential."