New York, October 30 – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is promoting the slogan of “Moscow as the New Jerusalem” in place of Vladimir Putin’s backing for the notion of “Moscow as the Third Rome,” a shift in vocabulary with potentially enormous policy consequences, according to a leading Orthodox dissident.
In an interview posted on the Portal-Credo site this week, Father Gleb Yakunin, a Soviet-era dissident who head the Moscow Freedom of Conscience Committee, calls attention to this change which he says points to a more spiritual understanding of Russia rather than a demand for its muscular assertion of imperial power (www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=authority&id=1064).
Responding to a question about the Kremlin’s unexpected attention to the problems of restoring the New Jerusalem monastery near Moscow, Yakunin suggests that the Kremlin’s effort in this regard may be intended in the first instance to elevate Medvedev over Putin “to the first place in government-church relations.”
The New Jerusalem monastery, as Yakunin argues, has “a special importance in the history of the interrelationship of the Russian Orthodox church and the state.” It is “the symbol of the former power of Patriarch Nikon who inspired Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich on the necessity of a new model of relations between the church and state,” with church above the tsar.
That vision, of course, stands in sharp contrast to “the caesaro-papist variant” of Moscow as the Third Rome which elevates the state above the church and requires the state to view the church in much the same way that European countries have historically viewed the Catholic papacy in Rome.
If this model were realized in Russia today, the prominent advocate of freedom of conscience suggests, then “this would mean the complete clericalization of our state, which the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has been so insistently seeking over the last 20 years.”
That is unlikely to occur, he implies, because there are so many opponents in Russian society, including within the Orthodox Church. But nonetheless “the question arises: ‘who now is pretending to the role of the new Nikon?’ Of course, not the aged Patriarch Aleksii II but some apparently new rising star” who should in the first instance become the head of this monastery.
Medvedev has taken a special interest in the New Jerusalem monastery, even visiting it last spring by helicopter. And his attention to it sets him apart from Putin in another way: While Soviet historians always blamed the Germans for destroying the monastery, local residents say the NKVD – the precursor of the KGB out of which Putin emerged – was to blame.
Asked specifically to discuss the broader consequences of the displacement of the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome by the notion of Russia as the New Jerusalem, Yakunin responded in the following way. If this transition occurs, then Russia does not need to gain power by “seizing new territories.”
Indeed, the way in which the Moscow Patriarchate supported the Georgian Patriarchate concerning the subordination of bishoprics and congregations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by refusing to accept the idea that canonical borders should follow political ones testifies to this ship, Yakunin says.
(Yakunin may very well have a point here, but – and this is critical – the position the Moscow Patriarchate took in the Georgian case almost certainly has more to do with its concern that Kyiv could exploit any action that suggested Moscow would tolerate the transfer of Russian Orthodox congregations and bishoprics to an autocephalous Ukrainian church.)
In short, Yakunin says, “if Moscow is the new Jerusalem,” as he suggests Medvedev believes, “then it does not need to be a large aggressive empire” as Putin obviously wants “but rather needs to flourish spiritually” within its current borders.
Obviously, one should not make too much of this – it could be simply an over-reading of the situation by one Orthodox clergyman or it could be a means of promoting the notion that Medvedev is a man the West can do business with – but such ideological redefinitions matter in any society, and they matter increasingly in Russia itself.