MOSCOW, Russia -- On a recent snowy Sunday, the 17th-century Dormition Church was drawing evening Mass to a close. The ethereal chants that had for two hours entranced a standing congregation still echoed off the intricately painted walls as Father Aleksy Gomonov retreated to the sacristy to remove his vestments.
But his sizeable, surprisingly young flock remained. As tables were brought in and arranged in neat rows among the ancient icons and golden candelabra, the crowd began to mingle. Off came the thick winter coats, and out came the smartphones. Numbers were traded, eye contact held or averted, and a subdued atmosphere of piety gave way to flirtation and giggles.
It was the latest gathering of the Peter and Fevronia Club, a sort of speed-dating night for Moscow's Orthodox Christians. Each Sunday, after the week's final service, Gomonov brings together the single men and women of his parish, and anyone else keen to join. As they chat over cucumber sandwiches and black tea, he dispenses relationship advice mixed with church teachings.
Many come to find their other half, the old-fashioned way. Others seek a companion for walks, church events, or pilgrimages. And Gomonov, a happily married father of two? He's just killing time.
'I have nothing better to do,' he says, his eyes scanning the room over a pair of glasses perpetually balanced on the tip of his nose. 'And the youth have nothing to do either.'
At 67, Gomonov sports an impressive white beard and a mane of strawberry-blond hair. In the 20 years since he took charge of the Dormition Church, he has fostered a community like few others in Moscow. Parishioners have a dedicated summer camp and a program of civic engagement. They organize ballroom-dancing classes and pilgrimages to sacred Orthodox sites.
Father Aleksy Gomonov doles out advice to attendees of the Peter and Fevronia Club.
In 2007, they gave Gomonov a special gift: an icon depicting Peter and Fevronia, the Orthodox patron saints of marriage. He led a prayer in their honor that Sunday, and it became a weekly event. Eventually he began serving tea and snacks, and encouraging guests to communicate. The Peter and Fevronia Club was born.
In its 11 1/2 years of existence, the club has spawned more than 200 marriages, according to the organizers. Many of their stories are listed on the club's website.
'Orthodox girls are more reliable, they're more loyal,' says Sergei, a lanky 29-year-old from the suburbs sporting a pink T-shirt and jeans who has attended the club for over four years. 'You can be sure they won't cheat on you.'
The tables had filled up within minutes that evening, and Sergei stands chatting on the sidelines with Yulia, a fresh-faced music teacher. She wears a head covering, like most of the women present, though the policy is not strictly enforced on club nights.
'My values are very specific,' she says. 'Perhaps I'll meet someone who's not connected to the church and I'll accept him -- but it's likely he'll be Orthodox.' Then she laughs, adding, 'I just think no one else can handle me.'
Yulia and Sergei (in front of the mirror) mingle among others at the weekly event at Moscow's Dormition Church.
Gomonov insists it was never meant as a lonely hearts club. 'It's a social gathering for the youth,' he says. 'Where will they socialize, if not here?'
Moscow's youth might beg to differ. The capital's clubs and bars organize regular singles' nights, and Tinder and other such apps are wildly popular. The Orthodox, too, now have a plethora of resources to aid their courtship, with several dating sites now catering to their community.
But those who attend the Peter and Fevronia Club and others like it popping up across Russia say they seek something they won't find elsewhere.
Beyond the chance to find a soulmate with an Orthodox worldview, such gatherings offer an alternative religious experience to the somber services held daily at Moscow's churches. Each meeting of the Peter and Fevronia Club begins with joint prayer. Then, after a period of free conversation, all eyes turn to Gomonov, who grabs a mic to address questions submitted anonymously on small slips of paper. Each answer is a sermon in itself.
'Father, if a man insists he will not have kids, what is to be done?' reads the first note he picks that Sunday. 'God created a man and a woman and said go forth and multiply,' Gomonov replies, his tone suddenly impassioned. 'This man is violating God's law, and that is not good. Do not take his example.'
The author of the second note wants to know whether he should marry a priest's daughter. 'This is a huge responsibility, of course,' Gomonov says after a moment's pause. 'Such a creature is uniquely intelligent.'
