The few churches are alive and well and more accessible.

One man’s impressions of its Christians and their churches.

Twenty-five years of study and even occasional writing about Siberia had not prepared me for the reality. At New Year there was less snow in Irkutsk than in England. The majestic Angara river, the only outlet from the huge Lake Baikal, never freezes as it sweeps through Irkutsk. Neither does the hospitality of the people, which becomes warmer as you go east. The immense distances shrivelled on the last day when I travelled from a hotel in Irkutsk, four-fifths of the way across Asia to the Pacific, to my bed in Kent, England, between sunrise and midnight (with, of course, a time difference of seven hours).

Siberia. The word strikes terror, bringing with it associations of exile and death. But Siberia is also a land of opportunity and it has areas of great natural beauty interspersed among the expanses of the taiga, the evergreen-forested plain.

Although I found time to see Lake Baikal and other wonders of nature, people were at the heart of this visit, as they have been on other journeys to the Soviet Union. Intourist provided a major surprise in Siberia, for never before in my experience has a meeting with a priest been included as part of an excursion. We were but an ordinary tourist group with no religious affiliation; yet our charming Intourist guide, a Ukrainian now living in Siberia, not only took us into two active Orthodox churches, she even prearranged with the priest of the church in the little village of Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal to welcome us and open the church of St. Nicholas.

Father Andronik greeted us warmly at the door of his church under a cloudless sky, with the village behind him ...

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