Inside The Immaculate World Of Russian Orthodox Dating

Attendance at club evenings regularly exceeds 120, and men tend to be outnumbered. Most women are practicing Orthodox Christians who come with the express goal of finding a husband . . .

Originally appeared at: RadioFreeEurope

MOSCOW -- On a recent snowy Sunday, the 17th-century Dormition Church was drawing the evening service 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. Tables were arranged in neat rows. Off came the thick winter coats, and out came the smartphones. Numbers were traded, eye contact held or averted, and the atmosphere gave way to flirtation and giggles.

Attendees of the Peter and Fevronia Club mingle at Moscow's Dormition Church.

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, Father Aleksy 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.

At 67, Father Aleksy is a happily married father of two, sporting 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 Father Aleksy 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," said 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 stood chatting on the sidelines with Yulia, a fresh-faced music teacher. Like other women present, she wore a head covering.

"My values are very specific," she said. "Perhaps I'll meet someone . . . he'll be Orthodox." Then she laughed, adding, "I just think no one else can handle me."

Yulia and Sergei (in front of the icon) at the weekly event at Moscow's Dormition Church.

Father Aleksy insists it was never meant as a lonely hearts club. "It's a social gathering for the youth," he said. "Where will they socialize, if not here?"

Orthodox Christians 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 a religious experience differing from the 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 Father Aleksy, 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?" read the first note he picked that Sunday. "God created a man and a woman and said go forth and multiply," Father Aleksy replied, his tone suddenly impassioned. "This man is violating God's law, and that is not good. Do not follow his example."

The author of the second note wanted to know whether he should marry a priest's daughter. "This is a huge responsibility, of course," Father Aleksy said after a moment's pause. "Such a creature is uniquely intelligent."

Questions continued for another hour, probing issues from curing loneliness to the use (or nonuse) of vodka by Russian soldiers in past military campaigns.

Yekaterina Gromova, Father Aleksy's assistant and the club's main coordinator, said 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. Many men attend out of curiosity. Most women, she said, are practicing Orthodox Christians who come with the express goal of finding a husband.

The lifestyles of Orthodox Christians vary to some extent. Some drink and smoke, while others maintain an ascetic lifestyle. They do not tolerate homosexuality, which is unequivocally denounced by the Church. And at the Peter and Fevronia Club, they profess fealty to at least one rule of Orthodox dating: no sex before marriage.

"Yes," said 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 Father Aleksy'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 Destiny.

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 more mundane questions, such as clothing style. 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 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 said 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 began clearing away the tables and preparing the church for service the following morning. Yulia and Sergei headed to a cafe round the corner with two other couples, while others walked home in the still-falling snow.

Andrei, a 28-year-old electrician who helps clean up, was upbeat. He'd arranged a date with a girl he met that evening, and felt good about it. 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 her approach to people," he said, balancing a folding 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."

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