East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 1995, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


Two Faces of Russian Orthodoxy:  Reactionary and Progressive

James L. Haney

Metropolitan John and Reactionary Orthodoxy
Currently, one has to recognize that power lies in the hands of Soviet-era people who, if they are not challenged quickly and effectively, will do just as good a job of marginalizing the Orthodox Church in the new situation as the Communists did in the Soviet era.  Metropolitan John (Snoychev) of St. Petersburg is a good example.  As the chief expounder of Orthodoxy in the St. Petersburg region, with a population of at least six million, Metropolitan John is a figure to be reckoned with, not least of all because he sits in the chair formerly occupied by the current Patriarch and the late, internationally respected and highly influential Metropolitan Nikodim.

For Metropolitan John, the burning issue facing the Russian Orthodox Church is the preservation of Church Slavonic in all church services.  Of course, there are reasons for retaining Slavonic, but more progressive people feel that all these "reasons" are weak in the light of the "missionary" task which confronts the Orthodox Church in Russia.  While people who attend church regularly eventually come to understand the Slavonic, it is far removed from daily speech on the streets.  All, except the newcomers who happen to be romantic preservationists, are likely to be "turned off" by the continued and exclusive use of a largely incomprehensible, though beautiful, language.

This form of arch-conservatism is not the worst that can be said about Metropolitan John.   Everyone is aware from the much publicized views of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Pamyat movement that along with everything else of a virulent character in contemporary Russia, vicious forms of anti-Semitism are commonplace.  I regret to say that it appears Metropolitan John is to be numbered among the more influential of these anti-Semites.

Early in 1994, he published a book with the title, The Autocracy of the Spirit, which argues that Russia throughout her history has been the victim of a global conspiracy aimed at wiping her off the face of the earth.  Russia's enemy is the Jew who has consistently woven a web of lying intrigue in order to achieve dominance in world government.  In his interpretation, the whole history of Russia rotates around the struggle with Judaism and this is "a struggle of the people of God against the people who killed God."  The salvation of Russia can come only through the creation of an ideal Christian state, the Metropolitan contends.  Such a state would be united with the Russian Orthodox Church, would introduce spiritual censorship through the control of mass communications, and would support a "confessional foreign policy."  If this sounds like totalitarianism, that is not accidental.  Not surprisingly, Metropolitan John finds the most attractive political system after World War I to have been early German fascism, and, in Russia from the Second World War to the death of the dictator, Stalinism.

A well-known, highly respected, Orthodox laywoman and member of the St. Petersburg Academy of History, Dr. Irina Levinskaya, writes:  "In recent times it is not unusual to hear complaints by Orthodox clergy that the intelligentsia have left the church.  There is some truth in this.  And the activity of such a senior figure in the church as Metropolitan John deepens the split....If the Russian Orthodox Church insists on searching for enemies and battles with fantasies, then she will end up as a relic of history, an obscure ethnographic reservation.  Among today's clergy there are remarkable pastors whose heroic activity commands deep respect.  People truly caring about the fate of the Orthodox Church, however, cannot but be alarmed by the fact that a significant number of the senior clergy support the position of Metropolitan John....As a member of the Russian Orthodox Church I humbly turn to her head, Patriarch Alexei II, with a request that he repudiate Metropolitan John's book, The Spirit of Autocracy, and put an end to any attempt to make the church, at least by reputation, a cover for fascism."

Thus far, Patriarch Alexei has not responded to The Spirit of Autocracy, and the views the Metropolitan expresses have not been repudiated by other hierarchs in the Orthodox Church.  Patriarch Alexei II has only said with regard to other pronouncements made by Metropolitan John that the faithful should remember that the statements of a Metropolitan are not the statements of the whole Church.  In the face of uniform silence among the hierarchy and clergy (either out of fear, or on the basis of agreement with the Metropolitan), this man will continue to buttress the intolerance of the ignorant Orthodox faithful.  What is to be done? I suspect that nothing will be done unless Christians and humanists outside Russia raise their voices in protest to the level of thunder.  There is a chance that the Russian hierarchy can be embarrassed into repudiating Metropolitan John--a slim chance.

Archpriest Vladimir Fedorov and Progressive Orthodoxy
Among those fine human beings who represent an alternative to Orthodox fundamentalism is Father Vladimir Fedorov, a church historian at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy.   Without being flamboyant, he has won the respect of many students, priests, and members of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia.  He not only keeps in close touch with what is going on in the contemporary Russian religious scene, but, because he has recently been able to travel and lecture, he is also well informed about the religious situation in the West.

