By Paul Goble
Two of the leading experts on the Russian Orthodox Church, Nikolay Mitrokhin of Bremen University and Sergey Chaplin, former head of the Moscow patriarchate’s publications arm, say Patriarch Kirill’s effort to grab power and property is alienating Russians, marginalizing the church, and reducing its influence at home and abroad.
In a commentary for the Grani portal, Mitrokhin says that the conflict over St. Isaac’s has now become “an all-Russian scandal,” one that has not ended despite Putin’s decision to return things to where they were before it started, given that church services had been held there even when it was only a museum (graniru.org/opinion/mitrokhin/m.258944.html).
“Initially,” he writes, “the authorities simply intended to satisfy Patriarch Kirill’s request about the transfer of St. Isaac’s” and assumed that they would not face serious protests and could ignore any that might occur. But the protests turned out to be far larger and far more widely supported than anyone anticipated.
Indeed, Mitrokhin says, “by their size, these protests in Petersburg were no smaller than those against the beginning of the war in Ukraine three years ago. [And] by their importance, they exceeded them because they showed that ‘the Putin majority’” was now distancing itself from Putin and his officials.
Most immediately, however, the people have been distancing itself from the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill personally. Discussions on television and in the media show that neither has the standing it did and that those who might have been unwilling to criticize it are now attacking both across the board.
Kirill had to use “to the full his personal resources in the battle for specific objects of property,” Mitrokhin continues, “and to attract to his cause ever more doubtful allies, right-wing radicals from the personal guard of ‘Forty by Forty’ and the young football fanatics from ‘the Nevsky Front.’”
That accelerated the decline in his influence far more than even the drift of the Ukrainian Orthodox Churh away from Moscow. In fact, it is now totally possible to speak about “the intensification of the process of the dissolution of the Russian Orthodox church in Russia itself.” And that process is now feeding upon itself.
“The Internet is filled with stories” written by “’former priests’ who are disappointed and seeking for themselves a new place in life,” Mitrokhin reports. There is now an extremely active site, ahilla.ru/, filled with such stories, and it is supplemented by others on a VKontakte page, vk.com/atheist__blog.
As a result, the Germany-based Russian scholar says, however things develop around the conflict over St. Isaac’s, the position of the church inside Russia is going to be weakened, as is that of those who thought they could use the church as a fundamental support for the existing political system.
Chaplin makes a similar article in Gazeta, saying that the church has only itself to blame for what has happened because it has refused to treat the population as an equal and has assumed it can behave crudely and even viciously because of its good relations with Putin’s power vertical (gazeta.ru/comments/2017/02/16_a_10529081.shtml).
Not all the statements made by priests and hierarchs are approved by the patriarch, Chaplin says. “On the contrary,” many now feel free to say what they like with little regard for anyone or anything. But all of their remarks show that the Moscow Patriarchate does not feel than any “serious conversation with society” is needed.
Instead, these people only talk to and speak like mid-level officials with all the crudeness Russians have long expected. And that in turn means that neither the church as a body of believers nor as a bureaucratic structure is capable of “controlling the situation,” something all Russians can see.
It may be, Chaplin says, that in a post-secular society where the church is a participant, extremist and crude declarations will win some support; but it is absolutely certain that these statements will alienate more than they attract and thus undermine any possibility that the Russian Orthodox Church can play the role it aspires to.