The real Russian church rises

A public letter by Orthodox parish clergy defies the secular and ecclesiastical hierarchy

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A Russian Orthodox priest during Holy Week services at the Theological Academy, Saint Petersburg, Russia (© Saint Petersburg Theological / Alamy Stock Photo)

Not since 1965 have priests dared to criticise the state so publicly. As the Khrushchev thaw faded, Fathers Gleb Yakunin and Nikolai Eshliman fearlessly wrote to Patriarch Alexy I, accusing the church of collusion in the Soviet authorities’ persecution of the faithful. Dozens more clergy, even an archbishop, were to have signed that letter, though eventually none did. Not this time.

In mid-September, dozens of priests signed another letter. It opposed the harsh jail sentences handed out, often on sham charges, to Russians peacefully protesting against the authorities’ decision to block opposition candidates from running for Moscow city council earlier that month. Now known as “the Moscow affair”, these protests, arrests and trials have energised civil society. So far, 182 priests have signed.

The letter calls for sentencing proportionate to the breach of law; condemns the irresponsible use of power that leads justice to become “a travesty”; asks for the restoration of citizens’ faith in a “fair and impartial” legal system, “irrespective of the social, economic and political status” of the accused; urges courts to protect citizens against arbitrary punishment, to stop the judiciary from becoming “mere decoration”; and appeals to believers in positions of power not to repress dissenters or use force with “unjustified cruelty”.

Coming from the normally loyal Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), these sentiments are remarkable. The letter appeared in Pravoslavie i Mir (Orthodoxy and the World), an outlet that started out as an online discussion forum for Orthodox faith matters in the early 1990s. Over time it expanded coverage to social and political affairs, carefully refraining—until now—from content that would offend the church hierarchy. Most of the co-signatories are archpriests (essentially senior parish clergy). No bishops, archbishops or metropolitans are involved. The geographical scope ranged from the villages to Moscow; from Austria to Hong Kong. One priest even sits on a parliamentary committee.

All this makes it unlikely that the letter could have been published without at least implicit consent from the FSB. This is the domestic successor to the Soviet KGB, which infiltrated and controlled the ROC. Moreover the FSB director Aleksandr Bortnikov has spoken openly about growing unrest due to the socio-economic situation, protest demonstrations and youth alienation, adding that something must be done now. (In FSB-speak, this means something is already well underway.) Elsewhere, Bortnikov stressed that employees of security organs were and are true patriots whose devotion to Russia and its people should be acknowledged. The organs, he added, have been the only source of real strength and stability for 100 years.

Another tell-tale sign is a recent Rossiya-K TV channel programme about respected poet and writer Yuz Aleshkovsky. It began with a 2010 interview in which he expresses his hatred for communism. The show then continued with interviews of prominent contemporary cultural figures praising Aleshkovsky. This channel has always been careful to avoid controversy so, like the priests’ letter, the Aleshkovsky broadcast would likely have required FSB approval. A potential rift between the security service(s) and the Kremlin would have serious implications for the stability of the current regime.

What happens  next? The church hierarchy has been making conciliatory noises, dismissing talk of reprisals. But several priests have been asked to explain themselves. Any wider reprisals will happen quietly, away from the public eye. Priests, who have scant alternative employment outside the ROC, know the risks they face. The co-signatories tellingly used a passage from Micah 6:8 in their letter. This prophet preached in Judah around 7th century BC, during a period of moral and spiritual decadence that accompanied great wealth. Micah’s major theme is God’s destruction of evildoers and Divine mercy for the true faithful at a time of great darkness. The Russian authorities, perhaps in response to these strange rumbles of discontent, have suddenly started commuting sentences and releasing some prisoners. Its critics, outside and now it seems within the circles of power, will not be easily
appeased.