If you stand before the iconostasis of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Manhattan, the representation church of the Moscow Patriarchate to the Orthodox Church in America, you will see an old and ornate cross perched behind the altar table. First placed there nearly 120 years ago, it is an artifact of another moment in which the diplomatic and foreign policy goals of the Russian state were intertwined with the transnational reach of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The cross was first obtained for the chapel of the Retvizan, a Russian battleship built in a Philadelphia shipyard between 1899 and 1902. During its construction, Orthodox clergy in nearby New York came to know the ship’s personnel. When the cornerstone was blessed for the new St. Nicholas church in early 1901, the officers and sailors of the Retvizan formed a choir under the direction of the parish sacristan, Father Ilia Zotikov, and sang the liturgical responses. They also donated funds to the building project. Several months later, Bishop Tikhon (Bellavin) returned the favor, traveling to Philadelphia to consecrate the ship’s chapel. In 1904, when the Retvizan was damaged at the outset of the Russo-Japanese War, the ties that bound the ship and its crew to Orthodox leaders in North America proved as strong as ever. Responding to a telegram from Tikhon expressing concern for the ship’s crew, their commander wrote to request “the prayers of your Grace to God to grant us strength to be of comfort to our country.”
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, and as greater attention is being given to the Putin regime’s longstanding use of the Orthodox Church for purposes of authoritarian statecraft, my mind has returned again and again to the Retvizan’s altar cross. Just as in 1904, Russia is embroiled in an unpopular war, with its autocratic leader pressing his troops ever further into a misguided reach for territory and regional dominance. From Patriarch Kirill on down, influential church leaders have supported this unprovoked and anti-democratic attack. They assent to Vladimir Putin’s chauvinist Russian nationalism, a disturbing relic of the distant past which feigns obliviousness to Ukrainian history, language, identity, culture, and most importantly, its hard-won sovereignty. The frightening images on our televisions and social media feeds implore an examination of the long interplay of Russian foreign policy and the transnational aspects of the Russian Church.
Putin’s invasion has shown in stark terms that as in 1904, too, the Orthodox Church remains an arm of Russian soft diplomacy. At the turn of the twentieth century, Russian Orthodox missionary dioceses abroad were transnational institutions firmly situated in the bureaucracy and political milieu of the late imperial Russian Church. In the United States, major churches like those of New York and San Francisco were way-stations for Russian nobles and tsarist officials. Clergy formed significant working relationships with members of the diplomatic corps. Community events often included the intoning of Mnogaia leta (“Many Years”) not just for the president of the United States, but the Russian tsar as well. In this regard, it is critical to note that even as an instrument of Russian soft diplomacy, Orthodox clergy in the United States did not pose their missionary endeavors in anti-democratic or anti-Western terms. They enjoyed warm relations with American civic and religious leaders. Parishioners were encouraged to become US citizens, participate in elections, and send their children to public schools. It is no surprise that the clergy of the St. Nicholas parish grew close to the crew of the Retvizan, as both represented transnational institutions which embodied how Imperial Russia saw itself in an increasingly interconnected modern world. But church leaders realized that theirs was a missionary diocese straddling two worlds, loyal to Russia, but distinctly situated within a Western democracy.
On March 3rd, the dean of St. Nicholas Cathedral published a letter addressed to the clergy of the Patriarchal Parishes in the United States. In his message, Abbot Nikodim (Balyasnikov) never once mentioned the pursuit of peace nor an end to the Russian invasion. Rather, he emphasized unity and fealty to the Moscow Patriarchate. He asked brother clergy “not to succumb to the moods of this dark time and not to follow in the footsteps of those who have decided to violate the principle of unity in the Church” by not commemorating Patriarch Kirill. Appealing to history, Abbot Nikodim argued that “the founding members of the parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in the United States—our predecessors—remained faithful to the Mother Church and His Holiness the Patriarch during the most difficult and troubled times of the 20th century.” Even in the face of war, Abbot Nikodim maintained, hierarchical authority could not be questioned. He compared the church to a “bomb squad,” able to err only once when faced with perceived threats to its unity. “Our fathers disregarded all the hardships of their time and were not afraid to remain faithful to the First Hierarch of Moscow,” he wrote, “but today we are beginning to be ashamed of our position? Isn’t this the very time when we should unite our prayers for our Patriarch, and unite our efforts, at his call, in helping our brothers and sisters in Ukraine?”
The question must be who exactly is being helped by the unprovoked and cataclysmic invasion of a sovereign Ukraine, whose resistance the patriarch has intimated to be “evil forces.” Not to mention to what extent Abbot Nikodim’s historical forefathers in New York and at St. Nicholas Cathedral would have supported such a misguided Russian invasion, one which stands athwart the democratic values they embraced as a matter of missionary pragmatism. Throughout the Russo-Japanese War, church periodicals appealed not for ecclesiastical unity, but for relief funds under the aegis of the Russian Red Cross. In September 1905, when the war effort had faltered, clergy from the very same parish where Abbot Nikodim now serves accompanied the Russian delegation to peace negotiations in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Addressing 2000 worshippers at a service of thanksgiving after the agreement was signed, Father Alexander Hotovitzky, the young and enigmatic pastor of the St. Nicholas parish, praised the peace agreement, though it was hard to accept Russian defeat. “Christian feeling must dominate all other feelings in us,” he said, turning to the leader of the Russian delegation, “and so you have done a grand thing, your excellency, in concluding this peace, for you have returned from the battlefield thousands of sons to their mothers, of husbands to their wives, of brothers to their sisters.”
In December 1904, the Retvizan was attacked again and sunk into the waters of Port Arthur. When Japanese forces took the port in 1905, they salvaged the ship. By the time a repurposed vessel now called the Hizen joined the Japanese fleet, the altar cross once found in its chapel was already in New York. A gift of friendship and a reminder of the lost Russian battleship, the cross remains at St. Nicholas Cathedral today, testament to the longstanding role of the Orthodox Church in Russian statecraft, and too diplomacy and militarization. Yet the power of the cross too reminds that today, just as in 1904, Christian leadership comes with a responsibility to stand for peace. Instead of abstract questions of ecclesiastical unity, the focus instead should be on the existential security of a sovereign Ukraine, an end to cataclysmic destruction, and the safe return of refugees to their homes in a more tranquil world.
Dr. Aram G. Sarkisian is a postdoctoral fellow in the History Department at Northwestern University.
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