THEY NEVER MET... Church and Civil Society in Present-Day Russia

4 августа 2015 г.

Talk delivered at Heidelberg University, Germany on November 27, 2014.

I have to begin by admitting that this is a difficult topic for me. The recent history of Russia fills me with sadness and bitterness, and by history I mean the course of political, social and religious life. Though at the same time this is a new chance to look directly and honestly at what has been happening in Russia and in the Russian Orthodox Church over the last few years.

It is hard for me to speak with detachment and analyze as if from the outside, for I was a direct participant in many of these events. I apologize in advance for being partial. I hope that such an approach will give you some insight into the recent developments and their context.


Church revival as a phase of history. Challenges of chronology.

What began in Russia in the late 1980s is usually called a time of Church Revival. Millions were baptized, tens of thousands of churches opened, thousands of new ones built. If the numbers were all that mattered, then indeed those metrics are simply astonishing.

However, it is no less interesting to consider the qualitative characteristics: quality of faith, as I once called in my essay “Orthodox Church in the Post-Soviet Russia”. If time permits, I will come back to this concept.

The next issue that arises is creating a timeline: When did this revival start? Can we consider it finished? If so, when did it come to its end? Chronology can help us significantly in considering the relations between the Church and civil society.

First of all, I need to mention that there is a more or less established point of view: Church revival is considered to have begun in the year 1988, with the celebration of the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus. The state, which back then was still Soviet, had acknowledged for the first time that the Millennium was not just a regular date on the Church calendar.

There have been no serious discussions on the possible end of the period, yet the general consensus is that it ended in late 2008 – early 2009, just before the election of Metropolitan Kirill to the Patriarchal See.

However, in my opinion the dating should be adjusted. I believe that Church revival ended three years later, in 2012, after the notorious performance of a punk group on the ambo of the rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral. It was the moment when the state itself, de jure and de facto, demonstrated its readiness to protect the domain of the sacred – the Church was not expected to participate, as long as it kept silent.

Therefore both the beginning and the end of the so-called Church revival stem not from any activity of the Church but from the decisions made by the state. In the first case, it had acknowledged the “social significance” of the Russian Orthodox Church and thereby initiated its exodus from the underground and the process of legitimization. In the second case, the state's decision brought the revival to its logical end. This end may seem paradoxical: prayer, salvation, deification and other spiritual goals are no longer considered to be the main objective of a religious life. Instead, priority is given to practical objectives, the first of them being the protection of sacred objects and places. And in that context the state no longer needs the services of the Church. It can handle this problem efficiently enough alone.

Is there any need in such situation for a long-term cooperation between the Church and civil society? The answer is obvious: no, there is none. Above all the Church will be focused on maintaining its relations with the state.

By the way, I'm ready to propose another timeline, which, in my opinion, shows the dreadful symbolism of Russian history. And viewed vis-à-vis the events of 100 years ago it makes one think of the possible consequences.

So, this is my timeline: from the murder of archpriest Alexander Men, biblical scholar, brilliant preacher, fervent missionary, gifted ecclesiastical writer (September 9, 1990) to the murder of archpriest Pavel Adelgeim, confessor, wonderful pastor, Church publicist (August 4, 2013). Even the weapons of murder – an axe for Fr. Alexander and a kitchen knife for Fr. Pavel – bear an evil resemblance.

What did these two men have in common? I believe it was their deep and genuine faith and something that is inherent to such faith – their freedom in Christ. The latter phenomenon is the most difficult and incomprehensible for many even among the Orthodox Christians in Russia. And, as we see, it is the most dangerous, for those two men were faithful to Christ even to the point of death.

Yet those two priests shared one more thing: they did not belong to the hierarchy or Church bureaucracy. They were both charismatic leaders around whom community and social life flourished. In other words, Fathers Alexander and Pavel were at the center of the communities where the ecclesiastical and social dimensions were closely intertwined.

