At the Crucible of History: The Centenary of the Romanov Family’s Murder

Romanovs 1913

For today and tomorrow, I am using this photograph as my Facebook cover photo.

Many of you already know who these people are, but for those who do not, let me tell you why I am featuring them, and what they represent to me. Above all else, in terms of my thinking, keep in mind the premise that “those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it…”

First, let me begin with a quick note about the photograph: it was taken in 1913, 105 years ago. In 1913, World War I had not yet begun, Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States, George V King of Great Britain and Ireland. Pius X was Pope of Rome, while China had only just overthrown its millennia-old monarchy. An Ottoman sultan still reigned from Istanbul, while the Meiji Emperor had died in Tokyo the year before. Most homes in the world used neither electricity nor gas, most people used horses or carriages rather than cars, and the wealthiest kings and captains of industry were just as vulnerable as the poorest factory worker or pauper to numerous diseases which we now no longer have among us.

Look at this family pictured here, seemingly of a world so far removed from our own, a century apart, and see if you can find a glimpse into their unique personalities. Look at their faces: the two eldest daughters on the photo’s left and right edges, beautiful in the golden age of their late teens. Notice the shy, inquisitive gaze of the oldest, on the left, and the somewhat bolder smile and direct gaze of the next-oldest, on the right. The youngest daughter, whom her parents called the ‘Imp’ for her mischievous ways, stands next to her clearly naturally reserved father, arm-in-arm with the family’s youngest child, her brother and the only son. Standing in the back, the mother, who looks so much like her own maternal grandmother, places her arm on her husband’s chair; even in this photo, worry etches her face, while to her right, our left, the middle daughter, whose face radiates kindness, looks on with a thoughtful stare.

Who were these people, who was this family? What happened to them only five years after they sat for this photograph, a moment in history when their father and husband’s dynasty had, been on the throne of Russia for three hundred years and seemed certain to continue in power for generations to come?

One hundred years ago, in the pre-dawn hours of July 17, 1918, the unlawfully imprisoned Imperial Family of Russia—held without any semblance of legal authority or pretense—was murdered by a team of Bolshevik Cheka secret police along with four of their devoted servants and assistants. This was both a horrific tragedy and a history-changing political murder.

The murdered family members were: the Emperor Nicholas II Romanov (50), his wife, Queen Victoria’s beloved granddaughter, the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna (46), their four daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19), and Anastasia (17), and their son, the Grand Duke and Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich (13).

Murdered with them were their four devoted servants and friends who chose to share their exile and imprisonment: their physician Dr Eugene Botkin (53), footman Alexei Trupp (62), cook Ivan Kharitonov (47), and maid Anna Demidova (40). All the servants who stayed with the Imperial Family and shared their martyrdom were Orthodox, save for Trupp, who was a Catholic Latvian, but, interestingly, he was also glorified as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) along with the others in 1981.

The murders took place in the dimly lit cellar of the Ipatiev House in the isolated town of Yekaterinburg, Ural Siberia. Led by Yakov Yurovsky, the ten killers were all convinced atheistic Bolshevik revolutionaries from Baltic Latvia and Lithuania.

The Emperor, the Empress, the two oldest Grand Duchesses, and the men died from the initial hail of bullets; the Tsarevich, Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia, and Anna Demidova survived the initial blasts. The princesses, wearing diamonds and other gems sewn into their dresses, were savagely bayoneted along with their brother and Demidova, who attempted to fight back. One of the family’s poor dogs, a French bulldog, was also killed, while another escaped and was later found and adopted by the anti-Bolshevik (White) Army soldiers. These details are disturbing to read and to learn, but I believe that we must know these things to understand the depths of the utter evil and the sadism that motivated the murderers, both those who gave the order and those who drunkenly carried it out.

The most disturbing part is that Lenin and all his lieutenants had—after inventing a revolutionary propaganda machine to spread both slander and distorted half-truths about the Tsar and his policies—somehow convinced themselves that these heinous murders were for the ‘good’ of ‘The People’ and the totalitarian cause of advancing the Soviet Proletariat against its ‘Class Enemies’…

The order to kill them all—not only the Emperor, but his wife, children, and their servants—came directly from Lenin and his lieutenants Yakov Sverdlov and Filipp Goloshchyokin. Not content merely with killing the Emperor, Empress, and their children and servants, their killers mutilated the victims’ bodies and then attempted to destroy them by kerosene and fire before irreverently dumping them nearby at Ganina Yama.

