Disappointment with Russian Orthodoxy's Response to Freedom
My good friend Natasha recently confessed: "I stopped going to church. I used to go there to pray and contemplate the soul alone with God, but old women would take me aside and scold me for wearing a kerchief that was brighter than theirs. The priest was on their side. He is an anti-Semite and winces every time I remind him that Jesus was a Jew. Now my church is the New Testament. That is enough for me."
Today, there are fewer discussions on "church themes" in the press and television than in the recent past. On the eve of presidential elections, however, journalists were speculating about an alliance between President Boris Yeltsin and Russian Patriarch Alexy II, who during the campaign was quietly resettled from the Danilov Monastery to the Kremlin residence through the efforts of the president's former bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov. But although the patriarch's legendary white klobuk, or Orthodox monastic headgear, is often seen next to the president or Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, it seems it is simply a certain tribute that, at a stretch, one could put down to the tradition of "national decorum." Neither politicians nor voters appear any longer to entertain serious hopes for the Russian Orthodox Church.
At the height of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost, when the Moscow patriarchy was celebrating the millennium of Russian Christianity and television stations began to report from churches ("Christmas--Live"), many believed that the spiritual life of Russia had begun to take an important turn toward genuine values based on the thousand-year tradition. The Church was later to disappoint many of those who had put much hope in it. Its first concern was to actively fight against so-called sectarianism, including not only Evangelists and Adventists, but Protestants and Catholics as well. The Moscow patriarch sounded the alarm: "Our people" [Russians] are being bought by foreigners. This became the main motif in the fight against missionaries, which was consequently taken up by the State Duma. It did not occur to any of these fighters that in appealing to the government for police support against sectarianism, the Church acknowledged its own powerlessness and the absence of real influence on Orthodox believers.
Priests during the time of Peter the Great were obliged to violate the confidentiality of the confessional and collaborate with the secret police. In the 19th century, the government persecuted Jews, Catholics, and Protestants in the name of Orthodoxy. After destroying the Church in the 20th century, the Bolsheviks allowed it to serve the authorities and forced it to cooperate with the KGB. Until the October Revolution, Orthodoxy served as an ideological surrogate. Today, politicians are trying to convert Orthodoxy into a new national ideology, not taking into account the consequences of their efforts in a multireligious country.
It is therefore not surprising that the Church is simply lost in conditions of political freedom. It has never had the experience of an independent life and cannot be a source of support for free people. Until this day, it fears free people who think for themselves. This is why the Church is afraid of an invasion of foreign missionaries, against whom it prefers to struggle not by the force of its ideas but the force of government power.
Excerpt reprinted from Moscow Times, 2 October 1996.
Yury Buyda is on the editorial board of Novoye Vremya and Znamya.
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© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies