Church Life and Pastoral Care, Religion and Conflict

An Act of Lighthearted Betrayal How Moscow's Official Church Hunts Down Her Anti-War Priests

Published on: May 12, 2023
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Fr. John Koval

There were relatively few people in Moscow who knew Fr. John Koval before February 2023. Native to Luhansk, Ukraine, he moved to Moscow and graduated from the famous Central Music School of the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory. He received theological training at St. Thikhon Orthodox University of Humanities before being ordained some twenty years ago and appointed to work in parishes in southeast Moscow.

In early February 2023, the priest’s life changed drastically. Fr. Koval’s name appeared in many Russian media outlets, including the government-run Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

Why they became so much interested in a low-profile parish priest? What did he actually do? The direct trigger was Fr. Koval’s being formally suspended or barred from exercising his priestly office. However, there was another reason behind the censure that actually caused the scandal.

On February 2, 2023, the head of the official Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Patriarch Kirill (Gundyayev), who is the ex officio diocesan ordinary of the city of Moscow, issued a ukase that said:

Priest John Koval of the church of St. Andrew the Apostle is herewith suspended before hearing of his case by the Disciplinary Commission of the Diocesan Council of Moscow. 

The ukase said nothing about the reason for the censure, which was so strange, even weird, as to become known very soon after. Kirill’s action was a response to a denunciation from a member of Fr. Koval’s congregation, according to which the priest repeatedly replaced the word victory with peace in church prayers.

After Russia’s invading army was harshly beaten in Ukraine several times, Patriarch Kirill composed a special Prayer for Holy Rus’ to be regularly said in the churches in Russian Federation. The prayer contains a direct supplication for a victory of “Holy Rus’,” which is a clerical way of saying Putin’s Russia, as well as for God’s assistance for the “warriors and defenders” of the same.

I have heard many times from the Moscow clergy that the patriarch’s men spy on the churches to make sure the prayer is said all the time and with no alterations or additions. Patriarch Kirill and what is known as the “official church” probably consider it to be the way to express their ideological loyalty to the Kremlin.

In that very prayer, Fr. Koval, an ethnic Ukrainian, switched one word:

Rise up, O God, for the help of thy people and grant us peace by thy power.

The patriarch becamee engaged because the word Fr. Koval had replaced was actually victory. According to Kirill, Russia’s (or Holy Rus’) victory is the only way to achieve peace.

When the news of Fr. Koval’s suspension appeared in the media, the deputy chair of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for Public Communications, Vakhtang Kipshidze reaffirmed the sacrosanct status of the wording used in the prayer:

I must tell you authoritatively that if any priest comes to change prayers to match his mindset, aspiration or political preference, the very unity of our church will be challenged.

This statement is crucial for understanding the state of affairs in the Moscow Patriarchate. Kipshidze is saying in his usual brutal manner that in the Russian Orthodox Church, there may be but one “political preference”: that of Patriarch Kirill. All other options constitute either heresy or at least a grave violation of church discipline and will immediately entail censure, such as suspension.

Kipshidze’s statement, however, includes even a more radical theological point. According to him, the unity of the church directly depends on the hierarchy’s political bias, which means all the clergy (to say the least) are bound to adhere to a single pro-Kremlin ideology.

The case of Fr. John Koval offers a perfect example of exactly how the Moscow Patriarchate acts to achieve an ideologically unified clergy. Today, we already know the names of those who submitted the denunciation and conveyed it to the patriarch’s office and how it changed the relations between Fr. Koval and his fellow pastors. 

The stoolie happened to be a 50-years old altar server of St. Andrew’s, who could hear Fr. John substitute peace for victory. He felt so upset as to interrupt the service by inserting the “politically correct” formula. That, however, didn’t seem sufficient to the man. He went on with submitting a denunciation to the rector of the parish, Archpriest Victor Shkaburin.

Fr. Shkaburin had always been a bit of a coward. Now he was anxious to put himself beyond any suspicion of sympathy to the turbulent priest, so he had the server submit another denunciation to Archbishop Matfei Kopylov, the head of the local vikariatstvo, an episcopally lead territorial area within a diocese. The gears of the church bureaucracy started spinning. Archbishop Matfei was not the man eager to assume responsibility, so he just gave Fr. Koval a phone call and told him he was now “barred” from ministerial functions; no official paper nor even an explanation was given. Fr. Koval was a celebrant at Christmas but no longer so on Epiphany two weeks later. The official ukase was to follow after two more weeks.

At the end of March, a few members of the diocesan disciplinary commission came to St. Andrew’s, led by Archpriest Nikolai Inozemtsev, rector of the church of Our Lady of Kazan on the Red Square. They kept questioning the congregation for several hours. According to participants and eyewitnesses, the absolute majority of the parishioners came up supporting Fr. Koval and were discontent with his removal.

“Fr. John is a pious and devoted pastor; he’s always been delicate and mild with everyone. And he’s a kind of confessor that makes you feel the Lord is near if you know what I mean,”—a typical reference shared and backed by many in St. Andrew’s and beyond.