And today, these communities are utterly weakened, if not totally destroyed.


Lay movement and civil society 

My conscious involvement in church life began in 1989. And I actually came to it from the side of civil society – through Samizdat. I took part in the meetings of a small ecumenical community in Moscow that gathered the Orthodox, Old Believers, Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists. Some of the group members have just been released from prison, including the founder of the group, Sandr Riga, who was discharged in 1987.

The meetings took place in the crypt of one of Orthodox churches in Moscow that was still closed at the time and used as a museum. We had lots of different guests from all over the place. And the general atmosphere was that of fellowship and long-awaited freedom.

Then I joined one of the newly opened parishes, where we also formed a youth fellowship.

At that time a wide range of groups emerged from the underground, Christians among them. Formation of the civil society began, and Christians who had survived the persecutions were its integral part.

Beginning in the 1990s a rapid growth of lay movements in post-Perestroika Russia took place. Christian politicians sat in the Supreme Council of the USSR. Orthodox fellowships that have emerged all over Russia had the desire to unite, and thus in October 1990 the Union of Orthodox Fellowships was established. Independent magazines and newspapers on religion were being published.

In 1990-92, at the time of the peak of this activity, there were more than 120 organizations in the Union of Orthodox Fellowships. But then this spontaneous movement, having no clear goals and spiritual leadership, polarized and split.

Not the biggest but certainly a very active part of the community of lay groups saw its task in forming some kind of Orthodox ideology and establishing a wide Orthodox patriotic movement. Convinced Orthodox monarchists and Russian nationalists, like the founder of Christian Revival Union Vladimir Osipov, extended their influence. The 2nd president of the Union of Orthodox Fellowships, Igumen Kirill (Sakharov) later recalled that already back at the 2nd Conference of the Union in 1992 “the vast majority of the participants spoke in favor of Orthodox monarchy as the only God-given political system”.[1]  A search for the enemy from within soon started. In autumn 1993, the Union became the first organization to turn to the Patriarch Alexey II with an appeal to pay closer attention to the activities of the Fellowship of the Transfiguration of Our Lord and to warn its leader, Fr. Georgy Kochetkov, who had been actively involved in catechesis and liturgical translations into Russian, of the impermissibility of introducing any changes in the liturgy without prior blessing of the supreme Church authorities.

A larger group of fellowships found itself not ready for any ideological confrontation and chose to leave the Union in order to focus on their own everyday work, particularly education and charity. However, in this situation leaders of most of those fellowships could not make a good case with the Church hierarchy that they were part of the Church, and not merely some socio-political groups and NGOs from outside the Church using its rhetoric as a cover.

Back then the bishops had virtually no experience of cooperation with the lay movements and organizations and were simply not ready for their emergence in the post-Soviet Russia. The reaction to the new and unknown phenomenon was a knee-jerk reflex. In 1994 the Bishops' Council rigorously tied all the brotherhoods and sisterhoods to parishes and virtually subordinated them to the parish rectors[2] . Fellowships were required to have a blessing for its activities, which in fact meant a strict control by the Church hierarchy.

Most of the fellowships involved people who were members of the different parishes. Their leaders were unable to implement the decisions of the Council.[3]  Such fellowships ceased to exist.

Catastrophic manpower shortage was another important reason of the “washout” of the lay movement, however strange that may seem. In the beginning of the 1990s the Church had such a huge demand for new priests that the seminaries of the time simply could not provide. Thus many young churchmen who could have become the backbone of the lay movement were ordained, and the Orthodox community lost the most active and engaged members who could have replaced the older generations.

After having practically slaughtered the rising lay movement by the mid-1990s, a few years later the Church hierarchy felt the need for Church NGOs and associations. Unfortunately in late the 1990's – early 2000's the social and political activity of such lay groups took quite humble, if not grotesque, forms. Those were custom small-scale projects that had no significant impact either on the Church or on society. Some of them even had virtually the same names – endless carbon copies of various kinds of Unions of someone Orthodox – fellowships, citizens, gonfalon-bearers, you name it.

