Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Patriarch Official Warns Against Giving Up Ethnic Identities

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 16 – In open opposition to the Kremlin and in a clear tilt toward Russian nationalists, a senior official of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has called for the retention of ethnic self-identification among citizens of the Russian Federation.

Speaking on NTV, Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Synod’s Department for Church-Society Relations, said that “if ethnic self-identification is given up, then very quickly the [non-ethnic] Russian self-identification will be given up as well” and Russians might cease to consider themselves “citizens of the country” (

The archpriest’s comments came in response to the Kremlin’s proposal to have all citizens of the Russian Federation identify as [non-ethnic] Russians in order to form a common civic nation, a step advocates say will help overcome ethnic divisions but one that opponents argue will undermine Russian culture and identity.

Arguments for such a civic self-identification, the often outspoken Orthodox leader argued, do not convince him. If ethnic identification is given up as the supporters of a Russian civic nation appear to want, he said, then the question inevitably arises, “Why then should someone not immediately become a citizen of the world?”

(In fact, it should be pointed out, that Chaplin is erecting a straw man. None of the advocates of a civic nation have suggested that Russians or non-Russians should give up their ethnic self-identifications, only that these identities should be de-politicized and subordinated to a broader non-ethnic civic identification.)

This will please Russian nationalists, but they will be even happier with what Chaplin said next: “Everyone knows perfectly well that Jews play chess better and Africans play basketball better … This does not mean that one is better and the other worse, they are simply difference, and this ethnic variety must be taken into account.”

Chaplin also had words of support for non-ethnic Russians who do not like the idea of a civic nation either. “All cultures which are present in Russia,” he said, “are worthy of development but while expressing their cultural identification one way or another, they must take into consideration the views of others and live together with others.”

The archpriest, who is a protégé of Patriarch Kirill, has long been one of the most voluble of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church. Occasionally, he appears to be speaking only for himself, and sometimes his words represent a trial balloon in which the hierarchy is testing for the reaction of the population and the powers that be.

But in this case, Chaplin appears to be speaking for the Moscow Patriarchate – or at least expressing the feelings of most of the hierarchs, given that others among them have expressed similar feelings in recent weeks albeit in a more guarded way than the archpriest has chosen to do in this case.

If that is the case, it has enormous political consequences. On the one hand, the negative attitude of the Church will make it far more difficult for Medvedev to push through any program in support of a non-ethnic civic nation. And on the other, this division between the Kremlin and the Patriarchate may set the stage for more independent church action than in the past.

That could cost the regime what has been an unquestioned source of support, and it could boost the chances of Russian nationalist groups and politicians in the upcoming electoral cycles, something that could make Chaplin’s comments this week a bellwether of a fundamental change in direction in Russian politics.

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