A Russian Religious Revival?

churchMany Russian Orthodox churches are stunningly beautiful both inside and out, but the number of Russians who attend church services regularly and make an effort to observe the tenets of the faith is actually quite tiny. Photo of St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki Church in Kolomäki, St. Petersburg, by the Russian Reader

There Are No More than One to Five Percent Genuine Russian Orthodox Believers in Rostov Region
The Heads of Most So-Called Believers Are Filled with a Mishmash of Christianity, Superstition and Paganism  
Sergei Derkachov
donnews.ru
January 11, 2019

Despite the robust building of churches in Rostov Region and the Russian Orthodox Church’s growing role in civic life, the number of practicing Russian Orthodox Christians in the region is still quite small, according to police statistics. Moreover, genuine Orthodoxy has a worse time of things in Rostov Region than in Russia as a whole.

There are no official statistics of how many people in Rostov Region identify themselves as Russian Orthodox. However, we can make a rough estimate based on other statistics. Thus, a couple of years ago, Merkury, Metropolitan of Rostov and Novocherkassk, said that, during the 2014–2015 school year, 72% of pupils in Rostov-on-Don schools elected to study “Foundations of Orthodox Culture.” In 2015–2016, the corresponding figures were 74.4%; in 2016–2017, they were 80.8%.

Recently, donnews.ru wrote about a public opinion poll conducted among Rostov-on-Don residents in 2017. 65.6% of those surveyed identified themselves as Orthodox, 29.2% as atheists, and 2.8% as Muslims.

In other words, the vast majority of people in Rostov consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians. However, practicing believers, meaning people who go to churches and attend church services, at least during major church holidays, is considerably  smaller.

Police tallies of the numbers of people who go to church on Christmas and Easter are basically the only way to estimate the real numbers of practicing Orthodox believers in the regions and Russia as a whole, since those who identify themselves as Orthodox but do not attend church regularly usually think it necessary to go to church on the main Christian holidays.

According to the Rostov Regional Office of the Russian Interior Ministry, approximately 42,000 people attended Christmas services in 2019, meaning a mere one percent of the region’s population. A similar figure was reported by the police in 2018. In 2017, approximately 50,000 people attended Christmas services in Rostov Region. The highest number of attendees, 80,000 people, was recorded in 2015.

2.6 million people went to Christmas services nationwide. Based on the current estimated population of Russia, this leaves us with less than two percent of the total population. In Rostov Region, however, with one percent of the population attending church services, this difference is more arresting. Curiously, according to a poll by VTsIOM, 72% of Russians observed Orthodox Christmas. Clearly, what this meant in the vast majority of instances was just another big holiday feast.

According to Russian sociologist Nikolay Mitrokhin, author of The Russian Orthodox Church: Its Current State and Challenges, although the number of churches has increased, the number of believers in Russia has basically remained the same.

“People who attend Christmas services in various regions account for around two percent of the entire population. This gives you a sense of the size of the Russian Orthodox Church’s current impact. In recent years, seventy to seventy-five percent and, in some cases, eighty percent of those polled have identified themselves as Russian Orthodox. And yet the number of people capable of dragging themselves to church on the most important holiday next to Easter is within the margin of statistical error,” says Mitrokhin.

The figures are much better for Easter. According to police statistics, 4 million to 4.3 million people on average go to church on Easter. The Interior Ministry did not supply figures for 2017 and 2018 in Rostov Region. In 2014, 135,000 people attended Easter services; in 2015, over 260,000 people; and in 2016, 326,000 people. In this case, however, we should take two important factors into account. First, the difference in weather conditions: Easter usually falls on a Sunday in late April or early May, whereas Orthodox Christmas is fixed on the calendar: the night of January 6 and the wee hours of January 7. Second, in the case of Easter, the police count not only people who attend church services but also people who stop by church only to have their Easter dinner delicacies blessed.

Generally, the number of people who go to church once a year on Christmas and Easter is many times lower than those who identify themselves as Russian Orthodox in opinion polls. It is also worth noting that a considerable segment of the populace persists in visiting cemeteries on Easter, deeming it almost an obligation or an Orthodox tradition, although the Church has designated a different holiday for the purpose, Radonitsa, observed during the second week after Easter.

This points to Russian Orthodoxy’s other major probem: the populace’s spiritual illiteracy. In 2012, Boris Dubin, head of sociopolitical research at the Levada Center, claimed that, according to their surveys, only forty percent of Russian Orthodox believers in Russia believed God existed. Thirty percent of the faithful were sure, on the contrary, that God did not exist. Only twenty-five percent of Russians observe the Lenten fast, according to annual polls by the Levada Center. In recent years, however, the Great Fast has been treated by some people as a diet that has no ideological and religious implications. People also often equate giving up one or two food items with keeping the fast.

The minds of most Orthodox Russians are filled with a mishmash of Christianity, superstition, and paganism. Even Metropolitan Merkury recently said Russians are “complete spiritual illiterates and devoid of religious education.”

“Our people do not have a clue about Holy Scripture, sacred history, and the deeds of Russian saints. They do not link these things together into a single whole,” he said.

The well-known Russian priest and writer Andrei Lorgus commented on these circumstances a year ago on his Facebook page.

“Every year, during Easter and Christmas, I look at the Interior Ministry’s tallies. Of course, they do not match our own estimates, which are based on records of parishioners. You could say that the holiday pool [sic] of Orthodox in Russia is less than 3.5%. We have even had people who were not baptized attend holiday night vigil services. So, the Church in Russia is numerically no more than three percent. There are three percent of us! Are there too few of us? Considering our tragic history, it is hard to say. But when perestroika kicked off, and the Church was restored to its rights, we expected more. As someone who was a neophyte in the 1980s, I am disappointed. Or, rather, I was disappointed, but I am not disappointed anymore. Indeed, there was no way there could have been more, despite the huge efforts and sacrifices that were made.”

Finally, Patriarch Kirill himself recognizes the small number of true Orthodox Christians in Russia. During a sermon delivered on November 24, 2018, at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Kaliningrad, he drew the flock’s attention to the difference between statistics and reality.

“Although statistically the majority of Russians now say they belong to the Orthodox faith, statistical belonging and actual strict observance are different things. We must work to make our people practicing Russian Orthodox Christians, to make people feel with their minds and hearts how vital it is to be with God, to make them feel the power of prayer, to make them feel how prayer closes the chain through which communication between them and God is effected.”

According to the patriarch, the Russian people are still only at the very start of their spiritual rebirth.

Thanks a billion to Nikolay Mitrokhin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Nikolay Mitrokhin: God-Given “Extremists”

God-Given “Extremists”
Nikolay Mitrokhin
Takie Dela
April 26, 2017

I met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid 1990s in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. I was researching the region’s religious life. When I arrived at each regional capital, I would survey all the prominent communities in turn. The Witnesses were different in one respect from other western-inspired Christian communities. There were lots of them and they were everywhere.

Like now, many were certain back then the Witnesses were a product of the perestroika era’s freedoms. This, however, was not the case. The Witnesses were a legacy of the Soviet Union.

