As we step into the 21st century, the unthinkable unfolds within the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC): a systematic trend of political repressions. Priests voicing an anti-war stance, not politically but pastorally—liturgically—face bans from ministry or even defrocking, marking a stark departure from the gospel tradition. This shift has parallels with the comparatively milder means employed during Soviet times, where dissent within the Church found understanding and even some support among the hierarchy. Contrastingly, contemporary circumstances reveal a reversal from Soviet times, with bishops now hesitating to invest in supporting priests and instead carefully monitoring adherence to Kremlin propaganda narratives. The Church looks like a religious corporation, one of many privileged corporations in Putin’s Russia. And turning the Church into such a corporation has been Patriarch Kirill’s main concern during his 15-year tenure on the Moscow patriarchal throne.
What is happening in the ROC causes bewilderment, disappointment, and even wrath. But, on the other hand, if Patriarch Kirill himself has not condemned the war and literally forces priests, and with them all the faithful, to pray not for peace, as commanded in the Gospel, but “for the victory of Holy Rus’,” then the inevitable consequence is the ideological unification of the ROC and, accordingly, reprisals against dissenters. Ideological control over clergy in Russia was getting worse every year since Kirill (Gundyaev) was enthroned as Patriarch in February 2009, but no one could imagine that the ecclesial court be would become the key instrument of reprisal over those who preach peace.
So far, the count of persecuted priests from Russia, Belarus, and Lithuania is in the dozens, but groups of “Orthodox patriots” are already pressing to deprive of dignity some 300 priests—all those who, shortly after the war in Ukraine began, signed a public appeal calling for peace and reconciliation.
As we navigate through the unfolding events, a thought-provoking question arises: Why does Patriarch Kirill seem to be aligning himself with the repressive tactics employed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB)? Their primary target is political opposition and various civil activists, but why are priests on the same page? This perplexing alignment merits a closer examination. Our exploration begins with a recent and highly controversial incident: the defrocking of Archpriest Alexei Uminsky. Serving as the esteemed rector of the Church of the Trinity in Khokhly, Moscow, his case serves as a focal point to delve into the broader ramifications of the shifting dynamics within the Russian Orthodox Church. As we dissect this incident, we aim to shed light on the intricate interplay between religious authority and political influence, unraveling a complex tapestry that extends beyond the boundaries of the Church itself.
In a succinct narrative of the repression faced by Fr. Alexei, the sequence of events unfolds as follows: on January 5, 2024, a decree from Patriarch Kirill abruptly suspended him from ministry and ousted him from the parish where he had served as rector for an impressive three decades. The timing of this ecclesiastical maneuver was particularly insidious, with the Patriarch’s decree handed down a mere two days before the Christmas celebration, according to the Old Calendar. This intentional move seemed designed to inflict maximum impact, preventing the respected priest from celebrating the liturgy on this joyful feast.
Shortly after, Fr. Alexei was swiftly summoned to appear before the diocesan court, and the hearing was promptly scheduled. However, what followed seemed to defy the principles of due process: Fr. Alexei was denied the opportunity to peruse the investigation documents, if any existed, and was left in the dark regarding the charges levied against him. The curious circumstances suggested that unveiling the nature of the accusations would only be possible if he personally attended the court hearing, leaving Fr. Alexei in a precarious position with limited knowledge about the allegations and scant preparation time for his defense.
However, friends advised Fr. Alexei urgently to leave Russia, as “Orthodox patriots” began to publicly call on the state investigative authorities to pay attention to the public statements of Fr. Alexei. In this situation, it was no longer safe to remain in the country.
The Church trial looked like a bad play. Violating all possible canonical norms, the court nevertheless pretended to observe all formalities: when it came to a serious punishment, a priest had the right to be tried in absentia only if he failed to appear in court three times. That it was exactly a bad play speaks for itself considering the schedule of the meetings: the first was scheduled for Thursday, the next on Friday, and the last, at which the judges unanimously approved a pre-prepared decision to defrock Fr. Alexis, was on Saturday.
