The reform of the judicial system, which practically never acquits and is fully subordinate to law enforcement agencies, has long been discussed in Russia. However, only civil activists are involved in the debates. The government keeps evading any participation in the discussion, and the courts continue arbitrarily to pass unreasonably strict verdicts for both civil activists and businessmen. In mid-September, a number of professional societies called for a review of the decisions concerning the cases of participants in unauthorized demonstrations in Moscow from July 2019. An appeal by Orthodox clergy was among the first, followed by public petitions by teachers, doctors, publishers, and philosophers. However, the clergy’s letter was most unexpected and had an unexpectedly profound resonance in Russian society.
What is the letter about?
On September 17th, a group of Orthodox priests came to the defense of young people who were detained after unauthorized protests in Moscow. The chosen format of the letter—clerical intercession—was unexpected and has never been used in post-Soviet Russia.
From the outset, the priests state unequivocally: it is their pastoral duty to call for “the need to review court decisions concerning the imprisonment of several persons involved in the ‘Moscow case.’”
Furthermore, the priests warn that “perjury makes a person an accomplice in the trial of the Savior, which was likewise founded on false testimony.” This is a direct rebuke of the members of the law enforcement agencies who provided false evidence during trials.
The letter contains a clear critique of the judicial system that has come to be established in Russia: “The court must be able to protect a citizen from the arbitrariness of the executive power and of law enforcement agencies; otherwise, its very existence becomes no more than a detail and formality.”
Then there is a message to judges and members of law enforcement agencies: “We call on the people holding judicial authority and serving in law enforcement agencies of our country. Many of you are baptized in the Orthodox Church and consider yourself believers. Judicial proceeding should not be repressive in nature, courts should not be used to stifle dissenting voices, and the use of force should not be implemented with unjustifiable cruelty.”
The letter concludes with an expression of the priests’ concerns about the fact that the “court’s sentences look like an intimidation of Russian citizens rather than a fair decision for defendants.”
In the last lines, the priests call people to pray “for the prisoners and for the people in whose hands the fate of the prisoners lies.”
Who wrote the letter and who signed it?
The authors of the letter decided to stay hidden and anonymous. Initially the letter had 36 signatures, but in the four days after its online publication the number of signatures quadrupled and reached 182 signatures (by September 25th).
Of course, in absolute numbers, this is still quite a small group given that, according to official statistics, there are approximately 40,000 priests and deacons in the Russian Orthodox Church. It is worth noting, however, that that the clergy who signed the letter do not belong to a single group: their diversity is astonishing—there are married priests, monks, priests from large cities and small villages, experienced elders and relatively young pastors, famous dissidents and those with official status in the church’s structure.
This is the first time that Orthodox clergy have shown their solidarity with detained civil activists and their readiness to discuss publicly the defense of those innocently convicted as a Christian task. One can’t say that in recent years social justice has been the focus of Russian Orthodox Church. Rather, church representatives have avoided talking about social justice in Russia because in such a case, sooner or later, they would have to criticize the government’s social policy directly.
In the Russian context, it was important to verify in practice that in a context where the state-controlled media presented a distorted picture of the Moscow protests, a diverse range of clergy not only has access to other, alternative sources of information (such as social media) but also trust them.
Another detail worth noting is that no bishop signed the letter. For them, “collective solidarity” with the Patriarchate is of paramount importance. This is further evidence of the great divide between the priesthood and the episcopacy in the Russian Orthodox Church. Some priests are ready to support the laity and exercise solidarity with them, but bishops still consider themselves separate. They are not ready, morally or collectively, to speak publicly about their solidarity with the clergy who signed the letter. And even if some young bishops are ready to sign, older bishops for now have managed to convince them not to do so. And moreover, some bishops were ready preventively to punish the priests who signed the letter without waiting for the Patriarchate’s directives.
To whom is the letter addressed?
First of all, the clergy’s letter is addressed to the courts. However, it is naïve to think that judges would listen to the voice of the Orthodox priests, even if they identify as Orthodox and go to church. The main target of the letter is society in Russia at large.
