Tag Archives: Russian Orthodox Church

Communists for God

Discussions about amending the Russian constitution continue. As I mentioned previously, the Russian government has submitted a formal proposal to the State Duma, providing details on how the government believes the constitution should be changed. The proposal has already passed its first reading. In the meantime, however, all sorts of other people have thrown out all sorts of other ideas to tack onto the government’s proposal. Many of these are being discussed in the commission that Vladimir Putin set up to discuss the issue, and it seems possible that some of the ideas will end up before the Duma when the bill to amend the constitution comes up for its second reading in the coming weeks.

Today, for instance, the online newspaper Vzgliad reported that Putin had reacted positively to a suggestion by the Director of the Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovskii that the constitution should be amended to strengthen the idea that ‘culture is Russia’s unique inheritance, which is preserved by the state.’ Responding to Piotrovskii, Putin said that culture ‘is the nation’s DNA, which makes us the multinational Russian [Rossiiskii] people, and shows our originality. We’re thinking of how to do that.’

One integral feature of most cultures is religion. And so it should perhaps not come as a surprise that some people want to include God in the Russian constitution. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church made this proposal a week or so ago, and it rapidly gathered support in influential circles. TV talk show host Vladimir Solovyov, for instance, boosted the idea on his evening show, and now the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, has said that he has no objection. Asked about including God in the constitution’s preamble, Zyuganov commented that,

It’s an image that is in line with the main moral and spiritual values of our state. … When I studied the Bible, the Epistles of Paul the Apostle […] it contains the main slogan of communism: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat.’ As a matter of fact, we borrowed a lot in the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism from the Bible. And if anyone tries to say otherwise, they just have to put those documents side by side.

It may seem odd that the Communists are turning to God, but it’s hardly the first time Zyuganov has done this. In fact, he’s been attempting to fuse communism and Christianity for the best part of three decades. And back in 2014 Patriarch Kirill recognized the Communist leader’s devotion to the Church by awarding him an order ‘for glory and honour’. With the Communists on board (or at least not opposed), the Patriarch’s proposed constitutional amendment has at least some chance of success.

I think that this case is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it shows what happens when the Russian government invites the public for input into fundamental issues connected to the nature and purpose of the state. The government’s own proposal pretty much preserves the liberal autocratic nature of the constitution. But once civil society, including Mr Piotrovskii and Patriarch Kirill, were asked for their ideas, they started introducing matters which the guardians of the liberal autocracy had never considered – most notably, issues of culture and religion start raising their head. It perhaps gives one a sense of the direction Russian politics might take if it indeed became less autocratic.

Second, much has been written in the past 20 years about the alleged political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Academic studies which I’ve read on the topic suggest that this influence isn’t nearly as great as often claimed. The fate of Patriarch Kirill’s proposal to include God in the constitution will, therefore, be a very valuable case study to determine just how much pull the Church really has. Far from everybody supports Kirill’s amendment. According to Interfax, ‘Russian State Duma Committee on State Building and Legislation Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov has opposed this initiative.’ Putin himself has remained silent on the matter. It will be interesting to see who wins.


‘Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.’ Winston Churchill.

One of the many problems with schism is that it tends to undermine legitimacy. A long-standing institution, such as a church, has a certain legitimacy among its members just due to inertia. A sufficiently long tradition can by itself justify an institution to those who belong to it. But when a group breaks free, it lacks the same justification, and thus the same legitimacy. Consequently, it’s not surprising that splitters may end up splitting up among themselves. And so it is that we shouldn’t be altogether shocked by the extraordinary goings-on in the Orthodox Church of Ukraine/Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or whatever it is the various factions are calling themselves today (People’s Front of Judea, maybe?).

From the late 17th century onwards, Orthodox parishes in what is now Ukraine were part of the Russian Orthodox Church and were governed from Moscow; first through the Moscow Patriarchate; then following the latter’s abolition through the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church; and finally, after the Revolution, through the Patriarchate once again. This remained the case until the final days of the Soviet Union. At that point, the Church split. Russian Orthodox parishes in Ukraine formed a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which acquired autonomy from Moscow but remained ultimately subordinate to the Patriarch there. Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev, however, refused to go along with the new arrangements, and in due course broke away from the UOC to form a rival Church, also called the UOC, of which he proclaimed himself the Patriarch. Ukraine thus now had two UOCs, generally known as UOC (MP – Moscow Patriarchate) and UOC (KP – Kiev Patriarchate). Adding to the complications, from 1990 a third institution- the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) – also operated in Ukraine.

An interesting aspect of these schisms is that there was no apparent doctrinal reason for them. As far as I have been able to ascertain, none of the Ukrainian churches disagree on key doctrinal issues. Instead, the causes of the splits appear to have been the personal ambitions of certain clerics allied with nationalist politics. The latter then led last year to an attempt by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to unite the various churches in a single organization which would be free of control from Moscow. To this end, Poroshenko persuaded the Patriarch of Constantinople to issue a decree establishing a new independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which would combine the OUC (KP) and UAOC. The hope seems to have been that members of the UOC (MP) would then flock to join the new OCU, so destroying the UOC (MP).