An American Salesman’s Religion

The Witnesses are a typical American eschatological religious group. Put crudely, they believe the world will end soon, during their lifetimes. They believe in one God, Jehovah, a name used during Christianity’s first century. On Judgment Day, Jehovah will destroy sinners and save the elect. The Witnesses reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit). They do not consider Christ God, but they revere him. The day of his death is the only holiday they celebrate.

“A History of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia,” a display in the museum at the Administrative Center of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, located in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Alexander Demyanchuk/TASS

A completely and regularly revised theology has produced a set of permissions and prohibitions aimed at maintaining the way of life and behavior of a decent traveling salesman from the lower middle classes.

The Witnesses are allowed the moderate use of alcohol (immoderate use is cause for expulsion) and the use of contraceptives. Premarital sex and smoking are forbidden. The Witnesses must not “rend to Caesar what is Caesar’s”: they are forbidden from being involved in elections, engaging in politics, honoring state symbols, and serving in the army. They are most roundly criticized by outsiders for forbidding blood transfusions and organ transplants. The Witnesses suddenly had something to say when the AIDS epidemic kicked off. They support blood substitutes.

Something like family monasteries—”administrative centers”—have been organized for the most ardent followers. The schedule in the centers is strict, but the conditions are relatively comfortable. The Witnesses can live and work in them, practically for free, for as little as a year or as along as their entire lives.

Waiting for the world’s imminent end is an occupation common to many religious groups, from Russian Old Believers to the Mayan Indians. Such groups isolate themselves from a sinful world, some by retreating into the wilderness, others, by restricting their contact with outsiders.

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The cover of a 1928 Russian-language edition of The Watchtower. When the Russian edition was founded in 1925, it was originally entitled The Guard Tower, but in 1964 the name was changed to The Watchtower. Photo courtesy of Boris Alexeyevich/Wikipedia

The Witnesses differ from similar movements in terms of how they disseminate and maintain their doctrine. The method is based on the commercial practice of distributing magazines in the nineteenth century. Essentially, the entire organization meets twice weekly to read its main journal, The Watchtower, which is produced by church elders in Brooklyn and then translated and disseminated in dozens of languages. Members pay a nominal fee for subscribing to and reading the journal, fees that are scrupulously collected and sent along the chain: from local groups to the regional office, then to the national headquarter and, finally, to the head office in Brooklyn. Free distribution of the magazine and going door to door asking people whether they want to talk about God are aimed at the same thing: increasing the audience who subscribes to and collectively reads the magazine.

Ninety-five percent of today’s public find these religious activities strange and ridiculous, although from a sociological viewpoint they barely differ from going to political party meetings, networked sales of cosmetics, visiting sports clubs, getting a tattoo, the Russian Healthy Lifestyle Movement (ZOZh) or stamp collecting.

If you believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own figures, they operate in 240 countries, which is more than belong to the UN.  At the same time, the organization is numerically quite compact, albeit growing rapidly. It has a total of 8.3 million members.

A Religion for Soviet Individuals

The story of how the Witnesses took root in the Soviet Union has been well told in a book published three years ago by Emily Baran, Dissent on the Margins: How Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It. Polish and Romanian peasants and market traders adopted the doctrine of the Witnesses at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, and before the war they unexpectedly were made Soviet citizens when the Soviet Union occupied parts of Poland and Romania.

The Soviet authorities did not tolerate large groups who maintained constant links with foreign countries, so it decided to send the core group of Witnesses, five thousand people, to Siberia. A considerable number were sent to the camps, while the rest were exiled. The crackdown was a misfortune for the victims, but it was a godsend for the exotic doctrine.

The Moscow Jehovah’s Witness community worshiping at the velodrome in the city’s Krylatskoye District, 2000. Photo courtesy of Alexander Fomin/PhotoXPress.ru

As early as the 1950s, the largest communities of Witnesses had emerged in the main place of exile, Irkutsk Region. In the 2000s, the official websites of Irkutsk Region and the neighboring Republic of Buryatia claimed the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a traditional religious community in the region. Irkipedia provides the following figures for 2011: “Around 5,500 people in Irkutsk Region are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. Around 50 of their assemblies operate in Irkutsk Region, each of them featuring 80 to 150 members. The assemblies are united into three districts: Usolye-Sibirskoye, Irkutsk, and Bratsk.”

The camps proved a suitable place for proselytizing, the radically minded youth, especially Ukrainian speakers, eager listeners, and the half-baked amnesty of political prisoners, an excellent means of disseminating the doctrine nationwide. As early as the late 1950s, all over northern Kazakhstan, former members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who were banned from returning home, and former Russian criminals, who had taken jobs as farm machinery operators and welders, were digging dugouts in the steppes to hide DIY printing presses for printing The Watchtower.

Why did peasants, traders, brawny lads from the working classes, graduates of provincial technical schools, mothers of large families, and pensioners need to become Jehovah’s Witnesses? I have the same explanation as the preachers do: to radically change their selves and their lifestyles. The everyday frustrations of ordinary people, their perpetually predetermined lives, and their uselessness to anyone outside their narrow family circle (in which there is so often so little happiness) are things that torment many people. Prescriptions for effectively transfiguring oneself are always popular. However, they usually don’t work, because it is hard to stick to the program.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Minsk, 2015. Photo courtesy of Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters/Pixstream

Like other religious groups, the Witnesses offer their members a disciplinary model for joint action. You can sit at home, chewing through your miserly pension, and watching TV, or you can feel like a “pioneer” again (the title given to missionaries who proselytize on the streets and door to door), do the right thing, hang out with other enthusiastic people like yourself, and make friends with young people. You are a young bricklayer. You are facing a lifetime of laying bricks, but your soul yearns for change and career growth. After spending six months in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, our bricklayer might be leading a grassroots group, and two years later he might have made a decent career in the organization. His wife is satisfied. Her husband doesn’t drink, their circle of friends has expanded, and during holidays the whole family can go visit other Witnesses in other parts of Russia. The children grown up in a circle of fellow believers with a sense of their own uniqueness. Free evenings are spent on the work of the organization, but that is better than drunken quarrels, and better than what most “ordinary” Soviet and post-Soviet folks are up to in the evenings.

Wholehearted Atheists

In 2006, I interviewed Vladimir Saprykin, a former employee of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. His career had kicked off with a vigorous campaign against the Witnesses in Karaganda Region. I was able to get a glimpse into a period when the Party was on the warpath against the Witnesses. In the early 1960s, literally hundreds of people were sent to the camps as part of the campaign against religion per se.

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The Jehovah’s Witness Congress Hall in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of PhotoXPress

Saprykin had campaigned against the Witnesses wholeheartedly and passionately, and that passion still burned in him fifty years after the events in question. He had dreamed of making them “completely free,” of “returning them to their essence.” He was backed up then by a whole group of provincial demiurges from among the local intelligentsia. They had collectively tried to re-educate the local group of Witnesses through debate, and then they had intimated them and pressured their relatives. Subsequently, they had tried to buy them off before finally sending the group’s core to prison with the KGB’s backing.

Their rhetoric is surprisingly similar to the declarations made by the Witnesses’ current antagonists.

