MEA CULPA 2007: Untie the knot of the ROCOR-MP Unification Act

by Lena S. Zezulin

knotted rope

A 2007 Act of Canonical Communion of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) with the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (Russian: Акт о каноническом общении Русской Православной Церкви Заграницей с Русской Православной Церковью Московского Патриархата) reunited the two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church: the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and the Moscow Patriarchate.

On May 17, 2007, I stood in a modest headscarf at the Church of Christ the Savior Cathedral next to my sister and aunt. Two of my sisters, their husbands, two cousins, and life-long friends were in attendance as singers and clergy. They had come from the United States on a specially chartered flight. I had flown from Armenia where I was working for an American international development project and had gone to a great deal of trouble waiting on endless lines for a Russian visa.

The President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, came out holding a candle, displaying exemplary church demeanor and remaining for most of the service. I stood perhaps 30 feet away from him. He appeared suitably devout. We prayed hard. The ROCOR choir sang like angels above us. ROCOR clergy read litanies. We felt welcomed home. The next day we attended the blessing of the Butovo execution field venerating the graves of executed believers.

I did not personally decide to reunify the ROCOR to the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007. I was not at any of the meetings. (Indeed, there was controversy because at the All-Diaspora Council on the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women—when the issue was decided by ROCOR—there was absolutely no participation by women, which was not typical of church life in emigration.) But I plead guilty because I viewed the issue legalistically. I had read the ROCOR documents, I knew that the ROCOR charter was “temporary,” until the cessation of godless communism in Russia, and I thought that we were legally there. In 1991, when the USSR fell apart and churches reopened, I thought that the time was near.

Growing up in America in a ROCOR parish at St. Seraphim of Sarov in Sea Cliff, I was steeped in many loving traditions and values of old Russian émigrés. This included a fierce defense of truth and of religious and human rights violated in the USSR. It also included instruction in the Law of God, the values of Christianity, defense of the weaker and of human dignity, as well as Russian history and literature and even Church Slavonic. We were a tiny group, but we were to speak for the voiceless believers of Russia. We demonstrated in front of the Soviet Embassy on the anniversary of the Revolution. We wrote letters to defend prisoners in the USSR. We studied the dissidents, we read Solzhenitsyn, and we were fervent admirers of the New Martyrs of Russia. My grandmother was an admirer of Patriarch Tikhon and had been a member of the catacomb church. She always said that she did not judge those who made other choices. When she refused to announce herself as an unbeliever in a school meeting, she was relieved to be allowed to finish the year and resign, and left Russia soon thereafter. We had instructors who had gone to seminaries in Russia and then Serbia.

It seemed that this life would go on, but then the Berlin Wall fell, the USSR fell, and there was hope of a reborn Russia, something the older people spoke of, but I thought impossible. And before we knew it, many émigré descendants became part of trying to make Russia a normal country—everything from securities and commercial law to central banking to tuberculosis treatment and nuclear disarmament was being supported by a United States trying hard to bring its former Cold War enemy into the fellowship of nations as a democratic and stable country. Clinton and Gore really tried. Researchers, journalists, scientists, engineers came. As part of this process, churches reopened, and there we were on the cusp of reunion.

I have nothing but veneration for the leaders of the Reunification effort, Patriarch Alexey II and Metropolitan Laurus. While I do not know the specifics of their meetings, I know there were many—prayerful, respectful, and deeply personal. Metropolitan Laurus and Patriarch Alexey II were both soon deceased. I blame neither of them for anything. Both were full of good intentions. Both were deceived.

We thought we saw a restoration of ruptured church life. In fact, we were witnessing the beginning of active anti-Western measures. Only a few weeks earlier on February 10, 2007, Putin delivered his infamous Munich speech declaring hostility to the West. We did not realize that Russia was not a normal country, and that freedom of religion was not Putin’s goal. Instead, in the horribly prescient words of the late Father Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church of America, once Patriarch Kirill was enthroned in 2009, the Moscow Patriarchate had become part of “an anti-Western clerical fascist state.” The goal was not restoration of religion, but the restoration of the USSR with a religious veneer of virulent ethnonationalism to justify force and oppression.

Some older émigrés sensed that something was amiss. Other astute observers felt the political timing was wrong, that what made sense in the 1990s should not be done in 2007, because Russia had ceased even the pretense of democracy. We saw an ideology of opposition to the West, the rise of a Russian nationalism intent on dominating both Ukraine and the rest of the former USSR, the invasion of Orthodox Georgia, and rejection of free speech and tolerance throughout Russia. It is sometimes attributed to Alexander Dugin, a political theorist who invented a strong and nostalgic glorious Russian past, infused with mysticism and obedient to authority. The failed present is the fault of the West, he suggests. The future lies in reclaiming this past from the liberal, commercial, cosmopolitan present. Ukraine and especially Crimea should be annexed by Russia, because it has no meaning and no identity. Whoever developed the ideology, this is clearly a Putin Federal Security Service (FSB) authoritarian project, and Patriarch Kirill is its implementing religious leader.

And what were the people in ROCOR doing while this developed? We were being charmed by our ability to return to Russian churches, theaters, books, and cities. We got a bit ethno-fascist ourselves, basking in pretty Russian palaces and buying the occasional matryoshka. We were guilty of our own personal brand of ethno-phyletism, seeing Orthodoxy as somehow essentially Russian.

And what shall we do now? The Moscow Patriarchate leader Kirill is not a Christian leader. He is an agent of a foreign government hostile to and at war with all that we are. His support of the invasion of Ukraine is unforgivable. I, for one, cannot worship in a ROCOR church he leads.

ROCOR must rescind the 2007 agreement on the grounds that it was entered into under false pretenses, after openly admitting its error and discussing this with the laity. ROCOR must not be part of a foreign authoritarian structure. Our church has always been a witness to the truth and on the right side of history. That must not change. Canonical and jurisdictional governance will need to change, and we will have to find a new solution. After the horrific war on Ukraine spearheaded by a religious leader, all Orthodox governance will have to change to a post-imperial, post-hierarchical approach suitable for democratic societies. It will be a painful process requiring much love and grace and change in Orthodox governance throughout the free world. We cannot predict how this will evolve, but we cannot remain where we are.


Lena Zezulin is an attorney with 20+ years of experience in legal reform and rule of law programming in post-conflict and transitional economies. She has worked in more than 30 countries, including 11 of the former republics of the USSR.

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.