Sunday, January 8, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Priestly Dissent on the Rise in Russian Orthodox Church, Journalist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 8 – The Moscow Patriarchate over the last year has brought its hierarchy into closer correspondence with the Russian state, sought to extract ever more resources from its parishes to support this bureaucracy, and faces growing challenges from priests who see themselves as part of civil society, according to a prominent Russian journalist.
            In an article in yesterday’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Svetlana Solodovnik suggests that one of the most important developments in the Russian Orthodox Church over the past year was the Synod’s decision in October to replace the church’s two-level hierarchy with a three-level one (

            Until now, there was the patriarchate at the center and bishoprics in sees which “more or less corresponded with the oblasts and subjects of the Russian Federation.” Now there will be the patriarchate, metropolitans at the Federal subject level, and bishops whose sees will be carved out of the metropolitans’ territories.

            As Solodovnik points out, this will mean that “the bureaucratic apparatus [of the Church] will grow still more significantly” in the future, not only allowing the current patriarch to install his people in place and impose greater discipline on the hierarchs but also permitting the metropolitans and bishops to play more influential roles in their contacts with state officials.

             In order to support this bureaucracy, the Patriarchate is rapidly increasing the support local parishes are required to send upwards. One parish reported that in 1999, it was asked to pay 30,000 rubles a year to the bishops and Patriarchate; last year, it had to pay 400,000, an increase that many priests with small active congregations find difficult to meet.

            According to Solodovnik, “certain provincial priests are already writing tearful letters to the Patriarchate with requests “for the sake of our children not to speak about our half destroyed congregations, lower such taxes for the sake of Christ,” with some of them adding “we have no more strength! We are in a worse situation that serfs; we are simply petty slaves.”

            In part because of these new and despite the desire of Patriarch Kirill to strengthen discipline, this pressure has sparked  dissent within the church, with a number of priests promoting the ideas of dethroned bishop Diomid and others again talking about hierarchs “who in the years of the communist dictatorship cooperated with the KGB.”

            The new dissidents are speaking out against “the harsh power vertical in the Church,” something Kirill has worked hard to build by emulating the approach of Vladimir Putin in the Russian state.  The patriarch has even issued orders that priests must get approval from above before “agitating for (or against) any party or candidate in the elections.”

            But that directive has proved anything but effective, Solodovnik suggests, at least in part because of the Internet.  Until recently, Orthodox media outlets did not discuss “any problems of civil society besides the poor demographic situation, alcoholism and abortion.” (Exceptions like Russkaya liniya and were the exceptions that prove the rule.

            But “now the situation has begun to change,” the Moscow journalist says. “Electronic Orthodox media have become much freer. They have begun to take note of the problems of life surround them and to speak about general problems, not just those reflecting the corporate interests of the state.”

            Articles and commentaries on these sites often reflect positions at odds not only with the political establishment but also with the Patriarchal hierarchy. “Young priests who feel themselves part of civil society have appeared and are writing about politics from civic positions and not because they belong to the politicized wing of the Orthodox establishment.”

            One such priest, Father Dmitry Sverdlov not only served as an election observer but described the falsifications which took place in a report for “Pravoslavie i mir” ( Other priests have openly discussed and supported the popular demonstrations across the Russian Federation over the past month.

            Such developments, Solodovnik says, that “Orthodox society is step by step becoming part of the ‘greater’ civil society.” So far, however, she continues, the Patriarchate has sought to block this trend rather than join it because for the hierarchy, “a partnership with the powers is much more important than partnership with civil society or put simply with ordinary people.”

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