Stone by stone and quite literally by the hands of a holy man, a spiritual and cultural center is being built in Moscow, Russia. It is hoped to be a beacon for the estimated half-million Armenians in the massive city who till now have had no single meeting place to bring together a varied Diaspora looking to anchor itself to "home."
Flanked by Moscow's Trifonovskaya and Olimpiysky streets and at the end of what used to be Catherine the Great Park, the site already resembles a small version of Holy Etchmiadzin.
There, a complex designed as if to open itself to passersby of all faiths and nationalities (of which there are more than 100 in Russia) as well as to enclose the Diaspora in a soulful embrace, is nearing completion and will eventually be the largest Armenian Apostolic Church compound outside Armenia.
Located 10 minutes from the Kremlin in this city of at least 12 million, the center has risen as a striking Armenian calling card in a megalopolis of stout and stern architecture conceived to inspire Soviet might. Now, capitalism and free market trade engender individual excess and make Moscow one of the world's most expensive cities (the famous home of the $10 cappuccino, with reportedly the highest number of billionaires in the world— 74).
Built on the metaphorical cornerstone of faith and on actual stones anointed and named for the disciples of Christ, the main cathedral hosts the largest dome of any Armenian church at 68 feet, 10 inches in diameter (21 meters) and capped with a skylight and the distinct cross of the world's first Christian nation, reaching 183 feet (56 meters) into the urban skyline.
This ambitious project is led by a man who has gigantic faith in his God, devout reverence for his nation, and untiring passion to serve both: His Grace, Bishop Yezras Nersissian, Primate of the Diocese of Russia and New Nakhijevan.
In 2004 Bishop Yezras was appointed to the Moscow post by his brother, His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.
Having previously served in St. Petersburg, Bishop Yezras was called to Moscow to inject life into the construction project which had stagnated although the first stone had been laid as early as 1998.
The Bishop inherited an architectural plan he found unsuitable for the intentions of the spiritual center, and a budget, he says, of about zero, for a complex expected now to cost $60 million.
In the makeshift office that the Bishop uses on the construction site, he points to the original design next to the current one—taped side by side on the wall—and illustrates his decision to scrap the first idea.
In summary: The main church was too small; it looked like a "yard church," the Bishop says. The ancillary buildings were too square; "the outside walls looked like military barracks," according to the Bishop. And, in effect, the structure looked as if it was built for keeping people out, rather than inviting them in.
The original design served "to show me what I didn't want," says the affable Bishop with a grin.
Bishop Yezras met with Yerevan architect Artak Ghulian and explained: "I wanted it to be not only a spiritual center but a cultural center, because outside the Motherland, the Church has become the national symbol of Armenia."
Grave need for expansion
The need for a larger place of worship—to say nothing of a cultural center—was demonstrated this Easter season, as thousands bumped shoulder to shoulder through the narrow paths between graves to enter the 19th-century Holy Resurrection Church, originally constructed by the Lazarev (Lazarian) family as a memorial. It was closed by the Soviets in 1930, then reopened in 1956 as restrictions eased.
It is a peaceful park (a few kilometers from the new complex) and a solemn ground, across from a larger complex of the Russian Orthodox Church on Sergei Makeyev Street.
The church is well kept and a cozy worship site. It is, though, a shrine inside a walled graveyard, and while the surroundings may invoke thoughts of the hereafter, there is little to inspire communion with a living faith. Young Armenian couples have shunned having weddings in the church. Who wants to start their new life in a yard of death?
The cemetery is at capacity. No record exists on how many are buried there, but it held more than 10,000 graves up until World War II when it was declared full. Now, only relatives of those already resting here may be buried on the grounds.
Sunday after Sunday, worshippers pass faces etched into the black stone of costly and elaborate memorials, some of which have life-size statues of the deceased. Somber faces that no doubt have become familiar to regular parishioners stare eternally toward the red brick of Holy Resurrection Church.
Nonetheless, year by year, Bishop Yezras has seen the number of worshipers grow. This year's Easter week was attended by more than ever, he says, "because people's attitudes have changed toward the Church. Each day they see that the Church is becoming more and more a part of the community."
On Palm Sunday, a woman who gave only her first name, Lydia, expressed the need of this church and of the one to come. She is 63, and a refugee from Baku.
"I lost everything in Baku, and the only new thing I found in my new life was a community and a church. Srbazan Tiran (who was Bishop when she arrived in Moscow) did his best to help the refugees. We were coming to the church to get some aid—food, rice, flour.
