Staunton, March 18 – On Thursday, Vladimir Putin met with Metropolitan Korniliy, head of the Russian Orthodox Old Believer Church, the first such meeting between a Russian head of state and the leader of that church and one that likely to have a profound impact on the Kremlin’s relationship not only with the Old Believers but also with the Moscow Patriarchate.
Commenting on the meeting, Maksim Shevchenko, head of the Moscow Center for Strategic Research on Religion and Politics, noted that “the Russian state, which has always been inclined toward unification finally has taken note of the fact that Orthodoxy is diverse and that it is not only the ROC of the Moscow Patriarchate (nakanune.ru/news/2017/3/17/22464080/).
According to the commentator, “when the Russian state sees that religious life in the country is rich, diverse and has its own very deep and in places tragic history, then our lives will become more interesting.” And this meeting suggests that Putin is now ready to move beyond the traditional Moscow understanding of Old Believers as “some kind of appendix to the ROC.”
In reality, Shevchenko continues, the Old Believers are an absolutely independent, canonical ancient Russian Orthodox church which has passed through repression, exile, and punishment but has nonetheless preserved itself and its faith and, what is also important, its internal democratic traditions.”
Compared to the Moscow Patriarchate, “the Old Believers are unbelievably democratic. The principles of Russian democracy and of Russian democratic consciousness, including free thought and freedom of conscience are part of the Old Believer tradition. If our state has decided to get acquainted with this genuinely Russian consciousness, [one] can only welcome that.
The Old Believers, he says, developed from the 17th century forward on the basis of “’independent accord’ even as Nikon’s church [which is now the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate] for a long time as the ideological department of the state.” The Old Believers were never that and were never run by civil officials.
Instead, Shevchenko points out, they “developed independently.” In tsarist and Soviet times, the Old Believers suffered for that and “considered the Russian state openly Russophobic and anti-Christian.”
After the mid-17th century schism over doctrine and practice led to the rise of the Old Believers, they have been subject to attack. But over last 50 years, their standing in Russia has improved. In 1971, for example, the Moscow Patriarchate revoked its anathemas on the Old Believers.
Estimates as to the number of Old Believers still in Russia vary widely from a million to as many as five million. (Counting them is hard because they are subdivided into many groups and most importantly are themselves split between those who rely on a priesthood and those who don’t.
Putin’s decision to meet with Metropolitan Korniliy is unlikely to please the Moscow Patriarchate. At the very least, Patriarch Kirill will see it as an indication that the Kremlin leader wants to have an independent approach to Orthodoxy of his own and now rely as in the past on the Moscow Patriarchate exclusively.
But there may be another meaning behind Putin’s meeting with Korniliy: Historically, Old Believers were the most disciplined and capitalistic of Russians and until the Bolshevik revolution, they were responsible for the development of Russian industry in many areas. Playing to that historic theme would be absolutely consistent with Putin’s “conservative” values.