Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Stalin’s Exploitation of Orthodoxy in Late 1940s Informs Moscow’s Strategy Today

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 22 – It is now a commonplace that Vladimir Putin is reviving many aspects of Stalinism, but it is important to focus on the specifics of this trend -- and one of the most important concerns the ways in which the Kremlin’s approach to the idea of Orthodox unity under Russian leadership and of Moscow as the third Rome are informed by Stalin’s approach.
            Today, the Tolkovatel portal summarizes a 2013 article by Moscow historian Anna Klimenko on “The Concept of Moscow as the Third Rome in the Geopolitical Practice of I.V. Stalin” (ttolk.ru/?p=26419; Klimenko’s original is available online at cyberleninka.ru/article/n/kontseptsiya-moskva-tretiy-rim-v-geopoliticheskoy-praktike-i-v-stalina).

            After World War II, Klimenko argues, Stalin re-interpreted the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome and decided to use the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church to try to undermine or even destroy the Roman Catholic Church and thereby make Moscow the center of world Christianity.

            In this way, the Moscow Patriarchate would help spread Soviet influence across the entire traditional Orthodox world “as was the case” with Constantinople “during the times of the Byzantine empire;” and thus Moscow would truly become the Third Rome, Klimenko says.

            In comparison with the ways the tsars used this idea, “the geopolitical plans of the USSR were much broader: from the idea of a key position in the Orthodox-Slavic area occurred a transition to the idea of Moscow as the center of all Orthodox and soon of the entire Christian world in opposition to the Vatican.”

            The Moscow scholar quotes Helene Carrere d’Encausse on this point: “Stalin introduced the idea about the unification around Patriarch Aleksi not only of the Russian people but also of all Slavs … [The Soviet dictator] thus operated on a collective Slavic consciousness and not on the solidarity of the working class” as had earlier Soviet officials.

            Russian philosopher Nikolay Danilevsky had proposed the idea of a pan-Slavic union in the 19th century, but Stalin and the Moscow Patriarchate after 1945 went much further. In 1946, Klimenko notes, the patriarchate’s official journal underscored that Moscow’s aspirations were much broader and promoted an anti-Catholic line.

            “’Moscow as the Third Rome’ remains as before,” the patriarchal journal declared, “a symbol of the worldwide collective idea of opposition to the papacy with its striving to spiritual autocracy, episcopal aristocracy, and maniacal dreams of earthly possessions.”

            The Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe which was then under Soviet control lined up behind this idea as did the autocephalous Orthodox churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch.  But Stalin hoped for much more; and in 1947, the Moscow Patriarchate invited the heads of all Orthodox churches in the world to come to the Soviet capital.

            Eleven of the 13 autocephalous churches attended that session in February 1948; but Moscow did not get what it wanted.  The Soviet-controlled churches in Eastern Europe went along, but the others did not.  And that had two consequences which continue to cast a shadow on Russian Orthodoxy to this day.

            On the one hand, it prompted Stalin to drop his plans to create “a Moscow Vatican” that could control the entire Orthodox world.  And on the other, it led the Kremlin leader to launch a new and extremely vicious anti-religious campaign first against the Uniates and then against Russian Orthodoxy itself.

            (Stalin’s efforts to wipe out the Uniates who practiced the eastern rites of Orthodoxy but were subordinate to Rome was the subject last week of an academic conference in Kyiv which provides fresh details on just how repressive his moves against that trend were.  See the report at

            The parallels between what Stalin and the Moscow Patriarch tried to do in the late 1940s and what Putin and Patriarch Kirill are trying to do now, promoting Moscow as the center of Orthodoxy by opposing recognition of new national autocephalous Orthodox churches and moving against Uniatism, are obvious.

            But Klimenko’s article carries with it a warning for Kirill: if he is not able to succeed in achieving what the Kremlin wants, he and his church may suffer a serious defeat not just among the other Orthodox churches of the world but also and more importantly in Russia where such a defeat could cost him Putin’s backing with all the ensuing consequences that would entail.


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