"I was living in Baku as an Armenian, but did not know what it meant to be Armenian. I did not know the language, did not know how to celebrate Armenian holidays. Now, I have lived 20 years in Russia. I still don't know the language because there was never proper time to learn it. But at least I know the Church holidays, their meaning and so on."
There was a time—for 70 years—when the Church in Moscow (and all the Soviet Union) was nearly as quiet as this graveyard.
When communism displaced religion in Russia in 1917, two other Armenian Apostolic churches in Moscow—Holy Cross and Holy Virgin—were allowed to stand (though not function, as were two in Leningrad, one in Rostov-on-Don and a number of others in various Russian cities and towns). But the expanding power of Josef Stalin signaled more extreme times, and, in 1930, the two Moscow churches were blown up.
In the mid 1950s, religious restrictions against Armenians were slightly relaxed as a gesture of thanks by the Russians for the contribution of the Armenian-led "Sasuntsi David" (David of Sassoun) tank battalion that had received the blessing of Catholicos Vazgen I and fought for Mother Russia against the Germans in World War II.
For about the next 40 years the churches functioned mostly as cultural sites and as a pretense of Soviet tolerance.
During much of that period, the younger Nersissian brother from the Armenian village of Voskehat was unknowingly on his way toward leading the Apostolic Church's 21st-century phase of development in Moscow.
Creating openness in a closed society
One of the Bishop's alterations of the first site design for the new complex was to create an open space facing Trifonovskaya Street, and a large clock on the administrative building wall at the end of the street. This, he reasoned, would attract attention, and help establish the complex as a neighborhood landmark. And, significantly, between the clock and the sidewalk will be a 24-foot, 7½-inch statue (7½ meters) commemorating the Armenian Genocide.
Other symbols of national and religious significance strategically placed on the 1.32-hectare site (3.2 acres) will make the complex a diorama of Armenian history.
Seventy-two khachkars (stone crosses) ring the main church just below the dome, honoring the Apostles and Evangelists of Christ, as well as patriarchs of Armenian Christianity, including Gregory the Illuminator.
A 2,624-square foot (800 meters) bas relief carving on the outside wall of the cathedral will depict Saint Gregory baptizing Armenian King Trdat, Mesrop Mashtots creating the Armenian alphabet, and Saint Vartan Mamikonian in the fifth-century battle of Avarayr.
The Bishop says he conceived the idea as an educational tool: "If a child says, 'Grandpa, who is that?', the grandfathwe can tell the whole history of Armenia (through the bas relief)."
History of the Armenian faith, though, will also lie unseen, in 16 stones placed under the foundation of the main church.
At a ceremony in October 2005 attended by His Holiness Karekin II and by Alexi II, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the stones in honor of the Apostles and Evangelists of Christ, and of Gregory the Illuminator were laid according to Armenian Church tradition.
Crosses were placed on the stones, then blessed with holy water, anointed with wine and with muron (sacred oil), then wrapped in a white cloth to be buried before the foundation was laid.
"A church is not a church without this important ceremony," Bishop Yezras says.
Adjacent to the cathedral, a smaller church will serve the daily needs of the community. Those young couples now turning elsewhere for weddings other than the community's present church (Holy Resurrection) may have their wedding here and then receive guests in a banquet hall just across the courtyard.
The smaller church will also provide service for funerals, for which an elevator has been installed to raise a coffin to the altar for lying in state.
Not even in Armenia is it customary for average Armenians to have a church funeral. This is due, in part, to habits shaped by 70 years of communist restriction on religious expression. But it is also a matter of logistics. Simply, to have a body lie in state disrupts the daily function of houses of worship, so special arrangements are required, for which most grieving families don't bother.
The Bishop brings an example of a recent Sunday in the current Congregational Church in Moscow.
A family wanted to have its loved one's wake in the church. However, due to the scheduled Sunday liturgy, the wake had to be ended early, to accommodate the services.
"If we had a separate place for those occasions, the family could have its ceremony, while the routine function of the church continued," says the Bishop.
The smaller church began serving the Moscow diocese on April 24 and it drew a host of believers even as the complex was still under construction.
On one side of the church is a 19-foot, eight-inch (six meters) granite tablet onto which will be carved the Armenian alphabet. On the other side is a twin monument onto which will be carved the Lord's Prayer. Language and faith; the essence of being Armenian, the Bishop says.