“We stand for individual freedom of choice in all domains, including religion. […] So read, compare, think, disagree, and argue! Critical thinking is in inalienable sign of a person’s freedom. Let’s not abandon our freedom so easily.”

This is not an excerpt from a statement by a libertarian group, but an excerpt from a declaration published by a group of Russian Orthodox clergymen attached to the Holy Martyr Irenaeus of Lyons Center for Religious Studies. It was these clergymen who have now got the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned.

In the early 1960s, the KGB and such local enthusiasts managed to deliver several serious blows to the infrastructure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union. Successive leaders of the organization and hundreds of grassroots leaders and activists were arrested and convicted, and archives, correspondence, and printing presses were seized.

“Is there an end to your suffering? Take a copy for free in your own language.” Tuchkovo, Moscow Region. Photo courtesy of Alexander Artemenkov/TASS

This, however, did not lead to the eradication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Besides the three regions where they had constantly been active—Western Ukraine, Moldova, and Irkutsk Region—groups and organizations emerged in the sixties and seventies throughout nearly the entire Soviet Union from Arkhangelsk Region to the Maritime Territory, and from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.

The movement was spread by ex-camp convicts, labor migrants from regions where the doctrine was strongly espoused, and missionaries.

Soviet construction sites, new cities, and workers’ dorms were propitious environments for the spread of new religious doctrines. The young people who arrived to work there were cut off from their usual lifestyles, family ties, and interests. They wanted something new, including self-education and self-transfiguration—to gad about in suits and have their heads in the clouds. Most of these cadres were promoted through the ranks by the Communist Youth League and other authorities, but there were plenty of pickings for the religious organizations.

By the way, in 1962, Saprykin campaigned to get not just anyone to leave the Witnesses, but Maria Dosukova, a chevalier of the Order of Lenin, a longtime Party member, a plasterer, and an ethnic Kazakh. During an assembly at her construction company, Dosukova had refused to support a resolution condemning the religious organization in which several people in her work team were members.

Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sochi, 2007. Photo courtesy of Natalya Kolesnikova/PhotoXPress

After Krushchev’s resignation, the systematic arrests of the Witnesses stopped, although some were sent to prison as a warning to the others.  Everyone else was subject to the decree, issued by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, on March 18, 1966, “On Administrative Responsibility for Violating the Legislation on Religious Cults.” You could be fined fifty rubles—a week’s pay for a skilled worker—for holding a religious circle meeting in your home. In his book About People Who Never Part with the Bible, religious studies scholar Sergei Ivanenko records that, during the seventies and eighties, attempts to combat the Witnesses by fining them and tongue-lashing them at assemblies were just as useless. 

Wholehearted Anticultists

Perestroika legalized the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the post-Soviet space. This freedom did not last for long, however. The new states of Central Asia and the Transcaucasia followed the Soviet Union’s path in their treatment of the Witnesses, achieving similar outcomes.

In Russia, the Witnesses were officially registered in March 1991 and had no serious problems for a long time. They built their central headquarters, Bethel, in the village of Solnechnoye near St. Petersburg, as well as several dozen buildings for prayer meetings.  Of course, due to their activity, relative openness, and American connections, the Witnesses (along with the Hare Krishna, the Mormons, the Scientologists, and the Pentecostals) were targeted by the various hate organizations that emerged in Russia in the late 1990s, including the Cossacks, neo-Nazis, and professional anticultists.

Protest rally against the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Petersburg, 1997. Photo courtesy of TASS

Anticultism was imported to Russia by the ex-Moscow hippie Alexander Dvorkin, who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and got mixed up in Orthodox émigré circles there. In the early 1990s, he left his job at Radio Liberty and returned to Russia, where he made a successful career at the point where the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian law enforcement agencies intersect. The above-mentioned Irenaeus of Lyons Center is, basically, Dvorkin himself.

Professor Dvorkin has worked for several years at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities. Until 2012, he was head of the department of sectology. In 2009, he headed the council for religious studies forensic expertise at the Russian Federal Justice Ministry. (He now holds the post of deputy chair). It is curious that Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov is also a St. Tikhon’s alumnus and is quite proud of that fact.

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Professor Alexander Dvorkin. Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Mukhtarov/Wikipedia

By supporting the Justice Ministry’s campaign to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Supreme Court has not only put the “sectarians” in a difficult position but also the Russian authorities. In Russia, the Witnesses have over 400 local organizations and around 168,000 registered members. Only full-fledged members are counted during registration, but a fair number of sympathizers are also usually involved in Bible readings, The Watchtower, and other religious events. We can confidently say the ban will affect at least 300,000 to 400,000 Russian citizens. Labeling them “extremists” does not simply insult them and provoke conflicts with their relatives, loved ones, and acquaintances. In fact, this means abruptly increasing the workload of the entire “anti-extremism” system the Russian authorities have been setting up the past twenty years.  The soldiers of the Russian National Guard will find it easy to raid prayer meetings and spread-eagle these “extremists” on the floor. However, given the scale of the organization, they will have to do this a lot and often. And, as experience shows,  there won’t be much point to what they are doing.

Not a single country in the world has forcibly dissolved the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is hard to imagine that these 400,000 people will all emigrate or otherwise disappear. Even now, as news of the ban has spread, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have received completely unexpected support from all manner media and numerous public figures, including Russian Orthodox priests. Given these circumstances, the successful state campaign to discredit, dissolve, and brush a major religious community under the rug is doomed to failure.

Marquee being taken down from the Surgut office of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in connection with their ban in Russia, April 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexei Andronov/Ura.Ru/TASS

The authorities will have to decide. Either they will sanction the mass arrests of the organizations leaders and activists and send hundreds and thousands of people to the camps, which ultimately will facilitate the growth of the movement’s reputation and dissemination, as in Soviet times, or they will pinpoint those who, according to the Interior Ministry and the FSB, are “especially dangerous” while turning a blind eye to the actual continuation of the organization’s work.

I would like the country’s leadership to have second thoughts and find a legal way to rescind the Supreme Court’s decision. There is little hope of that, however.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Extremism” Ruling Against Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Popular Will?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Was it the “popular will” that 500 hectares of land be reclaimed in the Neva Bay right off Petersburg’s Vasiliyevsky Island and developed into densely built high-rise estates, causing untold amounts of environmental and aesthetic damage? No, it wasn’t. In fact, locals were bitterly opposed to the project and they mounted a loud resistance back in the day. But their will was roundly ignored by Petersburg city hall and developers. Under the present authoritarian regime, “popular will” is a friendly phantom, at best, an irritant, at worst. Photo by the Russian Reader

The Russian Supreme Court has gone ahead and banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered their property confiscated. This is a colossal insult to hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Russian citizens. A huge new underground has been generated. Massive crackdowns for their faith, new political prisoners, and mass immigration are around the corner. The Russian authorities and Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who is personally responsible for this operation, have curious ideas about the joy of Easter.
—Nikolay Mitrokhin, Facebook, April 21, 2017

Perhaps this is what is most disheartening about the recent legal battle. The state may be the central actor, but its actions reflect the popular will of Russians who, by and large, have decided that Witnesses have no place in their society.
—Emily Baran, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Ban Spells End for Russia’s Religious Diversity,” Moscow Times, April 24, 2017

When did Russians decide this? Did they hold a referendum recently? Are most Russians even aware of how the Justice Ministry has used the Russian Supreme Court to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists,” allegedly, at the insistence of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill? I very much doubt it.

