Sunday, September 22, 2019

More than 100 Russian Orthodox Priests Sign Open Letter in Defense of Convicted Moscow Protesters

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 18 – In an unusual and, in the view of many, unprecedented action, some 100 priests of the Russian Orthodox Church from across the country and abroad yesterday signed an open letter in defense of those who took part in protests on July 27 and August 3 about the Moscow city elections and were then convicted for their actions.

            The text of their letter was published by the Moscow media and has attracted enormous attention in Russia (, and articles listed at

            It was quickly denounced by the Moscow Patriarchate, whose Vakhtang Kipshidze, the deputy head of the synodical department for church-society relations, pointed out that “struggle with the authorities has never been and never will be the mission of the Church” (

            But later the church leadership appeared to soften its views and said that the patriarchate had asked the center for human rights at the World Russian Popular Assembly to study the issues that the open letter had raised (
            This series of events has prompted some to ask whether the ROC MP has changed in some fundamental way. Kseniya Luchenko, a Moscow journalist who writes on religion for the Carnegie Moscow Center, is among those who views this action as a watershed moment (
            “This is a rare case when the adjective ‘unprecedented’ would not be unprecedented,” she writes. First of all, there has never been such a collective action of the priesthood without the agreement of the church authorities in history.” Moreover, “this is the first time priests have stood up in defense of their parishioners against the authorities rather than the reverse.”
            A segment of the signatories, Luchenko continues, consists of “well known Muscovite, St. Petersburg and foreign parish” leaders, “but the majority are from the regions. This geography is impressive considering that this is a Moscow case.”
            “Even more impressive,” she says, is the fact that the priests have attracted to their side others. In addition to them, a thousand people have now signed this declaration, “supporting not just their own people but all those involved.” 
            And equally striking given the typically nebulous formulations of the church, the open letter is both brief and specific. It names names and actions and thus puts the authorities in a position where they either have to respond or be seen to be deaf to these complaints.

            “Of course,” Luchenko says, “a large role in all this played the possibility of mobilizing people through social networks: the first priests who signed the letter were acquainted via Facebook and the signatures were collected online. But social networks have existed for more than a decade … and this letter is the first of its kind.”
            What also must be kept in mind is that “the ROC clergy is one of the least defended social groups in present-day Russia. It is entirely dependent on the church leadership, the ruling hierarch and his coworkers. They are without rights and cannot simply ‘change jobs’ and go to another boss.”
            “Therefore,” Luchenko argues, “any public expression can lead too unpredictable consequences and make their families hostages. For a priest, the decision to sign an independent document criticizing the judicial and executive power and demanding justice from the state is an act of great courage.”
            The patriarchate may try to bury this: sending the letter to the center for human rights at the World Russian Popular Assembly may be a step in that direction. After all, the head of that body is Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam who has always been close to the state and is rumored to be linked with the security agencies.
            But however that may be, Luchenko concludes, this letter is going to become a key date in the history of the Church, a signal example of how tensions and divisions within Russian society are echoing in an institution few thought would ever be subject to them. 

Is the Internationalist Movement of Kazakhstan an ‘Interdvizheniya’ of Today?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 18 – At the very end of the Soviet period, Moscow organized the so-called interdvizheniya [“internationalmovements”] in the Baltic countries, groups that sought to save the USSR by promoting close ties between the ethnic Russians and some local people and between both and Moscow.

            Now, a movement in Kazakhstan has emerged that recalls those groups because of the prominence of ethnic Russian involvement in it, that has been accused of links to Moscow and that aspires to become a political party not to prevent the disintegration of something but to promote the re-integration of the post-Soviet space.

            While it is difficult to say how far this parallel holds, it is already obvious that the group which calls itself “the Kazakhstan Society of Internationalists” is at the very least a testing out of tactics which have their roots in the late Soviet period and that may be employed not just in Kazakhstan but in other post-Soviet states as well.  

            Saule Isabayeva of Kazakhstan’s Central Asian Monitor interviews Bakhytzhan Kopbayev, the movement’s leader, about the progress his movement has made since she spoke with him at the beginning of 2019 in an interview that sparked serious controversy (

            (The earlier interview appeared in January. It is available at For the broad and generally negative response it generated among Kazakhs, see

                Kopbayev was cagey about the sources of money behind his group’s rise, saying only that major businesses are quite prepared to invest in his operation. As to his group’s relationship with the republic communist party which also promotes internationalism, the Internationalist leader says that the two can cooperate but the communists are a fading force. 

            The Internationalist movement is stronger, he suggests, because it was created from below, because it explicitly represents “citizens of various nationalities whose rights have been in one or another way denigrated, and because it has “a clear, simple and understandable ideology – the struggle for social justice and equality” and opposition to fascism.

            Eight months ago when he spoke with Isabayeva before, Kopbayev continues, “then we were simply a group of citizens angry about the propaganda of fascist ideas and the rapid spread in the country of Russophobia. And now who are we? An officially registered movement with a firm intention to become a political party.”

                “We have acted step by step,” Kopbayev says, first creating a central staff and then registering groups throughout the country.  Now, we are “ready to move forward, to create out own party, and if we ae able to do that, to take part in parliamentary elections and in the future in presidential ones as well.”

            Despite resistance by Kazakh “national radicals” who often support “fascist” ideas involving the oppression of the ethnic Russian minority, he argues, the Internationalists are gaining strength and will not “sacrifice its principles” to avoid being attacked by others. (That phrase, of course, recalls Nina Andreyeva’s use of it at the end of Soviet times.) 

            Sauliyeva says that many in Kazakhstan believe that the Internationalist Movement is connected with the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation. Kopbayev denies this: Such suspicions “of course, have not been confirmed. They are baseless ... Our Motherland is Kazakhstan and we want to make it free and our people confident in its future.”

Tishkov Must be Held Legally Accountable for Advocating Linguistic Discrimination, Tatar Activist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 18 – Almas Imamov, a Tatar activist from Naberezhnye Chelny, has called on the procuracy of the Republic of Tatarstan to bring charges against Academician Valery Tishkov for promoting the superiority of Russian and discrimination against non-Russian languages (

            The activist filed this appeal with prosecutors after Tishkov published his article in Izvestiya on September 12 in response to Udmurt scholar and activist Albert Razin’s self-immolation to protest the destruction of non-Russian languages and peoples. (On that article, see

            Specifically, Imamov said that in the Izvestiya article, Tishkov had called for giving the Russian language “anti-constitutional advantages” and justified discrimination against the non-Russian nations and their languages in violation of both the Russian Federation’s constitution and Russian laws.

            And the academician’s words were especially offensive, Imamov says, because he used “insulting” language to make comparison between those who study their native language and the mentally ill.  If anyone had done with same with regard to those studying Russian, the Tatar activist implies, the Russian judicial system would quickly move against him. 

            This is nt the first time the Tatar activist has attempted to bring a Russian leader to justice for discrimination against non-Russian languages. Last  December, he asked prosecutors to bring charges against Sberbank’s German Gref for refusing to provide loan information in Tatar and other non-Russian languages (

            The Tatarstan procuracy ignored Imamov’s appeal then, and it is almost certain to ignore it now. But the Tatar activist’s effort is another indication of just how raw tensions are about the Kremlin’s language policy in the wake of Razin’s suicide and also of the increasing readiness of non-Russians to demand equal treatment not only in the schools but in the courts as well.