Creating this Armenian spiritual site has literally meant moving the Earth.
Every piece of stone to construct the churches is cut by hand (though ornamentation is also cut with machine). And every piece of stone has been brought to this intersection in Moscow from Armenia. About 90 boxcar loads. This itself has nearly necessitated divine intervention.
The stone has been collected from the Armenian side of ancient Ani. (The complex also uses marble from the Urals, Italy and China, and travertine from Iran.) From Armenia the stone travels by rail to the Georgian seaport of Poti. From there, the cargo should go directly to the Russian port of Novorossiysk. But because of strained relations between Georgia and Russia, direct transport has been disrupted. So, the Armenian tufa (a type of stone) first goes across the Black Sea to the Ukrainian port of Ilyichevsk, then by rail to its destination, where this Bishop from the Armenian village of Voskehat sometimes saws it himself.
And when it is cut, whether by cleric or by craftsman, it is done so with tools built especially for this construction project, where an on-site church factory of sorts has been created.
One such machine, with a registration from Yerevan that shows it as a "Millmaster S2200," carves khachkars or other ornamental applications and has been designed to operate using computer programs written by Armenian engineers. Software showing a three-dimensional blueprint communicates with the brutal force of the carving saw to produce ornaments in 10 hours that would take 10 days by hand.
Another tool created specifically for the work cuts stone with a diamond-tipped bit at a speed of 40,000 revolutions per second, allowing for such precision that it can even do engraving. (Previous such saws could operate at only 18,000 revolutions per second.) But its most unique feature is that it can make vertical cuts.
Since its debut as a specialized tool for the Moscow church project, the same system is now being used in 18 countries (though for applications other than stone cutting), the Bishop proudly says.
Upon completion the site will include an educational center, which the Bishop is reluctant to call a "school," because he doesn't want it to sound mandatory.
It will also include a library, museum, reception hall for social events, residence, administrative wing, guest house, kitchen and dining hall and parking for about 180-200 cars.
About 100 laborers and craftsmen are turning the site into a sanctuary.
Among them is Artashes Hakobian, of Masis, Armenia, who was recently putting finishing touches on a marble bas relief for the interior of the smaller church. He is also the sculptor who crafted the khachkar that adorns the Holy Etchmiadzin resting site of the late Alex Manoogian, Honorary Life President of AGBU, and his wife Marie.
Hakobian's work, in marble and tufa, appears in churches throughout Armenia and in Samtskhe-Javakheti (Javakhk), Georgia.
"These stones will be kissed by people who come to the church," the craftsman says. "I think of what the worshippers will be wishing when they kiss the stone. This work should be done absolutely precisely."
Though estimated at $60 million, 70 percent of the project has been completed using just $13 million. Tens of millions in value have been donated through goods and services from Russian-Armenians—copper fixtures from one prominent family, steel from another, stone from another, masonry machinery for construction from another, elevators from another . . .
From his desk in the construction-site office Bishop Yezras shows a printout representing those who have shared "the burden."
It is a considerable list that the Bishop hopes will grow, but he points to the fact of the diversity of gifts that range from $1 upward to a million. The names are organized alphabetically, rather than according to the amount, underscoring the Bishop's attitude toward charity.
"When everyone is rejoicing (over accomplishment), how do you quantify this joy?" he asks rhetorically. "It is of equal consequence."
(Russian-Armenian philanthropy is also ecumenical: Across Russia, at least 12 non-Armenian churches have been built through the assistance of wealthy Russian-Armenians. Also: Russian businessman Ara Abrahamian is the primary benefactor of a Russian Orthodox church planned for construction in Yerevan, for which newly elected Patriarch Kirill anointed ground this March in Yerevan.)
By the Bishop's account, getting the site off the ground has been nothing less than an act of God, accomplished through the conscience of His Armenians.
Bishop Yezras says that while collecting donations for the construction he has never written a letter of solicitation nor made a phone call.
He has, though, appeared before Moscow's remarkably rich Armenian businessmen with an appeal to their faith and to their conscience.
"They said, 'What is the cost?' And I said, 'If it is $100 million, will you say it is too much, and if I say $1 million, will you come and build it?'" the Bishop says. "I just said: 'Do you need a church? And if you do, who will build it, if not you?'"
The response came from names recognizable to Forbes and others familiar with wealth among the Russian-Armenian Diaspora.
Responses came, too, by chance or by faith, depending on perspective.
