Many Russian Christians Criticize the Putin Regime, But not Church Officials

by Kseniya Kirillova

A new Russian “socio-political club” called The New Orthodoxy was announced in Moscow in October. Its founders assert that the name originates not in religion, but in the eponymous innovative model of economic development created in the 1930s in the USA which contributed to the country’s recovery from the Great Depression. However, the movement’s religious roots are still evident. According to the list of founders, it includes Lutherans, Old Catholics, the Party of the 10 Commandments, created by evangelical Christians, and other organizations associated with religion – along with the Russian Movement for Democratic Reforms. In its opening declaration, the founders say that the current world crisis is of a “spiritual and moral nature” and they want to work to support peacemaking and disarmament.

Criticising Kremlin foreign policy

It’s quite natural for Christian organisations and movements to appeal for a “return to morality” and support world peace. However, in recent years in Russia, declarations like this would have been used most often for purposes that are not at all peaceful, namely, to accuse the West of “aggression” against Russia and for the veiled support of Russian wars and information operations abroad. Very unusual in this case, they are expressed in the context of criticism of the Russian authorities – and harsh criticism of not only its domestic but also its foreign policy. And this trend, especially in internal Russian political discourse, is relatively new.

In particular, in the program manifesto of the movement, published in mid-November on the Latvian website, one of the movement’s co-chairs, Dmitry Pakhomov, outright condemned Russia’s intervention in the internal affairs of the United States and the attempt to poison Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, Wiltshire, England.

“I also express my concern about the negative processes that have accompanied the activities of the Russian Federation in the international arena in recent years,” Mr. Pakhomov said in a statement.  “One may confidently assert that the conditional consensus on vital issues on the international agenda, which was reached in the late 1980s and extended in the 1990s, has now been essentially dismantled because of Russia’s political leaders. Just look at the costs of the Skripal case and the obviously unlawful interference of Russian hackers in the 2016 US presidential election.”

People familiar with the political environment in Russia know that even the most sincere and radical opposition

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev
The last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush ended the Cold War and ushered in a new, but short-lived, period of cooperation between the world’s two superpowers.

members living there often don’t risk criticizing the Kremlin’s foreign policy, much less advocating for the United States. They limit themselves to exposing corruption and other internal Russian problems. The mere act of acknowledging Moscow’s interference in the US election is a topic both dangerous and unpopular in Russian discourse. This kind of attention to foreign policy, especially when combined with a reference to the political accomplishments of USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev in the late ’80s and early ’90s, suggests that the creators of the movement have the backing of some people in the Russian elite who are concerned about the consequences of Russian aggression for Russia itself. Be that as it may, the phenomenon of a Christian opposition itself is, to put it mildly, unusual for modern Russia.

Soviet and Polish precedents

In recent years, there has been a persistent feeling among Russians that only far-right groups and dictatorial regimes mention reliance on ‘moral values’. However, this picture of the world is not entirely correct. For example, due to the infringement of the rights of Protestant and other non-Orthodox denominations in Russia, quite a significant segment of the believers of these churches hold opposition views. Sometimes these views are even expressed in the political space. For example, in 2013, the 10 Commandments Party was created. According to its leader, Evangelical Christian Sergei Mezentsev, it includes Muslims, Christians, Jews, and even non-believers. However, at the time Mr. Mezentsev stated his opposition rather gently, speaking up only against corruption and the collapse of science, and calling for the revival of the ideas of Christian democracy.

By the way, in neighbouring Belarus, the Belarusian Christian Democracy party (BCD) holds a firm opposition line and openly points to Europe as an example to follow. Because of this, the party is subjected to reprisals like the other opposition parties. In 2010, after a protest rally was dispersed on December 19, the party’s co-chairs Vitaly Rymashevsky and Pavel Severinets were thrown into the KGB dungeons, and subsequently sentenced to two years in prison.

Interestingly, some opposition movements even exist in the Orthodox environment in Russia. In Soviet times, the most prominent dissident figure in the church was the priest Gleb Yakunin, one of the authors of an open letter condemning the pressure of the Soviet government on the church and the church leadership’s collaboration with the government. In particular, he called for “the cleansing of the church from the filth that had accumulated in it by the fault of the ecclesiastical authority.” Another uncompromising church dissident, Alexander Ogorodnikov, widely known outside Russia, spent many years in Soviet camps and in practice combined faith and genuine dissidence.

In modern Russia, independent Orthodox media have also been founded and have even thrived by adhering to a strict opposition line on a number of issues. This includes, for example, the famous Orthodoxy and the World portal (Pravmir). In its study of the Orthodox media market, the Meduza website emphasizes that this project is “absolutely independent of the Russian Orthodox Church and any people from the structure of the patriarchate.” The study also notes that the site “is not afraid to publish disgraced priests, which is terribly annoying for the ROC,” and also publishes “columns and problematic articles on the topic… that priests should raise hard questions with power and talk about corruption.”

