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OPINION

One God, One People, One Führer: why the Russian Orthodox Church is copying the state’s repressive apparatus

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, multiple Russian Orthodox priests who declared their antiwar stance have been banned from ministering — or even defrocked. Even in Soviet times, the church was more lenient towards dissident clergymen than it is today. As Sergei Chapnin, a senior research associate at Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, explains, the Putin regime’s politicization of religious matters could mean the end of the Russian Orthodox Church as we know it.

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What is happening in the Russian Orthodox Church instills bewilderment, frustration, and fury. Not only has Patriarch Kirill, the head of the church, refused to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine, but he also forces priests and church members to pray for “the victory of Holy Rus” – instead of praying for peace, as the Bible prescribes. The inevitable result has been the consolidation of the church’s ideology, leading to reprisals against dissidents.

So far, the number of suppressed clergymen numbers only in the dozens, but “Orthodox Christian patriots” are already pressing for the disfellowship of some 300 priests who, shortly after the war began, signed an appeal calling for reconciliation.

What are the possible explanations for this transformation? Why is Patriarch Kirill copying the repressive apparatus that has been built by the Russian state? To answer these questions, we should first analyze the latest high-profile case: the defrocking of Archpriest Alexy Uminsky, rector of Moscow's Church of the Life-Giving Trinity in Khokhly.

On January 5, 2024, Father Alexy was banned from ministering and removed from the position of rector by order of Patriarch Kirill. A week later, he was defrocked at a meeting of the ecclesiastical court of Moscow. The formal pretext was his failure to read the “Prayer for Holy Rus,” which Patriarch Kirill had composed himself and had ordered to be read in all of Moscow’s churches. The case of the offending priest also included a notable “aggravating circumstance,” namely, that Father Alexy had publicly advised his parish to attend temples that pray for peace rather than those praying for victory. None of Moscow's vicar bishops, the church court judges, or the rectors of Moscow churches spoke out in support of Father Alexy. The “church corporation” processed his case quickly and efficiently — almost as if the decision were known in advance.

Father Alexy refused to read the “Prayer for Holy Rus” composed by Patriarch Kirill

The 20,000 signatures on an appeal to the patriarch to restore Father Alexy’s priesthood, along with ample coverage in Russian and foreign media, were something that Patriarch Kirill could easily afford to ignore.

The repression of 2024 may be compared to the repression of priests Nikolai Eshliman and Gleb Yakunin in the mid-1960s. In November 1965, the pair began circulating an open letter to Patriarch Alexy I (Simansky) with a vivid description of how the Soviet Union oppressed freedom of conscience while the Church’s bishops remained silent. In December 1965, copies of this letter were sent to Nikolai Podgorny, Chairman of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet, Alexei Kosygin, Chairman of the USSR’s Council of Ministers, and Roman Rudenko, the USSR’s Prosecutor General.

It took Patriarch Alexy I six months to make a decision in the case. A verdict was finally announced in mid-May 1966:

“I deem it necessary to relieve them from their posts and to impose a ban on ministering until their complete repentance, with the warning that, should they continue their vicious activities, it may be necessary to resort to more severe measures against them, as required by the Rules of the Church.”

Before the end of the month, the disgraced priests appealed to the Holy Synod, and the patriarch responded (an amazing example of synodality or, if you will, democratic traditions in the Soviet-era Russian Orthodox Church) by calling on the ecclesiastical bishops to provide feedback on the appeal. Meanwhile, Archbishop Theodosius (Pogorsky) of Penza was not hesitant to submit to the patriarch “the most respectful petition for pardon of the banned priests.” No pardon was granted, of course; what matters is that Theodosius saw it fit to make such a request. Today, a bishop who dares to do such a thing will be called insane and instantly punished.

Today, a bishop who dares to argue with the patriarch will be called insane and instantly punished

Eventually, the Synod ruled to ban Yakunin and Eshliman from ministry on Oct. 8, 1966, “pending repentance.” Nikolai Eshliman died in 1985 and never had his priesthood restored. Admittedly, his second marriage would have prevented him from resuming ministry anyway. Gleb Yakunin, who died in 2014, was restored to ministry in the late 1980s but was banned from it again a few years later. He was subsequently excommunicated for political activity and for his advocacy of human rights. As these cases show, even in Soviet times, when such dissent was a crime against the state, and when the church was fully controlled by the Council for Religious Affairs — and the KGB — the religious body’s internal means of combating dissent were still much milder than those of today. Moreover, church dissidents’ calls for justice found sympathy, often even a modicum of support, among the episcopate.

This stands in stark contrast to the current patriarch's practice of defrocking priests for refusing to say his pro-war prayer. Church members are thus faced with a painful dilemma: given the authoritarian style of Patriarch Kirill's rule, his numerous crimes against the church, and the futility of the struggle against his authority in the present setting, is it really worth remaining in such a church?

Church members are faced with a painful dilemma: is it really worth remaining in such a church?

Those who leave Russia can choose from other Orthodox Christian jurisdictions. Foreign parishes enjoy much greater autonomy, but entering a foreign church’s culture can be problematic because the differences are not only stylistic. Newcomers sometimes struggle to adapt to the new language of worship, and while English or, say, French may be less of a challenge, praying in Greek, Serbian, or Dutch is not something you can quickly master without prior knowledge of the language.