Bishop Yezras tells of a recent donation. An Armenian businessman called to say that he had been unaware of the construction plans (evidence, the Bishop says, that the man had not been attending church for at least three years).
The man happened to pass by the construction site and called, saying: "The construction is drawing to a close, and I have not had the chance to participate." The caller donated $100,000.
Completing the center will mean that the largest Diaspora—with no Watertown or Glendale to unite it—will have established an identity.
"There are at least two million Armenians in Russia," Bishop Yezras says. "Who knows these Armenians? There has been no single place that speaks for them. When this complex is completed, the people of Moscow will have new regard for the Armenians. It will mean so much to this community."
It already means so much to the man behind the machinery—sometimes literally—that is making it happen.
A "Job" for the job
He was born Mkrtich Nersissian. He was ordained Father Yezras (Ezra) by Catholicos Vazgen I. But his hero of the Christian faith is Job—a saint of the Old Testament who was so faithful that God allowed Satan to test him, knowing that his faith might waver, but would not fail.
Comparisons yield parallels: A Catholicos by the name of Yezras built Armenia's beloved church, Gayane, in Etchmiadzin (1630). And, like the icon of fortitude Job, this Bishop Yezras has faced a test of faith, loyalty, and endurance.
The years between the ground breaking and the actual construction of the complex are delicately referred to. It can be surmised, if not stated, that Bishop Yesraz was called to Moscow because the challenge at hand was not met by his predecessor.
Bishop Yezras was happy in St. Petersburg and accepted the appointment to Moscow by the Catholicos with reluctance, replaced by resolve to see the work accomplished.
It was not the first time he had been sent to a destination in Russia involuntarily, but due to service ... In 1978, teenager Mkrtich Nersissian was drafted into the Soviet Army.
These were years when the USSR tolerated Armenia's institutional church existence, but did not permit its life.
When conscript Nersissian reported for processing, a commander told him that the army was aware that his brother was a priest, so it had a "special" posting for the young soldier.
Arriving at the Charbakh assembly point, conscript Nersissian learned that the train he was ordered to board was bound for Murmansk/Arkhangelsk, one of the northernmost seaports of Russia—a posting referred to as "where the polar bears live."
"I ran away to Moscow," the Bishop recalls these many years later as his car passes near the imposing building of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Moscow.
Before the young soldier had served a day, he was already Absent-Without-Leave, and stayed on the run for three months.
He returned to Armenia where his mother pleaded with him to square himself with the Soviet Army. He did (but only after escaping a second time). Ultimately, the destination was the same as threatened by the vindictive induction commander. He was assigned to an engineering battalion.
Seventeen conscripts made up his company; 15 had criminal records. More than 30 years later, the top joint on the middle finger of the Bishop's left hand is still permanently bent from an altercation resulting from life among his Red Army comrades.
Surviving his army obligation, Mkrtich Nersissian returned to Armenia intent on following his brother's path. He told his mother that he wanted to apply for priesthood.
Though herself a woman of faith, Khatun begged her son to not enter church service. She had given one son to the life of celibacy, and pleaded with her other one to not take the vow. If her sons were to give her grandchildren, the responsibility would lie with Mkrtich.
Mkrtich was also strongly discouraged by the principal of the school he had attended.
"When he heard that I wanted to enter the seminary, my principal got on his knees and begged me to not do it," Bishop Yezras recalls.
During this period, the Soviet Union allowed Armenia to have no more than 40 seminarians. The principal feared that if his student applied, the action would reflect poorly on the school's performance, leading to repercussions for the principal.
Yielding to his mother's plea, Mkrtich entered state university instead.
In 1980 though, his mother died, and in the same year—this time against objections from his three sisters—Mkrtich entered the seminary in Holy Etchmiadzin.
"If my mother hadn't died," he recalls today, "I wouldn't be serving the Church."
Service has included teaching Old Testament and Church History in the seminary at Holy Etchmiadzin, and pastoral ministry of the St. Petersburg community, which included the reopening and renovation of two historic institutions: first, similar to Moscow, the church in the Armenian cemetery and later, due to the Bishop's efforts, the return by the Russian government of St. Catherine's Armenian Church on St. Petersburg's main street, Nevsky Prospect. His experience led to this Moscow mission, where creation of the complex calls on the Bishop to engage talents he has learned at every phase of his career.
Troika Dialog founder, Ruben Vardanian—a member of the church council—is a major contributor to the construction.
