Friday, April 9, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Orthodox Christians in the Baltics Could Transform the Orthodoxy of the Moscow Patriarchate, Russian Religious Specialist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 9 – Orthodox Christians in the Baltic countries, despite their small numbers, a Russian religious specialist says, may play a role in the transformation of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate analogous to the one that religious immigrants to the United States from Europe played in the transformation of Roman Catholicism.
And that possibility, part of a broader movement that religious specialists refer to as “alternative Orthodoxy, suggests that Patriarch Kirill’s drive to build a power vertical in his church is certain to be far less successful than he and his Kremlin backers claim now that the so-called “émigré” church has restored communion with the Patriarchate.
At the end of March, reported this week, a group of some of Russia’s most distinguished specialists on religious life participated in a seminar on “The Orthodox Church in the Social-Political Life of the Baltic States” at the Moscow Carnegie Center” (
Nadezhda Belyakova, a leading historian of religious life, pointed out that at the end of the Soviet period, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were considered “an oasis of Orthodoxy” within the USSR because almost every major city in the three had an Orthodox church, something not true in the 12 Soviet republics.
The number of such churches, she said, remains relatively stable even though many in the Baltic countries consider the Russian Orthodox Church as part of “the empire” and even though many other religious organizations – especially the Catholics in Lithuania and the Lutherans in Estonia and Latvia – are closely identified with the drive for independence.
Those attitudes have created some problems, including most importantly a split among the Orthodox in Estonia where the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church split off and registered under the jurisdiction not of the Moscow Patriarchate but under the Universal Patriarch in Constantinople.
Belyakova traced the history of these interrelationships in some detail, but the most intriguing and suggestive comment came from Sergey Filatov, a Moscow sociologist of religion the head of the editorial group now preparing a new multi-volume “Encyclopedia of Religious Life of Russia.”
He compared the Orthodox in the three Baltic countries today “with those Catholics who moved from feudal Austro-Hungary, Spain, France and Italy to the United States and there, although a poor church without power, easily accepted democratic values” even as they gave up many of the “pagan rites” that affected their homeland communities.
As a result of that combination, the religious sociologist said, they “played an enormous role in the transformation of European Catholicism in a legal aspect.” And he suggested that “the Orthodox of the Baltic states may play a similar role for the Russian Orthodox Church [of the Moscow Patriarchate], despite their relatively small numbers.”
But Belyakova suggested that there was one “unknown” in this process. No one, she pointed out, can be sure “how the process of the nationalization of Orthodoxy in Russia will be reflected in the life of the communities in the Baltic region.” At the very least, it may alienate the members of those communities who are not themselves ethnic Russians.
Coincidentally or not, the current issue of Moscow’s “NG-Religii” carries a major article by Anatoly Leshchinsky of the Russian State Social University” entitled “Orthodoxy ‘in Assorted Flavors’” which provides an overview of the extraordinary range of religious groups that identify as Russian Orthodox but do not subordinate themselves to the Moscow Patriarchate
Among these are – and Leshchinsky talks about them in detail – are the Old Believers, the various émigré churches, the catacomb churches formed in Soviet times which continue to function now, the “Truly Orthodox” churches, the autocephalous, the apocalyptic and the reformed (
Each of these offers a different perspective on various theological and social issues, a perspective that because it continues to exist represents a challenge to those like Patriarch Kirill who want to impose a single set of beliefs on the Orthodox and to control the church and its believers through a tightly structured vertical of power.
While all of these trends offer something of interest, the “Truly Orthodox” are perhaps especially important in terms of influence, given how hard the Moscow Patriarchate has worked against them. This trend in Russian Orthodoxy took formal shape following the rejection by many Russian believers of the church’s decision in the 1920s to cooperate with the Soviet regime.
Until the collapse of the USSR, the Truly Orthodox were part of the catacomb movement. Since 1991, some of these groups have registered with the authorities, but others have remained underground, thus representing a challenge not only to the Moscow Patriarchate but also to the post-Soviet Russian regime.

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