My letter is addressed to the Orthodox bishops in Russia. I have intentionally not collected signatures or involved any Church structures or public organizations, because I am addressing not the episcopal body, not the leaders of the Moscow Patriarchy, but each of you personally. My letter’s addressee is an Orthodox Christian who took holy baptismal and monastic vows, was elevated to the dignity of bishop, and who in his heart recognizes that it is impossible to govern the Church without striving to love Christ, seeking His truth, and serving Him and not Caesar.
Under the circumstances I feel forced to violate Church etiquette by not asking your blessing. This would sound a false note at the very beginning of our conversation. My words may provoke antagonism, vexation, and even wrath on your part. Being conscious of it, I can scarcely hope that you would sincerely bless such conversation, and a ritual blessing just to demonstrate episcopal power means little. If you agree that this conversation is meaningful, simply pray for me and write at least a few lines in response. I pray for you, too, though today this is hard and painful.
But I deeply believe that there is a blessing from above upon such a conversation, that we are called upon to talk about the one thing needful (Lk.10,42, KJV), about our faith, about the love of Christ which is unthinkable without keeping His commandments: If a man love me, he will keep my words (John 14:23, KJV)
It is no secret that your episcopal office is temporary. Love of Christ, striving to follow His Word, to be faithful and grateful to Him in joy as in sorrow—this is what belongs to the eternal. You can put brocade vestments and a costly panagia into a coffin, but you cannot take along a rank and a title. Still less is it possible to defend yourself with rank and title at the Last Judgement.
I am addressing you, as I feel exhausted by the tormentingly long expectation of a sincere pastoral word from you, exhausted by your never-ending silence about what is most important. And I beg you to treat what I am going to say as words uttered from a position of weakness and infirmity, not of strength and self-assurance.
I understand very well that the episcopate of the Russian Orthodox Church is a large and complex body. I know many of you personally, we have prayed together, worked together. There was a time when we were able to speak with mutual trust. There was a time when we heard and understood one another. Or was that an illusion?
Now, during the military attack of Russia on Ukraine, I have totally ceased to understand you. I hear you uttering nothing but state propaganda clichés, disguised as pious words of Church message, and dubious theological formulas which lead you and your flock away from the Gospel and towards an imperial pagan cult centered on power, wealth, and violence.
I think you share the blame for it. I see that for many of you it is a conscious choice.
Maybe you are driven by fear of the patriarch, whose dream has been to become Putin’s ecclesiastical double, the sole ruler of the ROC, and who has succeeded in attaining this goal. Heartlessness, cunning, cruelty—I suppose you have witnessed Patriarch Kirill manifest these qualities to the utmost degree more than once.
Maybe you are driven by fear of the security services. You are familiar with the system of power in Russia and how dangerous it is to oppose the security services. I am sure that its officers visit you regularly, talk to you, and instruct you.
In short, you understand very well that in Russia any dissent is punishable, and, most likely, many of you have punished more than once the members of the clergy who allowed themselves to disagree with the officially prescribed picture of the world, to think independently, to object and not to keep silence. The Moscow Patriarchy has long demanded from its clergy a total and unconditional loyalty. This stifling atmosphere has become a hallmark of the Russian Orthodox Church. The rare exceptions only confirm the rule.
This state of things could last for decades longer, were it not for the war. Now, a year after the beginning of Russian aggression, I must say directly: Patriarch Kirill is the first among those who justify war crimes. In his sermons he proclaims “war theology,” using arguments that flagrantly contradict the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. I will not speak about them in detail. You certainly know them all and probably repeat them regularly.
But let us pluck up our courage and look into the future. The years of Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev’s rule are dark pages in the Church’s history. The Church’s renaissance broke down, and now it is not sinners being saved by divine grace who are its members, but embittered castle-builders swilling the cocktail of imperial myth, resentment, and unbelievably primitive eschatology.
All of that is quite enough to recoil from, and yet in a great many photos you are there, next to the patriarch, smiling, receiving his blessing, offering him flowers and expensive gifts.
Once again: you stand by a man who justifies war crimes and has betrayed the Church. You repeat his words, retell his criminal arguments.
And even if you say nothing—can your silence make us doubt that you are on his side? Can this silence of yours be recognized as an attempt at resistance? The bloody war does not offer you this chance.
But we remember the words of St. John the Theologian: perfect love casteth out fear (1 John 4:18, KJV). You still have a chance to be witnesses and disciples of Christ, who was guiltlessly condemned, suffered, and was crucified. I pray that at least some of you use this chance and return to the vows you gave in holy baptism and monastic tonsuring.
