On November 19, 2020, The Russian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society published what many media sources have referred to as a “black list of false clerics.” This list of clerics was added to an already existing list of organizations that were claiming to collect money for charitable and religious purposes but, who upon closer inspection, appear to be swindlers and scams. The Patriarchate created this list to warn believers that some of the religious leaders and figures that they may follow, whether online or off, are not endorsed by the Moscow Patriarchate and should be avoided.
The “black list” reveals the Moscow Patriarchate’s seriousness in confronting independent groups and individuals labeling themselves Orthodox that might lead members of the flock astray. This is a problem that many within the institutional Russian Orthodox Church have looked to deal with in the post-Soviet Period. The Church already combats the publication and distribution of unapproved religious literature though a tiered system of stamps of approval for print materials. The Patriarchate continues this trend with the publication of this list, providing clear guidance on who a faithful believer ought to avoid online. However, in publicizing these names, the Church may have only boosted interest in these clerics.
The Patriarchate made an odd choice in the presentation of this list on their website. Along with naming these “false clerics,” they included links to each of their YouTube pages. These links allow visitors to the page to easily and immediately go to the very pages that the Church wants to dissuade believers from following. Adding them to this list and linking to their videos gives them greater notoriety and exposure that they might not otherwise have received. Inclusion on this list could be seen as badge of honor and a confirmation of their rightness in the face of a hierarchy they believe to be corrupt or illegitimate. All the better for attracting new followers that it is such a small and exclusive club that resembles both a “best of” and a “most wanted” list.
In the same week as the publication of the list, one of the clerics, Aleksandr Lipin, made a video where he celebrated his newfound status as one of the “Top-10 False Priests.” Lipin is a former deacon of the Moscow Patriarchate and current priest of a schismatic group of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. In the video, he thanks the Moscow Patriarchate for receiving such an honor and taking it as a sign that his work was correct in the eyes of God.
If the correctness of his path is measured in online engagement then perhaps he has a point. Lipin has more YouTube subscribers than the official channel of the Moscow Patriarchate. His videos and posts focus on a number of different topics including anti-globalization, survivalism, and accusations against Patriarch Kirill for engaging in the heresy of ecumenism. For the most part, Lipin repeats many of the right-wing polemics that have been leveled against the Moscow Patriarchate for decades now. However, his relatively young age and his skills with social media make him a much more effective messenger of these ideas, threatening the Patriarchate’s authority.
Another of the “false priests,” Vladimir Golovin, boasts a remarkable 344 thousand YouTube subscribers. This number is about six and a half times as many as the official channel of the Moscow Patriarchate and videos average more than ten thousand views each, an impressive amount. The Patriarchate stripped Golovin of his clerical rank in 2019 due to his heterodox theological opinions and the substantial profits he was making from providing spiritual services and offering “prayers by agreement.”
Despite losing his clerical position, Golovin remains popular. His sermons connect with people and seem to offer some valuable spiritual comfort to his followers. While the Church is correct in publicizing and sanctioning his financial misdeeds and steering believers away from giving him money, the fact remains that Golovin has found a way to harness digital communications to provide a popular and much sought after form of spiritual care. In linking to Golovin’s YouTube page through the “black list,” the Moscow Patriarchate draws attention to a dynamic representation of Orthodoxy online, one that underscores its own lacking efforts online.
The final cleric listed on the “black list” is the infamous Father Sergii (Romanov), who seized a monastery in the Urals and refuses to leave despite being stripped of his clerical rank. Sergii has made international news for his actions and his outlandish teachings and COVID denialism, giving him a good deal of notoriety, but also appealing to some looking for a “truer” or “purer” path of Orthodoxy. In placing him on the “black list,” the Church confirms that Sergii and the other “false clerics” form a kind of “outlaw Orthodoxy,” a version of the faith that might attract some people, especially young men, who want a religion that is more independent and direct, not as bound to the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. In essence, the list makes these figures look “cool” by distinguishing them from the more corporate and state-aligned Patriarchate.
The creation of this “black list” demonstrates the Moscow Patriarchate’s seriousness in dealing with those it considers to be false teachers in the online sphere, a recognition of the great power that social media is having over religious engagement in the country. The Moscow Patriarchate should be commended for attempting to protect believers from scams that purport to be supporting Orthodox causes. However, in choosing to publish this list and even link to the pages of these clerics that often have larger audiences online than the Patriarchate itself, the Patriarchate is inadvertently highlighting its own weaknesses when it comes to communicating online. If the Patriarchate wants to maintain relevance with younger generations, with people who spend a great deal of their lives online, then it is going to have to devise an online strategy that is much more engaging than creating a list of people far better at using social media than anyone in the Patriarchate.
Jacob Lassin is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies at Arizona State University. His research focuses on the Russian Orthodox Church’s online presence. You can follow him on Twitter @jacoblassin.
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.