The very next day, July 18th, 1918, the Bolsheviks killed the late Empress’ older sister, who was also the late Emperor’s aunt-by-marriage, the widowed Grand Duchess-turned-nun-and-abbess Elizabeth Fyodorovna. Along with her devoted former maid and fellow nun Varvara Yakovleva and several cadet princes of the Romanov family, the Grand Duchess was taken by the Bolsheviks to an old mine shaft at Alapaevsk, clubbed on the head, and thrown alive down the mine shaft. Save for one grand duke, Sergei Mikhailovitch, who had been shot, the others survived the fall and sang hymns down in the shaft until they died of Bolshevik grenade blasts, smoke inhalation from burning brushwood that the Bolsheviks threw down upon them, or blood loss.

One of the most beloved women in Moscow who was immensely popular with the faithful for all her social work and loving kindness—in some ways comparable to a kind of Russian Orthodox Mother Teresa figure—the Bolsheviks didn’t dare arrest Abbess-Grand Duchess Elizabeth in broad daylight. Like her sister, brother-in-law, young nieces and nephew, and millions of other future victims of Soviet repression and mass murder, Grand Duchess Elizabeth was arrested without legal pretense, imprisoned, and ultimately killed under shadow of darkness.

Glorified as martyrs in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) in 1981, and glorified as passion-bearing saints in the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, the Imperial Family and their dear servants are widely venerated throughout the Orthodox world. Many Catholics and high church Protestants also revere them as well. They are viewed by most Orthodox as martyrs (Gr. ‘witnesses’) who were killed in large measure due to their killers’ utter hatred for all religion, Christianity generally, but Orthodoxy in particularly. Others view them as ‘passion-bearers’—those who went to their deaths with Christ-like composure, forgiveness, and long-suffering.

In the short term, the brutal murders achieved what Lenin had sought—eliminating the main focal point for the unity of anti-communist White Army resistance to the Bolshevik Red Army. Within several years as the Russian Civil War began to wind down under Lenin, Trotsky, and then Stalin’s brutal regime, the United States recognized the USSR as a legitimate political entity and established full diplomatic relations with it, with other countries quickly following suit.

Yet today, increasing public veneration of the Imperial Family in Russia and Eastern Europe represents one of the most visible healings of memory. For many, it is an inseparable part of the ongoing civil society transformations of post-Soviet Russian cultural, political, and religious life. Just as many formerly communist countries have torn down their Soviet-era statues of Lenin and Stalin, statues of Nicholas II and his family and shrines to their memory have risen across Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia, with plans for more to follow.

“Those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it”. Today millions of Western schoolchildren rightfully learn about the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, but very few are educated about the horrors of the Soviet holocausts and various communist purges and revolutions, in which tens of millions of people have died as “enemies of the People”. This was not just in Russia and China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, North Korea, and Cuba, but all across the world. In Vietnam, Cambodia, Georgia, Armenia, Angola, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, and Mongolia, millions of people died under communist firing squads, in gulags, concentration camps, torture chambers, mental hospitals, etc. Millions more died of deliberate famine-inducing policies and purges of dissent. People must learn of communism’s murderous history or, in their ignorance, they will be more likely to sympathize with its proponents today and ignore the historical realities of its massive abuses and murders.

While controversial among some Westerners for how the Russian government has utilized the Romanovs’ murders to foster conservative nationalist and Orthodox political sentiments (it is worth noting here that all governments engage in co-opting national historical events and prominent personalities for ideological purposes), the growing popular veneration of the Imperial Family today is also undoubtedly part of something else, a reality that transcends a purely earthly political dimension. This is something that, while often connected to political considerations, also exists independent of them: the ongoing spiritual process of a gradual re-Christianization of Russian society after the +70 year experiment in atheistic communist Soviet dictatorship. This was an experiment with many scientific and medical achievements, but also one of innumerable totalitarian horrors, persecutions, and genocidal levels of engineered starvation in Kazakhstan and Ukraine, which, along with all the purges, claimed the lives of tens of millions of people from 1918 to 1991.