"Success or failure of the Diaspora depends on leadership," Vardanian told AGBU. "The Bishop is a good example. People trust him. People believe he is right."
The 50-year-old Bishop has, himself, cut stone for construction of the complex. According to one driver who works for the diocese, there have been times when Bishop Yezras has been on site until 3 a.m., doing manual labor.
He says participating in the work is a principle learned from his parents, who he says were common laborers in his village near Etchmiadzin who "had no specialty, but profound faith."
But how does that translate into a stone-cutting Bishop? "I watched, and learned," the Bishop says slyly.
In fact, he was concerned that the workers' daily 12-hour shift was not sufficient for the timely progress of the project, so he wanted to pitch in. So for a week, he put his hand to the saw, slicing Ani tufa.
On a tour of the sprawling site on a cold March morning, his purple vestal garb gleaming from under a black overcoat, the Bishop, unprompted, cranks up an imposingly large saw and moves it with apparent skill across a slab of rock, like a butcher meting out salami.
"If others see that Srbazan (Bishop) is cutting stone, then they might think that they, too, should do something," Bishop Yezras says.
Building a base
Completed already and awaiting relocation once the developing complex is opened, the Sons of Armenia Cultural Center (Sunday School) is a preview of activity that might be expected to multiply at the new location.
A few minutes' drive (depending on Moscow's notorious traffic) from the new complex, the Sunday School underwent renovation under Bishop Yezras's ministry, growing from 30 students in 2004 to 450 presently.
In fact, the dilapidated building faced becoming a condemned property by city regulations due to its condition. The Bishop appealed to the Municipality of Moscow to give him one year to bring the building up to standard. His request was met, and now the refurbished building houses a modest but active cultural center that is enjoyed not only by Russian-Armenians, but by Russian families as well (who wish to explore Armenian arts, culture, religion). There is no charge for enrollment.
Due in part to assistance from AGBU, the cultural center now thrives while waiting to expand at the new location where similar activities will be available for about 1,000.
School director Hmayak Gevorgian Sukiasian says that, although the largest diaspora, the Russian-Armenian Diaspora "is only now beginning to form in Moscow. The construction of the center will mark an important phase in development."
Already, development has progressed, as the cultural center, opened in 2007, offers classes in Armenian heritage that include dance, music, art, tapestry-making, as well as chess, and a fitness center in the basement for wrestling and martial arts. A small performance hall routinely has theater staged by the students, down the hall from a "Wall of Heroes" that includes photos, from Charles Aznavour to Monte Melkonian.
Spiritual direction at the school is the responsibility of 32-year-old Ter Arakel, who is in his first mission out of seminary. At Sons of Armenia, he teaches about 200 high school students and says he looks forward to being able to have up to 1,000 students when the new complex is opened.
"This school is a part of the Church. Of course spiritual education should become a part of their education here. Religious education is especially important for teenagers because their parents grew up during Soviet times and they cannot teach spiritual lessons to their children since they, themselves, were not taught."
Each summer, the diocese sponsors travel for students to Armenia. Last year 50 went. Sixty or more will go this year.
"If they go to Holy Etchmiadzin, light a candle, see Mount Ararat, just a week might be equal to all that we can do here in a year," the Bishop says.
What the Church can do to influence Armenian life in Moscow, and indeed throughout this vast country, has grown considerably in the past few years.
In 2004, the Armenian Apostolic Church had seven priests in Russia; now there are 28 (six of whom serve Moscow). It had 10 religious communities registered with the state, whereas now there are 64.
Across the country there are currently 12 Armenian Apostolic churches under construction. In fact, the Bishop recently signed an agreement to build another one in Moscow, in the territory of Poklonnaya Gora (literally, "bow down hill"), and dedicated to the Armenian soldiers who died fighting in World War II.
The church will stand in the "Lane of Memory" between a mosque and a synagogue and will include a museum, and a wall on which will be engraved the names of all 350,000 Armenians who died fighting for the Soviet Union against Germany.
Old Testament, new application
If the Old Testament is to be taken as history, about 465 years Before Christ, a prophet named Ezra (Yezras) was given a mission. It was his calling to lead a segment of the Jewish Diaspora who had fled Babylon and returned to Judea. The community's habits had changed since leaving their Motherland. They had assimilated with other nationalities and their spiritual leaders feared their nation would become diluted. It was Ezra's job to unify them, to instruct them in the ways of their national faith and culture.
So he built a temple.
Ezra 3:11: ". . . And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid."