Timing can be everything.
The Rev. John Burgess happened to be in East Germany in November 1989, visiting friends he had met while studying there, and he witnessed the euphoria in that nation's capital in the first hours after the Berlin Wall came down.
So after witnessing the signature event in the end of the Cold War, he grew curious about what happened next. He spent years of quiet research into the revival of Orthodox Christianity in post-communist Russia.
He has just released his book on the topic – once again, with auspicious timing, with public attention riveted on Russia amid headlines that involve political hacking, Syria, Ukraine and the relationship between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Burgess' manuscript went to press before the recent news cycles. But the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor and Presbyterian minister offers some long-term context to them with his book, "Holy Rus': The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia."
The book, published by Yale University Press, looks at Russian Orthodoxy's stunning rebound from decades of communist repression.
This revival is politically important as well, because many inside and outside of Russia decry what they see as an overly cozy relationship between the church establishment and a post-communist regime that's been doing some repressing of its own – but against different targets, such as political dissenters and religious minorities.
"You look at Russia, you think of the daily news, you think of President Putin, you think of the accusations of Russian hacking during the elections," said Burgess. "You think of a regime that is authoritarian, that does not respect human rights in the way we would like, and the Russian Orthodox Church that seems to support President Putin and never seems to speak out."
He joins with many Orthodox themselves in challenging a hierarchy that has depicted the Putin era as a "miracle of God." But it "is too small a picture" to focus just on that, he said.
"It would be trying to understand the United States just by trying to understand what's happening inside the Beltway in Washington," he said. "We would miss the richness of everyday life."
Burgess didn't interview those in the church hierarchy, nor did he major in archival research. Instead, he immersed himself in daily Orthodox life, visiting parishes, monasteries and shrines. He followed a priest's advice: "If you want to learn Orthodox theology, go to the liturgy, not the library."
Burgess did his first sabbatical study in Russia in 2004-2006, spending the year there with his wife, Deborah, and their three school-age daughters. He deepened his research with a later long-term residential study and numerous shorter trips.
Burgess got to know priests and lay people who are rebuilding religious life and also helping to patch the nation's torn social safety net with education, charitable services and addiction recovery programs.
At the 1991 fall of communism, the Soviet Union was home to about 7,000 Russian Orthodox parishes and barely two-dozen monasteries. Now, there are about 35,000 parishes and more than 800 monasteries in the former Soviet republics, Burgess said.
"What I try to do in the book is show what has happened at a grassroots level and the way the church is contributing in immensely positive ways to the development of a new Russia," Burgess said. "It is helping Russians become aware of their ancient religious heritage going back a thousand years. It is doing cutting-edge social ministries. It is reminding Russians of the Soviet crimes during the 20th century."
The term Holy Rus' refers to the medieval kingdom whose ruler and populace converted to Christianity. (The apostrophe in Rus' is the transliteration of a soft s sound in Russian.)
For many Russians, he said, the historical details about Holy Rus' may be fuzzy, but it symbolizes an "elusive ideal of a people and place transformed by the holy."
For some, this vision offers spiritual meaning amid the rat race of post-communist capitalism, he said. For others, lamenting Moscow's fall from its Soviet-era height of global power, Holy Rus' provides a "compelling narrative of national greatness and uniqueness."
At the same time, he raises challenging questions for the church.
While Putin has been cited widely for human-rights violations, the church hierarchy has embraced him and found common cause in denouncing trends they portray as Western intrusions, such as calls for gay marriage.
Burgess said this is not surprising given the Orthodox tradition of "symphonia," which sees church and state as distinct but mutually supportive. If church hierarchs did criticize the regime, it would most likely be in private, he said. But the close public alliance with a repressive regime will come at a cost to the church, he said.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been honoring, through canonizations and iconography, the many genuine martyrs are others who suffered under communism. This, Burgess said, helps to combat nostalgia for the communist regime.
At the same time, he wishes the Russian Orthodox would do more to acknowledge its own complicity in the repression of rival Ukrainian Catholics under communism and to show solidarity with Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious minorities currently being repressed.
Burgess also said that even at the grassroots, the Russian Orthodox revival has its limits. Many people identify with Orthodoxy but relatively few practice it regularly.
"Russia is a very secular society despite the veneer of Orthodoxy," he said. "You go to Moscow and it's a great world capital with everything that comes along with that – nightlife, pluralism of lifestyles, drug addictions and corruption."
Russian and American Christians "share a common situation today of being in a post-Christian era," he said. "We have things to learn from each other."
Although his book might seem more in the genre of journalism or religious sociology, Burgess is actually a professor of systematic theology. Yet he connects his research to theological considerations.
Ever since he did his doctoral dissertation on the English Puritans' goal of building a "holy commonwealth," he has explored such connections between church and state. When he studied in East Germany in the 1980s, he witnessed churches providing a haven for political dissidents.
He said he's learned not to be quick to judge the legions of Russians who identify as Orthodox but seldom go to church.
He tells of a woman he met during a pilgrimage to a monastery in northern Russia.
"She never goes to church in Moscow," he said. "She's been baptized, but she's not sure she really believes in God. ... But if you ask her what it's like to go on pilgrimage to this monastery on an island 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, she talks about the beauty, the sense of peace."
That, he said, is a form of being religious. "My wish as a theologian is that it would turn in to something more," he said. "But neither would I say her religion is an empty outward set of behaviors. Going to that monastery changed her, at least for a few days. It helped her think about a different dimension of her life."
The sensory richness of Orthodox worship with its churches topped with gold and silver onion domes and filled with icons, incense and sacramental pageantry contrasts sharply with the more verbal, unadorned Presbyterian tradition.
Yet as much as he's come to appreciate Orthodoxy and its adherents, Burgess has remained Presbyterian.
"When we're among Orthodox, we don't feel excluded, but neither have we been ready to say we're ready to give up the heritage that shaped us and gave us faith," he said.