Professor Baran only mentions actions by state or quasi-state actors, such as the central press in Soviet and post-Soviet times. Yet they were and have been somehow acting on behalf of the “popular will,” a symbiosis she makes no real attempt to prove in her op-ed piece for the Moscow Times, as quoted above.

As for real popular sentiment, I imagine there are as many Americans as Russians who have reflexively negative attitudes toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just think of all the jokes about JWs you have heard in your lifetime that cast them in a negative or ridiculous light, or how many times you have seen their likenesses figuring as the villains on TV medical dramas who refuse proper care for desperately sick children? Then why aren’t they banned in the US? At worst, the American “popular will” sees them as outsiders and obscurantists, at best, as an annoyance.

I can imagine that tenure-track professors in the US have a hard time understanding how disempowered and disconnected the grassroots are in a country that now has the world’s largest income inequality gap, and a long, brutal history of minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, getting hammered by the powers that be while putative “majority” either did not mind, looked the other way or did not even notice.

But does Tennessee, where Professor Baran teaches, have an utterly different history when it comes to protecting the rights of its minorities?

The Russian Supreme Court’s decision to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses extremist is completely despicable in every possible way, but Russians who bother to care about minorities and “minority” interests (like the environment, civil and social rights, corruption, labor rights, migrant rights, and historical preservation and sound urban planning) are often too few and far between to fight every battle and put out every fire. And many of those fighters are themselves currently under the state’s gun. The same Justice Ministry that has gone after Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses like a pit bull has also been branding NGOs, research institutes, and grassroots organizations “foreign agents” like it was at a fire sale.

That is no excuse for the judicial execution the Russian state has just performed on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it was a decision made at the top by the political, ecclesiastical and judicial elites, including the ROC’s Patriarch Kirill. It was not the state’s response to a nonexistent, utterly imaginary “popular will.” {TRR}

Russian Supreme Court Looks Set to Ban Jehovah’s Witnesses

Hearing of the Justice Ministry’s case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Russia in Russian Supreme Court, April 5, 2017, Moscow. Photo courtesy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Russia

Supreme Court Refuses to Recognize Jehovah’s Witnesses as Victims of Political Repression
Court Examining Justice Ministry’s Suit to Have Organized Declared “Extremist”
Yelena Mukhametshina
Vedomosti
April 5, 2017

The Supreme Court has begun its consideration of the Justice Ministry’s suit against the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. The ministry has asked the organization to be declared extremist, to ban its work, and to close it.

The Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia had tried to file a counterclaim, asking that the Justice Ministry’s actions be declared illegal. It also asked the court to rule that the ministry’s actions against the Jehovah’s Witnesses were political repression and to throw out the Justice Ministry’s suit. However, the judge refused to take the counterclaim into consideration.

The Justice Ministry has filed its suit to close not only the Administrative Center but also all of the religious organization’s branches and affiliates in Russia.

“The true goal is political repression against religious organizations, in particular, the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” said a defense counsellor.

He recalled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were also banned in Soviet times. In the early 1990s, however, the authorities admitted that members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been victims of political repression, and they were subsequently rehabilitated.

Three hundred and ninety-five local chapters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have asked to be named co-defendants, since their work would be stopped if the Administrative Center were deemed an “extremist” organization. Each of these chapters, which could be deemed “extremist,” has the right to ask Justice Ministry officials why they want to ban them, said a defense counsellor. The court turned down the request. They also requested the case files from administrative cases, in particular, cases in which the authorities claimed to have seized “extremist” matter. A defense counsellor said there were witnesses who had seen matter that had previously been recognized as “extremist” planted in places where searches had taken place. This motion was also denied. The next hearing in the case will be on Thursday.

In October of last year, Moscow’s Tverskaya District Court issued a warning to the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia for “extremist” activity. In January of this year, Moscow City Court upheld the legality of the warning. In March, the Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court asking that the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia be recognized as an “extreme” organization and that its activities be banned after inspections allegedly revealed violations of anti-“extremist” laws. At the same time, an order was issued to suspend the work of both the Administrative Center and all local chapters until the court had made its final decision. In turn, the Jehovah’s Witnesses indicated the ban would affect four hundred registered local religious organizations and 2,777 religious groups in Russia, amounting to 175,000 followers. The Supreme Court had already upheld the closure of local chapters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol, Belgorod, Samara, and other cities.

___________________

Nikolay Mitrokhin
Facebook
April 5, 2017

Today, a trial began whereby the Russian authorities intend to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The whole world understands it is shameful to persecute people for religious beliefs, but not the Russian authorities, who habitually could not care less about their reputation. If we speak in terms of the “public good,” then in the coming years, as terrorist attacks continue, crime rates remain high, and corruption has become total, law enforcement agencies will be busy “interdicting” the religious activities of the organization’s 170,000 active members. (This figure does not included the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of sympathizers, family members, and people involved in some way.)

There is no doubt the entire attack on the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been undertaken by Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov to curry favor with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. It could be stopped with a single phone call. And yet this ban won’t really help the ROC in any way. Moreover, it will cause it serious problems, which even part of the church leadership understands. However, Kirill and his ideological confederates, having long ago taken the bit between their teeth, are speeding the church’s carriage over bumps and gullies.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Nikolay Mitrokhin: The Woman in Black

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Mother Superior Ksenia (Chernega). Photo courtesy of Monasterium.ru

The Woman in Black
Nikolay Mitrokhin
Grani.ru
March 2, 2017

The fantastic story of how a small Moscow monastery has contrived to sue the state and take over a huge wing of the Fisheries Research Institute forces us to take a closer look at at a church official who has long remained partly in the shadows, Mother Superior Ksenia (Chernega), abbess of the selfsame St. Alexius Convent that sued the state and, simulaneously, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s legal department. Chernega is not entirely unknown to the public. She has often been quoted in official reports of restitution of large pieces of real estate to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). However, as holder of a “boring” post, she has not been particularly prominent in the public eye.

And that’s too bad. Chernega is not only one of the most influential women in the ROC (in 2013, she took fourth place in an internal church rating) but also a successful raider who skillfully manipulates clerics and laymen alike. The adjudged research institute, a huge building that incorporated part of the foundations and a wall of a demolished church, is the most striking but hardly the largest victory in her career. The 46-year-old Oksana Chernega (her name until 2009, a name she still uses in secular contexts) is probably the longest-serving staff member of the Moscow Patriarchate’s legal office. She has worked there since 1993, while also working in secular law schools, achieving professorial rank. She became a leading authority on church law in the early 2000s. Generations of politicians and MPs have come and gone, but Chernega has the whole time testified at hearings of the relevant parliamentary committees and governmental review boards, lobbying the laws the ROC has wanted passed.

