Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe and the Challenge of Self-Colonization  

by Ina Merdjanova

Besieged fortress
Image: iStock.com/NSA Digital Archive

Discussions on contemporary Orthodox Christianity have often focused on the multiple ways in which historical legacies and political contexts have shaped the trajectories of Orthodoxy’s institutional development, social presence, and theological responses to important issues such as modernity, secularization, globalization, and religious pluralism, among others. Importantly, Orthodoxy’s responses to adverse historical circumstances, particularly in Eastern Europe, have typically been dominated by a “besieged-fortress” mentality—a mentality which has entailed a self-imposed institutional and theological stagnation that, in my view, can be described as self-colonization.

The notion of self-colonization proposed here is different from the “self-colonizing metaphor” of Alexander Kiossev as well as from the narrative of “internal colonization” of Alexander Etkind. Kiossev showed that the countries in Eastern Europe and other places outside of an actual military, economic, financial and administrative rule by a colonial power, nevertheless, succumbed to the rule of colonial Eurocentric imagination.[1] Etkind interpreted Russia’s imperial experience as simultaneously external (the colonization of other people) and internal (the colonization of its own people).[2] In my usage, self-colonization denotes Orthodoxy’s self-induced encapsulation and stagnation as a result of the traumatic experiences of significant restrictions under Ottoman rule and of oppression and persecution under totalitarian communism. This psychological mindset has hampered enormously Orthodoxy’s coming to terms with contemporary pluralism and the principles of human rights and gender equality, among others.

 What are the major traits in the organizational behavior of the Orthodox churches today that manifest its persevering self-colonization and impede constructive responses to the challenges they face?

(a) The persistence of a “besieged-fortress” mentality, originating in struggles for survival in the past, has reinforced the encapsulation of the Orthodox churches. It has hampered enormously their capacities to address constructively their internal pluralization as well as the external religious and social heterogeneity. Both internal and external diversity are often seen as a threat to survival. Consequently, the former is heavily restricted while the latter is ignored or dismissed. This stagnating mentality also obstructs a constructive reevaluation of the Orthodox Churches’ patriarchal and anti-modernist stances in line with contemporary core liberal democratic values of human rights and gender equality.

Self-colonization in the case of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, for example, is evident in its growing isolationism. It withdrew from the ecumenical movement, leaving the World Council of Churches in 1998. Furthermore, it gradually alienated itself from other Orthodox churches, with the notable exception of the Russian Orthodox Church, and refused to take part in the historical Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete in 2016, an important event organized by the Ecumenical Patriarch to consolidate an Orthodox position on pressing contemporary issues. More broadly, it regularly expresses “traditionalist”[3] negative attitudes towards modernity, the West, liberalism, the rights of women, sexual minorities, and other religions. However, it has never voiced a critique of the neo-liberal economic restructuring and its disastrous social costs, of the rise of poverty, endemic corruption, inequality and discrimination.

 (b) In post-communist Eastern Europe, the historical (often also called “national”) Orthodox churches have taken a central place in the discourses on the “nation.” Many people, including non-believers, see Orthodoxy as a “national religion,” even as a kind of new state ideology. The reemphasized link between religious and national identities has fostered exclusivist attitudes. If being Bulgarian, Serbian, or Romanian means being Orthodox, then religious others—Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals, etc.—are not members of the nation. At the same time religious heterogeneity is perceived as a threat to political and social stability. For example, the Moscow Patriarchate has insisted that the state should limit the operation of foreign missionaries and various new religious movements in Russia.

(c) Orthodox theological education in post-communist countries generally pays little attention to disciplines such as comparative religions, interreligious dialogue, and ecumenics. Other faiths are almost invariably discussed in the tradition of negative apologetics. The introduction of the comparative study of religions emphasizing a dialogical approach would be an important step towards an objective presentation of cultural and religious plurality and would encourage the understanding of diversity as a positive challenge rather than as an ominous threat.

To be sure, the transition to neo-liberal economy and financial deregulation in post-1989 Eastern Europe resulted in huge imbalances in income and wealth, commodification of life, demographic collapse, and the rise of a culture of ultra-individualism that corrodes the social fabric. The Orthodox churches, in the grips of self-colonization, failed to address the challenges of economic injustice, rampant corruption, and, in the case of the Russian Orthodox Church, rising political authoritarianism. Particularly disturbing for Orthodox believers around the world has been the Moscow Patriarchate’s support for President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine launched in February 2022.

Yet Orthodoxy Christianity is not a cultural monolith, and the churches in Eastern Europe often differ from the Orthodox communities in Western Europe, North America, and Australia, with their substantial experience of living in democratic systems and heterogeneous social environment. With Father Dragos Herescu, we can speak of “multiple Orthodoxies” and differentiate Orthodoxy mediated by ethnicity, place, and custom from Orthodoxy understood as a universal, dynamic, and voluntary religion. We can also note a generational gap as younger generations in Eastern Europe who have firsthand experiences of Western modernity, secularization, and pluralism relate differently from their parents and grandparents to contemporary sensitive issues.[4] Indeed, the emergence of new generations of clergy, theologians, and lay people who have enjoyed better educational opportunities, international travel, study abroad programs, access to internet resources, and social media, is inevitably transforming Orthodox identities.

Furthermore, Orthodox Christianity can draw on a significant body of theological doctrines in order to elaborate new positive theological and institutional responses to challenging contemporary issues and to overcome its self-colonization. These doctrines include its teaching about the human being as image and likeness of God and the associated ideas about personal freedom and responsibility, its soteriology which proclaims that Christ died for all, and especially its Trinitarian doctrine which emphasizes diversity in unity. Theologies of asceticism have a lot to teach us regarding consumerism and the commodification of life.[5] Tenets about the “traditional values,” instead of being used as a strategy to reconfirm patriarchy, can serve as a program for resistance against the dominance of the “neoliberal values” in society and the attendant marketization of education, healthcare, culture, and even human bodies. Teachings about the divine economy of all creation underline the humanity’s intrinsic relationship with nature and ecological responsibility. God gave human beings “dominion” over creation according to Genesis 1:28, which involves responsible stewardship and duty of care for the planet Earth rather than the ruthless exploitation of natural resources in the name of unlimited economic growth and consumption. Last but not least, Christianity has a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable (“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” Matthew 5:5). This option emphasizes social justice and the faithfuls’ duty to help the oppressed and to recognize the marginalized, which in contemporary world means to responsibly address issues related to immigration, racism, and social and gender inequality.


[1] Alexander Kiossev, “The Self-Colonizing Cultures,” in Cultural Aspects of the Modernization Process, eds. Dimitri Ginev, Francis Sejersted and Kostadinka Simeonova (Oslo: TMV-senteret 1995): 73-81.

[2] Alexander Etkind,  Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011).

[3] For an illuminating discussion of “traditional Orthodoxy” see George Demacopoulos, ‘“Traditional Orthodoxy’ as a Postcolonial Movement,” The Journal of Religion 97 4 (2017): 475-99.

[4] Fr. Dragos Herescu, “Secularization, Multiple Modernities, and the Contemporary Challenges of ‘Multiple Orhodoxies,’” Public Orthodoxy, 29 October 2019.

[5] Fr. Gregory Jensen, for example, has made the case of asceticism as cure for consumerism. See Gregory Jensen, The Cure for Consumerism (Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, 2015).


Ina Merdjanova is a senior researcher at the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin.

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.