Inside Russia, there is no alternative. The most popular form of protest is withdrawal from the church, refusal to participate in parochial life, or limited attendance of services without personal involvement in parochial activities. For devout churchgoers, this can be a painful decision.
The alternative is to find a parish where meeting like-minded people who adhere to the same spiritual values is still possible. But this option is only available in large cities. Others have to make do with online communities or make the decision to abandon any church-related activities. Such cases are not isolated, as evidenced by the response of Archpriest Andrey Kordochkin, who left the Russian Orthodox Church for the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2023. In a letter to Russia, written from Spain, Kordochkin underlines the importance of unanimity and urges readers to rethink their role in the divine service:

“Liturgy is the sacrament of unity. Are you happy to unite with people who confess z-worship? Are you ready to imitate a unity with them that does not exist? Everyone can make their own decision, but if the answer to these questions is negative, you are free to refrain from participating in services in z-parishes.”

In this case, “Z” refers to the Latinate letter that has become a symbol of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. Although the “Z” does not appear in the Cyrillic alphabet, it was nevertheless painted on Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other military equipment in the run-up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In Russia, the letter “Z” has since become an unmistakable symbol of support for a war of aggression that shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

* * *

The modern image of the Russian Orthodox Church is twofold. On the one hand, the church resembles a corporation with a political and economic agenda and a rigid, almost military-like organizational structure. On the other hand, if we change the angle and look through the eyes of a churchgoer, the church is a commonwealth of communities, where the most important links are not hierarchal, but horizontal, and where friendship, affection, a sense of community, and solidarity play the key role.

The church is a commonwealth of communities where horizontal relationships are more important than hierarchy

Sometimes it feels like two different churches, as though a parishioner can belong to one and not belong to the other at all.Unfortunately, this illusion is shattered when the punitive machine of the church’s Kremlin-aligned upper echelon begins to work at full capacity, defrocking priests and destroying close-knit communities with complete impunity.

Me calling the church a “military-like” structure was not a random choice of a word. This characterization is key to understanding how the church authorities operate, from the patriarch and bishops to subordinate structures such as diocesan administrations, courts, deacons, and rectors of churches. If we were to draw parallels with the actual military, the church would consist of “reduced-strength units” that include generals (bishops) and senior and junior officers (priests and deacons) but that have almost no soldiers or sergeants (as these roles belong to ordinary churchgoers).

The authority of the generals extends to all officers, but to only a small portion of the soldiers – that is, to the lay people directly employed in a temple, monastery, or any other ecclesiastical institution. Parishioners who are not employed by the church enjoy almost complete freedom, and, strangely enough, the church authorities recognize this reality. Cases in ecclesiastical courts hardly ever involve accusations against laypeople – only against priests.

Cases in ecclesiastical courts hardly ever involve accusations against laypeople

How is that possible? The church’s authority consists of two facets: spiritual and administrative. Ideally, these should be in harmony. The spiritual facet is connected with the teaching role and charismatic authority, whereas the administrative facet mostly concerns the tasks of managing people and property. Under Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Church has found itself at an impasse, the result of the patriarch hand-picking bishops for the past 15 years and somehow failing to select candidates with serious theological education or charismatic authority. In his early years in power, Patriarch Kirill himself had both charismatic power and enormous credibility, but in recent years both have gone up in smoke. What does he have left? Only administrative power, which is becoming more and more rigid, intolerant of any dissent, and, accordingly, increasingly ruthless.

In response, society is growing ever more disillusioned with the church hierarchy, whose authority throughout the post-Soviet decades has been on par with that of the church itself. This rather romantic attitude towards the church has been replaced by a more sober and rational one, yet church officials are reluctant to recognize the new reality. Wishing to retain power, they turn to the state for help and merge with it in order to leverage its authority. They exploit the people’s fear of state power in order to maintain their own illusory position as the nation’s spiritual leaders. While this compromise may indeed bolster the administrative power of the episcopate, it does little to solve the problem of popular disillusionment – rather, it likely exacerbates discontent.

In today's world, the administrative power of religious organizations is precarious. Potential members of the church can choose from a wide range of different lifestyles and communities, meaning that the Orthodox Christian subculture is just one of many groups to which a person may or may not elect to belong. Ideological consolidation, which Patriarch Kirill has now demanded of the church almost as an ultimatum, can only create the appearance of unity. The patriarch is asking for the impossible, and meeting resistance from his church, he is no longer shy about using any means necessary to suppress growing dissent.

The patriarch is no longer shy about using any means necessary to suppress growing dissent

But before the picture becomes too saturated with gloom and doom, an important clarification is in order: although church officials have closed ranks around the Kremlin leadership, there is another church — a community of believers capable of uniting around authentic spiritual leaders, free from complex institutional forms, independent of financial concerns, undesirous of any alliance with the state, and intent on maintaining its independence. Popular demand for this second church ensures its future prosperity just as surely as reliance on the Putin regime ensures the current church leadership’s ultimate demise.

The fate of the present church hierarchy is inseparable from the state’s. If and when political change occurs in Russia, this hierarchal church structure will inevitably collapse right along with all of the other Putin-era entities. The other church — the church of the believers — will remain. Whether it will repeat the mistake of creating another corporation – this time a “good” one with a “good” hierarchy – is an open question. But at this point, one thing should be clear: there is no such thing as a good church hierarchy. Therefore, the proposal voiced by Stanislav Belkovsky 15 years ago (and dismissed as a far-fetched fantasy) — to transform the Russian Orthodox Church into a federation of Orthodox communities — may actually be at hand.

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