The letter is also addressed to the Church authorities. It calls for reflection on the fact that the right of petitioning the state for clemency for the innocently convicted has again become relevant and should not be neglected—even in the case of political prisoners.
And, finally, another addressee are the clergy themselves. The call to them could be articulated quite simply: enough with fear! The Russian Orthodox Church has been afflicted with an oppressive atmosphere caused by lack of freedom for quite some time.
What was the reaction of the official Church?
The reaction of the official Church dramatically differed from that of the majority of people. Initial comments could be characterized as critical and quite suspicious. As the situation unfolded, however, the opinions from different Synodal departments were different, sometimes even contradictory. This shows that the Russian Orthodox Church still has not articulated a unified, official position.
The first comment appeared in the news ticker of state-run news agencies a couple of hours after the online publication of the letter: “This is politics . . . to sign a declaration in which political rhetoric is mixed in a strange manner with language from sacred texts—it is an easy but useless approach.”
Taking into account that participation in political protests is punished severely in the Russian Orthodox Church, many people interpreted these words as direct intimidation of the priests who signed the letter.
However, the following day, a gentler, more conciliatory communication from the Synodal department of public and press relations appeared; it recognized (albeit indirectly) the notion that priests have a right to issue such statements. However, this response was not without reproach: “The priests hardly . . . have clear enough information concerning the cases to draw a conclusion of guilt or innocence.” The last paragraph of the communication says that the Center of Human Rights of the World Russian People’s Council was requested to study the cases of detained and convicted civil activists and “to provide them with qualified legal assistance if necessary.” There is no information, however, on whether the work of Orthodox defenders of human rights has begun.
Soon it came to light that bishops of some dioceses were considering disciplinary measures against the priests who signed the letter. Therefore, another statement was issued in which the Patriarchate signaled to bishops that they should forego any crackdown on clergy who may have signed the appeal.
By all appearances, this might have been the end of the story, but another article was subsequently published. In this article, a spokesperson for the Patriarchate from its Department on relations with society and the media directly accuses the priests of attempting to get “political resources,” and he makes an unexpected prediction: “Due to a convergence of interests, an alliance between the Church protest group and corresponding politicians is possible. Either way, this open letter is a serious affirmation of participation in the political struggle.”
What stands out here is that the Moscow Patriarchate has broken, for the first time, an unwritten rule—in any official pronouncement, only priests may criticize priests. In the statements mentioned above, all criticism came from unordained church bureaucrats “in suits.”
The last one to comment on the situation was the Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev). His short commentary on a TV show called “The Church and the World” was generally sympathetic to the letter’s signatories, but sounded like a personal opinion since, according to current protocol, comments by the chairman of diplomatic office of the Moscow Patriarchate concerning Church-society relations do not constitute an official statement.
The priests’ letter elicited a strong public reaction. First, it gave rise to a plethora of public appeals with similar requests. Such letters came from doctors, IT specialists, publishers, architects, philosophers, etc. (in total ten professional societies). And a weak civil society was unexpectedly strengthened due to professional unions and groups. Thus, Orthodox clergy have begun to form an independent social force. As of now, the public trust in the priests who signed the letter is quite high. Second, the letter had enormous resonance within the Church itself. Laity came out in support of the priests. Besides, many priests who had not signed the letter (primarily because of the fear of reprisal from the bishops) expressed their sympathy with the signatories. The experience of the freedom of expression of one’s views had been practically forgotten in the Russian Orthodox Church over the last decade. And the experience of grassroots conciliarity (sobornost’)—a conciliarity notably on the level of the parish clergy and laity—turned out to be important primarily for those who had lost hope about the very possibility of the realization of conciliarity as such in contemporary times.
Sergei Chapnin is the former Managing Editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. He is one of the founders of the Church Builders Guild and leads several projects on ecclesial arts as a board member, publisher, and editor.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.