Monday, June 27, 2016

Are Russia’s Old Believers Set to Become a Political Player – Or Are They Being Played?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 27 – For the first time since the Russian Orthodox Church split into the official and Old Believer trends over the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century, representatives of “practically all” heads of the latter have met together in Moscow and decided to cooperate as far as relations with the Russian state and compatriots abroad are concerned.

            The leaders of the Old Believers say, Pavel Korobov writes in “Kommersant,” that “it is time” for them to make their presence known and to create an organization which will allow them to “develop common answers on various questions that will be useful to society and the state” (

            Whether that will put Russia’s roughly two million Old Believers and their leaders at risk of being used by the state as the Moscow Patriarchate has been remains an open question, but this shift in the position of the Old Believer leadership from standing in isolation to the state, to cooperating with it at home and abroad compels one to ask it, even though Korobov doesn’t.

            The “Kommersant” journalist reports that the representatives of the Old Believer churches assembled in Moscow not in a church but in the Moscow House of Nationalities, a government institution, for a conference entitled “The Old Believers, the State and Society in the Contemporary World.”

            Metropolitan Kornilii told Korobov that “the conference is an historic event because for the first time in the entire history of the Old Believers, representatives of various trends of the old faith have come together to discuss the state of [their fellow believers] not only in Russia but in the entire world.”

            “We are thus making the first steps in joint work,” the metropolitan of Moscow and All Rus said. “Together we must begin to defend the ideals of the old faith in a rapidly changing world.”

            From 1650 to 1905, the Old Believers were officially considered schismatics. The official Russian Orthodox Church continued to view them that way until 1971 when a council of the Moscow Patriarchate lifted the denunciation that earlier Patriarchal leaders had passed on the Old Believers. Nonetheless, relations between the two trends have not been easy.

            For example, even now, the Old Believers are not defined by either the Patriarchate or the Russian state as “a traditional religion” of Russia and are thus not represented on church-state councils. Whether this meeting will open the way to a change in that is far from clear but remains unlikely in the short term, given continuing Old Believer hostility to the Patriarchate.

            At least potentially, the Old Believers could play an important role not only because of their numbers in Russia but also because of the existence of Old Believer communities in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Poland, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, the US, Canada, as well as “in Latin America and also in Australia,” Korobov notes.

            At their meeting in Moscow, Old Believer leaders took a position that may lead to a rapprochement with the Putin regime if not with Patriarch Kirill. They pointed out that “no missionary activity of the synod church in the past or oppressions over the entire history of Old Believers has taken from it as many sons and daughters … as global consumer society.”

            One Old Believer leader, Patriarch Aleksandr, told the meeting that “in order to meet the challenges, the Old Believers must broaden their educational work and ‘bring the Old Believer faith from the periphery of public life and not allow it to be converted into a folkloric reservation.”

            Metropolitan Kornilii echoed the patriarch. He said that Old Believers “plan to create an all-Old Believer public organization” that will not focus on doctrinal issues but rather “develop joint decisions on issues useful to society and the state and present them in the court of public opinion and to the authorities.”

            Some steps in this direction have already been taken. Earlier this year, the three largest Old Believer communities established a working group for the coordination of Old Believer positions regarding social and political questions, a step the leadership believes will help them advance their cause with the state.

            Korobov quotes Roman Lunkin, the president of the Russian Experts’ Guild on Religion and Law, about the prospects for the Old Believers in this regard.  “The potential of the Old Believers in the development of cultural and social ties with compatriots abroad is very large and will be welcomed.”

            “Obviously,” Lunkin said, “the Old Believers can’t compete with the official Russian Orthodox Church [but] they can become strong players in church-state relations.”  Thus they are certain to be the focus of greater attention by the government authorities than they have been in the past.

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