At the heart of this severe decision lies a seemingly innocuous act: Fr. Alexei’s failure to recite the “Prayer for Holy Rus’” with the prescribed emphasis on victory over perceived enemies. This new prayer, composed by Patriarch Kirill in September 2022, had been mandated for constant recitation in all Moscow churches. However, for those priests who viewed Ukrainians not as adversaries but as brethren, the ideological symbol embedded in this prayer rendered it wholly unacceptable. A principled stand against aligning with a narrative that positioned Ukrainians as enemies led these priests to reject the mandated recitation, invoking a clash of beliefs within the ecclesiastical realm. This nuanced resistance to ideological impositions sheds light on a broader struggle within the clergy as they grapple with the intersection of faith, ideology, and the ethical responsibilities inherent in their ministry.
However, a significant “aggravating circumstance” further fueled the case against Fr. Alexei. In an interview conducted in November 2022, he boldly asserted that it is more prudent to attend churches where prayers are offered for peace rather than those emphasizing victory. Although this argument wasn’t formally cited in the proceedings, many speculate that, in the eyes of Patriarch Kirill, this outspoken perspective served as the proverbial last straw, compelling him to initiate the disciplinary process against Fr. Alexei. The clash of ideologies and the stark contrast in viewpoints within the ecclesiastical hierarchy underscore a broader struggle for autonomy and the freedom to express individual convictions in the face of mandated narratives.
The deafening silence echoing through the Moscow ecclesiastical corridors speaks volumes; none of the vicar bishops, none of the judges of the Diocesan Court, not even a single rector of Moscow churches, and regrettably, not a single friend of Fr. Alexei dared to publicly voice support for him. The orchestration of events by the Church administration unfolded with a rapidity and efficiency that belied any sense of opposition.
This orchestrated silence reveals an underlying reality: the calculated strategy of the Patriarch and the “official Church” bureaucracy to instill a pervasive atmosphere of fear within the Russian Orthodox Church. The conspicuous absence of public support for Fr. Alexei underscores the potency of this fear, acting as a formidable deterrent that mutes the voices of bishops and priests alike. It sends an unambiguous message: any deviation from the Patriarch’s sanctioned stance will incur not just scrutiny but swift and severe punishment.
This strategic maneuver to enforce conformity lays bare the profound challenges faced by individuals within the Church hierarchy. They find themselves navigating a treacherous landscape where dissent comes at an exorbitant price, and the repercussions, both swift and severe, serve as a chilling reminder of the high stakes involved in challenging the established order of recent years.
Amidst the prevailing silence, a solitary beacon emerged, signifying the public support rallying behind Fr. Alexei: a robust parish community firmly aligned with him. The unmistakable evidence of this support materialized in the form of a petition addressed to the Patriarch, beseeching the restoration of Fr. Alexei to the priesthood. In a matter of days, this impassioned plea garnered a staggering 12,000 signatures, underscoring the depth of solidarity within his parish community and among numerous friends. This act of communal support found resonance in the echo chambers of Russian and global media, with hundreds of publications shining a spotlight on Fr. Alexei’s plight.
Yet, the faithful within the Russian Church are all too aware that this demonstration of unity, no matter how powerful, may fall on deaf ears within the corridors of Moscow Patriarchate. The Patriarch and his administration, seemingly impervious to external pressures, may choose to dismiss the collective plea and the widespread media coverage as inconsequential. The clash between the grassroots support for Fr. Alexei and the entrenched hierarchy’s response epitomizes the tension within the Church, where the fervor of the faithful collides with the calculated decisions of ecclesiastical authority.
The recent repressions of 2024 resonate eerily with the events of the mid-1960s, reminiscent of the plight faced by priests Nikolai Eshliman and Gleb Yakunin. During that tumultuous era, the Russian Orthodox Church found itself under the direct ideological control of an openly atheistic state. In November 1965, Eshliman and Yakunin boldly circulated an open letter to Patriarch Alexei I (Simansky), vividly depicting the pervasive persecution of the freedom of conscience within the USSR and the disturbing silence of the hierarchy.
As an act of defiance, this open letter reached beyond ecclesiastical circles and, in December 1965, found its way to the highest echelons of Soviet power. Addressed to Nikolai Podgorny (Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR), Alexei Kosygin (Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers), and Roman Rudenko (Prosecutor General of the USSR), this missive served as a powerful manifestation of dissident thought within the Church during the post-Second World War period.
