East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 2005, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Russian Orthodox Social Ministry in Post-Soviet Society

Roman Lunkin

In Orthodoxy, social ministry has not become an independent, integral, and obligatory part of church life. Instead, social work has rather been a burden for the Russian church, which believes that concrete material aid for the needy in an Orthodox state should be provided by the government. In contrast, Peter the Great, whom many Orthodox equate with the Antichrist, required the church, clergy, monasteries, and convents to take a role in socially useful charity. However, this does not mean that Orthodoxy does not have a certain sense of social responsibility that is present in every Christian communion.

Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Charity
Every Orthodox churchgoer considers Russia an Orthodox country filled with citizens who are, in varying degrees, believers. From this point of view, Orthodox social ministry in Russia is not a missionary endeavor as it is with Catholics and Protestants. Furthermore, Orthodox consider non-Orthodox distribution of humanitarian aid to be proselytism and tantamount to buying believers. The Catholic Church has developed an expansive program of charity through its churches and orders and through Caritas, its aid agency. Most of the time social work in Protestant churches is based on “expecting a miracle,” such as deliverance from disease, alcoholism, or drug addiction, or the miracle of prosperity. Unlike Western Christianity, Orthodoxy in Russia operates more through compassion and mercy, not with the expectation of a specific result of prayer, as is the case with charismatics, but with sympathy and salvation for the suffering soul, the sick, or the poor. From the theological point of view Orthodoxy calls a sufferer to be like Christ. That is why special honor in the Orthodox tradition belongs to those who totally gave themselves to the needy, such as the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna who at the beginning of the twentieth century founded the Convent of Martha and Mary. It means that Orthodox activity possesses a specific “charisma.” Unlike the developed social theory of the Catholic Church, Russian Orthodoxy, lacking clear church social policy, has found its meaning and expression in practice at the parish level.

Who in the modern Orthodox Church strives to realize the social ideals of Christianity and what difficulties do they face? The most vivid examples of social ministry are local and diocesan initiatives carried out by individual priests and laity. Social work at the congregational level consists of three types: projects promoted by the Moscow Patriarchate; projects initiated by parish clergy, with or without episcopal support; and projects undertaken by Orthodox believers, but without formal ties to the church.

Projects Actively Supported by the Moscow Patriarchate and Encouraged by Church Authorities
Among the projects of the Department of Charity and Social Ministry of the Moscow Patriarchate is the Orthodox Hospital of Saint Alexey of Moscow, founded with support from the various government health ministries. But such efforts are extremely rare.

In Saraktash in the Orenburg Region, Archpriest Nikolai (Stremskikh) has created a unique social outreach including an Orthodox orphanage, gymnasium, Sunday school, and nursing home. The Orthodox gymnasium and orphanage, with its 48 children, are under the patronage of the Patriarch who has been to Saraktash and personally approved the work of Father Nikolai. With the help of sponsors, Father Nikolai sends the children to Greece, Jerusalem, and Italy on a regular basis.

Father Superior Triphon (Plotnikov) of the Antoniev-Syiski Monastery of the Archangel Eparchy is extremely active and open to fresh ideas. He is well liked by government authorities and local businessmen, with the latter providing him with material aid. Under his leadership, the monastery has revived the tradition of social ministry and enlightenment typical of northern cloisters. Over ten years the monastery was minimally restored and refurbished, but its social activity, rare for a semi-destroyed monastery, is remarkable. As Father Triphon says, “The main thing is to help people; the stones can wait.” The monastery cares for poor families, needy and autistic children, and those ill with cancer. At any one time, dozens of homeless live in the monastery. There they are provided with shelter, food, and work. In neighboring villages, monks periodically have services and distribute religious literature. The monastery supports an orphanage in Emetsk and has even organized agricultural production which, in the opinion of Father Superior Triphon, “must become an example and school for local peasantry, a form of mission and preaching of the Christian attitude to work because we do need a close and genuine connection with local peasants. Otherwise, what kind of Christians are we?”

