Thursday, October 22, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Patriarchate’s Efforts to Subordinate ‘Alternative Orthodox’ Undercut Russia’s Future, Regelson Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 22 – The Moscow Patriarchate’s drive to subordinate all independent Orthodox bishops and believers to its own power vertical, an effort that has led to the re-integration of part of the so-called émigré church and moves against other “alternative Orthodox” communities inside Russia, threatens that country’s future, a leading historian says.
In an interview on the Russian News Service this week, Lev Regelson, a specialist on the Eastern Church, points out that there are currently approximately 150 Russian bishops and their sees who are independent of the Moscow Patriarchate and thus form what many now call “alternative Orthodoxy” (
Not only does this effort, which has accelerated under Patriarch Kirill with the full backing of both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, violate Church principles and the Russian Constitution, but by suppressing some of the most dynamic parts of the faithful, Regelson argues, it undermines precisely the reforms Medvedev has called for.
In the course of a lengthy on-air discussion with host Irina Karatsuba, Regelson, who gained international fame in the 1970s for his book “The Tragedy of the Russian Church,” points out that the most important part of this “alternative Orthodoxy” consists of the so-called Old Believers, who broke with the official Church to protest Patriarch Nikon’s reforms in 1666-67.
In contrast the government-backed Church, Regelson argues, the Old Believers, despite official portrayals of them as hopelessly obscurantist, were and remain among the most independent and entrepreneurially-minded of Russians, who in the 19th century and recently, have helped “lift Russia up” economically and politically.
The official Church both in tsarist times and now consists mostly of “bureaucrats” who are concerned about their own power and prepared to go along with the state bureaucrats to that end, something Regelson argues that makes it extremely difficult for the Patriarchate to promote genuine change.
Karatsuba interjects that Regelson’s praise of the entrepreneurialism manifested by the Old Believers sounded as if it were taken “directly from the words of President [Dmitry] Medvedev” in the Kremlin leader’s recent article, “Russia, Forward!” To which Regelson responds that there is indeed something in common.
“If [the Old Believers] had not been persecuted by the church and state,” he says, “they would really have raised Russia up without any Bolshevik modernization.” Indeed, he suggests, the Old Believers were “revolutionaries” in their own way: “they wanted a liberal-bourgeois revolution,” but another one happened.
Tragically for Russia, Regelson says, instead of welcoming these values and the freedom of the Spirit that informs them, the Moscow Patriarchate is once again seeking to gain full bureaucratic control over them, a violation of the Church’s own teachings and of the needs of Russian society.
In the course of his lengthy interview, Regelson comments on other strains of “alternative Orthodoxy,” but perhaps intriguingly, he provides in addition to his backing for these groups an explanation of why Patriarch Kirill appears so much more inclined to seek a rapprochement with the Catholic Church even as he seeks to take control of all of Russian Orthodoxy.
“The Orthodox Church,” Regelson points out, “is an organ of empire, but the Catholic Church is an empire in and of itself.” And if is thus “not for [Rome’s] enlightened approach but for its bureaucracy” that Kirill is so interested in reopening links between Eastern and Western Christendom.
Regelson’s observations are especially timely given that this week, the council of the Russian Orthodox Old Believer Church has assembled in Moscow not only to talk about its own policies, including support for religious education in Russian schools, but also about a rapprochement with the Moscow Patriarchate, something Kirill very much wants.
According to a report in “Vremya novostei” today, the Old Believers are quite prepared to ally themselves with the Patriarchate on issues like religious education where they agree, but the “alternative Orthodox” remain deeply suspicious of just what the Moscow Patriarchate hopes to achieve by talking about unity (
A month ago, a Patriarchal official suggested that the dispute which led the Old Believers to split away from the official church was about “purely ritual” issues, a view that from the Old Believer perspective appears either “funny” or an insult to their dignity, given their own theological development.
If Regelson is correct in his analysis, the continuing independence of the Old Believers and other strands of “alternative Orthodoxy” will represent a victory not only for the faith but also for Russia’s future, while a win for the Moscow Patriarchate, even though it would likely be welcomed by the powers that be in the Russian capital, would be a defeat for both.

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