Passengers on Russian trains will soon be treated to special audio programs designed to broaden their knowledge of history, philosophy, and religion – more specifically, Russian Orthodoxy.
Under the initiative, headed by a senior figure at the Moscow Patriarchate, a compilation of programs previously hosted by Radio Rossii journalist Lyudmila Borzyak will become available on more than 200 long-distance trains in the coming months.
Topics will include stories from the lives of famous Russian saints, including Princess Olga and Prince Vladimir; the early days of Christianity in Russia; and the formation of the Russian state.
Travelers will also have a chance to learn more about classical philosophers such as Thales of Miletus and Pliny the Younger, and about the history of different inventions. "We believe this project will help foster a higher level of culture and instruction in society," said Yelena Miroshnikova, a spokeswoman for the state-owned Russian Railways. "It also aims to encourage personal values such as respect for our country's historical past, kindness, and spiritual growth."
But the project has already met with a degree of skepticism, with some experts saying it violates the constitutional principle of secularism in state organizations. Disapproval appears particularly deep in Russian republics whose dominant religion is not Orthodox Christianity.
In Kazan, the capital of predominantly Muslim Tatarstan, 17-year-old city resident Adilya says such Christian-themed programs risk offending many Tatars. "I'm strongly against it," she said. "I ride trains every day, and I would not like to listen only to Orthodox programs, especially if they are only in Russian. Some people might even find it insulting because it talks about Orthodoxy but not at all about Islam."
The original radio programs used for the project were produced jointly with the Russian Orthodox Church, and three of the five segments are devoted to religion.
Although passengers will reportedly have the option of turning off the sound, Church history expert Irina Karatsuba believes that introducing religious content into public spaces such as trains could potentially turn people away from religion.
Railways spokeswoman Miroshnikova, however, denies the initiative amounts to proselytising. "Orthodoxy is part of our country's culture and history, and that's precisely how it is presented in the programs," she said. "Our aim is not to propagandize a particular confession."
While Russia formally prides itself on being a multiconfessional state, high-ranking officials have come under growing criticism in recent years for their coziness with the Moscow Patriarchate.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has famously described President Vladimir Putin's lengthy rule as a "miracle of God." Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, a close ally of Putin, makes no secret of his devoutness.
His efforts on behalf of Russian Orthodoxy have earned him three Church decorations in Russia -- the Order of St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Order of Holy Prince Daniel of Moscow, and the Order of St. Andrei Rublyov – as well as a string of accolades from Orthodox churches in Greece, Serbia, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.
Yakunin is also in charge of flying a light kindled from the "Holy Fire" -- a flame that Orthodox Christians believe emerges in the Jerusalem church that is believed to be the location of Jesus' burial during an ancient Easter rite -- to Moscow every year.
Claire Bigg reports for RFE/RL, form where this article is adapted.