Through the wise actions and policies of so many brave men and women across the world, and, I believe, Divine Providence, this murderous experiment collapsed in less than eight decades where it had first been violently launched a century ago. A century ago today, the men ruling Russia ordered the murder of its previous ruler, its last monarch of a three centuries-old dynasty, and his entire family and household. Today, the people ruling Russia overwhelmingly abhor the ideology that inspired these murders, and instead many of them are among the patrons and pilgrims of the commemorations going on across Russian cities and towns today. In only a century, think of all that has changed. Think, too, of those who, even now, seek to bring to Western countries the communist policies which led to untold suffering for tens of millions in Russia, Eastern Europe, and indeed worldwide.

In remembering and honoring the Romanovs today and tomorrow—and all the tens of millions of victims of Soviet and communist oppression everywhere—let us keep in mind the historical nuances surrounding their lives and deaths, the examples found in both, and the reality of the hope of our Resurrection above all else. May they intercede for us all before the Throne of God!

Analyzing the transformation of Church-State Relations in Russia from 1987 to 2008

The “Gorbachev Revolution” and Beyond: An End to State Repression and an Organic Orthodox Resurgence, 1987-2008:

The quarter century that has passed since the fall of the USSR has seen the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) [1] as a major force in Russian public and political life. Given that the Church is the only ancient public institution which survived Soviet rule, and that it serves to tie Russians to their pre-revolutionary national culture and history, understanding how it came to revitalize and resurrect its cultural influence and political power in the wake of the Soviet collapse is crucial to understanding Russia today. Russian church-state relations beginning with Gorbachev in the mid-1980s were marked by an end to the Soviet policy of marginalization and repression of the MP and growing state toleration of Church influence. The seeds for much of the Church’s rapid rise in political prominence, influence, and power under Yeltsin and especially Putin may be found, ironically, in Gorbachev’s personal attitudes and official changes in state policy toward the Church during his tenure at the helm of a USSR where, ironically, Marxist-Leninism and atheism remained official state ideologies until the 1991 collapse. Patriarch Aleksey II proved crucial to developing, along with Gorbachev and later Yeltsin, many aspects of this new church-state relationship which marked a complete departure from Soviet leaders’ entrenched anti-Church attitudes, laws, and policies before 1985. By the fall of the USSR, the Church’s resurgence and revitalization had already begun, and would only deepen and grow stronger in the following years.

Gorbachev and the Church’s new-found freedom: mid-1980s to 1991

As Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) observed in a January 2008 lecture one year prior to then-DECR chairman Metropolitan Kirill’s election as Patriarch and Hilarion’s own appointment as Kirill’s replacement, the case for a genuine religious reawakening in Russia can be made from as far back as the period of perestroika and glasnost under Gorbachev in the mid-to-late 1980s when Russia remained an officially atheistic communist republic. [2] As former Reagan adviser and Russian cultural historian Suzanne Massie observed in a lecture she gave at the Washington DC Kennan Institute in December 2008 [3], by the 1980s, an astonishing “55 million Russians were willing to say that they were Orthodox (almost three times as many as were in the Communist party).” [4] That a solid majority of Russians identified themselves as Orthodox in an officially atheistic political society is remarkable and speaks to the tenacity of Orthodox identity as an integral part of historical memory for most Russians. One telling anecdote Massie noted in her lecture, is that when reporters asked Gorbachev in France whether or not he had been baptized, he responded incredulously “Yes, isn’t everybody?” [5] [6]. For the leader of the Soviet Union to utter these words is nothing short of astonishing, and speaks to the Church’s quiet but continued influence among ordinary Russians despite intermittent waves of persecution under the communist regime.

A major watershed moment for the Church came leading up to the 1988 millennial anniversary of the historic baptism of Kievan Rus under Prince Vladimir the Great, in which, ironically, major state-supported religious celebrations took place in Kiev, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and many other cities. [7] While many anti-Kremlin Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox leaders and faithful laity opposed and protested the Soviet-sponsored celebrations, successfully urging Pope John Paul II not to attend any of the events in the USSR but to send a delegation in his place [8], major Orthodox dignitaries from around the world did attend. The Ecumenical Patriarch was, however, notably absent.