Archimandrite Kirill (Pokrovskyi) of the Blagoveshensky Monastery in Nizhnyi Novgorod is another representative of a socially oriented monastic. Considering himself to be in the tradition of Father Iosif Volotskoi, he thinks that at present the monastery must be active with social ministry and religious enlightenment: “Now is not the time for hermitage [contemplative retreat].” The monastery serves meals to the poor. Monks also minister in prisons, orphanages, hospitals, and schools. The Blagoveshensky Monastery also cooperates with a Catholic parish in Nizhnyi Novgorod in matters of charity.

The wide-ranging social outreach of the Blagoveshensky Monastery requires large financial support, which comes from local businessmen. However, this relationship draws the disapproval of some in the community.

In Novgorod Archbishop Lev supports energetic social outreach by clergy and laity. The Yuriev Monastery has been very active in sponsoring summer camps for orphans from St. Petersburg. One supporter of social reform, as outlined in the stillborn Council of 1917-1918, is Archpriest Nikolai (Ershov), senior priest of the Nikolskyi Cathedral in Kolmov, Novgorod Region. A member of the Synodal Committee on Social Issues, Father Nikolai considers himself to be a traditionalist in terms of clerical life who is opposed to close relations with Catholics. However, he supports the democratization of the Church, elections for appointment to the episcopacy, holding Orthodox Church councils on a democratic basis, and the gradual reformation of the Church through its openness to society, including the use of modern Russian in the Divine Liturgy. Father Nikolai’s parish is quite active in social work. He and his parishioners visit a nearby hospital, feed the poor, and organize Sunday school classes for children. According to Father Nikolai, healthy change in the church and a rejection of “Soviet traditions” will allow the social ministry in his church to be truly effective.

In the Murmansk Eparchy Bishop Simon keeps in touch with Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish Lutherans via the Barents Region Cooperative Union of Christian Churches. While acknowledging their theological differences, Bishop Simon chooses to stress their cooperation in social, cultural, and even ecological efforts. The bishop has spoken in joint conferences devoted to spirituality and ecology. His call for tough pollution-control standards and his support for the expansion of forest plantations are not typical of a member of the Orthodox hierarchy. As for social projects, the Eparchy cooperates with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. state of Washington, which maintains a permanent representative in Murmansk. Theologically conservative Presbyterian churches in Alaska also actively cooperate in social ministries with Orthodox in Murmansk.

Finally, Sister Maria (Borisova) of Sophia Church, Kazan, holds a Candidate Degree in chemical science. She has a unique ministry among young Orthodox believers in Tatarstan, assisting them in a spiritual transition from nominal to genuine Christian faith.

Projects Initiated by Clergy With or Without Episcopal Support
Father Pavel (Adelgeim), senior priest of a Pskov parish, is a charismatic spiritual leader who is devoted to social ministry. He has been very active in restoring churches entrusted to him. Since the beginning of perestroika, he also has undertaken many social and educational projects. He founded an Orthodox school for general education and an orphanage for mentally retarded children. At the beginning of perestroika, Father Pavel played a prominent role in political life in Pskov and was even nominated to the Supreme Soviet in 1991. Bishop Evsevyi of Pskov, however, treats Father Pavel rather negatively.

In the Yaroslavl Region in the early 1990s a brilliant priest, Father Oleg (Cherepanin), gained wide respect for his charitable activity. He founded a center for gifted children in Semibratovo with the help of Sister Nikodima, an Orthodox nun from England, who became the project’s primary sponsor.

Archpriest Pavel (Patrin), senior priest of Voznesensky Cathedral in Novosibirsk, is a man of a moderately conservative point of view, but at the same time, he is a supporter of independent, parish initiatives in educational and social work. Father Superior Philip (Novikov) and interested laity visit orphanages, boarding schools, and nursing homes. Also Voznesensky deaconesses feed the sick in a Novosibirsk hospital. Father Pavel considers active social work the task of every parish.

