Orthodoxy: symbols for the new Russia

Iannis Carras
26 January 2009

Patriarch Aleksii died on 5 December 2008. His successor, the new head of the Russian Orthodox Church, will be elected by the Church Council.  Both these events have provoked considerable discussion in the Russian press and over the internet. In their new book John and Carol Garrard give an overview of the role the Russian Church has played during the transition from Communist rule and ask the question, whither now? 

The 1991 coup that aimed to salvage the Soviet Union ended up precipitating its demise.  On 21 August a large crowd made its way to the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB.   They pulled down the statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, forefather of the Soviet secret police. In its place they raised an Orthodox cross, painting on its base the Slavonic translation of the words Emperor Constantine saw in the heavens - "By this sign you shall conquer".

In late Soviet times the All Russian Society for the Preservation of Monuments of History and Culture (VOOPIK) had a membership of millions.  They scored a number of successes with their sit-down protests to preserve endangered buildings. The church of St. Simeon Stylites was saved because an architect crawled into the bucket of an excavator as it was about to start the demolition. Though the VOOPIK leadership was sensible enough to conceal its intentions, the preservation of churches was at the forefront of its concerns.

The Garrards' Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent gives serious consideration to the Russian Orthodox role in undermining Soviet power. The authors maintain that, as a young man in Estonia, Aleksei Ridiger enlisted in the KGB.   As the recently elected Patriarch Aleksii he made a dramatic intervention after midnight on 21 August 1991, minutes before an expected assault on President Boris Yeltsin and those defending him in the White House.  Broadcast on national television the Patriarch pronounced:

"Every person who raises arms against his neighbour, against unarmed civilians, will be taking upon his soul a very grave sin, which will separate him from the Church and from God".

The book interweaves analysis of the role of major state and church actors with the experiences and aspirations of ordinary Russians.  It also captures the "wonder stamped on Russians' faces" in those heady days when churches overflowed once more with people longing for a sense of mystery in their lives. It was this feeling of freedom through worship which I too witnessed in the Baroque Church of Archangel Michael in the winter of 1987, a feeling that will remain for me the most vivid memory of my first visit to Moscow.

The difficulties facing the new Patriarch were considerable. The number of churches in Moscow, for example, had dwindled to just twenty, so church reconstruction was a priority. Aleksy successfully navigated the problems of rampant anti-Semitism, fanatical monarchism and apocalyptic, xenophobic, nationalist, prophetic and other groups seeking to attract a public that was for the most part uneducated in Orthodox practices. To do this he used the symbolism of relics, such as those of St. Serafim of Sarov, and events including the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in the centre of Moscow and the canonisation of Nicholas II and his family.

The Garrards' book Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent even praises Patriarch Aleksy for his adroit handling of the difficulties posed by KGB infiltration of the Church. Through the concepts of ochishchenie or cleansing, primirenie or conciliation, and sobornost' or togetherness, the Church called for forgiveness without engaging in the witch-hunts that have disfigured the transition from Communism in other countries. Further, in order to re-establish the Church as a significant force in society, Aleksii set about establishing links with the military and with Russian patriotism. The Patriarch's interventions during the first and second Chechen wars are mentioned in the book, but not examined in any depth.

Commendably, the Garrards strive throughout to understand and explain rather than to condemn. To the extent that they succeed, this book combines empathy and detailed scholarship, shedding light on the intricacies of church-state relations in the new Russia.

Perhaps inevitably, however, for a work of such scope, the book has its weaknesses. The best that can be said for the long historical exegeses that embellish a number of chapters is that, rather like an Orthodox liturgy, they exemplify the collapse of past, present and future into a single moment. Though shedding light on the myths and sometimes prejudices of the characters described, these historical digressions are no substitute for a more nuanced understanding of the way history is recreated to serve the needs of the present. To give but one example, the twice-repeated claim that Orthodox theology has not developed since the 11th century is palpable nonsense, but serves as a useful myth for those members of the Orthodox Church wishing to emphasise their purity vis-à-vis other Christians.

It is these grand historical digressions, however, that lead the authors to somewhat trite conclusions concerning the irreconcilability of Russian Orthodoxy and the West (this latter being, in any case, a fairly meaningless term given the considerable differences between supposedly western societies). Might it not have been wiser to emphasise the ruptures and discontinuities in Russian Orthodoxy's religious experience?  Ruptures as profound as the introduction of western polyphonic music, thus changing the very texture of the liturgy? Of a Lutheran-style governing Holy Synod?  Of pietism? Even the decision of the Church Council of 1917-1918 to reintroduce the Patriarchate was made within the context of a more democratic Church hierarchy:  bishops are directly elected by their flock. When we look at Russian Orthodox history not as one grand story, but as competing narratives selected to serve the needs of the moment, irreconcilable differences can seem rather less irreconcilable over time.

The authors are, of course, well aware of the uses that may be made of the past. Indeed Russians' search for a useable past after the demise of the Soviet Union is one of the themes of this book. In this, above all, the Patriarch Aleksii was a master. The authors highlight the notable achievements of his Patriarchate: his contribution to the prevention of civil war following the Soviet collapse, and the role the Church has played as the sole institution consistently recalling the terror of Stalinist times and the suffering that Communism brought to ordinary Russians.

Yet all this has come at a cost. Alliances with the President, the military and the state apparatus have meant that the Church has moved perilously close to becoming a state institution, a badge signalling identity rather than an existential path. Many more Russians declare themselves to be Orthodox than believers; exceptionalism has become a dominant ideology in Church circles, rather than a reaching out to other human beings.

There are several frontrunners to replace the deceased Patriarch Aleksii. These include Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, who provided considerable support for the pro-Russian Yanukovich in recent Ukrainian elections;  Metropolitan Kliment, head of the Patriarchal Chancellery;  and Metropolitan Kyril, currently locum tenens and a hard-liner in negotiations with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, considered first among equals in the Orthodox hierarchy. Such names do not point to any significant changes of direction. I have been to many beautiful and elegantly restored churches in Russia over the years since my first visit in December 1987.  In the light of the bureaucratisation of the Church, it should perhaps come as no surprise that never again have I felt that same astonishing sense of freedom shining in the faces of the people around me.

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