However, some major fellowships survived and are still active. Their activities range from organizing one of the biggest educational institutions of the Church, that is St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University, to establishing a network of small lay groups/fellowships associated with Fr. Georgy Kochetkov that are quite often leading catechetical courses more efficiently than traditional parish communities.

And of course lay activities are not limited by the institutionalized forms of life of various communities, unions and fellowships. “Loners” play a critical part in the life of the Church by shaping the cultural and intellectual context of the Church life wherever they are, be it academic institution, secular school, art or journalism.  In addition, there are the aspects of the role and place of the charity and volunteer organizations.[4]


What is this Church Revival?

The severe identity crisis that Russia is going through has substantially influenced both the so-called Church revival as well as the Orthodox Church as a whole. While Orthodoxy has long been considered a part of national identity, yet until the last couple of years this has been more of an intuitive understanding than a conscious realization. On the external, social level the Church was given a huge credit of trust as a community that had been persecuted for a long time but had nevertheless survived.

At the same time it is important to remember that in spite of the re-emergence of the Church into the public realm. For the entire post-Soviet period the Gospel as well as the Church praxis remained the domain of a very small share of Russia's population.[5]  Not only surveys bear witness to that, but also the priests themselves. Observations by Panteleimon, Bishop of Smolensk and Vyazma, provide an example:

“At the beginning of the 1990s we saw a surge of people coming to the Church... Not just coming, but swarming into it. Alas, not many stayed inside. The period of active attention to the life of the Church and so called 'churching' ended very quickly... In my estimation, people who go to church every Sunday, amount to 1% of the country's population or even less.”[6]

One would think that the marginalization of Orthodoxy in society is an obvious trend. However, it is not the entire story. At the same time, and it may seem paradoxical, the concept of the Church revival has been developed not only within the Church context, but also in the society as a whole.

What does that mean? First of all, Church revival became an element of the ideological movement for de-Sovietization. However, we should not forget that this role was played by the Church revival only at the early stages of the process, in the 1990s.

And then an essential transformation took place: a sweeping change of priorities of the revival movement. Pastoral care took the backseat (in other words, the Church acknowledged that its missionary efforts had failed), and the following tasks came to the fore: construction and renovation, that is to say property and assets; and identity building through the propaganda of patriotism and traditional values.

By 2014, it has led the Russian Orthodox Church to become a predominantly national Church where other nations don't feel welcome. The “Russian World” concept, a weak imitation alternative to Russian nationalism, proved to be insolvent and was widely perceived as a cover-up for the rebirth of the imperial ambitions of the Russian state.

Instead of focusing on a creative efforts to reclaim modern culture, Church revival largely resorted to appealing to the past, and the reconstruction of pre-revolutionary Synodal-era practices.

The words of a stychera (hymn) to all the Saints who have shone forth in the Russian land, “O Holy Russia, preserve the Orthodox faith!”, have turned into an adage of the last two decades. It appears to be the only quote from liturgical texts that has become a catchphrase.

The aforementioned hymn is sung in the 2nd tone, solemnly but energetically, while the theological problem behind it remains unsolved. Liturgical poetry is one thing; furnishing a motto and a formula for guidance in practical issues is another. From the theological perspective, this formula appears to be incomplete and inaccurate. This can be proven when one compares it to the commandment the Lord gave Adam in Eden: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it (or preserve it in Russian translation).” (Gen 2,15; NIV). Thus the task to preserve and take care is mentioned as a second one, while the first one is to work it and develop creatively. Even after the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden, the Lord still expected him “to work the ground from which he had been taken.” (Gen 3,23; NIV). The commandment to protect and take care does not follow Adam after the expulsion.

The main message that the Church offered both to an individual and to the  society as a whole remained attractive for a long time: “Let’s preserve our traditions!” and “Disregard for traditions is very dangerous”. You would think it is nothing but a sound Christian conservatism. However, we should not forget to ask ourselves: what are those traditions?

