Staunton, February 24 – Given his desire to go down in history as the Russian leader who overcame the split between the Old Believer Church and the Moscow Patriarchate and also to unite Orthodoxy in Russia after the Ukrainian church achieved autocephaly, Vladimir Putin would very much like to promote the union of the Old Believers and the Russian Church.
But despite his repeated meetings with the head of the Old Believers and his expression of sympathy for them in the last several years, the Kremlin leader is unlikely to be able to achieve that goal because any union orchestrated by him would, close observers of Russian religious life say, lead to the rise of a new anti-Kremlin church.
That is because, these observers say, even if the Old Believer hierarchs agreed to union with the ROC MP, many clergy and followers of the Old Believer church would split away and form a new church, far more radical and opposed to the government than the current Old Believers are.
Not only does this highlight the inherent fissiparousness of Orthodox churches, but perhaps more important, it underscores the limits in what the Russian state with all its powers can do regarding the religious given that schism is always an option (znak.com/2021-02-24/kto_hochet_obedinit_rpc_so_staroobryadcami_chto_etomu_meshaet_i_vygodno_li_eto_kremlyu).
Earlier this month, Metropolitan Ilarion, who heads the ROC MP’s department for external church relations, said that “sooner or later we all will be reunited into the body of a single church,” words that followed Putin’s meeting with the leaders of the Old Believers and positive comments by Putin’s favorite churchman, Metropolitan Tikhon.
But Roman Atorin, spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Old Believer Church, said that none of these meetings or statements had as yet brought “any positive results” or addressed the differences in worldview and practice which have informed his church for 350 years since the original split.
According to those close to Metropolitan Kornelii and other leaders of the Old Believers, three things have come together to spark talk of union: the conjunction of anniversaries affecting the two churches, the ROC MP’s desire to gain complete control of Orthodoxy inside Russia after Ukrainian autocephaly, and Putin’s desire to promote a single stream of Russian history.
With regard to the last, one Old Believer leader says, “Putin now has a chance to go into history as the ruler who was able to overcome the schism, a man who corrected the mistake of the Romanovs.” But he and many in the ROC MP doubt that even the current Kremlin leader will be able to do so or even will push very hard in that direction.
As independent Orthodox commentator Andrey Kurayev puts it, Russian officials in the Kremlin certainly aren’t so foolish as to move in this direction. “It is completely obvious that the smallest movement in that direction will give rise to a schism among the Old Believers and that those who take part in it will be anti-Kremlin,” something that will only add to Putin’s problems.