Projects Undertaken by Orthodox Believers Without Formal Ties to the Church
A lay community of Brothers and Sisters of Mercy of Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna emerged under perestroika in Ivanovo. It is led by an Orthodox layperson, Tatyana Leporskaya, a member of the city’s intelligentsia who turned to Orthodoxy and aspired to live according to the teachings of the gospel. This charity chose to model its outreach on the ministry of the Martha and Mary Convent in Moscow’s First City Hospital. Using their own apartments, members of the community feed the poor and the homeless. They also run a Christian bookshop at Kazan Cathedral and administer a shelter for the homeless, the retired, and the disabled. The community also assists an orphanage and distributes humanitarian aid provided by city businessmen. Initially blessed by Archbishop Amvrosyi of Ivanovo, it later became autonomous and practically independent of eparchy leadership. Conflict arose over control of the community’s activities and finances. While Archbishop Amvrosyi did not deny his personal blessing for the activities of the community, the Eparch did withdraw its official support for the Brothers and Sisters of Mercy. Supporters of the charitable activities of the community were disappointed by church efforts to control their finances.

Tatyana Leporskaya concludes, “Social work, first of all, is church business. Therefore, we started off as part of the Russian Orthodox Church. But we were nave. We thought since we were in the church, no one in the church would tell lies about us and everyone would follow the commandments. But now we have come to the conclusion that the church reflects general societal conditions, including aggressiveness.”

A similar conflict arose over the charitable initiatives of the Orthodox Brotherhood of St. John of Kronshtadt in Ossetia, Northern Caucasus. From the outset a few priests criticized the brotherhood for its independence and accused it of being a sect within the church. At the beginning of the1990s Archpriest Leonid (Akhidov) did not approve of the brotherhood’s social and educational work because the brothers made an independent decision as to who was going to be their confessor. In time, a major part of the brotherhood turned to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad for support. Finally, the new Archbishop Vladimir (Samoilenko) abolished the brotherhood and deprived it of church offerings designated for its work. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood of St. John of Kronshtadt, headed by Natalya Dmitrieva, a teacher of mathematics in a technological university, continues its work with orphans and its educational efforts, including the publication of a newspaper.

Some Conclusions
After ten years of freedom from Soviet-era restrictions, the Russian Orthodox Church still has not accepted social ministry as one of its responsibilities, despite the church’s official publication of its social doctrine in 2000. For example, Sergei Tchebotarev, a member of the Orthodox Youth Center in Tambov, notes, “There is no socially and intellectually active clergy in the eparchy. As a result, the eparchy is passive in social and missionary work. The activity of the Youth Center and some other Orthodox movements and organizations is done according to the initiative and powers of the laity, independent of the eparchy.”

Social ministry in post-Soviet Russia lacks a clear focus, reflecting either the ideological policy of the Patriarchate and individual members of the clergy or the strivings of clergy and laity for energetic church-community activity. In the post-Soviet period, the church’s liberation from tight state control has been only partial. The church gained its freedom but did not reject its connections with the state, in effect becoming a state within a state. After perestroika the Orthodox Church remained a slow-moving bureaucracy with all the traits of Soviet times, including a totalitarian hierarchical system with a lack of initiative from below. Historical precedents for the church’s public ministry did not influence the formation of social ministries as a whole, with the exception of a few regions such as Karelia, Novgorod, and Arkhangelsk, where public activity of the clergy has been fairly pronounced.

At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, after the church in Russia gained the freedom to act in public and economic life, social ministry had to start practically from zero. The issue of social ministry was not initially on the agenda of the Moscow Patriarchate. Since the beginning of the 1990s, it has remained a secondary consideration. The Patriarchate’s primary concerns are the restitution of property; the restoration and construction of churches, for example, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow; and other issues relating to the material and economic provision of its eparchies, parishes, and monasteries.

In recent years the church’s attitude towards social work has undergone change. It now is considered a matter of patriotic service to the new post-Soviet Russian state. That is why the accent in public ministry relates heavily to state institutions, including the military, the judicial system, and prisons. In these areas, the success of church social work depends at least in part on the good will of military and prison authorities. During the 1990s the church signed agreements with various federal departments, with church and state both lauding the importance of teaching citizens “patriotic and moral values.”