In the wake of these celebrations in numerous Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian churches, and the previously unimaginable state-sponsored publication of commemorative plaques, medals, and history books about the Millennium, the atmosphere of greater openness Gorbachev sought to encourage resulted in something happening which was unthinkable before his tenure: the Soviet state returned many desecrated churches and confiscated ecclesiastical properties to the Church. This began before the anniversary, but culminated with the symbolic handing back of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra [9], the center of Orthodox spiritual life in Ukraine, to the MP. Despite that many Ukrainian observers disappointedly noted how the commemorative events centered around Moscow, not Kiev [10], even if the celebrations were Russocentric, they were nevertheless enthusiastically observed throughout the USSR. Soon after the Millennium, the Soviet state sent shockwaves throughout Orthodox and Catholic circles by lifting the universal ban on religious broadcasts on state television. As Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey — Massie’s friend and a former Hillwood Museum docent [11] — observed in an interview, this meant that for the first time in Soviet history, both Orthodox believers and non-catechized Russians curious about their patrimonial Church could view Orthodox religious services on state television, the primary source of electronic media. As Ms. Swezey recalled, these services were immensely popular in part because everyone wanted the thrill of participating in history, in something that had until only recently been forbidden.

Ms. Swezey’s friend and spiritual father, whom she aided for over a decade as his personal assistant, was a Russian Orthodox bishop Basil Rodzianko (formerly Fr. Vladimir, 1915-1999) [12]. A veteran BBC religious news broadcaster to the Soviet Union who produced thousands of tape cassettes of Orthodox spiritual talks, sermons, and reflections, in the late 1980s Bishop Basil produced a widely circulated Russian language video “Reemergence” on the ongoing revitalization of the Church in Russian public life. Russians widely regarded Vladyka Vasily as a starets in the Orthodox mystical tradition; as my godmother, his assistant, told me, on one visit to a rural Russian village in the early 1990s, babushki crowded around him exclaiming “He is with the angels!”. Bishop Basil was formed spiritually during his Belgrade youth by Church luminaries living there at the time such as Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky), the first First Hierarch of ROCOR, and the future St John (Maximovitch), archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco. [13]

Ms. Swezey credits Gorbachev’s reformist political policies with “liberating” the Church from what Bishop Basil and all his episcopal friends in Russia regarded as the “Soviet captivity” under Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. She helped Bishop Basil and a Washington DC committee in defense of persecuted Christians organize the first ever state-approved religious pilgrimage to visit historic Russian churches and monasteries for the 1987 Nativity and Theophany celebrations. Ms. Swezey emphasized that this would have been unthinkable before Gorbachev; his predecessors simply never would have allowed it. Bishop Basil’s radio broadcasts had inspired a large popular following in Russia, and many people recognized him during the 1987 pilgrimage from his distinctive voice.

At this time, the timid Patriarch Pimen headed the Church (r. 1971-1990); he had endured house arrest for a number of years and rumored torture, as Bishop Basil recalled, and was unwilling to approach the Soviet authorities about the upcoming 1988 Millennial celebrations for fear of incurring their displeasure. Bishop Basil was aware from his close contacts on the MP Synod that, prior to Gorbachev, neither Brezhnev nor his two elderly, old guard successors had been willing to permit the Church to plan any public commemorations of the Millennial anniversary in major Soviet cities, especially Kiev and Moscow. In contrast to this ideological refusal, Gorbachev’s openness represented a virtual sea change in state attitudes toward the Church as an institution in Soviet public life.

One example of this radical change under Gorbachev, as Ms. Swezey related in the interview, was at a major diplomatic reception in the Kremlin in fall 1986. Bishop Basil’s friends on the Synod informed him that at the reception, at which both Gorbachev and Patriarch Pimen were present, the General Secretary approached the Patriarch, asking him “are you having any difficulties in your preparations for the Millennial celebration?” , knowing full well that he was. The Patriarch, taken aback, responded “no”. The General Secretary replied diplomatically, “Well, if you do have any difficulties, let me know” and the state would step in to help. As a result of this conversation, and the tidal wave it represented of a subtle but definitive change in official state attitude toward the Church, soon after it was announced that the ancient, crumbling Danilov Monastery in Moscow would be fully restored and serve as the principal patriarchal administrative center and site of the Millennial celebrations. By the time of Ms. Swezey and Bishop Basil’s pilgrimage with American Orthodox believers in January 1987, major restoration work on the monastery had already begun. These construction and restoration projects could never have occurred before Gorbachev’s tenure.

