Monday, June 29, 2020

Russian Church Elder Challenging Both Patriarchate and Russian State, Soldatov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 26 – Taking advantage of the coronavirus, confusion in the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Kremlin’s focus on the constitutional referendum, Shiigumen Sergiy is assembling around himself “an army from throughout the country” of thoses unhappy with both the church and the state, Aleksandr Soldatov says.

            Flocking to him, the Moscow commentator says, are various Donbass veterans, Cossacks, monarchists, anti-globalists, home schooling fanatics, and priests and monks who have been driven from their positions in the church (

            “The underwater portion of this iceberg,” Soldatov continues, “includes criminal leaders who are supported by ‘the elder’” and who are only too happy to use his ideological cover to promote their own activities. That all these groups have come together behind Sergiy is a reflection of his roots in three “subcultures.”

            He worked in the interior ministry, then committed murder and served 13 years in prison, and then joined the church where he was allowed to follow his own demons in the late 1990s because the regional church administration didn’t have enough priests and expected pilgrimages to the site of the murder of the Imperial Family to bring in revenue. 

            Sergiy was the perfect man to lead such activities given his links to the conservative wing of the ROC MP and his own willingness to work with criminal and militarist subcultures, Soldatov continues.  And if one adds to this, his ability to draw on “the mystical” and “the esoteric,” one can see why he has attracted the alienated from the patriarchate and the Kremlin.

            What many now call “’deep Orthodoxy’” is nothing new. It goes back to the 16th century or earlier and reemerges during periods of turmoil, the commentator says, as does the approach pushed by Sergiy and followed by perhaps as many as a thousand of his followers of retreating into the taiga and breaking all ties with outsiders, church and state.

            The majority of those who have back Sergiy, “following the ideology of the movement, are trying to minimize contacts with state organs and some are even burning their passports.” And that radicalism itself attracts many who have not yet been willing to take such dramatic steps themselves.

            Sergiy and his movement thus present serious challenges first to the church and then to the state. The church risks a split if it comes down too hard against him, but it risks losing its authority with the state and with more moderate Russians if it fails to do exactly that. At present, it appears to be using the pandemic to play for time.

            Taking into consideration how groups like Sergiy’s have become political in troubled times in the past, “the Yekaterinburg bishopric is warning about the danger of disorders up to and including the self-immolation of Sergiy and his followers if the monastery and hermitages [he and his followers now control] are stormed.”

            Such uncertainty on the part of the church and state is giving the elder additional chances to attract support and not just from the deeply conservative but from opponents of the church and the state more generally.  Any protest in Russia almost inevitably displays that pattern, Soldatov says; and Sergiy’s is no exception.

            That makes the future of his movement far more unpredictable and thus dangerous than many might think. And Sergiy for his part is quite prepared to go to the brink. Since Soldatov wrote his article, the conservative churchman has turned to the Internet to appeal to Russians to boycott Putin’s constitutional referendum (

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