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Russian Orthodox Educator Sounds Alarm

Paul Goble

“Baptized Godless”

At the end of the Soviet period many Russians believed that theirs was an “Orthodox” people who simply lacked churches. However, now a leading Orthodox educator states that this was an illusion. Rather, Father Georgy Mitrofanov of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy argues, Russian society consists of “baptized godless” people who have numerous “magical and pagan prejudices.”

Weaknesses in Seminarians and Seminaries

Still worse, according to Father Georgy, Orthodox are increasingly forced to admit that the new generation of priests is incapable of changing the situation for the better. Indeed, they may be making the situation even worse (www.kommersant. ru/doc.aspx?fromsearch=e9045ade-c37e-44bc- 9a0cecdealabf4e68tdocsid=135453). Ever fewer young men are training for the priesthood, he continues, the result of the country’s demographic problems and the decline of popular interest in the Orthodox Church.

No longer do seminaries experience competition for places in their classrooms, and “the social and educational level of those enrolled leaves much to be desired.” That is especially true, Mitrofanov  says, in the 37 new Orthodox seminaries which have opened in Russia’s provinces since 1991. Only five or six of these correspond in any respect to the standards of the  St. Petersburg or Moscow seminaries, and in the capitals, the size of classes is half what it was ten years ago. Much of what is wrong now, he argues, began at the end of Soviet times when the state ceased to be involved in seminary admissions and handed over complete power to the church. The hierarchs “received the chance” as a result to approve “all who wanted” to become priests, as long as another priest recommended them.

Today, the situation is such that “only a little more than a third of priests [in the Russian Orthodox Church] have a seminary or academic education, and a largepart has made do in general without any theological training.” That has led to “a catastrophic decline” in the level of the priesthood, but the Patriarchate has not done anything about it.Indeed, Mitrofanov says, “the clergy of the post- Soviet period is now not only more numerous but qualitatively it is frequently worse than that of the Soviet period.” Because the Soviet system destroyed so many priests, sons of priests were fewer in number tohelp maintain clergy ranks.

New priests who entered church life in the 1990s and since, Mitrofanov continues, “brought with them a specific conglomerate of ideas” which gives one a headache just to think about. A “significant part” of these priests are confused and “disorganized” young people who “dream of acquiring[in the church] their accustomed totalitarian ideology and organization.”

Their minds are full of “mystical literal and totalitarian anti-human politicized ideology” and, having become priests, they quickly project this on their flocks, encouraging “the search for enemies” like “Jewish Masons, ecumenists, Protestants, and the like,” as if “all problems of church life were somehow connected with external ‘dark’ forces.”

Believe it or not, Mitrofanov says, values now are very different from those that animated their Sovietera predecessors. Priests in earlier times had to pass through a much more difficult school and face many more obstacles from the regime. Those who did so were often among the most committed.

“The final decision as to whether an individual could attend seminary was taken by a special figure from the [security] organs, [and] the plenipotentiary of the Council of Religious Affairs of the USSR Councilof Ministers.” He placed as many obstacles as he could on the path of future priests, especially those from urban areas.

The Threat of Material Values

At the end of the Soviet period, “more than half” of the Orthodox churches in the U.S.S.R. were in Western Ukraine, and Soviet officials ensured that the largest portion of new entrants to the seminaries came from rural areas in that part of the country, places wherereligion still had an active role among the population. Furthermore, priests in Soviet times could not count on big incomes. But now, at least some of them are able to use the churches as a business to such an extent that “certain girls specifically seek to marry future priests: there is money and a certain status in society.” In large measure, Mitrofanov says, this reflects the drive to rebuild churches, something that attracts not former Soviet people but “people who are still Soviet now.” He adds, Communists created “a new type of man, a poor envious individual who believed the main values are material.”

“For the present-day generation of priests, the church at least in part is not the body of Christ and not a community of people united by Christ but above all a church in which it is possible to be actively involved in business relations with commercial people and build a profitable system of ritual services.” Such people, Mitrofanov concludes, are not able “to talk with people including the intelligentsia on their level.” They lack the live experience and knowledge to be “the bearers of the highest Orthodox culture.” Only if that is changed, he suggests, will Orthodoxy be able to fill “the greatest commandment—go and teach all peoples.” ♦

Paul Goble, editor of Window of Eurasia, is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia.

Previously holding various U.S. government posts, he most recently served as director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Paul Goble, “Russian Society Dominated by Baptized Godless, Mitrofanov Says,” Window on Eurasia, 19 April 2010.