In contrast to Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch Alexei I exhibited a deliberate approach, refraining from swift actions or premature judgments. It was a careful process that unfolded over six months before he rendered a resolution on the report regarding this case, delivering a notably stern judgment in mid-May 1966:
I deem it necessary to release them from their posts with a ban on serving until complete repentance, with a warning that if they continue their unholy activities it will be necessary to resort with regard to them to more severe measures, in accordance with the requirements of the Church Rules.
Already at the end of May the suspended priests appealed to the Holy Synod, and the Patriarch responded by calling on diocesan bishops to give feedback on this appeal. What an amazing example of conciliary consciousness or, if you will, of democratic traditions in the Russian Orthodox Church of the Soviet era! At the same time, Archbishop of Penza Theodosius (Pogorsky) was not afraid to address the Patriarch “with the most respectable petition for the pardon of the suspended priests.” Naturally, this did not happen, but the fact of such an appeal is important. Today, a bishop who dares to argue with the Patriarch would be called insane and instantly punished.
As a result, on October 8, 1966, the Synod suspended Yakunin and Eshliman from ministry “until repentance.” Nikolai Eshliman died almost 20 years later, in 1985, without being restored to the priestly ministry. In any case, his second marriage made it canonically impossible for him to continue in his ministry. Gleb Yakunin died in 2014; in the very late 1980s, he was restored in his dignity as a priest, but a few years later he was again suspended, defrocked, and later even anathematized, that is, excommunicated from the Church, for his political and human rights activities.
As can be seen from this comparison, even in Soviet times, when such dissent was actually a crime against the state, and the ROC was under the total control of the Council for Religious Affairs and the KGB, the Church’s own means of combating dissent were much milder, and moreover, the position of Church dissidents found sympathy and even some support among the hierarchy.
Against this background, the current Patriarch’s practice of defrocking a priest for refusing to recite the prayer, in which not only the mythology of Holy Rus’ but also quite specific ideological attitudes are ‘’sewn in,‘’ looks not just excessive, but far surpassing the cruelty of the Soviet era.
The most acute and painful question that arises in this case is this: if the authoritarian style of Patriarch Kirill’s rule and his numerous crimes against the Church are so obvious, and it is no less obvious that the struggle against the Patriarch is impossible under present conditions, since other institutions of Church governance have either been destroyed or are obediently doing the will of the Patriarch, is it worthwhile to stay in such a Church? Of course, here we are talking about the institutional Church, about understanding the Church as an organization.
Indeed, the most poignant and vexing question arises: is it justifiable to remain within such a Church? A question that resonates with many Russians seeking answers.
Those who leave the boundaries of the Russian Federation may well choose other Orthodox jurisdictions. There, parishes enjoy much greater autonomy, but problems arise when trying to enter another Church culture: difficulties arise not only stylistically, but also, for example, when trying to adapt to new languages of worship. For most who relocate it is not such a big problem if it is English or, say, French, but if it is Greek, Serbian, or Dutch, the difficulties of praying in unfamiliar languages are considerable.
Inside Russia, there is nowhere to run. The most common format of protest is leaving the Church, refusing to participate in the life of ROC parishes, or attending services very rarely without personal involvement in parish life. For those who are accustomed to active Church life, such a decision is painful.
An alternative is to look for a parish where meeting like-minded and, more importantly, people of kindred spirit is still possible. But this alternative works only in big cities. The rest have to settle for virtual communities or decide to give up Church life. The fact that such cases are not isolated is evidenced by Archpriest Andrei Kordochkin (who moved from the Russian Orthodox Church to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2023) in his response to a letter from Russia, in which he explicitly says that it is important to seek unanimity and rethink the practice of participation in the liturgy, refusing to perceive it as an act of individual piety:
The liturgy is a sacrament of unity….. Are you happy to be united with people who profess Z-Orthodoxy? Are you willing to imitate a unity with them that does not exist? Everyone has his own decision to make, but if the answer to these questions is negative, you have the right to refrain from participating in worship services in Z-Churches.
It turns out that the new wave of secularization is caused not by some external forces, but by the “official Church” itself, which in the eyes of many Orthodox Christians has ceased to be the Church.
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The image of the Church, at least the Russian Orthodox Church, in the consciousness of modern people is clearly twofold. On the one hand, the Church looks like a corporation with its own political and economic interests, where everything is organized in a very rigid, military way. On the other hand, if we change the lens and look from on the ground, through the eyes of an ordinary person, the Church is a commonwealth of communities, where the most important thing is not hierarchy and interests, but horizontal ties, where relations of friendship, affection, community, solidarity play a key role.