However, the commission didn’t come to unveil the current state of affairs or listen to the parishioners. Some eighty congregation members gave their support to Fr. Koval. Yet it was far more critical for the commission to pick a few voices that would sound against the priest, and they found them—some five or six. One of those was the informer, who also happened to be an agent provocateur. When another person gave evidence in favor of Fr. Koval, he assaulted him physically, only to receive back at once. But the job was done, and the commissioners considered the incident “proof” of Fr. Koval’s “failure as a pastor.” 

In the meantime, the rector of St. Andrew’s was keeping aside. He gave zero support to Fr. Koval, and when the official stand became more evident, he started calling the priest the “enemy of the church.” But had Fr. Shkaburin always been so very special a sort of person? Not really. He graduated from the Moscow State Conservatory and was even a postdoc there. On the St. Andrew’s website, one can find musical recordings of Victor Shkaburin (yes, just that way, with no “Father”) performing romance songs—his own music, lyrics by Veronica Tushnova. The album’s title reads, “I wish you good.” However, Fr. Shkaburin’s good wishes are not meant for anybody. Along with the romances, he also composes songs supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine and posts the YouTube links—yes, on the same St. Andrew’s website.

Soon, another incident perfectly highlighted the new atmosphere at St. Andrew’s and many other churches in Moscow. On the following Sunday after Russian Orthodox Easter (this year, April 16), Fr. Koval came to church with his family. He was not wearing the priest’s attire and just mixed with the large congregation. Fr. Shkaburin saw him but chose to ignore the priest and did not invite him to proceed into the sanctuary to hear the service without performing any ministrations—a widespread Russian practice for suspended priests. Some parishioners noticed their long-loved pastor and started coming to him quietly to ask for his blessing. That was caught by the rector. He waited for the dismissed priest and his family to leave the church at the end of the service and then addressed the congregation, saying Fr. Koval was “spreading extremist materials” and urging the parishioners to forward him screenshots of their private communications with Fr. Koval. In the end, he added that all those who had asked Fr. Koval for a blessing were now barred from receiving the Holy Communion.

The excommunicated congregation members asked Fr. Koval if they should petition the patriarch, but he recommended they not proceed. When Fr. Koval came to St. Andrew’s soon after on another occasion, no people came to ask for his blessing anymore. In fact, they feared his presence.

There is one more illustrative aspect to know. Being so loyal to the patriarch’s ideological stand did not help Fr. Shkaburin. Easter day is a traditional moment when the Russian Orthodox priest may expect his next nagrada (a sign of honor, a clerical parallel of a stripe) to be given to him by his bishop or the patriarch himself. Easter day 2023 was Fr. Shkaburin’s turn to get one. Yet nothing came—the rector must have caused too much trouble.

In April, the Disciplinary Commission finalized its investigation and directed the matter to the diocesan court. Under Patriarch Kirill’s authority, the defendant priest has no right to receive a copy of the charge sheet before the court session and is, therefore, unable to prepare for self-defense. Fr. Koval wasn’t given any documents before he faced his trial.

The hearing occurred on May 11 and was chaired by Archpriest Mikhail Ryazantsev, the acting dean of the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The court members pressed to make Fr. Koval declare his political stand. “What are you, a pacifist, a supporter of Ukraine?” The defending priest insisted that he didn’t believe the ecclesiastical court to be a proper milieu for discussing politics. And one more point so typical for Putin’s Russia. Fr. Shkaburin’s fever was not limited to verbal assaults against Fr. Koval. He also issued a written denunciation, not, however, on Fr. Koval, but on his minor children, accusing them of being brought up in a “Ukrainian nationalistic spirit.”

The verdict had been prepared beforehand, so the hearing was a mere formality. The court judgment was expectedly severe: Fr. Koval was defrocked under the 25th Apostolic Canon, that is, for “breaking” his ordination vows. To become effective, the verdict has to be affirmed by Patriarch Kirill as the diocesan bishop of the Moscow region.

It looks like the leadership of Russia’s official Orthodox Church can clearly see that the anti-war position is still widespread among the clergy, and a harsh verdict is therefore meant to put the frighteners on pacifist priests.

Thus, fear remains the essential instrument used by the official church in Russia to keep the clergy under strict control.

Russia’s “official church” keeps blatantly defying basic norms of Orthodox canon law regarding their own clergy. Sometimes appealing to the Ecumenical Patriarchate may be instrumental for the truth to prevail. It is probably time to consider starting some Christian advocacy agencies mandated to defend clergy and lay persons abused by ROC authorities.

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About author

  • Sergei Chapnin

    Director of Communications at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University and chief editor of The Gifts (Дары), an almanac on contemporary Christian culture

    Sergei Chapnin is a former Moscow Patriarchate employee with over 15 years of experience. He has deep knowledge of Russian Orthodox traditions, Church administration, and Church-state relations in modern Russia. Born in 1968, he graduated from Moscow State University, Journalism faculty in 1992. In...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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