Staunton, July 19 – An article in the current issue of Sovershenno Sekretno asks whether there is a line between Russian Orthodox Church activists and those who engage in pogrom-like violence. It concludes sadly that there is not — and that church activists and those engaged in attacks on other groups are increasingly one and the same people.
The monthly’s Dmitry Rudnyev writes that he decided to focus on this issue after the fights between those who want to build more Orthodox churches in Moscow and those who oppose these being put in what are now public parks and Father Dmitry Smirnov’s shutting down of a concert that he said was disturbing prayer.
Such incidents, he continues, “are taking place ever more frequently, and the causes which generate among Orthodox [activists] such an incommensurately stormy reaction are becoming ever more varied.” That raises the question as to why Russian Orthodoxy has “suddenly acquired hysterical aspects” and seems to be trying to find occasions to be upset.
“Five to ten years ago, the phrase ‘Orthodox radicalism’ would have elicited a condescending smile,” Rudnyev says. “Today however, this has become one of the realities of Russian religious life.” So far, “thank God,” it hasn’t claimed human victims in the way that nationalist or Islamic radicalisms have,” he said.
“But the problem of radicalism in the church exists,” he continues, “and today people talk about it in a serious way.”
Yevgeny Nikiforov, head of the Orthodox Radonezh Society, says that “the percent of radically inclined people among believers is absolutely equal to the percent of radicals in society as a whole.” It generally “’infects’” recent converts, but at times, it involves those who have been active in Orthodoxy their entire lives.
An example of the latter is Father Dmitry Smirnov, Nikiforov continues. He is nominally only a priest, but “in the structure of the church he has already for a long time occupied the slot of a bishop. This is like in the army where a colonel may serve in a general’s place” and where he enjoys the trust of those above him.
What Father Dmitry did, Archdeacon Andrey Kurayev says, reflected “a free decision” on his part. Each of us is complicated, and each makes his choice as a result of a multitude of causes pressing on him.” What makes his action of concern is that Father Dmitry had the kind of access that would have allowed him to solve this problem without any conflict.
He “could have made a single telephone call,” Kurayev continues, and there wouldn’t have been a problem. But “of all the mass of possible resolutions of the problem, Father Dmitry chose the path of open and forceful intervention. And this is not a result of shortcomings of his mind or experience.” Instead, it reflected his judgment of “the general atmosphere of today’s dialogue between the church and society.”
Since 2012, Kurayev says, some in the church have felt “called upon to show that we also are a force agency,” that the people of the church are part of the foundation of the secular authorities, that they can act on that basis, and that they may move against anyone confident that they won’t be punished even if we go beyond the bounds of legality.
In this, they are not different from the pro-Putin bikers, and this propensity to engage in violence won’t end as long as the powers that be continue to support. Indeed, Kurayev continues, actions like those of Father Dmitry “will be a regular feature” of Russian life.
What makes this situation somewhat of “a paradox,” Kuryaev says, is that Patriarch Kirill “is one of the most educated of all the hierarchs of the Russian Church” but because of his dramatic expansion of the number of bishoprics, he has brought into the hierarchy many who are uneducated and thus inclined to settle things not by negotiation but by violence.
Roman Lunkin, a senior specialist at the Center for the Study of the Problems of Religion and Society at the Russian Academy of Sciences, agrees. “Earlier under Aleksii II, the church did not use in its political goals various kinds of radical groups…this would have been unnecessary and quite dangerous in a democratic society where the church suddenly would have been associated with the worst kind of nationalists suffering from xenophobia.”
“However,” Lunkin says, “the situation in [Russia] has changed.”
The Church needs the help of the state to achieve its goals, he continues, and consequently, “radical Orthodox tricks are called upon to convince the authorities that Orthodoxy is a powerful force. Therefore, often the hierarchs themselves make declarations in defense of the Orthodox” in ways that offend others.
However, “the paradox is that the more official representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church demand from the government and even impose on it its own ideology, the more such people come into conflict with what church life really needs,” Lunkin says.
The church radicals, he continues, have little support: “the majority of believers have no desire…to prohibit plays or break up rock concerts.” Instead, they properly understand that “the single task [which the church must fulfill in the future] is the construction of an Orthodox community in a democratic society in which believers support one another, life according to the law, and respect even non-believers” rather than use force to address problems.
Moving in that direction is a long and slow process, Lunkin says, and the actions of some who speak for the Russian Orthodox Church are not helping. “But the process is inevitable and it is already in course.”
There have always been radicals in and around the church, but in general, the hierarchy has kept them on a short leash as was the case with Bishop Diomid of Sakha in 2008, the scholar says. His views were quite radical then, but now they would be viewed as more or less mainstream.
(On Diomid, see “Orthodox Schism,” “Diomid Tapping into ‘Orthodox of Despair’ in Rural Russians,” “Bishop Diomid Raises the Stakes in Orthodox Church Dispute,” “Diomid Case Highlights Serious Problems in Church and Society,” and “How Much Support Does Bishop Diomid Have?“.)
Indeed, the Sovershenno Sekretno journalist says, there is evidence that some in the church hierarchy like Father Dmitry are actively sponsoring radical groups like the Movement in Support of 200 Churches and the Movement of 40 by 40 and encouraging their members to go from one place to another to push their views, something ordinary believers would not do.
And many of those in the leadership of these groups are not only followers of Father Dmitry but show both his intolerance and willingness to engage in force, two things that alienate many ordinary believers even if they are not inconsistent with the kind of values being promoted by the Putin regime.