Questions continue for another hour, probing issues from curing loneliness to the use (or nonuse) of vodka by Russian soldiers in past military campaigns.
Yekaterina Gromova, Gomonov's assistant and the club's main coordinator, says attendance at club evenings regularly exceeds 120. The majority of people are between the ages of 25 and 40, and men tend to be slightly outnumbered. Most women, she says, are practicing Orthodox Christians who come with the express goal of finding a husband; many men attend out of curiosity, to 'see what Orthodox girls are like.'
The lifestyles of Orthodox Christians largely depend on personal choice. Some drink and smoke, others maintain an ascetic lifestyle. Few outwardly tolerate homosexuality, which is unequivocally denounced by the ultraconservative church. But at the Peter and Fevronia Club, most profess fealty to at least one rule of Orthodox dating: no sex before marriage.
'Yes, I try my best,' says Pavel Komissarov, a stocky, bearded 40-year-old clad in a slick suit. 'You need to think with your head, and be smart. And I noticed that God helps a lot with that, too.' Komissarov, who owns a construction company in Moscow, has attended club nights since 2011. Today he comes mainly to hear Gomonov's sermons and see old friends.
Taking The Search Online
The Peter and Fevronia Club may be the largest weekly gathering of Orthodox singles in Russia, but believers on the market aren't short of resources to aid their search. Since the 2000s, there's been a boom in dating sites tailored specifically to them, with names such as Alphabet of Fidelity, Seagull, and Fate.
They offer access to an exclusive community in exchange for heightened scrutiny and compliance with a strict code of conduct.
To register on Alphabet of Fidelity, one must fill out an electronic form consisting of 78 detailed questions about lifestyle choices, religious practices, and political views, ranging from 'Would you consider a marriage without carnal knowledge?' to 'What for you is the meaning of life?' Other questions relate to clothing style, views on gender and preferred speaking register. The question 'How many children do you have?' offers a drop-down menu with options up to 69.
There are also separate tests on love (titled 'Do you know love?'), on personality traits, and on the foundations of Christianity.
Russia's first Orthodox dating site was launched in 2003 by Roman Kolpakov, then a 24-year-old student. A serious car accident that spring left Kolpakov with spinal fracture and paralysis from the waist down -- he was bed-bound for months, he said in an interview, with the Internet as his only connection to the world.
He took to online forums and registered on secular dating sites, but disliked what he saw as the promiscuity they promoted. Noticing there were no suitable platforms for the Orthodox community, he began work on what would become Parishioners, Russia's largest Orthodox dating site with around 86,000 members today.
'I just understood that many people lacked something like this,' he says over tea in his Moscow flat, where he lives with his wife, Natalya, whom he met online in 2006, and a gray tabby. 'For a practicing Orthodox person it's much harder to find a like-minded partner.'
Roman Kolpakov, founder of the Russian Orthodox dating site Parishioners, and his wife, Natalya, at their Moscow apartment
That's the gap that the Peter and Fevronia Club, and others like it, aim to fill. Roman Lunkin, a religious expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes the faithful are slowly moving away from dating sites and searching for opportunities to meet potential partners in person. There are now similar Orthodox gatherings in Kirov, Barnaul, and many other Russian cities.
'We'll Find A Common Language With The Heavens'
At around 9 p.m., after the recent club night had wrapped up, Gromova and her assistants begin clearing away the tables and preparing the church for service the following morning. Yulia and Sergei head to a cafe round the corner with two other couples, while others walk home in the still-falling snow.
Andrei, a 28-year-old electrician who helps clear up, is upbeat. He's arranged a date with a girl he met that evening, and feels good about his chances. He has few expectations from his future wife besides love and loyalty, and that she is a practicing Orthodox Christian like him.
'What's most important to me is not faith but her approach to people,' he says, balancing a foldable table on the fresh snow. 'Beyond that, if she's decent, from a good family, and has good education and morals, I think we'll find a common language with the heavens.'
Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based correspondent for RFE/RL.
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