Vienna, November 16 – Just as at the end of the Imperial period, ultra-right Orthodox lay organizations are creating problems for the Moscow Patriarchate and for the Russian government even though such organizations sometimes enjoy support within the religious and political hierarchies, a Moscow newspaper has warned.
In an editorial yesterday, “Nezavisimaya gazeta” that the phenomenon of “Orthodox against Orthodox or more precisely of ultra-Orthodox against those whom they consider ‘liberals’ and ‘modernists’ is becoming an ever more pronounced “trend” in Russian religious life over the last few months (www.ng.ru/editorial/2010-11-15/2_red.html).
And most recently, the paper’s editors continue, this conflict has spilled over from verbal exchanges in the religious media and blogosphere into “mass actions of Orthodox radicals who are balancing on the borders of scandal and pogroms” including open insubordination of some in the church hierarchy who believe they can rely on popular support against the Patriarchate.
Such insubordination and the attacks of lay radicals on representatives of mainstream Orthodox figures undermine the cohesion of the Church hierarchy, as do the other events of recent weeks that “Nezavisimaya” points to in this editorial. But the specifics are less important than the reasons these tensions have arisen and the consequences they have for Russian society.
Within the clerical hierarchy, there are some who share the views of the lay radicals, opposing such things as ecumenism or greater tolerance toward social diversity, and there are others who do not share those views but see the rise of Orthodox lay activism as a useful ally in their efforts to promote an expanded role for the Church in Russian life.
Consequently, while the Moscow Patriarchate has taken a hard line against any open insubordination within the clergy, it has been unwilling or perhaps unable to take an equally tough line toward those in the laity who at every point argue that they are acting on behalf of Orthodoxy.
And at the same time, with rare exceptions, the Russian powers that be have been reluctant to speak out against all but the very most extreme of the ultra-Orthodox lest the regime lose the support it has received in recent years from the Moscow Patriarchate whose relations with these lay groups is at the very least complicated.
The exact numbers of the ultra-Orthodox are a matter of dispute, but in many areas, they form a significant portion of public activism, if only because they more than others appear quite prepared to try to intimidate their opponents as they tried in the case of Deacon Andrey Kurayev recently in Chisinau where he had to be rescued by the civil authorities.
And there is a risk, given the hostility of many of the ultra-Orthodox to all minorities including Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews, that some of these ultra-Orthodox movements might act on those feelings, much as before World War I when such people engaged in pogroms and other activities that discredited church and state and undermined public order.
While many of the ultra-Orthodox may simply be deeply conservative and have no plans to take any such steps, there are some very troubling signs. At least some of their associates look back to the Black Hundreds as a role model, re-issuing its materials and attacking anyone who criticizes such groups for their criminal activities.
For all these reasons, the problems “Nezavisimaya” points to could soon prove to be far more serious than the editors of that paper suggest, especially if both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian powers that be fail to denounce such groups and dissociate themselves from them and equally if others concerned with human rights assume there is nothing to worry about.