Staunton, February 1 – When Father Vsevolod Chaplin, perhaps the most prominent Russian Orthodox Churchman other than the patriarch at least from the point of view of media attention, was buried this week after dying at 51 of a heart attack, there were no flowers from Kirill despite Chaplin’s role in helping him become patriarch.
There were wreaths from his mother and brother with whom he lived, from right-wing Russian Senator Andrey Klishas, and from the Christian Socialists, but there was none from Patriarch Kirill despite the closeness of the two men until five years ago, Kseniya Luchenko points out. And therein tells a tale of Putin-era Orthodoxy (carnegie.ru/commentary/80927).
The two men had been allies for much of their careers in the church, and in 2009, Chaplin was a key player in the team which orchestrated Kirill’s election as patriarchate. As a reward, he was put in a charge of a new church department for work with society and given a prominent church in the center of Moscow.
But after three years of this senior partnership and three more years of increasingly tense relations between Kirill and Chaplin, the patriarch stripped his ally of all his posts and assigned him to an obscure parish far from the centers of power. Father Vsevolod continued to speak out on church issues but he didn’t expose Kirill as many had expected him to.
The reasons for their divergence and then split are rooted in their very different reactions to the Pussy Riot protests which Chaplin saw as the embodiment of all evil while Kirill saw them as a political problem and Russian aggression in Ukraine which Chaplin enthusiastically welcomed but which Kirill was troubled by.
Chaplin disturbed many by his defense of force, hate speech, xenophobia, and aggression, positions that he willingly shared with journalists but that made him ever more of a problem for the Moscow Patriarchate which saw such views as a threat to its positions both theological and political.
Finally, Kirill decided that Chaplin had to go and stripped him of all his top posts. That didn’t silence Father Vsevolod who continued to issue jeremiads about a wide variety of topics and to criticize, albeit somewhat more carefully, the workings of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
“After his death,” Luchenko continues, some observed that “’no one had done more to discredit the ROC than Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin.’ But he didn’t discredit the church … his biography symbolizes the entire path of the church” over the last decades, from the time of atheism to the romantic hopes of renewal in the 1980s and 1990s, to disappointment and divide.
Chaplin always spoke from the heart and without much concern for the political impact of what he was saying; Kirill has never been that open. Whatever he may believe, the patriarch always considers the political consequences of his actions. Ultimately, the two men could not stay close, and Chaplin had to be thrown out of Kirill’s inner circle.