Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

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Anna Briskina-Müller

At the end of the 1980s the Russian Orthodox Church began to be asked more and more for its views. The church itself also felt a need to become more vocal. At first only individuals and small groups started to print church leaflets and newspapers. Their content basically consisted of sermons, texts from the church fathers, catechisms, reports on the way to faith, and stories of miracles and martyrs. The archaic style of language charmed readers; the solemn tone seemed dignified; everything was new; everything seemed important, thrilling, and exciting.

Background: 1988-2009

This was not yet journalism in the usual sense, but first of all the transmission of quotations and of not-fully-processed opinions of church people who suddenly were free to express themselves publicly. In 1995-96 I myself worked with one of the Christian information agencies that were emerging in Russia, the Catholic “Blagovest-Info” (Brussels; Moscow). In spring 1996 I was able to participate in a first meeting of journalists specializing in religion. Although only 10 persons were in attendance, it was clear already in the mid-1990s that we journalists must work together to develop our own journalistic strategies. The idea for the gathering came from Alexander Shipkov who today is editor-in-chief of the portal “Religare.ru” and president of the Association of Chief Editors of Orthodox Mass Media in Russia, founded in March 2011. This association fulfills dreams first formulated in our initial meeting in 1996.

Orthodox media—newspapers, journals, radio, attempts in television, and internet projects—all came to pass “from below.” At first the church created no new structures to further develop its public relations. Responsibility for press work fell primarily to the Department of External Relations and the Publishing Department (Izdatel’skii soviet), which from 1945 until the beginning of the 1990s was the only church publishing house on the territory of the USSR. This department’s publications included the well-known Journal of the Moscow Patriarchy (Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii). In the first decade of the 21st century the Publishing Department expanded its work, creating an “Internet Catalog of Orthodox Mass Media” (www.ormedia.ru), as well as an Orthodox Encyclopedia website (www.sedmitza.ru). This department also launched annual scholarly-theological “Christmas Lectures” (Rozdestvenskie chteniya), with one section addressing “church mass media.” In addition, it organizes “Faith and Word” (Vera i Slovo), an annual festival of Orthodox mass media. Belatedly, in 2005 the Moscow Patriarchy finally launched its own large-scale press service (Press-sluzba MP).

Various synodal departments with public relations functions have competed with each other, first of all, the staff of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Department of External Relations. The websites of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Department of External Relations both declare themselves the “official website of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

For a long time the church did not have a department devoted exclusively to information work. That changed on 31 March 2009 as Patriarch Kyrill announced the establishment of a new Synodal Department of Information (Sinodal’nyi informatsionnyi otdel). (For a complete overview of Orthodox media prior to 2009, see the author’s article, “Zum Zustand der Orthodoxen Massenmedien im heutigen Russland,” Ostkirchliche Studien 58 [2009], 168-81.)

The New Synodal Department of Information

The new Synodal Department of Information (SINFO) is now responsible for the official Russian Orthodox Church web page, www.patriarchis.ru. For now, www.mospat.ru is the “official web page of the Department of External Church Relations.” Nevertheless, both websites provide important official church information, archives, and documents.

At the time of his appointment as head of the new synodal department Vladimir Legoyda was a 35-year-old journalist, lecturer in journalism, and editor-in-chief of Thomas (Foma), the best-known independent Orthodox journal. Legoyda sees the task of SINFO to correct faulty images of the church held by the public and to centralize, harmonize, and ensure the accuracy of existing media that call themselves Orthodox. What does this mean in practice? SINFO, for example, has decided upon an obligatory imprimatur (official license to print) from the Moscow Patriarchate for all Orthodox media, similar to the Roman Catholic “nihil obstat.”

The necessity of such a measure is justified by the limited basis of judgment among Orthodox readers and the uneven quality of Orthodox media. To obtain the imprimatur—that permits distribution through church channels—all Orthodox mass media are obliged to submit to SINFO’s scrutiny. The Patriarch’s imprimatur is said to be granted “only to such mass media whose production does not misrepresent Orthodox doctrine, does not contradict the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, and does not contain unchecked and ethically unacceptable information.” (For a list of approved media consult www.patriarchia.ru/grif.)

The new rules have caused some disquiet. According to Legoyda, airing controversial discussions should not affect a publication’s ability to obtain the Patriarch’s imprimatur (www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/126882.html). However, it is considered important that facts and perspectives “established in official church documents” are represented. An additional restriction concerns media that publish materials that are insulting or damaging to the reputation of the church or the clergy. In practice, however, the imprimatur is meant to eliminate nationalistic and pseudo-Orthodox materials and to prevent their sale in church-owned shops, this according to Archpriest Aleksandr Stepanov, editor of Grad Petrov, the official radio program of the St. Petersburg Diocese and a member of the SINFO commission. The imprimatur is also a pragmatic instrument to coordinate media that consider themselves church-related.