This doesn’t seem to have happened. Some UOC (MP) parishes have joined the OCU (allegedly not all entirely voluntarily), but most have not, and those which have are mostly located in the west of the country. Rather than unite the country, the establishment of the new church seems only to have further accelerated its division into western parts (now overwhelming OCU) and eastern/southern parts (still mostly UOC (MP)). The new OCU also isn’t as independent as its creators imagined it would be, as it is officially subordinate to Constantinople and has been downgraded from being run by a Patriarch (Filaret) to being run by a mere Metropolitan (Epiphany).

The new arrangement has not pleased Filaret, who lost his position as head of the church he created. In May, Filaret declared that in his opinion the UOC (KP) had not been abolished, and he remained its Patriarch. He refused to sign the OCU’s charter at a meeting of its Synod, claiming somewhat bizarrely that, ‘The Synod (…) was aimed at the destruction of the Kyiv Patriarchate. Now there is an influence on our primate of these pro-Moscow forces that have entered. And their task is to destroy the Kyiv Patriarchate.’ Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, however, refused to back down, pointedly declaring that, ‘Filaret is no longer Kyiv Patriarch, but a former Kyiv Metropolitan.’

In response, Filaret has now gone one step further. On 14 June, he sent out messages to bishops inviting them to a Council of the supposedly abolished UOC (KP). The Council met yesterday. It announced that the UOC (KP) still exists, that Filaret is its Patriarch, and that it retains the rights to all its property. Unsurprisingly, the OCU has stated that it doesn’t recognize Filaret’s Council or its results. According to one source, on Monday the OCU will formally declare that Filaret and his supporters have split from the Church, albeit saying that, ‘it’s not a schism, it’s just separation of a specific group that supports the opinion of Patriarch Filaret’.

How many people will follow the Patriarch remains to be seen. His Council yesterday does not appear to have been well attended. Most senior clerics seem to be loyal to the OCU. Nevertheless, the new split can only harm the legitimacy of the OCU, and it makes it much harder for the OCU to claim that it is the one true Ukrainian church and that people should leave the OUC (MP) to join it.

Once again, religious doctrine appears nowhere in the disputes. Instead, the warring parties trade nationalist rhetoric, each portraying themselves as the true defenders of the Ukrainian nation. One article published with the headline ‘Only Patriarch Filaret will protect Ukrainian faithful in diaspora’ commented that the creation of the OCU had sold Ukraine out to the Greeks (i.e. Constantinople). By contrast, ‘Patriarch Filaret is almost the only leader in the Ukrainian Church who still believes that it must be independent and serve interests of Ukraine.’ Against this, supporters of the OCU accuse Filaret of playing into the hands of Moscow. As one Ukrainian religious scholar puts it, ‘It’s hard to say directly that this is exclusively the influence of the FSB, or some Russian intelligence services. But the fact that Holy Patriarch Filaret’s ambitions are being successfully warmed up is hard to deny.’

In the mid-19th century, the Slavophile theologian Alexei Khomiakov wrote an influential tome entitled ‘The Church is One’. He stressed the value of sobornost’, a sort of spirit of voluntary collectivism which results in decision making by consensus and agreement by all to respect the decisions taken. Sobornost’ seems to be rather lacking at the moment. And as the clerical battle heats up, God seems to have been forgotten. The OCU was from the start a political not a religious project. It’s hardly surprising that it’s floundering. There is, I think, I lesson there for religious and political leaders everywhere.

National Security Threats

A few days ago, I posted a story about Sweden. Although it’s notionally a neutral country, it contains a strong pro-NATO element which is quite vocal in playing up the threat that Russia allegedly poses to its national security. As part of this trend, the liberal newspaper Vestmanlands Lans Tidning was today in full ‘red scare’ mode, warning Swedes of the terrible dangers posed by a new building being constructed in the town of Vasteras. As you can see in the picture below, the building is scary indeed.

sweden church
A threat to national security

Continue reading National Security Threats

The New Martyrs

No doubt you have come across the opinion that Vladimir Putin is resurrecting the cult of Josef Stalin. An example is this recent comment in the Ottawa Citizen:

In Putin’s world, Stalin was the hero who liberated Europe and under whose leadership, the occupied Baltic States, Ukraine, Belarus and other Soviet satellites, prospered thanks to Soviet benevolence. Putin has crafted himself as Stalin’s heir, and as such, there’s little room for the ‘truth’ about the 30 million who were murdered by Stalin’s regime, let alone any other inconvenient fact about Soviet occupation or mass repression.

Last week, a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to assess how true this may be. On Sunday morning we visited the Sretenskii Monastery in downtown Moscow. Like many other institutions of the Orthodox Church, it was destroyed during the Soviet era. In November 2013, a decision was made to rebuild it, and just a little over three years later, in May 2017, the new church in the centre of the monastery was consecrated.

