The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on January 18, 2012
A New Direction for the Russian Orthodox Church?

On January 7 The New York Times reported that Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Department of Church and Society of the Moscow Patriarchate and one of the highest officials in the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, said in a radio interview that the ROC should serve as a mediator between the state and the people. Two days earlier Aleksei Navalny, an opposition leader, had called for just such a role by the Church: “I would very much like for the Russian Orthodox Church to take up such a role in society, so that all conflicting sides would seek and accept its mediation.” Although Chaplin did not mention Navalny, it is reasonable to assume that he was responding to the latter’s appeal—and indeed that he was, in this very broadcast, initiating precisely this sort of mediation. He did not endorse the recent demonstrations, but he said that Russia would never be the same after these demonstrations and that a government that did not respond to popular concerns would be “slowly eaten alive”. He called for a national dialogue including all “patriotically inclined” people, not just the urban middle class that was staging the demonstrations. He specifically said that the charges of fraud in the recent parliamentary elections must be addressed.

Fifteen minutes after Interfax, the Russian news agency, reported on the Chaplin interview, another Church spokesman announced that on the next day Patriarch Kiril I would give “a very important interview” on Rossiya 1, the main television channel. And so he did—on Saturday, January 7, which is the day when Orthodox Christmas is celebrated. The Times again reported on this on the following day. Reuters had a somewhat fuller report. (Interfax apparently carried the full text of Kiril’s address, but I could not access it in English.)

Kiril’s language was somewhat more moderate than Chaplin’s. After all, he spoke just a few hours after celebrating a solemn Christmas liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. But he essentially repeated Chaplin’s message, giving it the most possible official blessing. He did say that “If the authorities remain insensitive to the expression of protest, this is a very bad sign of the authorities’ inability to adjust.” He affirmed the right to protest, but warned against revolutions, which are easily manipulated in the interest of those seeking power. He cited the revolution of 1917 as a relevant warning: “Then we were unable to preserve balance and wisdom. We destroyed our country.” From the quotations available to me, it is not clear just to whom the “we” refers to. Given the context, though, I surmise that it includes the official Church, which had uncritically supported the anti-revolutionary authorities—“balance and wisdom” would have meant mediating between the government and its critics. And of course the Communist regime which emerged from the revolution inflicted enormous destruction on Russian society.

It is important to realize that neither of these two men is theologically or politically liberal. Kiril was born as Vladimir Gundyayev in Leningrad in 1946. Both his father and grandfather were Orthodox priests. He was ordained in 1969, elected as Patriarch in 2009. In 1971 he became the principal Orthodox representative at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, and he has participated in ecumenical events ever since (something that he has been criticized for by ultra-conservatives in the ROC). One must assume that he has acquired cosmopolitan skills by rubbing shoulders with all sorts of non-Orthodox people over the years, but one should be careful not to assume that these contacts greatly influenced his worldview. The World Council of Churches is dominated by Protestants and in the 1970s, when Kiril got there, was engaged in an orgy of theologically legitimated Leftism. In any case, from the beginning, the major activity of Orthodox participants at ecumenical gatherings was, over and over again, to say no! to WCC theological and political initiatives. Soon after becoming Patriarch, Kiril said that he was opposed to any doctrinal or liturgical reforms. Politically, he praised the Byzantine concept of sinfonia—the harmonious collaboration of Church and state in the maintenance of a Christian society.

Vsevolod Chaplin was born in 1968, the son of an agnostic professor. Thus, unlike Kiril, he did not come to Orthodoxy because of family background but as the result of a personal quest. He was ordained as a priest in 1992, as an archpriest in 1999 (the title seems to be similar to that of monsignor in the Catholic Church). Before assuming his present position as head of the Patriarchate’s Department of Church and Society, he headed its Department of External Relations. Like Kiril, he participated in activities of the World Council of Churches, and, also like Kiril, he apparently has been unaffected by these heretical contacts. He has publicly refused to pray with non-Orthodox Christians. He recently achieved a certain notoriety for criticizing Russian young women dressing “like prostitutes”, thus inviting rape. As a remedy, he advocated a “nationwide dress code”.

I have never met Kiril. I have met Chaplin, twice—in the course of a research project on the Russian Orthodox Church and Democracy, which our research center at Boston University conducted in collaboration with the Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University (the Baylor center was then directed by Christopher Marsh, a highly competent political scientist with expertise on religion in Communist Russia). The project was undertaken between 2002 and 2004. Early on Marsh and I had a meeting in Moscow, during which we interviewed Chaplin; toward the end of the project we held a conference in Washington, of all places at the Woodrow Wilson Center, on the general topic of Russian Orthodoxy and democracy. Chaplin performed memorably on both occasions. In Moscow he made a spirited defense of the 1997 law on religion, which stopped short of restoring the ROC as the official state religion, but gave it a privileged position denied all others. He was particularly hostile to Protestant missionaries who, with pockets full of American money, come to Russia to “steal Orthodox souls”. Marsh, who speaks fluent Russian, came ready to translate, but we were surprised to find that Chaplin speaks good English. In Washington he gave a lecture on the Patriarchate’s view of the place of religion in the state. He was very open on this:  The ideal would be rulers directly inspired by God, “like the Judges in the Old Testament”. This, unfortunately, is no longer possible. But close to ideal would be a monarchy with (his exact words) “a monolithic relationship between Church and state”. He added that “we have concluded that democracy is preferable to anarchy”. This ringing endorsement of democracy evoked some gasps in the Washington audience, a reaction presumably shared by Woodrow Wilson if his spirit still hovers over the center named after him. A young Russian woman in the audience, in a somewhat shaky voice, contradicted Chaplin: there are many Orthodox people in Russia who disagree with his view of religion and democracy. Chaplin, looming over her dressed all in a black cassock with a large pendant cross around his neck, clearly did not appreciate this sort of public criticism (especially, I guess, coming from a young woman—I was pleased that she stood her ground).

Do the recent statements by the Patriarch and one of his highest associates indicate a radically new direction in the ROC’s understanding of its role in society? Definitely not: It is obvious that neither man has been converted from his overall theological and political traditionalism. But does this mean that these Christmas utterances are unimportant? I think not. They represent a small but potentially significant change in the understanding by the ROC of its place in contemporary Russian society. Since the advent of the Putin government, the relation between Church and state has become increasingly intimate—not quite “monolithic”, in Chaplin’s inimitable phrasing, but approximating more and more the concept of sinfonia evoked by Kiril. The ROC has used the government to enhance its privileges and its power. The state has used the ROC as an instrument to advance both its domestic and foreign policies—and, most important, to support the nationalist ideology, which is now its principal if not its only source of legitimacy. If the Church is now to define its role as mediator, this suggests a loosening of the erstwhile “sinfonic” embrace.

Obviously it is much too early to say whether such a new role will measurably affect Russian politics. It is possible that the recent statements are simply tactical, motivated by the Church’s desire to distance itself from troubles that might engulf the Putin regime. However, if there is hope to arrest the authoritarian drift of the regime and to return to the democratic developments of the Yeltsin period, then a truly mediating role of the Church could be very helpful. There could also be positive implications for the global place of Orthodoxy. Russia contains by far the greatest number of Orthodox people in the world. A more independent and vibrant Russian Orthodox Church would inevitably have an influence on Orthodox churches outside Russia, which almost everywhere are damaged in their public witness by their close identification with nationalism and ethnicity. Orthodoxy represents a distinctive and immensely rich version of the Christian faith, which deserves a much better hearing than the one it gets in its present condition.