At the end of January, what were perhaps the largest protest rallies in the last ten years took place across Russia. The protests were sparked by the arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who had returned to his homeland after medical treatment in Germany. Back in August 2020, Russian special services had tried to poison him, and Navalny spent several weeks in a coma. Two days after returning to Russia, an investigative filmabout Vladimir Putin’s alleged private residence (“Putin’s palace”) was published on Navalny’s YouTube channel, where it has received more than 100 million views to date. These events became the starting point of the protests. During the rallies, the police carried out a record number of arrests, which caused a new wave of anger.
During times like this, the painful realization that Orthodox Christians, especially post-Soviet Orthodox Christians, do not have a theological language to speak about political events becomes especially acute. This is true both for those who are outraged by the authorities’ actions and for those who support them. Orthodox political speech today is discrete and is a repetition of the same old commonplaces: “There is no authority except from God”; “Not peace, but a sword”; “To Caesar what is Caesar’s”; “The church is outside politics.” But around these commonplaces, no narrative, no meanings or interpretations, no concrete rule or guidance is formed. They are thrown into the public space and immediately recoil back.
On November 19, 2020, The Russian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society published what many media sources have referred to as a “black list of false clerics.” This list of clerics was added to an already existing list of organizations that were claiming to collect money for charitable and religious purposes but, who upon closer inspection, appear to be swindlers and scams. The Patriarchate created this list to warn believers that some of the religious leaders and figures that they may follow, whether online or off, are not endorsed by the Moscow Patriarchate and should be avoided.
The “black list” reveals the Moscow Patriarchate’s seriousness in confronting independent groups and individuals labeling themselves Orthodox that might lead members of the flock astray. This is a problem that many within the institutional Russian Orthodox Church have looked to deal with in the post-Soviet Period. The Church already combats the publication and distribution of unapproved religious literature though a tiered system of stamps of approval for print materials. The Patriarchate continues this trend with the publication of this list, providing clear guidance on who a faithful believer ought to avoid online. However, in publicizing these names, the Church may have only boosted interest in these clerics.
A towering intellectual voice in Russian Orthodoxy is no longer. Sergey Sergeevich Horujy passed away in Moscow on September 22, 2020. I write this note with great sadness and full of gratitude to a friend, teacher, and intellectual guide.
I first met Sergey Horujy in 2005 during the research for my doctoral dissertation. He received me in his old apartment at Rechnoy Vokzal, in a room stacked full with books up to the ceiling. I wanted to talk to him about the vicissitudes of Russian religious philosophy in the Soviet period; he wanted to talk to me about his own philosophical project, synergic anthropology. I still see him climbing up the sofa to take a small book from high-up in the book-shelf. It was Who Comes after the Subject? by Jean-Luc Nancy, Eduardo Cadava, and Peter Connor (1991). “This,” he said, “is my question.”
“Secular” is a tricky word. Most associate it with “no religion,” “absence of religion,” or “decline of religion.” At one time, it was pretty much the consensus in the Western world that with increased modernization, which usually meant technological and scientific advancement, religion would no longer really be needed and would simply fade away. This is one of the many examples of how irony drives history, as a consensus held by Western intelligentsia over the post two centuries—and with enormous arrogance—has proven manifestly false. Religion is not going away; it never went anywhere.
That tragic irony is on full display in Russia and Turkey. As most of the media, regional experts, and government officials pay attention to Turkey’s military provocations in the eastern Mediterranean or Russia’s influence in Syria—as they should—no one seems to be noticing a remarkable parallelism that has emerged between the two countries, and it has to do with religion. In both countries, the religion-hating kind of secularism took root almost at the same time: for Russia in 1917 under Lenin and for Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk. For decades, the world witnessed not simply the laïcité of France, but the active oppression and repression of religion, which lead to a cultural and political cleansing of religious influence in Russia and Turkey. The cultural cleansing is evident in the fact that to be Russian or Turkish was absolutely severed from any religious identity. And while the majority religions—Orthodox Christianity and Islam—both suffered under these secularist regimes, religious minorities had it just as bad, if not worst. In Turkey, alone, Orthodox Christianity in Constantinople went from over 100,000 adherents just after World War II to under 2,000 today.