Moscow Patriarchate Not Marching in Lockstep with Kremlin on Ukraine, Lunkin Says

June 2, 2014
(Putin snd Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill arrive for meeting with Russian Orthodox church bishops in Moscow 1 February 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Gunyeev/Ria Novosti/Pool)

Staunton, 1 June – The Moscow Patriarchate is no longer in lockstep with the Kremlin on Ukraine, the result of the reactions of other Christian groups in Ukraine, its own corporate interests, and pressure from its own congregations who have a different view of the future than do many in the hierarchy, according to Roman Lunkin.

In an analysis for
, Lunkin, a leading specialist on Orthodoxy at the Moscow Institute of Religion, says that “the Ukrainian revolution has become a test for many Churches which have been drawn into the whirlpool of political arguments and a local civil war”.

“If for the Ukrainian Churches the moment of truth were the revolutions of 2004-2005 and 2013-2014,” Lunkin says, “the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has been subject to an unending historical examination” concerning its views on democracy, freedom, and human rights more generally.

Both because Kirill was the original source for many of Vladimir Putin’s ideas about “the Russian world” and because of the Moscow Patriarchate’s caesaro-papist approach, most commentators have continued to view the Church as “always and in everything loyal to the authorities.”

But a more careful examination of the developments of the last two years, Lunkin insists, shows that “the opinion of the Patriarchate has not always corresponded with that of President Putin,” the Moscow scholar says. And over the last three months, that divergence has if anything broadened and deepened.

Since February, the Moscow Patriarchate has regularly made declarations about its recognition of the right of the Ukrainian people to make their own choices and its support for the various sides there to respect one another and come to an agreement. Such positions are very different than those taken by Putin and his regime.

Perhaps most significantly, on 14 March, Lunkin says, Patriarch Kirill “in fact revised his own idea of the Russian world,” as originally laid out by the church leader in the 1990s, “when he declared that this is not an empire and not the Soviet Union.”

For those not close to Russian events, it may be difficult to understand that these words are a form of “radical dissonance with the general patriotic euphoria which is to be found in the media, the political milieu and the Kremlin,” Lunkin continues. One result of this evolution of the Patriarchate’s views is the almost complete disappearance of them in the official media.

According to the Moscow scholar, “the positions of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate” were either left out altogether or presented in “microscopically small” portions in media surveys, likely because these positions “should be assessed as the most democratic” of those on offer in Moscow.

“If one abstracts from personal sympathies or antipathies to the Russian Orthodox Church and from conspiracy theories about the relations of Kirill and Putin and the imaginary ‘cowardice’ of the ROC, then one should recognize the following” three developments as critically important, Lunkin argues.

First, it is clear that at least for the moment the Moscow Patriarchate wants to do everything it can to remain in the closest communism with the hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, who are supporting the right of Ukraine to its own path.

Second, certainly fearful of losing control over the 12,000 Moscow Patriarchate parishes in Ukraine – for comparison, there are 15,000 in the Russian Federation – Patriarch Kirill has “restrained and one would like to believe consciously the wave of imperial-great power celebration and xenophobia against the West.”

Indeed, “we see,” Lunkin says, “that in the milieu near the church at least publicly, anti-Ukrainian hysteria is weak.”

And third, the Moscow Patriarchate has “distanced itself from the model of the ‘Russian world’ in Putin’s understanding.” Despite the view that Kirill is inherently imperialistic himself, the Moscow scholar continues, the Patriarch did not speak once while in Ukraine “about some sort of Russian civilization or repeat one of his ideas of the 1990s” about the evils of the West.

In the context of current Russian realities, that is quite remarkable and reflects Kirill’s understanding of how much his church has to lose in Ukraine and also the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is “step by step becoming democratic from below,” Lunkin argues.

At the congregational level and among the laity and young clergy, the Moscow expert says, “the authoritarian Soviet ‘Russian world’ has already yielded to a Russian view about human dignity and freedom and respect for the personality.” That shift “from below” is triggering a struggle within the hierarchy.

Lunkin concludes with a powerful image. “Russian public consciousness,” he says, “is like an old Shakespearean theater” where the stage sets for different scenes are present all at the same time and where “each new troop of actors is forced to play” in front of both the ones for previous scenes and the ones for their own.

Russian share “a Third Rome and a Soviet Union and a Russian world and a rumbling mix of the soviet, the zemstvo, and ‘Russian Orthodox civilization,’ of Komsomol songs and lyrical expressions,” he says. That makes it difficult but not impossible to guess which stage design matters most to whom.

But it also means that one should pay close attention to the ways in which leaders like Patriarch Kirill are attempting to walk among those stage designs rather than always assuming that his position is fixed, that he will always be on the side of whatever the Kremlin wants, or that he won’t change where he is standing on the stage yet again.