Staunton, September 19 – Many commentators have suggested that the more than 100 Russian Orthodox priests who signed an open letter condemning the prosecution of Moscow protesters did so on their own or even in open defiance of church hierarchs. But four experts say that the Moscow Patriarchate in fact backed such a letter to improve its image.
The open letter signed by more than 100 Russian Orthodox priests attracted enormous attention in part because the church’s priests only rarely have taken such positions because of the Patriarchate’s deference to the state and its ability to impose real punishments n priests (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/09/more-than-100-russian-orthodox-priests.html).
Consequently, few were surprised that some among the church establishment and even more among the Orthodox commentariat attacked the priests. And most assumed that this was a breakthrough moment even if after a few days or weeks, the church would have its revenge and punish the dissidents.
But three experts on Russian Orthodox affairs tell Sergey Makeyev and Mikhail Bely of the URA news agency that such conclusions are based on a misreading of what has taken place. According to them, the Patriarchate knew about the protest letter well in advance and even viewed it positively as a means to improve the church’s image (ura.news/articles/1036278862).
The three say that the Patriarchate “consciously got involved in the discussion of criminal cases against participants in the protest actions in Moscow in order to create a new image for itself.” The letter that so many have viewed as dissent within the church in fact represents the church’s effort to present itself as an ally and supporter of the population and its desire for justice.
Sergey Petrov, a specialist n religion, says that there would not have been any possibility of such a thing as this letter only a few years ago. Few priests would have considered signing on to such criticism of the state, and the patriarchate for its own reasons would have squelched the attempt. But now the situation in both has changed.
Parish priests are under pressure from their flocks to show that the church is committed to its moral teachings. Failure to show that in the past has cost the church many attendees. And the hierarchy feels compelled to show that it is not simply a propaganda arm of the state but rather an independent force for good in Russia.
The hierarchy certainly knew abut the letter in advance: there is no way to keep such things secret, Petrov says – and there is thus good reason to believe that instead of blocking it, some in the hierarchy even backed its release in the expectation that would help the church in the new environment Russia finds itself in.
Marat Khamidullin, who follows religious affairs at the Institute f Reginal Expertise, agrees. The repressive way Moscow handled the protesters provided “a unique opportunity” for the church to regain some of the good will it lost earlier by its hostility to demonstrations like Pussy Riot and to those who opposed the war in Ukraine.
Now, he continues, the demand for justice has increased among Russians, “and the ROC is ready to satisfy this demand,” even though the state may not like that and may even view the church as becoming a kind of “competitor.”
Yury Tabak, a historian of Orthodoxy, adds the following nuance: The Church may be willing to use the letter to test the waters politically; but at least a third of those who have signed are known liberals, and the Church can sacrifice or punish them if the letter becomes too serious a political problem. After all – “50 priests is not the position of the entire church.”
But Dmtry Yelovsky, head of the Actor communications agency, said that the letter has allowed the church to fill the role it sees as natural for itself, as a source of moral authority “for a large group of people -- its flock.”
What this means is this, Yelovsky says, is that “the letter is not so much PR as public policy, in the sense that this is a public discussion of issues” of concern to many. The analyst says that in his view, the church has made “a good move” which will slightly correct its reputation of consisting of obscurantists and retrogrades.”