Her main achievement has been the law, signed by President Medvedev in late 2010, “On the Transfer of Religious Assets in State or Municipal Ownership to Religious Organizations.” It is this law under which movable and immovable property has been transferred to the ROC the past six years. Yet the Church has behaved capriciously, taking only what looks good or has real value. The Perm Diocese is unlikely to restore to its former use the huge military institute that took over what used to be its seminary: there are catastrophically few people who want to go into the priesthood, and the poor diocese is incapable of maintaining the enormous premises. But how sweet it is to get a huge building on the river embankment in the city center as a freebie. Whatever you do with it you’re bound to make money.

But not everything has been had so smoothly. The property the ROC has set its sights on has owners, and they are capable of mounting a resistance. That is when Chernega takes the stage. When she announces the Church has set its sights on a piece of real estate, it is usually a bad sign. The day before yesterday, it was St. Isaac’s Cathedral, yesterday it was the Andronikov Monastery, today it is the Fisheries Research Institute. What will it be tomorrow? Anything whatsoever.

On the eve of March 8 [International Women’s Day] and amidst the debates on feminism in Russia, it would seem that Chernegas has pursued a successful, independent career as a woman in the Church.  But it’s not as simple as all that.

It is well known in ecclesiastical circles that Chernega acts in tandem with a notable priest, Artemy Vladimirov. He is not only confessor at the St. Alexius Convent but is also well known throughout the Church. A graduate of Moscow State University’s philolology department and rector of All Saints Church (a neighbor of the convent and the reclaimed fisheries institute), Vladimirov is a glib preacher who specializes in denouncing fornication; he is, therefore, a member of the Patriarchal Council on Family and Motherhood. The council has become a haven for the Church’s choicest monarchistically inclined conservatives, including Dmitry Smirnov, who has led an aggressive campaign against Silver Rain radio station, Konstantin Malofeev, Igor Girkin‘s ex-boss and, concurrently, an expert on web-based pedophilia, and the wife of Vladimir Yakunin, former director of Russian Railways, a billionaire, and former KGB officer.

Vladimirov vigorously espouses monarchist views and has made a huge number of basically stupid public statements, such as the demand to remove a number of works by Chekhov and Bunin from the school curriculum and a call to campaign against Coca-Cola. Such radicalism is not rare in the ROC, however, Since the late 1990s and the publication of the novel Celibacy by church journalist Natalya Babasyan, Vladimirov has served as a clear example for many observant and quasi-observant Orthodox believers of where the line should be drawn in interactions between a priest and his flock, especially his young, female parishioners.

Because of this reputation, Vladimirov has remained in the background even during periods when the grouping of monarchists and Russian nationalists to which he has belonged has had the upper hand in the ROC. But if you can’t do something directly, you can do it indirectly, and Oksana Chernega has come in very handy in this case. As is typical of a young woman in the modern ROC, she is utterly dependent on her confessor. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Orthodox fundamentalists and monarchist heterosexuals developed a curious lifestyle. Young and handsome, usually university grads with the gift of gab, and often married, many of them newly arrived in the Church, they formed small “communities” consisting of young women, communities with unclear or flexible status in terms of ecclesiastical law.

In theory, a convent is established by order of a bishop, and a married or elderly priest is appointed as the convent’s confessor. He does not live on the convent’s grounds and is present there during “working hours,” when he has to serve mass and take confession from the women who inhabit the convent. As part of the so-called Orthodox revival, a monk or a young priest who had “complicated” relations with his wife would first form a group of female “adorers” in the church, later organizing them into a “sisterhood” and then a “convent community,” which he would settle in a building reclaimed from local authorities, sometimes the site of a former convent, sometimes not. He would immediately take up residence there himself in order to “revive Orthodoxy” and denounce fornicators and homosexuals in the outside world. The record holder in this respect was Archimandrite Ambrosius (Yurasov) of the Ivanovo Diocese, who built a huge convent in Ivanovo, where he officially lived in the same house as the mother superior and yet never left the apartments of the rapturous Moscow women whom he had pushed to come live with him after they had bequeathed their dwellings to the convent.

For those who did not want to leave the capital even nominally, historical buildings in the city center were found. That, for example, was the story of the ultra-fundamentalist Abbot Kirill (Sakharov), who took over St. Nicholas Church on Bersenevka opposite the Kremlin. There, according to a correspondent of mine, “the Old Believer girls creatively accessorized their robes with manicures.” In Petersburg, the so-called Leushinskaya community, led by the main local monarchist Archpriest Gennady Belobolov, has been “restoring” a church townhouse for twenty years. However, the archpriest himself lives on site, while his wife raises their children somewhere else in town. It is a good arrangement for a young man from the provinces: come to the capital, occupy a large building in the city center under a plausible pretext, and shack up there with attractive and spiritually congenial sisters in the faith while putting on shows at press conferences stacked with selected reporters and confessing pious female sponsors who are thrilled by their pastor’s superficial strictness and inaccessibility.

So in this system of interwoven personal and political interests how could one not help out a dear friend? The affairs of the alliance between Vladimirov and Chernega, especially when it comes to dispensing other people’s property, are so broad and varied that observers sometimes wonder whether it isn’t time for police investigators to have a crack at them.

However, the couple’s activities are not limited to Moscow. Gennady Belovolov, with whom they organized an “evening in memory of the Patriarch” in 2009, involving a “boys’ choir from the Young Pioneer Studio” and other young talents, has recently been having obvious problems with the diocesan authorities. On January 17 of this year, he was removed from his post as abbot of the church townhouse he had been “restoring.” Like the majority of such priests, he regarded the property he was managing as personal property: “When I read the document [dismissing him from his post], I realized that now all my churches and parishes were not mine, that now I could not serve in them. I remember the feeling I experienced. No I was no one’s and nobody, a pastor without a flock, a captain without a ship, a father without a family.” It transpired, however, that Belovolov, as an organizer of the apartment museum of St. John of Kronstadt, an important figure for the modern ROC, had registered it as private property, either as his own or through frontmen.

Where do you think the part of the church community sympathetic to Belovolov’s plight would want to transfer such a managerially gifted and cultured pastor, a pastor capable of creating a little museum and one who knows a thing or two about restoration? To St. Isaac’s Cathedral, of course, and the post of sexton, the chief steward of the church and its property. What would Chernega, who is coordinating the legal aspects of transferring such a huge chunk of public property, have to do with this? Formally, of course, nothing, and it isn’t a sure bet that the appointment will take place, just as it’s not a sure bet the ROC will get its hands on the entire cathedral.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Nikolay Mitrokhin: The Photogenic Telegonist

Anna Kuznetsova and family
Anna Kuznetsova and family

The Pro-Life Appointment
Nikolay Mitrokhin
Grani.ru
September 12, 2016

In any other country, the appointment of Anna Kuznetsova as ombudsman for children’s rights would be deemed a win for feminism. She is a mother of several children, relatively young (thirty-four), a certified psychologist, a veteran of public organizations where she has helped single mothers, a woman from the provinces, and, finally, pretty and feminine. All these qualities set her apart in the positive sense from the Putinist bureaucracy. She could have been a style icon for feminists and liberals.

