How to Understand the Russian Orthodox Church
February 24, 2017
There are people whom the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has succeeded in surprising. This group now includes not only its own parishioners but also utterly innocent folks. Their terms of reference for the ROC were at odds with reality. That is the sort of thing that happens with terms of reference, even when they emerged in the pure souls of first-year seminary students or, on the contrary, in the elastic souls of museum directors. It even happens that officials of a secular state, who by constitution are not supposed to have souls at all, conceive false terms of reference for the ROC.
We won’t discuss the question of how the ROC is “actually” organized. Our objective is modest: describing the terms of reference by which we can predict all of the ROC’s actions as a corporation, both internally and externally—meaning what makes it tick.
Attentive analysts have already conceived one model. It is correct albeit too crude, and so it leads to lots of mistakes. It is only around 60% accurate. But we shall start with it, and then we will modify it to make it 100% accurate.
I am referring to the so-called business model, which imagines the ROC as a corporation with a monopoly on the business of religious ritual. Its unattainable paragon is Gazprom. Like Gazprom, it wants to be ubiquitous from bottom to top, from the flats of poor people to the Kremlin and international politics. Like Gazprom, it is involved in the international rivalry over natural monopolies. (The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, its main competitor, grabbed it by the throat and forced it to release Ukraine.) Like Gazprom, the ROC is not in the business of historical preservation. You can put the religious ritual businessman into a museum, but you cannot turn him into a museum curator. The controversy surrounding the potential transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the ROC is on a par with Gazprom’s attempt to build a skyscraper on the spot where the Swedish fortresses Landskrona and Nyenskans had once stood.
The business model, however, is at odds with the ROC’s other qualities. Real money likes silence, but the ROC likes money and hullabaloo at the same time. Its bishops enjoy a luxury worth of African chieftains, not modest millionaires. The inefficiency of slave labor is a scientific fact, but rank-and-file ROC clerics say that slavery was outlawed in Russia in the nineteenth century, but not for Russian priests. Finally, run-of-the-mill businesses do not defend their turf either with religious processions led by storm troopers or round dances featuring “pale boys with burning eyes,” whatever their age or sex.
These things are symptomatic of the emergence of archetypal regressive groups within the business. As described by British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, all three such so-called basic assumption groups find a place in our precise portrait of the ROC.
Screenshot of an announcement posted on the VK social network page of Andrei Kormukhin, coordinator of the fascist Russian Orthodox lay movement Sorok sorokov (SS). (The name of the movement should be translated as “Multitude,” rather than “Forty by Forty” or “Forty Forties,” as you might find in other Anglophone articles on right-wing extremism in the ROC.) The poster invites Petersburgers to take part in a religious procession at St. Isaac’s Cathedral on 19 February 2017. It urges them to “join the right ranks,” and not a “faggot” [sic] or people wearing blue ribbons, the symbol adopted by Petersburgers opposed to the earlier Gazprom skyscraper project on the Neva River and now plans to hand over St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the ROC. In Russia, “blue” also connotes “gay.” Courtesy of Fontanka.ru
The model takes the shape of a living being, consisting of a fleshy body and the two halves of a thin exoskeleton. The body is the leadership from top to bottom, their subordinates, and the few believers who ask the clergy for advice on how they should live. In Bion’s terms, this is the dependency group. Junior members of the group are infantile and irresponsible vis-à-vis senior members, while the latter are narcissistic and sadistic toward their juniors. Sadomasochism provides everyone with a bit of happiness, even the most abject. The narcissism, typical of the group’s leaders, is often coupled with homosexuality. (This is a medical fact.) You cannot do without it, but not everyone can be allowed to engage in it. So it is a product of elite consumption and a means of climbing the career ladder.
The exoskeleton is the only thing visible from afar, from the vantage point of secular society. The skeleton is thin but sturdy, although it looks shabby, since it is constantly exfoliating.
The first section consists of the storm troopers. Bion labels them the fight-flight group. They are always itching for a fight, and always on the lookout for enemies. There are not enough enemies, so they have fight each other and, sometimes, the leadership. The old layers of chitin thus peel away, even as the exoskeleton accumulates new layers.
The other section of the exoskeleton consists of idealists. They wait and they hope. They know everything about the leadership, but they believe in the Church. Not, however, in the Church that has canons and the examples of the saints, which show how bad church leaders need to be replaced and, most importantly of all, which oblige the faithful to do this. No, they believe in their own church, where “things have always been this way.” Bion call these groups pairing groups. They resemble married couples who go on hoping that Someone with a capital “s” will be born to give their lives meaning, but for the time being they wait and are barely alive. Some grow weary and leave the group, but they are replaced by new members.
Russia’s cultural figures thus “dialogue” with this combative creature, while the country’s officials stumble over themselves trying to sate its appetites, hoping it will cover their own ugliness with its beauty. You cannot even say who are the most inveterate idealists in this case. Judging by their persistent belief in beauty, it must be the government officials.
Grigory Lourié is a bishop in the Russian Autonomous Orthodox Church. He blogs (as Basil Lourié) on Facebook and (as Bishop Gregory) on LiveJournal. Thanks to Comrade AK for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. For a different perspective on the fascization of the Russian Orthodox Church, see Nikolay Mitrokhin’s articles, as translated and posted on this blog.