Moscow Patriarchate’s Failures Have Opened Way For Orthodox Radicalism – OpEd


Many Russians believe that the controversy around “Mathilda” explains why Orthodox radicalism is on the rise, Sergey Chapnin says; but in fact the reasons for that are far deeper and when the clashes over the film quiet down, the faithful will have to confront serious questions about “which empire and which Orthodoxy we are heirs to.”

In an address to the Predaniye Foundation last week that has been written up by Svetlana Solodovnik of Yezhednevny zhurnal now, the commentator argues that there are many reasons why individual Orthodox radicals have emerged, and they all reflect basic failures of the Moscow Patriarchate (

These failures in turn are a product of the fears of the church leadership that if it takes a clear decision on any one of a number of issues, it will be confronted by large protests from the many who will disagree with it. And it has thus tried to be all things to all people, a stance that in the end has infuriated almost everyone.

First of all, Chapnin says, “it has turned out that the Russian Orthodox Church cannot say anything articulate on the occasion of the centenary of the two revolutions,” even though the one allowed the Patriarchate to reemerge and the other brought the church untold suffering.

Second, “it hasn’t been able to find a format for recognition of the genuineness of the tsarist remains. In the church, there were and are opponents of recognition, this group is quite large, and the church hierarchs do not want to take the risk.

And third, the Moscow Patriarchate “hasn’t been able to find a mechanism for the transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral,” in large measure because whatever it does, it is going to continue to face large crowds of protesters in the streets.

The church has taken the same stance during the Mathilda controversy, Chapnin says. It has said that “force isn’t Christian, but somehow no one condemns the specific use of force which is taking place here and now,” lest it offend one group of Russians or another.

As a result, he argues, “the state and the official church are losing their monopoly on symbolic capital,” and individual radicals “who aren’t meeting the necessary resistance” are coming to the fore. And this of course is “the result of church construction … which has cultivated a kind of Christianity without Christ.”

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, the Russian church just like the state has been mainly occupied with searchers for a post-Soviet identity. The state quite quickly … chose as its goals the restoration of the empire.” And not surprisingly, given the church’s links with the state, it followed allow.

“The empire is now considered by many Orthodox as something sacred.” But the problem is which empire, tsarist, Soviet or post-Soviet? In large measure because of the way the state has proceeded, Chapnin says, the church has been forced to go a long way toward “Soviet imperial consciousness.”

That of course is what the fight over Mathilda is all about, but even once that film recedes from public view, the church and its followers are going to have to come to a decision on whether they support an Orthodox empire or a Soviet one and whether they support only an Orthodox emperor or any emperor altogether.

Some have drifted in the latter direction but “happily” not everyone. Another speaker at the meeting Chapnin addressed suggested that “the less free from the state the church is, the more this logic will be considered and the more will appear individual radicals.” That isn’t a necessary result but rather one made likely and more disturbing by the decisions of the hierarchy.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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