According to Legoyda it is also the task of SINFO to dispel “myths about the church” such as the “myth” of church leaders operating in tandem with state power or the “myth” of the great wealth of the Russian Orthodox Church. Legoyda also emphasizes that SINFO does not concern itself with politics. The church would not be entitled to make any utterance in that direction.

Well-suited to the “modern” missionary style of Patriarch Kyrill is SINFO’s development in 2010 of an Orthodox video channel on You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/user/russin-church), the establishment of a chair of religious journalism and public relations in the Orthodox Institute of St. John the Theologian, and the preparation of a church journalism textbook including instructions for the establishment of press services in the dioceses. SINFO also has initiated regular compilations of terminological and factual mistakes made by the media in dealing with church issues. SINFO records errors provided to it by email, categorizes them, prepares corrections, and makes practical recommendations to journalists writing on church affairs. A compilation of such media errors is forthcoming.

Patriarch Kyrill himself proposed another media initiative which SINFO now oversees: having bloggers accompany him on his official trips, writing their immediate impressions in their respective blogs. While not expressing misgivings directly, Legoyda has criticized the blogosphere as the most prolific source of misinformation about the church (Interview of Legoyda with Xeniya Luchenko, “Pravoslavnye SMI,” Tatianin den ́ , 11 October 2010, www.religare.ru/2_79554.html).

In 2009 the Russian Orthodox Church Synod created an Inter-Conciliar Agency (www.msobor.ru) which in turn established a “Commission for the Resolution of Questions Concerning Church Information Work and Relations with Mass Media.” This commission has appointed a working group charged with drafting a document “Concerning Information Policies of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Notwithstanding its clearly defined character as a department of ideological propaganda, I recognize that SINFO undertakes some more or less reasonable missionary and journalistic endeavors.

The “Faith and Word” Festival of Orthodox Mass Media

The church-sanctioned biennial “Faith and Word” Festival of Orthodox Mass Media (Vera i Slovo: www.ortho-media.ru) is an international gathering that provides training in journalism, missionary outreach, management, and public relations. Its final documents provide helpful insight into the mood, interests, and developments in Orthodox journalism over the last few years.

The final document of the first festival in 2004 framed ethical principles for Orthodox journalists: They should follow common journalistic guidelines but should abstain from conclusions that disagree with the tradition of the church fathers. Furthermore, statements and themes should be avoided that could lead to a division in the church. Rather, Orthodox journalists should always keep the interests of the church in mind and should resist anti-church campaigns in the secular press.

The fourth festival in October 2010, held after Patriarch Kyrill took office, included almost 400 participants from 67 dioceses. One theme of discussion was the role of blogs in Orthodox journalism. Festival organizers also unveiled the church You Tube channel and projects to produce You Tube video spots. Matters of discussion at the festival included the enmity of secular media toward the church, opportunities for cooperation with secular media, and for the first time, the secretiveness of church structures as a cause of mistrust of the church.

Credo.Ru Versus Patriarchia.Ru

Presently the Russian government has registered more than 1,000 Orthodox media outlets, but not all under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the main, they focus on the same themes but differ in approach, style of reporting, and interpretation. This may be illustrated by comparing the web portal Credo.Ru (www.portal-credo.ru) and the official web page of the Russian Orthodox Church (Patriarchia.Ru). Credo.Ru, which presents itself as an independent religious information agency, nevertheless has as its main subject the Russian Orthodox Church, which it considers to be the most significant religious entity in Russia today. Credo.Ru, whose editor-in-chief is Aleksandr Saldatov, cooperates closely with the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC). One of its main contributors, Bishop Grigori (Vadim Lurye), a church historian and specialist in Oriental studies, left the Moscow Patriarchate for the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1987 and affiliated with the ROAC in 1999. His post as bishop actually came about through an election conducted by a ROAC splinter group in 2007. Despite Credo.Ru’s affirmation that it is independent, a random sampling of its website reporting clearly reveals that its abiding theme is this: The church of the Moscow Patriarchate is dying, whereas true Orthodox believers are looking for alternatives and sooner or later find their way to the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church.

In contrast, it is the task of Patriachia.Ru journalists to defend the Moscow Patriarchate and combat “myths” maligning it. While Patriarchia.Ru, for example, tries to “explain” and to justify the expensive, several-million-dollar yacht of Patriarch Kyrill, a gift of Putin in 2005, Credo.Ru feels obliged unceasingly to “unmask” such phenomena. While Patriarchia.Ru reports in straightforward or complimentary fashion on church awards to rich businessmen and dubious politicians, Credo.Ru, publishes letters of protest on such awards written by rural priests living in abject poverty. Patriarchia.Ru does not post such letters. On the contrary, its representatives consider the publication of such letters objectionable, in effect, amounting to “uncovering the nakedness of the mother” (Leviticus 18:7). Patriarchia.Ru and Credo.Ru represent two extremes of Orthodox journalism in Russia today: on the one side, the officious, triumphalist, “glossy” Orthodoxy of Patriarchia.Ru; on the other side, the so-called “true autonomous” Orthodoxy of Credo.Ru, which goes to absurd lengths to reject any positive characterization of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The gap between Orthodox media loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate and media alien to it continues to widen. The less transparent the Moscow Patriarchate becomes, the more it lends credibility to its critics. The Russian Orthodox Church also suffers damage from ideologically driven ultra-Orthodox believers and their quasi-Orthodox media (such as Dukh kristianina and Russkaya liniya).