However, the appointment has caused a flurry of attacks. The first wave of criticism hit Kuznetsova when it transpired her husband was a priest. The second wave rolled over her when it was discovered she supported the pseudo-scientific concept of telegony, long popular among the Russian Orthodox crowd. But is that so unforgivable? After all, the liberal segment of the Russian political elite features people like Garry Kasparov, who is fond of Anatoly Fomenko’s “new chronology,” and Vyacheslav Maltsev, an alleged psychic who is running in the number two spot on the PARNAS list in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Russian society is politically passive, but all the same it sees right though a person when a few details of his biography are outed. This applies to all of Putin’s recent appointments. Police general Tatyana Moskalkova  was appointed the federal ombudsman for human rights, while Anton Vaino, grandson of the former head of the Estonia Communist Party and a specialist in protocol, was made the president’s chief of staff. Olga Vasilyeva, a former staffer in the presidential administration’s propaganda office, has been tapped as education minister, and now a priest’s wife, an activist with the pro-Putin Russian People’s Front (ONF), and the manager of a large grant program has been appointed the ombudsman for children’s rights. We really can see through all of them. Anna Kuznetsova’s appointment fits the pattern of how Putin has been reforming the upper ranks of the nomenklatura, a pattern that became obvious after a series of dismissals and appointments over the summer.

Putin has been solving several problems. The whistle-blowing campaign in the liberal media and social networks against people from the president’s inner circle has borne fruit. Putin has been reacting to criticism from the urban middle class, including the liberal public, which he still fears, despite his ostentatious contempt for them and his reliance on his “base in the heartlands” as figured, allegedly, by the workers of the Uralvagonzavod tank factory, in Nizhny Tagil. He decided to clean the stables of wildly self-indulgent siloviki, governors, and old pals, thus seemingly pulling the rug from under the liberals’ argument. The sacking of Sergei Ivanov, his former of chief of staff, has been symbolic of this tack. Other controversial figures, like former education minister Andrei Furskenko, former Central Electoral Commission chair Vladimir Churov, and former federal ombudsman for children’s rights Pavel Astakhov, were ousted before the big 2016-2018 election campaign. And theirs are not the last names on the black list: culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, Federation Council member Yelena Mizulina, and Petersburg governor Georgy Poltavchenko have also been marked for possible sacking.

Why, though, has Putin been replacing them with Russian Orthodox conservatives and anti-westerners rather than nominal liberals? Why have there been three Moskalkovas to every one Pamfilova?

The information available on Anna Kuznetsova’s life and views, as well as the reaction to her appointment in certain circles, gives us a sense of the social milieu whose support Putin finds vital at the end of his third term. An interview with Kuznetsova’s brother, Konstantin Bulayev, and a search of the social networks help us piece together her family history. Apparently, her father is Yuri Bulayev, deputy warden of Penal Colony No. 4 in Penza. In the penal colony, he runs the convict labor adaptation center, where he is responsible for “expanding the product portfolio, prospecting for potential clients, and recruiting potential contractors for employing convicts.”

The children, apparently, have taken after him rather than their mother, an engineer at the Penza Electrotechnical Research Institute, which develops “cryptographic information protection hardware and telecommunications equipment for ministerial and departmental special communications networks.” Kuznetsova, as we know, specialized in the social adaptation of single mothers and administered government grants for this purpose. Her brother, a 31-year-old lawyer, has a plum job as head of the contracts and legal department at the Samouchet Center in Penza, which sends utility bills to customers. A year ago, he and the center were harshly criticized for the exorbitant prices they charged for their services as intermediaries. This did not faze Konstantin Bulayev, though. The local press quoted him as saying, “What, you want to dazzle people with figures?”

Through Kuznetsova and her husband, this hard-working family of provincial officials is linked to the Russian Orthodox Church. Through Viktor Bulayev, Yuri Bulayev’s brother, the family is linked to the Great Don Army. In recent years, Viktor, a former military man with combat experience in Chechnya and an ex-firefighter, has been an activist with the Great Don Army, the organization that seized the southeast part of Lugansk Region and was driven out by Russian special forces and Lugansk People’s Republic units in 2015.

However, all of this is clearly insufficient to unleash a nationwide charity foundation.

Kuznetsova’s foundation is called Intercession. It receives the bulk of its private donations from the Moscow-based Alexander Foundation, which also renders assistance to children, in Penza Region, via Intercession, and Smolensk Region, where it operates independently. In November 2014, the Alexander Foundation essentially became Intercession’s sole sponsor. The man behind the nearly anonymous organization is Alexander Popov, former head (2012-2013) of Rosnedra, the Federal Service for Subsurface Resources Management. A former staffer for Igor Sechin, Putin’s most trusted ally, Popov now runs Itera Oil and Gas Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rosneft, which is run by Sechin. The Alexander Foundation has the same address as Itera’s headquarters.

Another organization allied with Intercession (there are few such organizations identified on the foundation’s website) is the Penza branch of the Law and Order Center. This foundation for KGB-FSB veterans is an affiliate of the organization Officers of Russia. Nikolay Kovalyov, former FSB director (1996-1998) and longtime member of the State Duma (to which Kuznetsova recently tried to get elected), heads the Law and Order Center’s expert council. On the Penza branch’s website, you can find many articles about the peculiar memorial events held by the former KGB officers, including Route of Mercy, which provides “material assistance to veterans [of the KGB-FSB] who have been actively involved in the patriotic education of young officers.” However, after the December 2014 arrest of Vladimir Zarechnev, head of the Law and Order Center and a colonel in the FSB’s anti-corruption directorate, for brokering a bribe given to the governor of Sakhalin, the foundation has clearly curtailed the scope of its work.

In terms of church policy, the position taken by the Kuznetsov family is also fairly clear. They are affiliated with the Pro-Life Movement within the church, which now operates under the name Association of Organizations for Protecting the Family. The movement is involved not only in opposing abortion but also in promoting radical anti-western and monarchist ideas. Judging by the blogs of the movement’s leaders, such as Ruslan Tkachenko and Father Maxim Kolesnik, liberals and Ukrainians are objects of special hatred. The movement’s leader is the Moscow-based Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov, known for his outrageous escapades. Smirnov heads the Patriarchal Commission on Family and the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood. With the general support of the Moscow Patriarchate, the ideological group of priests he controls has been lobbying for restrictions and bans on abortion and biotechnology, as well as opposing juvenile justice.

Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov
Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov

On July 3 of this year, Kuznetsova’s husband, the priest Alexei Kuznetsov, posted an article on his Facebook page by a leader of the Pro-Life Movement, the Moscow priest Maxim Obukhov. The article had been published on the radical nationalist website The Russian People’s Line. The article frankly outlines the movement’s principles and objectives.

“Everyone agrees, even Matviyenko, that the country’s priorities are the traditional family and procreation. It is a feature of our Eurasian civilization. This consensus exists among the various religions and social strata, with the exception of a narrow segment of liberals who do not represent the public. This universal understanding must be incarnated on the legislative level: we must shake up the legislation and change the laws. But this cannot be accomplished by sudden attacks and shouting. What is needed is serious creative and systematic work.  Such work was done by Yelena Mizulina, who drafted a decent package of anti-abortion amendments.

“Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox community has not established its own lobbying groups, which testifies to [its] immaturity and the improper application of [its] exertions. However much we have struggled over abortion legislation, we have continued to avoid lobbying. Lobbying is staff work that requires systematic professionalism and quality. But we just march out, sword unsheathed, to various rallies and demonstrations.

“There is no end in sight to the Orthodox community’s work. We have to sift through all the laws to check whether they are compliant with the interests of the family.”

So it would seem the public has interpreted the sparse details of Ms. Kuznetsova’s life correctly. Her party’s program will be her main guide in her work as a high-ranking government official. All of her previous public work has somehow been linked to the radically anti-western segment of the ROC and Russian society in general. It suffices to say she systematically received donations from an organizer of the Russia-Ukraine war, the adventurer Konstantin Malofeev. In turn, she raised funds for the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics in her own region.

In practice, all of Kuznetsova’s work is endlessly remote from both Orthodoxy and traditionalism. In an argument on Facebook, she defends her pro-family position not in terms of Christian values, but solely in nationalist Newspeak:

“if there had been fewer normal large families, you just would not exist)) The population has died out [sic]. Calculate what would have happened to the population if one child had been born in all six or seven generations, considering that some people don’t have children, some people were unable to have a family? Your grandchildren would already be speaking Chinese or something else))) Currently, the 3% of large families provide at least some dynamism in the demography, where is the deficit in the pension fund from? Why is the working generation fewer than the pensioners, whose ‘only’ children just cannot earn money for them, even if they are as you say, ‘high-quality,’ and what if they are not? What if the one is prison? What if he is disabled? The pension fund is also meant for such children, but who will put it [sic] in this fund? Your ‘only’ child again?” [Spelling and punctuation preservedNM.]

This replacement of Christ and religion in general by hypertrophied fears over family and children is a typical trait of the new Christian fundamentalism. Under the patronage of the Life Center, it arrived in Russia via the US, and over the past decade, it has become popular in the intellectually secular circles of anti-westerners like Mizulina and Sergey Kurginyan. Whereas, ten years ago, Father Maxim Obukhov spun his horror stories about “black demographers,” sponsored by western foundations, “interested only in reducing the birth rate,” on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website, Russian politicians can often be heard saying such things nowadays.

But the general public doesn’t necessarily need to know about Kuznetsova’s real views. The newly minted state official and her husband have already disowned telegony, blaming the whole thing on malicious journalists. This week, they will have to disown monarchism, a distaste for vaccinations, and doubt about the existence of AIDS. By appointing Kuznetsova, Putin has appealed to the so-called patriotic segment of the political spectrum, which, nonetheless, does not go in for excessively radical views and likes pretty pictures. For these patriots, traditionalism is when someone else has six children, but they still have the right to an abortion. In this circle, it is the done thing to jabber about the danger of vaccinations, but they will make sure to have their own children vaccinated. “Tradition” means wishing an atom bomb would rain down on America’s head after the Saturday evening news, but definitely taking the kids to McDonald’s on Sunday. So Kuznetsova’s public representation will be as false and ambiguous as Putinist propaganda as a whole.

Kuznetsova will speechify on support for the traditional family, and once a quarter she will post a photo of a large family, a church in the background, on her blog, but she herself will be on business trip or just on her own, as has long been the custom in families with infants, apparently. First and foremost, judging by her statements, Kuznetsova will defend Russian children from  adoption by foreigners. She is unlikely to bother to do anything about the longstanding problems of oversight of Orthodox orphanages and foster families who have taken in dozens of children to raise, but she has already promised to deal as harshly as possible with Moscow School No. 57.

The country will hear a lot about the hardships of children in Donbass, but don’t expect to hear anything news about the lives of children in Kuzbass from the ombudsman’s office, and good-hearted anti-Putinist Muscovities will continue to raise money for the medical treatment of both groups of children. The fight to outlaw abortion will intensify, and Kuznetsova will become the main ally of Vitaly Milonov and his soul mates in the new Duma, but in the next five years there will probably be no drastic changes in this area, because the presidential administration will not back off from its neutral stance. And, of course, the employees of Kuznetsova’s foundation will not be idle. They will have to allocate many more presidential grants and sponsorship money. A place at Putin’s right hand is worth a lot.

Like Matviyenko, Pamfilova, Moskalkova, and Vasilyeva, Kuznetsova is following the peculiar career path of Russia’s sovereign feminism. The number of women in senior positions in Russia has increased in Russian years, and I would not be surprised if, ten or so years from now, the selfsame Kuznetsova, having done a couple of ideological flip-flops, takes up the post of defense minister in a future (not necessarily Putinist) government. That would make sense in its own way.

Nikolay Mitrokhin is a fellow at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. He is the author of books on the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalist movements in the postwar Soviet Union. Photos courtesy of Storm Bringer and Pravoslavie.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

Nikolay Mitrokhin: The Church Militant, The Radio Complicit

Father Vsevolod Chaplin. Photo courtesy of Realnoye Vremya and Anna Artemieva (novayagazeta.ru)
Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the Russian Orthodox priest who recently argued on Russian radio station Echo of Moscow that it was sometimes necessary and possible to “destroy” whole groups of people as “internal enemies.” Photo courtesy of Realnoye Vremya and Anna Artemieva (novayagazeta.ru)

“For the Church, Violence Is the Norm”
Valentin Baryshnikov
Radio Svoboda
August 16, 2016

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, long-time head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Department for Cooperation between Church and Society, made an appearance on Echo of Moscow radio in which he shocked many people by saying that some people “can and should be killed.”

Here is an excerpt of Father Chaplain’s appearance on Echo, which began with a discussion of erecting a monument to Ivan the Terrible in Oryol.

Presenter: Yes, but with that rationale you can also justify Stalin, for example. Sure, there were excesses, but he was an effective manager, they say.

Vsevolod Chaplin: He did a lot. Listen, at the end of the day what is wrong with destroying a certain number of internal enemies?

Presenter: “Destroying” people, that is what is wrong.

Vsevolod Chaplin: What is wrong with that?

Presenter: You cannot kill people!

Vsevolod Chaplin: Why not? Some people can and should be killed. That is for sure.

Presenter: “Some people”? Which ones are those?

Vsevolod Chaplin: So it is no accident that criminals are destroyed, and no accident—

Presenter:  I would remind you the death penalty has been abolished in Russia.*

Vsevolod Chaplin: I am not sure that was the right decision. Look, even God, if we read the Old Testament, if we read the Apocalypse, that is, the New Testament, directly sanctioned and sanctions in the future the destruction of a huge number of people for the edification of others.  For the edification of societies, it is sometimes necessary to destroy a certain number of people who deserve to be destroyed.

* In fact, capital punishment has not been abolished in the Russian Federation. President Yeltsin placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 1996 so that Russia could meet the requirements for joining the Council of Europe. The moratorium has remained in effect since then, but the death penalty is still listed in the law books as a legal punishment for certain crimes. TRR

When asked whether Chaplin’s statement was his personal opinion or a reflection of conversations within the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Nikolay Mitrokhin, a sociologist of religion and author of the book The Russian Orthodox Church: Its Current State and Challenges, confidently replied that church insiders think this way.

