Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russian Bishops from the Periphery Increasingly Outspoken

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 4 – Despite the Moscow Patriarchate’s well-deserved reputation for tight central control over its hierarchy, three Russian Orthodox bishops from the periphery of the Russian Federation are attracting attention across the country for their outspoken views.
“Bishop Dynamite” For the last five weeks, an open letter signed by Bishop Diomid of Anadyr and Chukotka opposing ecumenism and calling for a church council, has attracted the attention of many inside the Church and beyond. (For the text of the bishop’s letter, see and for reactions to it, see
Indeed, the response to his words – hostility from the Patriarchate itself and support by various Orthodox organizations – has been so strong that one priest, Father Gleb Yakunin, has given the leader of Orthodoxy’s most distant see within the country the sobriquet “Bishop Dynamite” (
Although Yakunin acknowledged that it remains unclear just how powerful Diomid’s explosive potential will be, the leader of the Russian Committee on Freedom of Conscience said that the bishop’s letter was important because it was the first time in decades that a bishop had openly criticized the leadership of the Church.
And while it is likely that the Patriarchate will succeed in keeping Diomid a marginal figure, his appeal and the issues it raises have created a situation where “Chukotka is a center of Church thought,” in the words of a commentator (
A New Controversy in Beslan Meanwhile, in Beslan, the site of a September 2001 hostage-taking disaster in which 331 children died, the local bishop has adopted a position which threatens inter-religious and hence inter-ethnic peace there, according to an “NG-Religii” writer (
Unlike both his predecessor as bishop of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz and Patriarch Aleksii II himself, Bishop Feofan wants to build an Orthodox shrine on the sight of the school and thus seeks to freeze out Muslims from any role in a memorial for the victims of the tragedy – even though more than half the victims were Muslims.
Bishop Feofan argues that the parents of the victims have voted for a church and it is not right to insult their feelings by erecting a mosque as well. But some of the parents told “NG-Religii” that they had been pressured by the bishopric to take that position, reports that if true call into question the results Feofan cites.
Local Muslim leaders say that unlike his predecessor Gedeon, who sought to promote inter-religious peace and dialogue, Bishop Feofan has been “extremely aggressive” in his interactions with them and with representatives of Moscow Muslim groups such as Ravil’ Gainutdin of the Union of Russian Muftis.
Indeed, the “NG-Religii” writer concludes sadly, Feofan’s behavior – together with the Patriarchate’s failure to call him into line -- represents “salt in the still fresh wounds of people who suffered a tragedy,” something that makes the reaction of Muslims understandable if not in fact welcome.
If the Americans Had Occupied the Russian Far East… But perhaps the most remarkable if not necessarily the most significant comments came this week in an interview Bishop Zosima of Yakutsk and Lena gave to the Religion and Mass Media site (
First of all, Zosima argues – and this goes very much against what officials in the Moscow Patriarchate currently claim – that “religion does not play a decisive role in the unification of the peoples” of the Russian Federation although he says “the rebirth of Russia is impossible without the rebirth of its historical roots” including the Church.
Second, the bishop says, this goal can best be promoted by having the state limit the activities of foreign missionaries in Russia, by introducing religious instruction in the public schools, and by creating Komsomol-type groups for young people albeit with the values of Orthodoxy and Russianness rather than communism.
And third, Zosima makes a comment that recalls the Soviet era in another way: he says that “if America had come to Yakutia” at some point in the past, “the Yakuts would then live in specially created reservations and the basic territory would be freedom up for so-called ‘new settlers.’”
These three bishops are relatively young and reflect many of the religious and nationalist values percolating among the lay activists of the Church at the end of the 1980s and during the first half of the 1990s, ideas that disturbed many in the hierarchy but which continue to resonate.
At the end of the Yeltsin era, the Patriarchate attempted to silence this group by isolating some of its members and co-opting others, but the actions of these three bishops suggest that that policy has not worked as intended and may even be backfiring on its authors.
(For a thorough discussion of this process and why it may be failing, see Nikolai Mitrokhin’s detailed study, “The Church after the Crisis” in “Neprikosnovenniy zapas,” no. 6 (2006) which is available online at

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