Friday, October 9, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Attacks on ‘Alternative Orthodoxy’ Reflect Not Patriarchate’s Growing Power but Kremlin’s Reprise of Soviet Approach to Religion

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 9 – Russia is not experiencing “a second baptism” as some in the Russian government like to claim or “the establishment of [Russian Orthodoxy] as a state religion” as many in the liberal community fear, but rather something far more dangerous to the future of the country and the faith, according to a Moscow commentator.
What is taking place, Dimitry Savvin argues, is neither more nor less than the restoration of the Soviet-era approach to religion, one designed to limit the Russian Orthodox Church – and by extension, other “traditional” religions – to a limited and deracinated public role because the authorities fear religion could challenge their power (
Savvin says he was driven to that conclusion by the destruction of the spiritual administrative center of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church in Suzdal where the Patriarchate and the regime worked together to suppress an “alternative” orthodoxy and by recent moves to restrict religious instruction for the laity at Orthodox monasteries.
Most analysts have explained these moves as an effort by the Moscow Patriarchate and especially the recently enthroned Kirill to build a religious “power vertical” within the state, but there are good reasons for thinking, Savvin insists, that it says more about the government than the church, within which there “co-exist” a large range of views on what should be done.
The Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church stands on “theological positions which willy-nilly represent a kind of opposition to the current regime.” Indeed, Savvin argues, its very existence shows “the reality and vitality of the so-called ‘alternative Orthodoxy,’ which is inclined to consider the present regime, the legal successor of the USSR, as anti-Christian.”
The current Russian government, of course, is “a neo-Bolshevist regime,” Savvin says, noting the Eduard Limonov, the leader of the National Bolsheviks, has characterized it as “ersatz National Bolshevism.” And that regime is thus picking up on the approach that the Soviet system adopted toward the Russian Orthodox Church a generation or more ago.
That approach consists of six parts, Savvin says. First, “because it is impossible to destroy it completely, the state must control the Orthodox Church by gradually reducing its influence.” Second, “it must form a single administrative and ‘loyal’ jurisdiction which will fulfill the role of the entire plenipotentiary power of the Russian Church” in the eyes of others.
Third, “all other Orthodox denominations must be destroyed by repressive-administrative methods. Fourth, the leadership of the accepted jurisdiction must be given some of the benefits of officials loyal to the regime. Fifth, the officially supported Church must be presented as “ruling and flowering” for believers.
And sixth, and at the same time, the total number of active believers must be quietly reduced in order that the Church’s influence will decline because “even the most controlled and loyal Orthodox church jurisdiction remains a center of potential opposition to the [existing Russian government] regime.”
Under Boris Yeltsin, “a small number” of “forced changes in this schema were permitted, Savvin says. But “already in [Vladimir] Putin’s time, the arrangements laid out above, although imposed by somewhat different and ‘softer’ methods again began to be implemented in the Russian Federation.”
According to the Moscow commentator, many in the Kremlin – “and one must say,” he adds, “not without foundation” – believe that “church life independent of the regime in a natural way is a center of attraction for opposition forces,” a view that has intensified and spread over the last two or three years.
“Strictly speaking,” he continues, “there are not in contemporary Russian society any relatively institutions which do not form part of the Putin-Medvedev power vertical except for religious institutions.” And that explains why Putin devoted so much effort to “neutralize” the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and now any manifestation of Orthodox independence.
While Russian leaders have shown public deference to the church, Savvin argues, “they have done whatever they though necessary in order that “the influence of the genuinely Orthodox” as opposed to empty rituals on Russian society will be as low as possible” lest the Church itself become a threat.
Indeed, he says, “any attempt at strengthening genuinely Orthodox influence – in culture, social life, the moral sphere and in politics is as far as possible precluded.” And consequently independent Orthodox action first outside the Moscow Patriarchate and then within the establishment itself is going to be opposed.
According to the commentator, the next three steps in this government approach are likely to be new limits on the activities of the Old Believer churches, moves against the Russian Truly-Orthodox Church to force it into the Patriarchal church with which it has long been at odds, and a “purge” of the Moscow Patriarchate of those who don’t agree with the regime’s line.
Given that the last such move will affect the Patriarchate’s own power and self-image, Savvin says, the question arises: “how far is Patriarch Kirill prepared to go to satisfy the Kremlin” especially since he can see that the political situation in the country as a whole is moving toward a crisis.
Savvin says that unfortunately he personally does not hold out any particular hopes that Kirill, as opposed perhaps to some other churchmen, will stand up for the faith even at the cost of suffering instead of going along with the current regime and sacrificing the very principles on which the Church is supposed to be based in the process.

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