Monday, August 12, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Patriarchate Shifts from Inclusive to Exclusive on Baptism of Rus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 12 – Moscow Patriarch Kirill has sought to present himself as a spokesman for conservative Christians not only in the former Soviet space but across Europe, but the way in which he and his subordinates chose to mark the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus undercuts that message.

            Twenty-five years ago, when the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church under orders from the Soviet state marked the millennium of the Baptism of Kievan Rus, its leaders stressed that that even was a holiday for representatives of all religions and not just the Russian Orthodox, but this year, it has portrayed that event as something more exclusive.

            That may help Patriarch Kirill pursue his alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin and will certainly win him support from those Russian nationalists who want a harsher line against Old Believers, Catholics, and Protestants as well as non-Christian religions like Muslims, Buddhists and Jews. But it will certainly limit the Patriarchate’s influence elsewhere.

            In an article in the current issue of “NG-Religii,” Moscow commentator Vladislav Maltsev underlines the shift by a discussion of the way in which the Soviet authorities at that time worked with the Moscow Patriarchate to make that event far more broadly inclusive (

            Maltsev’s article, significantly entitled “The Edict of Milan of the Soviet State,” consists of an interview with Konstantin Kharchev, who headed the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs between 1984 and 1989 and is often described, as in this case, as “the architect of the perestroika of the church.”

            According to Kharchev, Patriarch Pimen in early 1982 officially asked the Soviet leadership for permission to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus. For its own foreign and domestic policy reasons, the Soviet leaders agreed and provided additional funds for the church to spruce up various facilities for the occasion.

            On the one hand, he says, the Soviet state was interested at that time in presenting itself as being something very different than “the evil empire” US President Ronald Reagan described it as being. And on the other – and somewhat later – the Gorbachev leadership saw government support for the Church as a way of gaining support for perestroika at home.

The former Soviet official points out that “from the moment of its revival in 1943, the Russian Orthodox Church had provided active assistance to the Soviet state in the international arena, especially from the mid-1960s on.”  The state in turn “subsidized” it to the tune of two million dollars a year for foreign activities.

            Indeed, Kharchev recalls, he was chosen to head of the Council on Religious Affairs precisely because senior Central Committee officials wanted someone with a diplomatic background. Kharchev had been Soviet ambassador to Guyana and earlier had served in various CPSU posts.

Kharchev says that he and the Council promoted the idea that the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus should be marked as government and not just “narrowly church” event.  For that reason and for other acts of support, he continues, opponents within the party were able to force him out of that post in 1989.

“It is important to remember,” he stresses, “that the celebration … was thought up by us not as a holiday of the Russian Orthodox Church. We wanted to show everyone both outside and within our country the fundamental shift in the relations of the Soviet state and the Church.” And events immediately following showed that as well.

After 1988, “we opened not only 2,000 Orthodox churches but we opened Uniate and Baptist ones and synagogues across the Union … if one seeks an analogy in history, this was our Edict of Milan, which … permitted the free confession of Christianity and all other religions in the Roman Empire.”

Therefore, “when people say now that namely the Russian Orthodox Church conducted the celebration of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus, this is not so.  Everything, beginning with the elaboration of plans and ending with their practical realization, was conducted by the Council for Religious Affairs together with the KGB which supervised the Moscow Patriarchate from the moment of its founding in 1943, the Central Committee of the CPSU, the ministry of culture, and other government agencies.”

Asked to compare the celebrations in 1988 and 2013, Kharchev said that the former was “a genuinely popular celebration n Moscow, Kyiv, and Minsk, where the main celebrations took place as well as in other cities and throughout the entire country.” But the latter was very different.

In 2013, the former Soviet official says, what occurred was “a holiday of the Church itself, or more precisely its leadership and the leadership of he state.  The presence of the latter also distinguished 2013 from 1988.” Indeed, this year’s celebrations were “above all created as PR for the authorities.”

What we have seen in recent months, he continues, is “an elite holiday” which at least as marked in Kyiv excluded ordinary people.  Twenty-five years ago, the people were the main celebrants, they came to church because they had “ceased to be afraid.” Now, the hierarchies, religious and political, have taken it back; and many young priests are concerned “only about money.”

Kharchev concludes by suggesting that the state should get out of the business of regulating religious life. The current law on freedom of conscience is “outdated” and should be scrapped or replaced. Instead, the country should rely on the direct application of Article 14 of the Constitution.

That as will be remembered calls for the separation of church and state, although, as Kharchev notes, “now  it is obvious that the state is fusing itself together with the Russian Orthodox Church” in violation of the country’s basic law and to the detriment of the interests of both.

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