Russian orthodox Christians often take a dim view of feminism. Despite advances in women’s rights in Russia since women gained the right to vote in 1917, in the world of Orthodoxy women still play a clearly defined role.

Does this traditional view mean an infringement of women’s rights? Can the voice of modern Orthodox women be heard in the church today? These questions were the starting point for my photography project “Icon and Mirror,” in which I explore the relationship between the idealization of the iconic Virgin Mary, on the one hand, and the treatment of real women in today’s Russia on the other.

I chose to focus on Voronezh, a city of one million in the heart of south Russia, where the heritage of Russian Orthodox traditions is treasured and passed from one generation to the next.

I found that women are prominent as leaders and activists in Voronezh’s many Orthodox organizations and communities. Since 2003, the wives of Orthodox priests here have helped shape the life of the Voronezh diocese through a women’s council, which is the only one of its kind in Russia today. I ask Tatiana Volodko, a presbytera or priest’s wife and a member of the council, why that is. “In other regions, they are reluctant for some reason,” she tells me. “Women are too passive.”

Surely passivity stems from a misunderstanding of Orthodox humility. True humility should come from within as the crown of the Christian life, not be forced upon women by restrictive traditions that keep them from participating in the life of the church.

In Voronezh, at least, Orthodox women are not holding back. The women I photographed are remarkable for their inner energy and their drive to serve. As I hope my photography conveys, Voronezh’s women embody both traditional Orthodox femininity and the plucky spirit of a modern woman.

A parishioner after the Sunday service.


Ninety-five-year-old Varvara, the oldest parishioner of the Church of Saint Michael, at her home


After the Sunday service, in the church courtyard


A theological seminary student in the icon-painting workshop


Tatiana Volodko, chairwoman of the women’s council


Alla Lutskevich and her daughter visiting a parishioner


All photographs by Pola Rader. Used by permission.