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A view of Russia moving from red to rose-tinted

24 March 2009

Xenia Dennen doubts a study’s reliability

Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and power in the new Russia
John Garrard and Carol Garrard
Princeton University Press £21.95
Church Times Bookshop £19.75

Unfortunately, the authors suc­cumb to hero-worship, and we are treated to a great deal of romantic mush: the late Patriarch Alexi II (who died on 5 December 2008, after this book was written) is de­scribed as a chudotvorets (wonder-worker) who will most probably head quickly for sainthood (nothing of the sort has yet been suggested by the Moscow Patriarchate).

Alexi, according to the Garrards’ interpretation, helped decisively in the defeat of the 1991 putsch — indeed he was “one of the turning points that marked the beginning of the end for Soviet power” — although a reliable scholar on the subject, Jane Ellis, argues (see The Russian Orthodox Church: Triumphalism and defensiveness) that he took a cautious stance, acting only once he saw which way the wind was blowing, and initially making a statement that was not as forceful as it could have been.

We are told, with no hint of criticism, that “the most important priority of his [Alexi’s] patriarch­ate” was “forging a close relation­ship with the military” and helping unite that combustible duo, faith and patriotism, which is proving so useful to the Putin/Medvedev regime as it reconstructs Russia’s image as a great power.

The rebuilding of the ersatz Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, with its ugly icons and plastic “metalwork”, is praised as “a concentrated projection of his [Alexi’s] entire program as pat­riarch”. The separation of Church and state in the Russian constitu­tion is naïvely presented as fact by the Garrards, although the position today of the ROC is de facto that of an established Church with many advantages over all other Christian denominations.

Putin’s apparent devoutness is also presented at face value: he has a spiritual director, true, but no mention is made of this person’s identity. In fact, it is Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, a somewhat sinister Orthodox priest — or, put simply, an obscurant — whose possible influence on Putin is not to be welcomed.

The Garrards’ many historical digressions contain a great deal of fascinating detail, and are a testi­mony to the authors’ scholarly approach. Their claim, however, that Lenin’s famous letter of 19 March 1922, written during the Bolshevik campaign to confiscate church valuables, and for long kept secret, “is known only through samizdat” rather undermines this impression of scholarship, as

Lenin’s letter was published in two Russian émigré publications in 1970 and 1971, and then in English in Keston Institute’s journal Religion in Communist Lands in 1979.

It is also surprising that the authors, whose translations of Patriarch Alexi’s addresses in 1991 are included as an appendix, mistranslate Local Council (we recently witnessed such a gathering in January, when one was called to elect Patriarch Kirill) as “Mestny Soviet” — a very Communist-sounding term — when any special­ist of Russian church affairs would know that it is a “Pomestny Sobor”.

Furthermore, it is puzzling to read that, before the 2003 celebrations of St Seraphim’s canonisation, the authorities apparently rushed to reconstruct the grounds and buildings at Diveevo (the convent founded by St Seraphim). In 1995, when I was there, the Trinity Cathedral with the saint’s relics was in good order, indeed, richly restored. Flourishing flowerbeds brightened up the large area between the cathedral and the nuns’ accommodation.

Xenia Dennen is a Russian specialist, and chairman of Keston Institute, Oxford.

To order this book via CT bookshop click here.

To order this book via CT bookshop click here.

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