Sometimes one has the feeling that these are two different Churches; one can belong to one of them and not belong to the other at all, or at least avoid it by all means. Unfortunately, this is an illusion that is shattered when the punitive machine of the church corporation begins to work at full capacity, depriving priests of their dignity and destroying established communities, all the while having complete impunity.
It is not by chance that I mentioned the military character of the church corporation. This is the key to understanding the rationality of the actions of the Church authorities in Russia—the Patriarch, bishops, and the structures subordinate to them, from diocesan offices and ecclesial courts to the majority of rectors of churches and even deacons. Yet this military character is very peculiar: the Church is something like an army with its officers. There are generals (bishops), there are senior and junior officers (priests and deacons), but there are practically no soldiers and sergeants they can command (this role is given to the laity).
That is, the power of the generals extends to all officers, but only to a small part of the soldiers, that is, to those laymen who work directly in a parish or in a monastery or in some ecclesiastical institution. Obviously, in a parish those are a minority. The parishioners, who are not bound by relations of working subordination, have almost complete freedom and, strangely enough, the Church authorities recognize this status quo. If we look at the statistics of ecclesial courts, there are practically no cases against laymen, only against priests. That is also the reason parish councils in ROC are literally powerless. Administrative reforms transferred all power to the rector.
How is this possible? The thing is that Church authority has two facets: spiritual and administrative. Ideally, they should be in harmony. The spiritual facet is connected with teaching and charismatic authority, while the administrative facet is primarily concerned with the tasks of managing both people and property. In the ROC under Patriarch Kirill, a sad situation has developed. As a result of the careful selection of candidates for bishops, which Patriarch Kirill has been conducting for the past 15 years, there are practically no bishops with serious theological education, nor are there any bishops who would have charismatic authority. Patriarch Kirill himself had both charismatic authority and great credibility in the early years of his patriarchate, but in recent years all of this has collapsed with a great deal of noise. What is left? An administrative power that is becoming more and more rigid, intolerant of any form of dissent and, accordingly, more and more ruthless.
The response to this is disillusionment with the Church hierarchy, whose authority throughout the post-Soviet decades was almost equal to that of the Church. This rather romantic attitude towards the Church has been replaced by a more sober and rational one, but the Church corporation does not want to recognize the new reality. Wishing to retain power, it turns to the state for help and actually merges with it in order to use its authority or, more precisely, the citizens’ fear of it to maintain the illusion of its image as the spiritual leader of the nation. On the one hand, this strengthens the administrative power of the episcopate, but on the other hand, it does not solve the problem of disillusionment of the flock in any way, and even on the contrary, exacerbates it.
In the modern world, the administrative power of religious corporations is rather precarious. There are too many different ways of life, different communities to join, and the Orthodox subculture is just one of many, to which one may or may not belong. The demand for ideological unification, which Patriarch Kirill has now put to the Church almost as an ultimatum, creates only the appearance of unity. In reality, the Patriarch is demanding the impossible from the Church and, seeing how the Church resists, he is no longer embarrassed to use any force to suppress growing dissent.
And here it is necessary to make an important clarification: of course, it is not the church corporation that resists the Patriarch (it has been fostered and is ready to act jointly with him), but the other Church: the Church that is gathered around honest and spiritually reputable priests, the Church that does not have complex institutional forms, does not require money for its maintenance, and does not seek an alliance with the state, but rather sees such an alliance as a threat to its existence.
The fate of the present church corporation is closely linked to the state. It will not survive; it will collapse along with the other corporations of the Putin era if and when political changes begin in Russia. The other Church will survive, but whether it will want to step on the same rake again and create a new, now “virtuous” corporation with a “virtuous” hierarchy is a big question.
Dispelling any illusions, it becomes apparent that the notion of a genuinely virtuous church corporation is an elusive one. Stanislav Belkovsky’s foresight, articulated over a decade ago, advocating for the reform of the Church in Russia into a federation of Orthodox communities, once deemed fantastical, may now be inching closer to the realm of plausibility. As the Church contemplates its future, the specter of reform as a decentralized network of communities gains traction, challenging the conventional hierarchical structures that have defined its past.
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