Father Vladimir sees the present situation as an unparalleled opportunity for perestroika in the Orthodox Church, and he has very definite ideas about the shape which this "restructuring" or "renewal" should take.  It should begin with bringing to realization the renewal which was proposed on the eve of the Revolution of 1917 by the All-Russian Synod but, unfortunately, was not implemented because of the destruction of the church by the Bolsheviks.

Father Vladimir is a realistic person and he is not overly optimistic regarding the prospects of the Russian Orthodox Church taking immediate steps toward effecting church renewal.  He recognizes the many historical and psychological factors standing in the way.  For instance, the historical development which is referred to again and again to bolster resistance to Church "renewal" today is the Communist-inspired "Renovationist Church" movement of the 1920s, which attempted sweeping changes in the church to make it more ideologically acceptable within a "socialist" state, including the introduction of "street Russian" in worship.  All efforts today which attempt to present renewal in a positive light are instantly smeared by references to the Renovationist event.  Recent efforts to introduce a slightly "Russified" version of the Divine Liturgy, for instance, were labeled as "a heresy of neo-renovation."  While recognizing the barriers to progress, Father Vladimir contends that what Russian Orthodoxy needs is a Second Vatican Council which would "approve the translation of the liturgical texts, reforming the service, altering the attitude toward non-Orthodox Christians and those belonging to other religions."

Until such an event occurs, Fedorov believes the Church needs to devote more of its resources to Christian education at three different levels:  in developing programs for secondary education, programs for the training of teachers in secondary education, and the establishment of institutes for the training of these teachers.

Father Vladimir understands the "religious revival" in Russia is a multifaceted phenomenon.  In the popular mind, it is above all the restoration of the rights of freedom of conscience among the traditional Christian confessions--Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Lutheranism--whose rights were denied for more than 70 years.  A second facet of the "religious revival," however, is de facto religious pluralism, evident in the recent appearance in all parts of Russia and the former Soviet Union of various Protestant traditions, marginal Christian groups of West European and American origin, as well as "spin-offs" from the religions of the Far East. Many of these groups make use of aggressive evangelization techniques which have won many converts.

Father Vladimir's response to the second facet of the "religious revival" is also representative of the progressive point of view.  Like many other people, he is somewhat less than thrilled by the course the "revival" has taken [but]  Father Vladimir is not hostile toward "Western" groups. He attempts to help his students understand why these religious movements have proved to be attractive in Russia.

Father Vladimir proposes that the first response by Orthodoxy to the challenge presented by the new religious groups and movements should be to set its own house in order.  The specific suggestions he makes for doing so further illumines the progressive agenda:  (1) Russian Orthodoxy should immediately become engaged in its own missionary work among the ignorant masses who are unaffiliated with any religion, making use of the experience and methods of various Christian traditions;  (2) Orthodox congregations must learn how to become real communities which exude an atmosphere of love, warmth, and concern for people; (3) Orthodoxy must support a massive educational program, using every possible means, including the mass media, but also making full use of more traditional means, such as theological schools designed to serve the needs of lay people; (4) the mission of Orthodox congregations should move beyond liturgical celebration to establishing better catechization, Bible schools, organized social services for people in need, and a more effective ministry to youth; and (5) the Orthodox Church should study carefully the activities and spirituality of Catholic and recognized Protestant churches and religious movements as resources for developing parish communities which will ensure active participation and new expressions of spirituality.

Father Vladimir serves the Church of St. John the Forerunner. He has been a moving force behind making this congregation an example of what he thinks an Orthodox parish should be.  It is a parish which is self-consciously a missionary parish in the midst of a radically secularized culture.  The parishioners are involved in a variety of volunteer activities which offer the kind of care for people so obviously lacking in most Orthodox parishes in the city.   He has also led a number of academics in this parish to become actively involved in his Christian Research Center for New Religious Movements.

Father Vladimir is a leader with a broad vision for what Orthodoxy can become in Russian society.  He is a person who needs--and is fully deserving--of the support and encouragement of Christians outside Russia, for he gets far too little support from within.  In the midst of a very complex, confusing, and often hostile environment, he is one of those optimistic Russian Orthodox who possess an unfaltering trust that God--"the lover of humankind"--will somehow bring to fruition what is good for Russia and the Orthodox Church. 

James L. Haney is professor of church history at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN.


James L. Haney, "Two Faces of Russian Orthodoxy:  Reactionary and Progressive," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 3 (Summer 1995), 3-5.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664


EWC&M Report | Contents | Search back issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe
Feedback