Nikolay Mitrokhin: The majority of rank-and-file clergy and the bishops are quite militantly minded. They do not rule out violence. Violence is the norm in ecclesiastical practice. Bishops hit priests who do something wrong on the altar. Its is a popular subject of stories told within the Church. In turn, priests are capable of hitting sacristans and subdeacons. The Church is now also the leading social institution that has come out against so-called juvenile justice, in other words, against bans on beating children. So for the Church, violence is the norm.  The Church supports militarist rhetoric. The Church supports the numerous military-patriotic clubs operating under its auspices. If you chat with a rank-and-file priest, he will surely talk like Chaplin or worse. It is another question whether it was worth putting Chaplin on the radio and giving his cannibalistic ideas a platform.  However, that is the stance of Echo of Moscow, which has given various kinds of fascists the chance to speak out on its airwaves. Let us not forget that several right-wing radicals have their own programs on the station.  So it all fits, in the first place, not only the mindset of the ROC but also the mindset of Echo of Moscow.

Echo of Moscow actually plans not to publish the transcript of this speech and, as far as I can tell, will not be inviting Father Chaplin on the air again.

With Chaplin’s appearance, they have reached a point where a lot of people have wondered whether the prosecutor’s office is asleep at the wheel and whether they should not file a complaint against Echo of Moscow radio station. In this case, they face quite specific criminal charges. But the reason they invited Chaplin to appear on the air is itself quite obvious. Yet again they had to rile up the liberal public with harsh statements so that a discussion would emerge around them. They are not shy about inviting someone who on several occasions has voiced his tough and, quite frankly, fascist stance. So I think this was a big mistake on the part of Echo of Moscow, which is no less liable for the statements than the person who made them.

When Chaplin says this, when priests en masse within the ROC hold such positions, does this somehow link up in their minds, if I can put it is this way, with the concept of Jesus Christ, who spoke of love and non-violence?

As we know, there is no Christ in the ROC. There is Orthodoxy in the ROC, but there is no Christ in the Church in the sense in which the idea of Christ was shaped by the Russian intelligentsia in the early twentieth century. For centuries, the phrase that Jesus is love just did not make sense. It was not a subject the clergy considered. From that point of view, it is not clear why it should be considered now. The concepts that the liberal intelligentsia have been attempting to discuss are all seemingly variations on western Christianity, so-called post-Holocaust thought, which has nothing to do with what the majority of the ROC’s ordinary parishioners think and believe. They see Orthodoxy as the national religion, which provides them with spiritual strength to oppose the “godless” west, and so on.  So Chaplin, who was driven from his post in the Church, deliberately shocked the audience by divulging what the conservative half of his brain thinks. The audience talked about it. Basically, though, any average Russian priest, whomever you approach, thinks exactly the same thing.

Does it come from the Church? Or does the Church trail behind its flock?

It comes from the Church, of course. Within the Church there has long existed a concept, which has been its main content, that has to do with Russian nationalism and militarism. The vast majority of the clergy espouse these ideas and communicate them to parishioners in one form or another. It is another matter to what extent the Church’s leadership controls all of this. To what extent are the clergy permitted to speak out or keep quiet about political issues? This is something that the Church’s leadership monitors. When it wanted the ROC to have a fairly decent image in Ukraine, priests were told they should not travel to Ukraine and help the separatists. A couple of people who violated the ban were banned from the ministry. The Russian clergy immediately began speaking carefully about Ukraine. The clergy can keep thinking as aggressively as it likes. The question is the things it will say in ordinary life. This is something that can be regulated both by society and the state.

Let us come back later to the question of regulation on the part of society and the sate. Let’s talk about the situation within the Church. Are there priests who follow the idea that God is love?

This is a concept common among a very narrow segment of Moscow and Petersburg intelligentsia, among university-educated intellectuals in the broad sense. The majority of clergymen have no secular education whatsoever (I mean higher education), and they have had a very average secondary education. Many of them either do not know about this concept or regard it as a bit of intellectualizing. There are individual priests (among the ROC’s 20,000 priests you might find several hundred, at best) who espouse this concept. But they are outside the mainstream of the Church and do not constitute a respected or influential minority.

Are they persecuted within the Church?

No, but these ideas are so remote from what priests really do it is impossible to say they in any way define the life of the Church. Especially because ideas of this sort are clearly articulated only by individual priests, priests who are closely associated, again, with liberal circles. One level down, in the provinces, a priest can very well tell his parishioners that Christ is love while running a military-patriotic club. It all gels perfectly in their minds depending on their personal views and the last book they read ten years ago. Nothing contradicts anything else. That is why priests with distinctly liberal views who are willing to say that God is love amount to a dozen. They are known to journalists, who turn to them all the time. Beyond the confines of this narrow circle, such concepts are not particularly popular, and they are not subjects of conversation.

The real life of the clergy and the real ideas in their minds are so diverse, so not amenable to systematization, that we can speak of a society, an ideology, that is in fact unknown to us. We can speak of their militarism. But for some priests this militarism is clearly defined—they wear camouflage all the time except during services—while other priests have these ideas in their heads, but they do not express them too publicly, because they think they should say something else to their parishes. In addition, there are the changes that come with age. When they are young, people’s blood runs hotter. As they age, they become smarter, but in old age, on the contrary, they lose their heads, senility sets in, and they can say things that completely contradict what they had said fifteen or twenty years earlier. For example, Father Dmitry Dudko became a communist in old age, although his whole life he was a harsh anti-communist. It is a dynamic environment of generally anti-liberal ideas, but certain noble notions can be found in what they think or say.

What about the natural objection that, in the twentieth century, a huge number of Russian Orthodox priests were murdered by the Bolsheviks on the same grounds that Father Chaplin cited? Does this objection just have no effect on these people? Do they not feel they are the successors to those priests, to the church that was destroyed by this massive crackdown?

They feel like this when it suits them. When they have to argue with the former collective farm chair and current local council head that the church needs paint, they remember the new martyrs. Generally, a person who is willing to remember the new martyrs was probably a Party or Communist Youth League member or even a political officer in the Soviet Army (that is a quite common case) or a local university graduate who wrote pro-Soviet articles. The fact is that there are very few people directly associated with the new martyrs in Russia, and there are fewer of them as the years go by. The bulk of the Church consists of former Soviet people who until 1991 believed in socialist ideas of some kind, were card-carrying Party members, were involved in political organizations, and did not give a second thought to anything religious. Ideas about the regime’s responsibility, ideas about the memory of the mass repressions, all had some importance in the late 1980s, but then quickly came to naught. In this case, what is urgent for the ROC is the question of so-called post-Holocaust thought that the intelligentsia has proposed, meaning the awareness of guilt and the needlessness of so many victims, but the Church has consistently rejected all this now. It believes you can kill, but you have to pick the right group to kill, as Chaplin said. This is the basis of the current ROC’s ideology.

Nikolay Mitrokhin is a research fellow at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. He is the author of important books on the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalist movements in the postwar Soviet Union. Read his previous reflection on the fascization of the Russian Orthodox Church, “Right-Wing Saints.” Translated by the Russian Reader