Indeed, most of the authors of Pravmir supported the protest wave of 2011–12, encouraged its readers to be observers at the elections, and published reports on violations spotted by their observers. Moreover, Pravmir published Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova‘s letter from the penal colony and the comments of human rights activists on this letter. Pravmir also stood up for persecuted members of the LGBT community and even published materials in support of Ukraine’s Maidan protests. This includes, for example, a short article by Archimandrite Cyril (Govorun) ‘Theology of Maidan‘, in which it is noted that “Regarding its values, the Maidan has significantly outgrown the Ukrainian churches – all without exception.” In a word, the Orthodox portal was courageous enough to raise issues that even renowned secular opposition websites would not dare touch.

Ukraine Maidan protests
The 2014 Ukraine Maidan protests ousted a corrupt, pro-Putin government and brought the nation closer ties with continental Europe.

However, Pravmir did not escape the wave of unprecedented censorship and pressure against independent media, which had become particularly strong by 2014. We can assume it is much easier for the government to put pressure on Christian portals than on secular ones. By trying to maintain the status of a site that offers a complete overview of the situation in the church, large portals cannot afford to lose access to church leaders for interviews and comments. The desire to remain within the orbit of the church automatically implies politicization in the same vein as the church itself is politicized.

In Pravmir’s situation, this tendency was aggravated by two more circumstances: at the end of 2013, the creator of the portal, entrepreneur Anatoly Danilov, suddenly died. Meanwhile, Vladimir Medinsky, Russian minister of culture, became head of the portal’s Board of Trustees. As a result, currently, the site maintains an independent agenda on a number of social issues. However, on the most sensitive political issues, its content now mostly sticks to the official line.

Pravmir has now been replaced as a platform for church dissidence by Akhilla, a project that is much more modest, also but freer, and gives a voice to people who left the church, or had become disillusioned by it, and former priests. The site does not formulate a political position and is devoted to a critical understanding of the ROC. However, some of its authors are not afraid to speak out very strongly on political issues.

Certain Orthodox believers, for example, the well-known priest Yakov Krotov, are quite active on the opposition political scene. The New Orthodoxy’s Dmitry Pakhomov also regularly speaks on Radio Liberty, arguing that Christianity and liberalism are related like “father and son”. Similar initiatives are found in the regions. For example, former Yekaterinburg seminarians Viktor Norkin and Vladimir Golovin became known for attending all the protests of the local dissident movement, including rallies in defence of those accused of ‘offending the feelings of religious believers’ (which is what Pussy Riot were jailed for).

At the same time, the practice of other countries shows that the participation of believers in democratic movements is not only possible but also makes these movements effective, even transforming them from political activism to national uprising. In particular, it was this effect that was observed in the Polish Solidarity movement, which became a truly popular movement, uniting the trade unions, the liberal intelligentsia and the Catholic Church. The Catholic priest and ‘chaplain of Solidarity’, Jerzy Popeluszko, killed in 1984 by the Polish secret services, is considered to be both a Christian martyr and a Polish dissident hero.

Catholic Priest Jerzy Popieluszko.
Catholic Priest Jerzy Popieluszko was murdered by Polish secret police who beat him into submission, tied a rock to his feet, and tossed him into the Vistula Water Reservoir to stop his support of the anti-state Solidarity Movement.

A similar situation arose during Ukraine’s Euromaidan, a wave of civil unrest and demonstrations that demanded closer association with Europe, and that included both patriotic and nationalist forces, the liberal intelligentsia and most of the clergy. The Maidan was supported by the priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, some priests of the Moscow Patriarchate, and of the Catholic and Protestant churches, and a number of Muslim and Jewish religious figures. That is why Maidan was not just a liberal protest, but a real popular revolution.

However, an element that is specific to Russia is that the most numerous church (ROC MP) systematically sides with the current government, defending and sacralizing its worst crimes, which naturally causes a negative reaction from progressive Russians. Other churches also do this to some degree, seeing it as their only chance for survival in the current Russian political reality. So it is quite natural that believers of different denominations who disagree with this policy do their utmost to disassociate themselves from church bodies and religious organizations, and are trying to express their opposition views on the political scene.

It is too early to tell whether these political and religious movements have a future in the environment of contemporary Russia. Even if the movement gains the support of some of the pro-government system liberals thanks to its emphasis on traditionalism,  it is not yet clear that it can find common ground with the classic liberal dissidents, who are accustomed to viewing with suspicion any references to “spirituality”.

(This article first appeared at the Integrity Initiative.)

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