Quasi-Independent and Independent Orthodox Media

Other Orthodox media exist that do not owe their existence to the church’s administration and are financially on their own, although the degree of independence is still debatable in some cases. The newspaper Tatiana’s Day (Tatianin den’), founded in 1995, and the journal Thomas (Foma), founded in 1996, came into being because of private initiatives “from below.” However, knowing the background of both media, one might doubt their independence: Xeniya Luchenko, until recently working editor-in-chief of Tatiana’s Day, is the wife of Sergei Chapnin, editor-in-chief of the official Journal of the Moscow Patriarchy. Similarly, the founder and editor-in-chief of Thomas, Vladimir Legoyda, is, as noted previously, at the same time head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of Information (SINFO). In both cases, the connections noted undermine claims of independence.

Some official Russian Orthodox Church media owe their existence to private initiatives. Among these are the journal for Russian Orthodox social services, Neskuchnyi sad (www.nsad.ru), which works in cooperation with the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Department for Charity, the diaconal internet portal Miloserdie.Ru (“Mercy”), the radio station of the St. Petersburg diocese, Grad Petrov (http://www.grad-petrov.ru), and many others. Furthermore, a number of interesting, independent internet portals, such as “Orthodoxy and the World” (Pravoslavie i mir, www.pravmir.ru) and Bogoslov.ru (The Theologian) may be noted. The independence of these media, even if they hold an official church status and are led by priests, is demonstrated by their origin in private initiatives and their private funding.

Independent Orthodox media offer serious analysis even if self-censorship is employed in some cases. Official and independent Orthodox media have differing goals. The former seek to propagate a certain image of the church in the eyes of the public. By contrast, the latter are less concerned about the reputation of the church and strive sincerely for a genuine exchange of information.

The Media and the Church

In Russia today unscrupulous secular media primarily convey negative messages about the Orthodox Church: Orthodox clerics and believers who are dishonest, who are hostile to museums, and who lust for power and real estate. The self-denying labors of Orthodox faithful in hospitals or orphanages, however, do not appear to be too entertaining a theme. Private and state-owned television seems interested in the church these days only for public appearances of the Patriarch or when the subject has high entertainment value, such as a story of miracles. Any other church-related themes are the exception. It is seen as liberal to report on scandals, conflicts, and quarrels within or swirling around the church, whereas journalists reporting favorably about the church risk damaging their reputation in the liberal press.

The causes of this hostile reporting are to be found not only within the church. Today, worldwide, the public expects negative press treatment of the church. Across the globe secular media do not receive the church with open arms. Therefore, those opposed to the church attempt to silence it by “uncovering the nakedness” of its representatives. This is entertaining. Unfortunately, it also is easy.

Conclusion

In the first years after perestroika the church still profited from its Soviet martyrdom. At that time, the media reported willingly and often about the church, and many people placed their hopes in it. The church received a second, smaller boost with the beginning of reforms instituted when Patriarch Kyrill took office. Each of his steps was followed eagerly. However, since then Patriarch Kyrill has taken too many steps in the wrong direction. SINFO, his creation, is forced to always justify itself with utterances, activities, and methods that remind the public of the old party style, methods that alienate rather than convince.

At the same time, it is a fact that in the last few years Russian Orthodox believers have undertaken first-class missionary outreach, scholarly theological endeavors, and social reform projects. Many of these initiatives have boldly addressed new questions in ways that certainly counter public stereotypes of the church as anti-intellectual, hostile to education, and dishonest. Today, Orthodox journalists have increasing professionalism as their main goal. Over the past two decades, but particularly in recent years, they have come to realize that journalism cannot be undertaken as a hobby.♦

Anna Briskina-Müller, a former student of Orthodox theology in St. Petersburg, holds a Th.D. in church history from Heidelberg University. Since 2004 Dr. Briskina-Müller has taught at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

Editor’s note: This article is published with the author’s permission from “Orthodoxer Journalismus in Russland: Neueste Entwicklungen,” Zeitschrift Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, No. 10 (October 2011): 12-15. The editor wishes to thank Bishop Ruediger Minor, former head of the United Methodist Church in Russia, for his translation of the present article from the German original.