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Bowing the knee to Vladimir Putin  

20 April 2018

The Russian Orthodox Church’s devotion to the regime raises serious questions, says Jonathan Luxmoore


President Vladimir Putin and the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, at an Orthodox Easter liturgy at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in Moscow, this month

President Vladimir Putin and the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, at an Orthodox Easter liturgy at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in Moscow, th...

WHEN President Vladimir Putin was re-elected last month for another six-year term, there was a predictable chorus of praise from leaders of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Shortly after, as other countries showed solidarity with Britain over the nerve-agent attack in Salisbury (News, 16 March), the Orthodox Church’s No. 2, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, dismissed claims of Russian involvement as “nonsense” and defended President Putin’s counter-measures.

For almost two decades, as President Putin has helped the post-Soviet Church to regain wealth and prestige, its leaders have responded with support and subservience — in a rebirth of the old sobornost, or symphony, between throne and altar. Their stance raises questions about whether anything has been learned from history — and what kind of links Anglicans and other denominations should now maintain with them.

In response to the election landslide, the secretary-general of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia, Fr Igor Kovalevsky, cautiously told me that his Church stood ready to work with the Putin government in “building a civil society and forming healthy life patterns”, but that it suffered from “bureaucracy, corruption, and the ambiguous implementation of laws”.

In contrast, the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia congratulated President Putin on his “convincing victory in open and fair conditions” (even though the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported intimidation and ballot-stuffing). The result was confirmation, Patriarch Kirill said, that voters backed the President’s vision of Russia as a “peace-loving power”, and his policy of “preserving and multiplying the nation’s spiritual, moral, and cultural values”.

ORTHODOX leaders have had good reasons for endorsing Putin at every turn. Under his presidency, their eparchies, or dioceses, which currently number more than 300, have opened three new churches daily, with a further 900 parishes now operating in 60 foreign countries.

In Moscow alone, 24 new Orthodox churches were dedicated during 2017, bringing the capital’s total to 1154; and, while it could still take years for Russian Orthodoxy to achieve the infrastructure it had before the 1917 revolution, its spiritual and temporal supremacy, endorsed by laws and regulations, is now assured.

In return, President Putin has looked to the Church to provide a spiritual and moral underpinning for his authoritarian rule, and to support Russia’s intimidation of its neighbours with rhetoric about Slavic brotherhood and unity.

The Orthodox Church has accepted the use of state power to restrict or suppress religious rivals, from much-harassed Baptist and Greek Catholic communities to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are still appealing against an April 2017 Supreme Court prohibition which allows their properties to be seized and their children taken away.

Not a word, meanwhile, has come from Orthodox leaders questioning Putin’s forcible annexation of Crimea in 2014, or Russian involvement in the savage war in eastern Ukraine, which has so far left more than 10,000 dead and 25,000 wounded.

Nor has anything been said about his meddling in Western politics, or about the bloody bombing of Syria, which was defended by Patriarch Kirill as a “fight for justice and truth” in a speech this March in Moscow.

Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion have justified their stance with talk of defending endangered Christian communities in the Middle East and embattled Christian values in the decadent secular West.

These were the themes pursued by Kirill during his meeting with the Pope in Havana in February 2016, and his talks with the Archbishop of Canterbury in Moscow last November (News, 24 November).

IN REALITY, Patriarch Kirill’s Church is doing little to help the Middle East’s Christians; rather, it is highlighting the issue to justify Russia’s brutal involvement in the region. As for upholding Christian values, these values do not appear to include regard for democracy, human rights, and national sovereignty, or for religious freedom and media pluralism.

The reborn sobornost might have caused fewer problems when Putin’s “dictatorship of law” was internally confined. With that dictatorship now engaging in intrigue and expansionism abroad, however, the Russian Church’s submissive refusal of any prophetic witness seems certain to have ecumenical consequences.

The Roman Catholic Church in Poland initiated a high-profile dialogue with Russian Orthodoxy in 2012, but has now suspended contacts, concluding that no good-will declarations had any impact on Russia’s aggressive behaviour. When Patriarch Kirill visited Bulgaria last month to extol the two countries’ “spiritual unity”, he was denounced by Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister, Valeri Simeonov, as a “second-rate Soviet cop”.

Channels of communication must remain open and dialogue must continue. But knowing how far relations should extend beyond this will require wise discernment. If interchurch ties are used merely for propaganda gains, they should be reconsidered.

Western Churches faced similar dilemmas in links with Russian Orthodoxy during the Soviet period, when the Russian Church had suffered severe repression and was under total state control. Today, in contrast, that Church is making its own calculations and choices.

Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of Communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing.

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