Work in social institutions, including orphanages, nursing homes, alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers, and prisons, requires a great deal of time and effort. It demands close contact and active cooperation with all levels of society. It also requires an emphasis upon the role of the laity in church life, because social work in “unfavorable” spheres of society depends upon the personal initiative and the concern of average believers.

The Moscow Patriarchy has not yet worked out a consistent approach to social ministries. If work with the military and prisoners, at times, is blessed and directed by the higher clergy (as a job politically significant for cooperation with federal structures and local authorities), parish priests are in fact given total freedom in their charitable work in social institutions. This work at the local level requires a great deal of personal effort, especially in the absence of any significant financial support from church leaders and with Orthodox brotherhoods heavily focused on educational and publishing work, more than social outreach.

The reasons for Orthodox passivity in social ministry stems in part from the church’s understanding of Russia as its “canonical territory.” Consequently, church restoration is perceived as a blessing for society, whose members are to come to church on their own, not as the result of active missionary and spiritual work with post-Soviet atheists. That is why officials of the Moscow Patriarchate demand state support for Orthodoxy as Russia’s “traditional religion,” including tax and other benefits in social and charitable spheres. At the same time, the Orthodox Church accepts humanitarian aid from foreign state and social organizations, both Protestant and Catholic.

Priests today are construction and budget managers, more than social workers. At the same time, the laity is not given the opportunity to express itself in the public sphere because church leaders want to control its activities, both inside and outside the church.

Conservative priests even now express the opinion that social work is not a church responsibility and clergy should not have to do it. For example, Archpriest Vladimir Popov of Pskov says, “Social projects simply do not come to mind. However, with the help of the Dutch we have a charitable canteen. You cannot do everything. Social ministry is the business of the higher ruling clergy. Moreover, for Orthodoxy, social outreach is not of decisive importance. On the contrary, this work generates parasitic moods, Soviet power having corrupted all of us. The church cannot replace the state.”

A parish priest can deny social obligations on principle and can refer the issue to higher members of the clergy. A prominent example is Father Andrey (Bogomolov) from Kaluga. He organized a parish consisting primarily of youth and intelligentsia. He sponsors Sunday schools and discussion groups for youth about the theology of the church fathers. In spite of his opposition to social work, Father Andrey, like many clerics of the Orthodox Church, constantly thinks of ways to make church work more effective, involving all levels of society. He has come to the conclusion that one cannot reject modern youth culture. Instead, it needs to be recast in an Orthodox way. His conservative monarchical beliefs notwithstanding, he speaks positively about rock music, including Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and B.Grebenshchikov.

The Community of Saint Antony the Roman in Velikyi Novgorod has the goal of reaching secularized youth. The community has its own student church. It sponsors lectures and meetings with Novgorod clergy, musicians, poets, and intelligentsia. Members of the community also maintain contacts with Catholics and Old Believers and they often go to the West for Christian youth meetings.

Today, the Russian Orthodox Church is being asked to define its social role in modern Russia. Given the effective social ministry in Russia performed by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, and others, and the growing, independent social outreach of Orthodox laity, church leaders will not be able to avoid addressing this question. But to do so in a constructive manner will require significant changes within the Russian Orthodox Church.

Roman Lunkin is a research fellow of the Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. He also is on the research staff for Keston Institute's forthcoming Encyclopedia of Contemporary Religious Life in Russia.

Edited excerpt published with permission from “Sotsial’noe sluzhenie Russkoi Pravoslavnoi tserkvi v post-Sovetskom obshchestve”, in Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Europe, ed. by Jonathan Sutton and Wil van den Bercken. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2003. Translated by Tatiana Shelanova.

Roman Lunkin, "Russian Orthodox Social Ministry in Post-Soviet Society," East-West Church & Ministry Report 13 (Fall 2005), 6-9.

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

2005 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe