Staunton, Feb. 27 – The Russian Orthodox Church and its current leader Patriarch Kirill have so discredited the existing arrangements of the church’s relationship with the state that the church will have to be reformed in the future if it is to survive as something other than a propaganda mouthpiece for the regime, Andrey Desnitsky says.
The scholar at Vilnius University says that this crisis is compounded by the fact that the ROC MP, which stood at the source of Putin’s “Russian World” idea, is now, as a result of the continuing “parade of autocephalies” in the former Soviet republics becoming a contradiction in terms, “an imperial church without an empire.”
Obviously, he continues, the Russian church might overcome this by becoming a national church as have others but to do so, it must change its vision of itself and society and that will only happen if there are fundamental changes in the Russian state and the Russian society at large.
In a 21-page paper for the Reforum portal “Russian Orthodoxy after ‘the Russian World,” Desnitsky describes how the church sought to lay the groundwork of Putin’s ideology but now finds itself without the foundation that it needs to be anything but the obedient servant of the Kremlin (reforum.io/contents/uploads/2023/02/reforum-church.pdf).
Many have forgotten that “almost the first public manifesto of Putinism” was a 2008 film, “The Collapse of an Empire: Lessons from Byzantium,” that was produced by Archimandrite and now Metropolitan Tikhon Shevkunov, who is widely known as the Kremlin’s favorite within the church.
“The main idea of that film,” Lesnitsky writes, is that what happened to Byzantium must be a lesson for Russia: “a onetime great and glorious empire was destroyed by the barbaric West in union with home-grown liberals and oligarchs and also separatist nationalists.” To prevent that from happening in Russia, the Kremlin must take tough measures at home and abroad.
Shevkunov’s warning attracted Putin’s attention because it appeared to be supported by autocephalies abroad and activism at home, and the ROC MP voluntarily transformed itself into a handmaiden of the state to fight on both fronts, first against Pussy Riot inside Russia and then against Ukraine.
If the ROC MP is to become relevant to the Russian people in the future, it must break with the state and seek to unify the people rather than as now remain a tool of the state to keep the people in unfreedom. Whether that will happen depends not only on personalities and not only on the church itself.
Instead, Desnitsky says, it requires that that both the Russian people and the Russian state recognize that their best interests are served by a church that is more independent of the state than the ROC MP has been for the last two decades. Whether that will happen or whether the church will wither and die after Putin remain very much open questions.
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