Sretenskii Monastery, Moscow

Continue reading The New Martyrs

Book review: Holy Rus’

The Russian Orthodox Church is generally portrayed in the West as corrupt, deeply reactionary, and totally subordinate to the state. Yet while there is an anti-clerical element in Russia which shares this point of view, in general Russians regard their Church very favourably. Meanwhile, over the past 25 years the number of Russians self-identifying as Orthodox has increased from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population. How can we explain why Russians have turned in such large numbers towards an institution which is supposedly so rotten?

The obvious explanation is that the Russian Orthodox Church isn’t as bad as it is made out to be. This, in essence, is the argument of John Burgess’s new book Holy Rus’. Burgess, an American Calvinist theologian, has spent several years examining the Orthodox Church close up and seeing what it is that is actually doing. From this, he concludes that:

When we examine the Russian Orthodox Church only in terms of its compromises with and subservience to the state, we miss the extraordinary religious renaissance that is taking place on the ground far away from official meetings between the president and the patriarch. Major initiatives in education, social ministry, historical commemoration, and parish life are helping the Church reach deeply into Russian society. Whatever the Church’s faults and failures – and they are real – I have seen how Russia is the better for the Church’s efforts to bring its values into society.


Continue reading Book review: Holy Rus’

Imperial Russia

Much has been written in the last couple of years about Russia’s ‘conservative turn’. On the whole, I haven’t been impressed, but I did quite like an article I stumbled across today by Moscow-based American academic Christopher Stroop which was published last month in The Public Eye magazine (which describes its mission as being to ‘challenge the right-wing’ and its ‘threats to human and civil rights’). Entitled ‘A Right-Wing International’, the article describes the leading role which the Russian Orthodox Church has played in the World Congress of Families (WCF), an organization ‘dedicated to what [its members] call “the natural family”.’

Stroop depicts the WCF as the product of a complex mix of Russian and American influences. It emerged out of discussions between Russian sociologists Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov and conservative American activist Alan Carlson, who was strongly influenced by Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian émigré sociologist who taught at Harvard. According to Stroop, Sorokin taught that, ‘absent absolute values grounded in unchanging religious truth, human morality will decay and society will descend into chaos’. Sorokin drew on the writings of earlier Russian thinkers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev, Ivan Ilyin, and Sergei Bulgakov, who all maintained that in the absence of belief in God, people would come to idolize the state. The result would be tyranny. Berdyaev, says Stroop, ‘believed in a particular Providential calling for Russia … in which a spiritually renewed Russia would have an important role to play in reviving the Christian roots of European civilization’. It is this idea, Stroop claims, which now inspires the Russian Orthodox Church and some Russian political leaders.

Stroop warns that the ‘idea of a special role for Russia in the world’s moral progress … [can] all too easily play into a sense of Russian exceptionalism: a sense that Russia represents a morally superior civilization.’ Berdyaev, Bulgakov, and others sought hard to avoid this, but ‘With or without claiming inherent moral superiority, there is a clear claim here that Russia has a spiritual mission to enlighten other nations. Historically, this claim is rooted in Slavophilism.’ Stroop adds:

The Russian discourse of moral mission and the superiority of Christian values to those of the ‘decadent’ West has played a key role in the resurgence of social conservatism in post-Soviet Russia. It should be noted that this discourse is essentially imperial; Russian concerns about morality have never been only about Russia, but have always been bound up with considerations of the role that Russia should play in the wider world.

I agree to some extent. As I have pointed out before, Slavophilism drew on German Romantic claims that nations could only contribute to humanity by following their own path and drawing on what was best in their own culture. Paradoxically, Slavophiles wished to distance themselves from the West, not in order to live in splendid isolation but precisely in order to be able to contribute something to the West. In the same way, some of their modern successors claim that it is precisely by refusing to fully endorse ‘Western values’ that they can save Western civilization from itself.

Yet to call this ‘imperial’ is going a bit too far. ‘Imperial’ implies the imposition of a set of ideas or a form of government by an alien central authority. I do not see any indication that modern Russian conservatives have any such thing in mind. Their idea is not to create a ‘right-wing international’ like the old Communist International. At the heart of the philosophical tradition Stroop describes is a recognition of the value of diversity. The basic claim is that Russia is different, and should be allowed to do things differently. That in turn means that others are different too and should also be allowed to do things differently.  It is no surprise that many of those who are now called ‘conservative’ in Russia are resolutely opposed to what they believe are the modern manifestations of imperialism, such as globalization. Theirs is in many ways an anti-imperial philosophy.

Given the declared mission of The Public Eye magazine, it would seem that Stroop’s use of the word ‘imperial’ is meant to sound some sort of alarm about the threat Russia poses to human rights in the West. I think that this is unnecessary. At the end of the day, most Russians are far more interested in being left alone by the West to do things their own way than they are in converting the West to their own point of view.