In today's Russia, one needs to make considerable moral and intellectual effort to look deep into the history, beyond the revolution of 1917. Too much time has passed, too many generations have changed, and too many bearers of those traditions have been eradicated. So the mere appeal to the Christian traditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries inevitably degenerates into producing either a historical reconstruction or an amateur drama.

If we accept that Christian traditions in Russia are in fact dead, there can be only two possible practical implications. One can either strive to find a remaining living tradition, or lay foundations for new traditions, that are relevant in the political, economical, social and cultural conditions in which we live.

For me as a Christian, it is especially painful to acknowledge that the place of those who speak on behalf of the living tradition is taken in Russia by those who speak of the Soviet past. Here lies the key to the magnetism of everything Soviet and related to the Communist past not just for the elderly but for the young as well. If one looks closely to the current heritage of Russia – whether cultural, historical, social, philosophical or religious – there will be only one tradition alive that everyone knows, remembers and can pass on to the next generation. It's the Soviet tradition. Its triumphant return in recent years is the best proof that there's actually nothing else left alive in Russia. 

The Church does not distance itself from warm feelings for everything Soviet. On the one hand this is an expression of the solidarity between the Church and the state. On the other hand, it's a statement of fact that the pro-Soviet mindset within the Church is as strong as ever. Such a situation can be easily explained, as I have already mentioned, by the failure of missionary and catechetical efforts. As a result, a generation of Soviet people had been baptized, but was never taught the basics of their faith. The Church absorbed them the way they were in the hope that they would edify themselves in some natural way. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the Soviet people had no intention of changing. They remained the way they were. The only changes that happened were the changes they made the Church to go through.

Nevertheless, despite the official watchdog rhetoric of the Church and its direct support of various radical conservative groups, it has been actively moving along very different lines as well. It has been seeking to creatively seize the opportunities offered by the modern world, all the while bearing in mind the correct social and political context along with new technologies and frontiers. Alexey Beglov, historian, sums up the last two decades of the Church life as follows;

“What is happening is not the mechanical recovery of something lost, but a process of enculturation – the creative entry of the church into the modern and post-modern culture of Russia and other CIS countries.”[7]

Here are some examples of enculturation that have nothing to do with the revival of traditions from before the Revolution:

●      Opening of Sunday schools which the Russian Orthodox Church has never used before;
●      Introduction of the Basics of Orthodox Culture course into the school curriculum (being a compromise of sorts between the Church and the state educational system that is still ideologically Soviet);
●      Active use of the Internet and online communication technologies;
●      Use of monolithic construction and other process innovations in building.

It is my opinion that amid the current crisis the potential for appealing to the past has been exhausted and is no longer of any use. We have to acknowledge that “the Church revival” was a convenient ideological concept rather than something real. It allowed us to turn a blind eye on the lack of solutions to the Church problems. 


The Church has overlooked…

The key problem of the Russian Orthodox Church is that it has overlooked and thus missed the civil society. It has paid no attention to it. It invested all effort into establishing good relations with the state authorities and big business. And this is not just a problem at the hierarchy level. Such are the priorities at all levels of Church administration, including the parishes.

The Church wanted to be friendly and coherent to the bureaucracy and various state institutions. Many considered this to be the restoration of historical justice towards the Church. This complex position included the following:

Twenty years were spent on winning recognition by the officials, being perceived as “a partner” and in such capacity being offered financial support.

It is fair to say that the desired goal has been successfully achieved. These days every single state official masterfully speculates on cooperating with the Church, on advances in developing the Church and state relations, on protecting traditional values etc.

It would seem that this is exactly the victory that has been expected. However, one should consider the price of that partnership. By my reckoning, the price is unthinkably high: so high that the external victory turns out to be an utter internal defeat. Concern over excessively close cooperation between the Church and the state has evolved into a much harsher realization: the Church is serving the ideological interests of the state. 

