Church Merger Mr. Putin's Acquisition

by Nadia Kizenko
Wall Street Journal, 25 May 2007

Last week, on the Christian feast of the Ascension, leaders of the emigre Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia agreed to re-establish "canonical communion" with the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate. Thousands stood in line to attend the celebration at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. But this was clearly an event of more than religious significance. The attendees were a veritable who's who of Russian political life, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and President Vladimir Putin, the merger's architect.

News media world-wide described the event as a step in overcoming Russia's tragic history. The New York Times called the merger "the symbolic end of Russia's civil war." But the reality is far more complicated. Not only are there theological and moral issues at stake, but there is also the suspicion among some that Mr. Putin is building new networks of influence by using the church to reach out to Russian emigre communities all over the world.

While lower-ranking clergy at the ceremony stressed the spiritual aspects of the merger, Patriarch Aleksy II emphasized other factors: He gave short shrift to God, but thanked President Putin.

Indeed, it was Mr. Putin who first made overtures to the Church Abroad in September 2003, when he met with its leadership during a visit to New York. The church merger is only the most recent of his successful attempts to appropriate symbols of Russia's prerevolutionary and anticommunist past along with Soviet ones. The "repatriating" of the Danilov monastery bells from Harvard University, and the bodies of the White Russian Gen. Anton Denikin from Jackson, N.J., and the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna from Copenhagen, have gone hand in hand with reintroducing the old Soviet anthem and the Red Army's flag. Mr. Putin is thus the first modern Russian leader to incorporate all aspects of Russia's "usable past" in claiming his legitimacy. The Russian Orthodox Church in all its forms is a key component of that past.

Now the Russian government is being heavily criticized for its authoritarian behavior. Mr. Putin needs friends anywhere he can find them. Having a ready-made network of 323 parishes and 20 monasteries in the U.S. alone, and over a million church members in 30 countries, will offer Russia greater influence abroad. This is particularly true because, according to the terms of the agreement, Moscow regains control over bishops' appointments and the right to open or close all parishes.

Less clear-cut are the moral issues the merger raises, particularly for the American-based Church Abroad. From the time when Russia became communist and atheist after 1917, the Church Abroad had sought to be the free voice of Russian Orthodoxy world-wide. Its independence was authorized by the courageous Patriarch Tikhon in 1920, who resisted Communist domination.

But in 1927, the Soviet government imprisoned the independent bishops and transferred leadership of the Russian Church to Metropolitan Sergii (Stragorodsky), who infamously declared that the Soviet Union's "joys and successes are our joys and successes, and [its] sorrows are our sorrows." From that moment, the official bishops inside of Russia did not utter a word of public protest to anything the state did, even though the country was drenched in the blood of tens of millions of people, many of whom were believers, and thousands of whom were clergy.

Instead, the leadership took to referring to Stalin as "the wise, God-appointed leader of our Great Union." In 1930, when the ruthless extermination of the faithful was at a fever pitch, Sergii announced, "There never has been religious persecution in the U.S.S.R., nor is there now."

Today's Moscow Patriarchate is the as-yet-unrepentant inheritor of this legacy. Rather than distancing himself from Sergii's appeasement, Patriarch Aleksy wrote a lengthy foreword to a 2003 biography, praising the "heroic path" taken by Sergii and viciously castigating the critics of this appeasement (including dissenting Orthodox groups in Russia and abroad). He has blessed the construction of a memorial complex in honor of Sergii, complete with a square, a museum and a monument. In 2005, Alexy wrote a congratulatory epistle to the president of Vietnam on the occasion of 30 years since the communist victory in the Vietnam War, calling it a "glorious anniversary." Similar letters were sent to the leaders of North Korea and Cuba.

As long as the Church Abroad existed as an independent entity, it implicitly challenged the authority of Moscow to speak for the Russian Church. It consistently denounced the collaboration of the church with the Communist Party, called for a more positive valuation of Russia's prerevolutionary and anticommunist past and served as a hopeful beacon to Orthodox Christians in Russia seeking an alternative.

Many in the Church Abroad wonder how this merger went through at all. The process was secretive, and there has even been speculation that some American businessmen with Russian ties helped to push it along. But now having accepted Moscow's authority, the former Church Abroad faces many questions. Can its leaders press Moscow to reject the church's tradition of collaborating with both the Kremlin and the KGB? Can they hold on to the church properties they have maintained for the past 80 years? Will the Moscow Church dispatch pro-Kremlin clergy to promote political aims? And, above all, can the leaders of the Church Abroad stem the tide of defection from the disappointed faithful that has already begun?

These problems may be averted if the Russian Church Abroad uses its new status to actively engage Moscow. But last week's glad-handing suggests that it is the Kremlin, rather than heaven, that is smiling on this union.


Ms. Kizenko is an associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Albany. (posted 25 May 2007)
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