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Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Russian Orthodoxy's growing "pogrom-like" violence

The BBC recently reported on a "stand off" between local residents in a Moscow suburb and activists from the Russian Orthodox church (ROC). The residents were protesting plans to illegally erect a church in their local Torfyanka park, taking precious green space, which is against Russian law, and despite there being numerous other usually empty churches in the vicinity.

Sarah Rainsford reports that the locals are scared of the activists, most of whom are not from their suburb, and that those protesting the church are called "sinners". The ROC activists told Rainsford that 'the West' was behind those protesting the new church.

The government wants hundreds more churches in the capital, when the real need is for more mosques for Moscow's two million Muslims, one sixth of Moscow's population. There are also only five synagogues and two Catholic churches. Worshipers have been trying to get permission for over a decade for one Krishna temple.

Despite the constitution's Article 14, which defines Russia as a "secular state", only the Orthodox church is allowed to teach religion in Russia’s public schools and it also has the right to review any legislation before the Russian parliament. In 2013 a blasphemy law was passed. The church has backed Putin and bad-mouthed the opposition. Any priest who criticises the government faces being defrocked.

Notes Paul Coyer:
Taking this a step further, the view of Putin as a quasi-sacral figure is becoming increasingly widespread throughout Russia. In St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, he has been portrayed as an angel reaching out his hands and blessing the city’s inhabitants. Just this past weekend St. Petersburg unveiled a bust of Putin in the attire of a Roman Emperor.
Sects within the ROC revere Putin as the reincarnation of the Apostle Paul and even pray to him. Drawing an analogy between the Apostle Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, this sect believes that, just as Paul persecuted Christians and then became their leader, Putin once was part of the KGB, which persecuted the Church, and he now works to strengthen it. (Although it is perhaps of more than passing interest to note that the leader of this sect began praising Putin so highly only after her superiors in the ROC asked the FSB (the successor to the KGB) to begin tailing her. After beginning her sect, the government surveillance stopped.)
In this article by Paul Goble, reblogged with permission from Window On Eurasia, Goble reports on what is being called the increasingly "pogrom like" violence associated with Orthodox activists.


Staunton, July 19 – An article in the current issue of “Sovershenno Sekretno” asks whether there is a line between Russian Orthodox Church activists and those who engage in pogrom-like violence. It concludes sadly that there is not -- and that church activists and those engaged in attacks on other groups are increasingly one and the same people.

The monthly’s Dmitry Rudnyev writes that he decided to focus on this issue after the fights between those who want to build more Orthodox churches in Moscow and those who oppose these being put in what are now public parks and Father Dmitry Smirnov’s shutting down of a concert that he said was disturbing prayer (

Such incidents, he continues, “are taking place ever more frequently, and the causes which generate among Orthodox [activists] such an incommensurately stormy reaction are becoming ever more varied.” That raises the question as to why Russian Orthodoxy has “suddenly acquired hysterical aspects” and seems to be trying to find occasions to be upset.

“Five to ten years ago, the phrase ‘Orthodox radicalism’ would have elicited a condescending smile,” Rudnyev says. “Today however, this has become one of the realities of Russian religious life.” So far, “thank God,” it hasn’t claimed human victims in the way that nationalist or Islamic radicalisms have.

“But the problem of radicalism in the church exists,” he continues, “and today people talk about it in a serious way.”

Yevgeny Nikiforov, head of the Orthodox Radonezh Society, says that “the percent of radically inclined people among believers is absolutely equal to the percent of radicals in society as a whole.” It generally “’infects’” recent converts, but at times, it involves those who have been active in Orthodoxy their entire lives.

An example of the latter is Father Dmitry Smirnov, Nikiforov continues. He is nominally only a priest, but “in the structure of the church he has already for a long time occupied the slot of a bishop. This is like in the army where a colonel may serve in a general’s place” and where he enjoys the trust of those above him.

What Father Dmitry did, Archdeacon Andrey Kurayev says, reflected “a free decision” on his part. Each of us is complicated, and each makes his choice as a result of a multitude of causes pressing on him.” What makes his action of concern is that Father Dmitry had the kind of access that would have allowed him to solve this problem without any conflict.

He “could have made a single telephone call,” Kurayev continues, and there wouldn’t have been a problem. But “of all the mass of possible resolutions of the problem, Father Dmitry chose the path of open and forceful intervention. And this is not a result of shortcomings of his mind or experience.” Instead, it reflected his judgment of “the general atmosphere of today’s dialogue between the church and society.”
Via Oppositum

Since 2012, Kurayev says, some in the church have felt “called upon to show that we also are a force agency,” that the people of the church are part of the foundation of the secular authorities, that they can act on that basis, and that they may move against anyone confident that they won’t be punished even if we go beyond the bounds of legality.

In this, they are not different from the pro-Putin bikers, and this propensity to engage in violence won’t end as long as the powers that be continue to support. Indeed, Kurayev continues, actions like those of Father Dmitry “will be a regular feature” of Russian life.

What makes this situation somewhat of “a paradox,” Kuryaev says, is that Patriarch Kirill “is one of the most educated of all the hierarchs of the Russian Church” but because of his dramatic expansion of the number of bishoprics, he has brought into the hierarchy many who are uneducated and thus inclined to settle things not by negotiation but by violence.

Roman Lunkin, a senior specialist at the Center for the Study of the Problems of Religion and Society at the Russian Academy of Sciences, agrees. “Earlier under Aleksii II, the church did not use in its political goals various kinds of radical groups … this would have been unnecessary and quite dangerous in a democratic society where the church suddenly wouldhave been associated with the worst kind of nationalists suffering from xenophobia.”

“However,” Lunkin says, “the situation in [Russia] has changed.”

The Church needs the help of the state to achieve its goals, he continues, and consequently, “radical Orthodox tricks are called upon to convince the authorities that Orthodoxy is a powerful force. Therefore, often the hierarchs themselves make declarations in defense of the Orthodox” in ways that offend others.

However, “the paradox is that the more official representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church demand from the government and even impose on it its own ideology, the more such people come into conflict with what church life really needs,” Lunkin says.

The church radicals, he continues, have little support: “the majority of believers have no desire … to prohibit plays or break up rock concerts.” Instead, they properly understand that “the single task [which the church must fulfill in the future] is the construction of an Orthodox community in a democratic society in which believers support one another, life according to the law, and respect even non-believers” rather than use force to address problems.

Moving in that direction is a long and slow process, Lunkin says, and the actions of some who speak for the Russian Orthodox Church are not helping. “But the process is inevitable and it is already in course.”

There have always been radicals in and around the church, but in general, the hierarchy has kept them on a short leash as was the case with Bishop Diomid of Sakha* in 2008, the scholar says. His views were quite radical then, but now they would be viewed as more or less mainstream.

Indeed, the “Sovershenno Sekretno” journalist says, there is evidence that some in the church hierarchy like Father Dmitry are actively sponsoring radical groups like the Movement in Support of 200 Churches and the Movement of 40 by 40 and encouraging their members to go from one place to another to push their views, something ordinary believers would not do.

And many of those in the leadership of these groups are not only followers of Father Dmitry but show both his intolerance and willingness to engage in force, two things that alienate many ordinary believers even if they are not inconsistent with the kind of values being promoted by the Putin regime.

  • Jim Kovpak writes on the difference between the Orthodox/state propaganda version of Russia and the reality:
In the minds of many of these drooling morons, Russia is this simple, fairy tale land where men are respectable fathers and patriots, and women are demure, modest maidens waiting patiently to get married and start bearing children.  The reality is something quite different.

Update October 9: The activists won! The construction of the church has been cancelled.

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