I remember in a comparatively recent time, at the end of the 1980s, how dangerous it was to speak about the new martyrs, and only the most bold and fearless preachers dared to mention them from the ambo. But by the early 90s this ideological taboo was lifted. I am sure that you, too, preached about the new martyrs, holding up their feat of faith as an example, drawing inspiration from them. Now tell me: were those merely words unrelated to your deeds? If so, your preaching was hypocritical and false. How I wish I were mistaken!
I am perfectly aware that I myself am in a weak and vulnerable position. The reproach that may be thrown at me is obvious: “You left Russia, you are now safe, do you have a moral right to utter these reproaches?”
I have found more than once that this argument is used with the sole intention of silencing the accuser. Nevertheless I will attempt to respond.
First, during my last ten years in Russia I spoke about the same things. I spoke and I will speak, because for me the words about those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are not an empty phrase. The quest for truth is necessary; the wish to shield yourselves from the truth by propaganda or pious babble is pernicious. Our means of mass communication allow us to see the world more clearly and to speak the word of truth more loudly than ever before. This resource can never be taken away.
Second, who prevents you from leaving, too? If you disagree, if you see the risks and threats connected with the free manifestation of your position, leave, just as hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have left. Many of them are Orthodox; they need priests and bishops. They wait for free preaching, for spiritual support. Remember that after the October revolution dozens of bishops left Russia and established Russian churches outside Russia, and now not a single one of you has done the same. This, too, says a great deal about the state of the present-day Russian church. Yes, it is always a great risk to leave your country, but it is unimaginable that local churches will turn you away, though by no means all of them will treat your decision with respect and attention. It is painful to admit, but some of the Orthodox Churches express solidarity with Patriarch Kirill’s aggressive anti-West rhetoric and second it.
Finally, third, I do hope to return. I hope that Orthodox Christians in Russia will have the chance to build a free Church in a free Russia. The big question is what role the present-day episcopate will be called upon to play in it. Right now it is not merely losing authority and trust. You must agree that quite possibly the new and free church will simply have no need for such an episcopate.
The words of St Sophronius of Essex, words of great hope, did not come true. He said that “the Russian Church experienced an extraordinary spending of itself in suffering for the name of Christ” and therefore “a question of perfection stands before the Russian Church, which proceeds from the eternal spiritual law: the fullness of spending itself foreshadows the fullness of perfection ».
Alas, after the spending of itself what came was not an era of perfection, but an era of satiety, material well-being and riches, an era of heartlessness, hypocrisy, and lust for power. Today the Russian Church is further from Christ than anyone could have imagined.
Your Eminences! The disgraceful, catastrophic silence of the majority of you in the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine puts an indelible stain upon the entire Russian Orthodox Church.
Can your attitude towards the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Onuphrius personally be called anything but treachery? You betrayed, you handed over to destruction a considerable part of your own Church. You did not trust Onuphry and mistook the patriarch’s lie for the truth.
When the Russian authorities began to use the Church’s arguments for their propaganda, the cost for the Ukrainian Church was very high: the pressure on the Ukrainian state and a major part of Ukrainian society was the natural result of the aggression.
The responsibility for that will be shared—perhaps not equally—not only by those who publicly supported this aggression, but also by those who were silent.
The present-day Russian state wants the economics, education, and culture of the country to be re-oriented along a military line. But not only that. The Church which in recent years has been fawning at the feet of the state authorities, now also has to serve this terrible war.
I beseech you to actively oppose lies and falsehood.
To stop supporting and justifying the war.
To stop blessing the soldiers and the weapons.
To make it clear that those guilty of military crimes cannot cross the threshold of the church without repentance, still less take part in the Holy Mysteries.
To call everyone to a just peace.
The Russian Church will have to re-learn speaking about truth, about compassion, about genuine peace-making, about a just peace. The Russian Church will have to see the sufferings of the peaceful people of Ukraine and the crimes that the Russian army has committed on the occupied territories. Not only to see, but to recognize them, to comprehend them, and to bring itself to offer repentance for having taken part in them. Without that it will have no future.
To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice (Proverbs 21,3).
Think: your sacrifices of today may not be pleasing to God.
Think: in your prayers of today there is no truth.
And in the end: who you are serving?
And who needs you such as you are?
January 23/February 5, 2023
Synaxis of New Martyrs and Confessors of the Twentieth Century
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.