Cooperation and service are two different arrangements. Cooperation suggests relations on equal terms. Service is first and foremost a form of submission. The Church was so eager to show that it had something to offer to the state. But how can it prove this to the cynical and corrupt officials who very rarely think in terms of public interest? The usefulness of the Church has to be demonstrated within their regular frame of reference; not by using the normal goal-setting of the Church, but dancing to the tune of the interests of politicians and bureaucrats.

In order to get involved in solving the problems faced by the country, the Church opted to borrow the lens from the state rather than use one of her own. Specific tasks were chosen accordingly. In the 1990s and 2000s attempts were made to mobilize an Orthodox voting block, to no avail. In recent years every care was taken to promote “traditional values”, patriotic feelings and the Russian World / Holy Russia, again to no positive effect.

Russian Orthodox Church guarding only state interests in socio-political issues remained within the traditional Byzantine framework. It is a familiar approach for the hierarchy, perhaps even the only possible one. But isn't it a mistake? Is it consistent with the reality of public life in the 21st century?

Can we ignore the society? Can we afford to turn a deaf ear to the voice of society, especially when there is an obvious conflict of interests between the state and society?

The answers to those questions are self-evident. Instead of ignoring the society, the Orthodox Church will have to learn to see it as a partner, perhaps an even more important one than the state.

But is the Church the only party at fault here? Is it only her responsibility for overlooking civil society? It would seem that the correct answer is 'no,' the society is also to blame. However, I cannot uphold this position. Civil society did assert itself and did send signals to the Church. It rejoiced when the Church spoke out with words that the society longed for. But those occasions were scarce. 

A few months after the political demonstrations on Bolotnaya Square in a presentation before a Catholic audience I called those months “a Pentecost of the social and Church life”.[8]  Unfortunately, we were unable to keep the gifts of those days for long. The Church failed to do the most important thing: it never expressed its moral stand in regard to what was going on in the society and politics.

Yet, it will have to learn – learn to uproot the habit of servility towards state authorities from the Church tradition, learn to be independent in its relations with different political and social actors.

Quite possibly as its indirect effect such a shift will solve some of the internal Church problems, perhaps it would even help overcome the crisis of parish life. But that is a topic for another occasion.

[1]. Igumen Kirill (Sakharov). Union of Orthodox Fellowships. // URL: http://спбр.рф/

[2]. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods in their religious, administrative, financial and economic activities shall be subordinate and accountable to the Diocesan Bishops through the Rectors. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods shall abide by the decisions of the Diocesan Authority and the Rectors of the Parishes.” (Chapter XI, clause 15 of the Statute of the Russian Orthodox Church as revised in 2000 and amended in 2008 and 2011.

[3]. It is particularly remarkable that more or less at the same time, in 1995, a prominent intellectual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church of 1960–1980s, the Publishing Department of the Moscow Patriarchate headed by the metropolitan of Volokolamsk and Yuryevsk Pitirim (Nechayev, +2003) was reorganised and effectively quelled.

[4]. “Miloserdie” (Mercy) ministry uniting 18 orgnisations connected to the Synodal Department of Social Ministry and Charity; “Danilovcy” movement; “Predanie” (Tradition) Charitable Foundation; Yu.A. Garnaev “Russian Birch-Tree” Orfaned Children and Large Families Foundation and many others.

[5]. Among others, it has been proved conclusively by the research of Berger-Simonov.

[6]. Panteleimon, bishop of Smolensk and Vyazma, “People remember God, but have forgotten Christ.” Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, No. 10, 2012, pp. 44–49.

[7]. Alexey Beglov, “Through Thick and Thin”, Russia Profile, 19 September 2011. URL:

[8]. Sergei Chapnin, “Modest revival of Christian social life,”  “Trace” (Sled) magazine, March 2012.

Translated by Misha Cherniak