Disputed Voting Turns Church, a Kremlin Ally, Into Its Critic
December 29, 2011
Disputed Voting Turns Church, a Kremlin Ally, Into Its Critic
By SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY
MOSCOW — Among the thousands of Russian voices raised against the
Kremlin this month after parliamentary elections widely dismissed as
fraudulent, perhaps the most surprising was that of Patriarch Kirill I,
the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, who defended popular protests
as a “lawful negative reaction” to corruption.
Always a reliable pillar of support for the government of Prime Minister
Vladimir V. Putin and his United Russia Party, the powerful Orthodox
Church has been noticeably — to some, shockingly — critical of the
elections. Arguably the only major national institution outside the
state, the church could potentially play a significant role as the
current political and social crisis unfolds.
Patriarch Kirill is by no means the only religious critic of the
government since the elections, and certainly not the toughest. “People
of the most varied convictions are now gathering on the square, but they
are united by one thing, their unwillingness to live like this any
longer,” Archpriest Aleksei Uminsky, a popular Moscow priest who hosts a
television program about Orthodoxy, said at a public gathering last
week. “The same thing is happening right now in the church.”
In addition to urging the church to invite serious discussion about
Russian society, Father Uminsky called attention to injustices within
the church ranks. He cited the case of a priest who died of a heart
attack while fighting to preserve church property from Kremlin-backed
development plans. “There was no reaction” from any church leaders in
that case and other disturbing episodes, he noted, “but something is
Another prominent Moscow priest, the Rev. Andrei Zuevsky, posted a
sermon on his Facebook page last weekend that sharply criticized the
existing order, and was quickly circulated on blogs.
“As a result of the particular way in which power is set up in our
society today, this arrogant attitude toward the people has become the
abnormal norm,” Father Zuevsky said. “Those in power are not only
haughty, they refuse anyone but themselves the right to decide what is
good and what is bad.”
The criticism has grown so heated that Patriarch Kirill, keenly aware of
the church’s continuing dependence on the state, has felt compelled to
warn priests to watch their Internet tongues, saying, “Careless and
sometimes intentionally provocative statements by priests cast a shadow
on all of God’s church.”
Yet the patriarch, known for mixing tradition with enough modernity to
keep himself and his church relevant, condemned neither the Internet nor
the right to criticism voiced by priests, monks, nuns and even bishops
now blogging and posting on Facebook. Every new parish in Moscow, he has
said, should keep in step with the times, accessible to young people and
with a home page.
Those comments, at a diocesan assembly on Friday, followed both the
statement last week in which Patriarch Kirill upheld the right to
protest and sermons on Dec. 17 and 18 in which he urged the government
to heed popular anger.
At the same time, alluding to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the
Communists’ near-destruction of the church, he warned of the dangers of
revolution in Russia and of the Internet in manipulating the masses, and
stressed that all Russians must work on personal transformation in order
for society to change. “We no longer have the right to be divided,” he
said, calling for a broad civic dialogue. “The blood that was shed in
the 20th century does not give us that right.”
Particularly striking since the elections have been statements by
priests, including those of Father Uminsky, published by Pravmir, a
Russian Orthodox news Web site. Patriarch Kirill — while lauding
official steps, like President Dmitri A. Medvedev’s recent appointments
of hard-liners to high government positions, or his promises of change —
went out of his way to praise Pravmir’s coverage of the church and society.
The Rev. Dmitri Sverdlov, a young priest who used to work in finance,
drew a broad audience and the admiration of secular liberals often
cynical about the church with his account of volunteering as an election
observer at a Moscow polling place and seeing ballot stuffing in favor
of United Russia.
The diocesan assembly has since forbidden priests to act without
authorization as election observers, and has warned that it is
“extremely dangerous” for clerics to violate the overall church rule
against participating in election campaigns.
Yet Pravmir and the recent involvement of the church in the discussions
about the elections have surprised secular Russians. Dmitri Gubin, a
journalist and avowed atheist who had said the silence of the church
hierarchy was leading him to regard the Russian Orthodox Church as a
branch of the state, said he was “dumbfounded.”
“For the first time in Russia, I got a clear religious view on a secular
problem,” he wrote in Ogonyok, a newsmagazine.
Andrei Zubov, a historian who has studied Russian church-state
relations, said the Russian Orthodox Church today had modeled itself on
the Kremlin — “The church is building approximately the same kind of
authoritarian system as has been built by today’s regime” — and yet was
gaining legitimacy as the Kremlin lost ground.
This, he contended, enables Patriarch Kirill to appear as a voice of
moderation, a position most likely encouraged by the authorities.
“His declarations are taking on more and more the tonality of a high
moderator, who can, he thinks, still calm down the situation, which is
headed otherwise to a complete split of society from the regime, and,
correspondingly, towards profound political crisis,” Mr. Zubov said.
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, chairman of the Moscow patriarchate’s
department on church and society relations, has said recently that he
was meeting regularly with representatives of various political parties,
including the Communist Party.
Father Chaplin, a controversial figure who hews publicly to government
policy yet also frequents a Moscow club known for indie music and
alcohol-fueled debates, said there were now Orthodox believers among the
Communists, who are No. 2 among the officially sanctioned political
parties in Russia, after United Russia.
For now, the church is avoiding unsanctioned political parties. “So far,
the radical opposition has not come to us with proposals to facilitate a
dialogue with the authorities,” Father Chaplin said in an interview. “A
dialogue is needed of course.”
The patriarch and Father Chaplin have stressed that the Russian divide
is not just between the Kremlin and those in the streets, arguing that
dialogue must include everyone: the elite, workers and peasants,
liberals and conservatives, officers and soldiers, and the creative