In the early 1980s, there was not a single church in the city of Tolyatti, with its population of half a million. Today, thanks to church initiatives, the city has become one of the educational and cultural centers of Russia.
Over the past three decades, there have been thousands of such examples in Russia, where the construction of Orthodox churches has truly transformed the urban space, and not only aesthetically but also meaningfully. After all, the church is not only a prayer room, where hundreds of believers gather once a week for worship. Each church is, first of all, a parish — a community built on the principle of a “big family” — in which a joint life exists, even outside the walls of the church building.
Among the numerous examples, this one is truly unique. This city of Tolyatti is a metropolis, which in the last decades of the Soviet Union had practically lost its history. Back in 1737, it had been founded by Vasily Tatishchev (who was also the founder of Yekaterinburg) as "Stavropol-on-Volga" (translated from Greek as the “City of the Cross”). It was an Orthodox missionary center, built to enlighten the baptized Kalmyks. However, the Kalmyk mission was unsuccessful, and very quickly the city became a provincial county center, and in the first Soviet decades a small regional center.
In the 1950s, the Volga Stavropol suffered the fate of the village described in the story “Farewell to Matera” described by Valentin Rasputin during the construction of hydroelectric power plants. Similarly, the small Volga town turned out to be at the bottom of the reservoir, but after being reborn as an industrial giant, it soon received the new name "Tolyatti", and with it the well-known automobile plant. Very quickly, the new city grew to a half-million people, almost completely devoid of roots.
Thus, in the beginning of the 1980s, there was not a single church in all of Tolyatti. There was only one small prayer chapel, and it was constantly crowded with people.
In the 1990s, the situation in the city only worsened. It was at this time that Tolyatti experienced a terrible wave of criminal squabbles, so that along with “gangster Petersburg,” Tolyatti became a tragic symbol of the “dashing 90s”. By this time, the first two churches had already appeared in this Volga Auto City, but for 700 thousand people it was a drop in the ocean. However, at the turn of the century, a real “church boom” began in Tolyatti.
It began with the fact that in 1997, at AvtoVAZ, a small church dedicated to the Archangel Michael was built. At first, anti-church-minded people reacted to the new church with hostility, and there were even attempts to set fire to it. But a significant number of people reacted very positively.
And soon, in the Avtozavodsky district of Tolyatti two more churches were built: the majestic Transfiguration Cathedral and the Church of All Saints, erected in 1995 in the Tolyatti Orthodox classical school, a shining light in the Russian Land. At the same time, the Resurrection Monastery was built in the city, widely known for its wonderworking icon of the Great Martyr Barbara.
The urban landscape has changed: sleeping areas consisting of typical late Soviet high-rise buildings decorated original masterpieces in the neo-Russian architectural style. And the clergy of the city, with the blessing of archbishop Sergius, got actively involved in the educational and cultural life of the city.
The Orthodox classical school marked the beginning of serious changes in higher education, not only in the city, but in the entire Samara region. Tolyatti, which for several decades had been an industrial city without a church, has now become one of the key centers of Russian theological education.
It was here, on the basis of the initial school, that the Orthodox Humanities College was founded, as well as the Volga Orthodox Institute. Of course, a few detractors were outraged. "We have separation of Church and state!" "Why do we need an Orthodox institution?" But, as Father Dimitriy Leskin pointed out in an interview, theology has always been the queen of the humanities. And while seminaries are available for those planning to do work exclusively with the church, Orthodox education itself is not a purely ecclesiastical or clerical affair:
The main areas of training in our institute are pedagogy, philology, and history, as well as a number of other humanitarian and pedagogical areas. Our theology is licensed and accredited, but currently we are recruiting for this area only as a second higher education. And this is done consciously, in order to ensure that those who receive theological education also receive basic humanitarian training.
All schools throughout Russia have the course "Fundamentals of religious cultures and secular ethics", in which one of the major topics is "Fundamentals of Orthodox culture." Teachers who had received Soviet education often have more difficulty mastering the teaching of this course. And it is the Volga Orthodox Institute that has become a center for professional training in this field — not only for Tolyatti and the Samara Region, but also for the whole Volga Federal District.
Until quite recently, no full-fledged humanitarian libraries could be found in Tolyatti. Even the central library of this city was extremely scarce. This problem was resolved by the Volga Orthodox Institute, where a great library was built, having practically no equal to its collection of books on Russian philosophy.
And these are only scientific and educational examples. There are also a number of cases where the new Orthodox churches and schools have invigorated the city's cultural life, as well. For example: Tolyatti Orthodox choirs actively participate — and often win — both national and international competitions.
In short, over the course of two decades, despite the difficult economic situation in the country and Tolyatti itself, the urban humanitarian space has not only changed but has really been transformed.
Of course, one of the most important indicators of society's revival is it's ability and readiness to reproduce itself. Simply put, when new families are created, children are born. And if the Tolyatti transformation began with Orthodox churches and Orthodox schools, then its revival also begins with a church dedicated to Christian marriage: A wedding church in the name of Saints Peter and Fevronia was recently opened at the Avtozavodsky district registry office.
While pessimists in the past had been quick to call this city a "Russian Detroit", this church signifies a renewed focus on the growth and flourishing of Christian families. Over the decades to come, there is hope that this church will have a very beneficial effect on the demographic situation in this city.