Ms. Swezey emphasized that most of this repair work was not financed by state coffers or supervised by the Soviet authorities, but represented a genuine, large-scale, organic outpouring of support and labour from all segments of Russian society. Ordinary babushki, specialist artisans, and thousands of ordinary Russian men and women set about donating what they could and helping physically in the restoration efforts at the Danilov and other monasteries and churches, mirroring the later efforts under Patriarch Aleksey in the 1990s to rebuild Christ the Saviour Cathedral which Stalin had demolished in 1931. [14]

One cannot ignore the personal aspect of Gorbachev’s reasons for so abruptly and completely reversing his predecessors’ restrictive approach to the Church. As Bishop Basil recalled to Ms. Swezey, it was universally known among Orthodox believers that Gorbachev’s mother was an active churchgoer and dedicated parish council member in Stavropol. After becoming General Secretary, Gorbachev ensured that a new parish church was built close to his mother’s residence.

Ms. Swezey described how, in her view,

the whole country came to do the work and donated rubles. The Church seemed to come together as people came to do the reconstruction and restoration projects — not just carpenters and masons and other specialists, but ordinary grandmothers and unskilled male laborers. Somehow the Church collected the money needed for all the construction projects, and this was no easy task, as the Danilov, among so many others like it, was in a state of rubble and near collapse.

Gorbachev not only designated the Danilov as the principal locus of the upcoming Millennial events, but facilitated the construction of a new administrative building from which to oversee the restoration work. Talking with a young monk at the Danilov who spoke excellent English, the American Orthodox pilgrims led by Bishop Basil and Ms. Swezey learned a revolutionary bit of news: the monk said quietly “Well, you see, we believe that the celebration of the Millennium will bring about a new baptism of Rus” and the reemergence of the Church as a prominent force in public life. Ms. Swezey clarified that this meant that Church leaders and ordinary faithful anticipated an organic revival of the Church’s position, but not the fall of communism itself. Like most clergy, Bishop Basil always attributed the rapid fall of the USSR to God’s providence.

Around this time, Bishop Basil learned that Gorbachev had asked four senior MP Synod bishops to meet with him, and that he had proposed an unprecedented, revolutionary alliance which violated the core tenets of Marxist-Leninism’s view of religion generally as an enemy of the working class and Bolshevism’s view of Orthodoxy in particular as backwards, superstitious nonsense. In the wake of Gorbachev’s campaigns to push for a more open and healthy society, Bishop Basil’s episcopal friends told him that the General Secretary asked the Synod bishops to enlist the Church’s cooperation in helping to restore what he called “moral values”, offering the Church a major cultural role in the public life of what he envisioned as a new, revitalized Soviet society. This shift in 1987-88 not only marked the end of all remaining Soviet state attempts to marginalize the Church, but instead prefigured the future efforts of Yeltsin in the 1990s and Putin since the early 2000s to co-opt the Church and use its influence to buttress government policies and ideals.

Under Aleksey II and Yeltsin: Greater transparency, confronting the Soviet legacy, renewed public prominence, and the seeds of close cooperation between Church and State:

Patriarch Pimen’s death in 1990 and the election to choose his successor marked a second major watershed; this was the first free (non-Soviet controlled) patriarchal election since the 1917 All-Russia Sobor raised St Tikhon as the first Patriarch since Peter I let the office fall into abeyance. Whereas Pimen and his predecessor Aleksey I (r. 1945-70) had presided over a Church which was completely dominated by, collaborated with, and subservient to the communist state [15], Aleksey II was the first patriarch to lead the Church in the post-Soviet era. He was chosen in large measure due to his established “reputation as a conciliator, a person who could find common ground with various groups in the episcopate.” [16] As Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) observed in a December 2013 interview with Pravmir, prior to his elevation as Patriarch, then-Metropolitan Aleksey served as a member of the Supreme Soviet, the highest parliamentary body, and he was thus well acquainted with all senior Soviet leaders at the time of his election. [17] As one of the archbishops who voted for his election observed in the MP’s official journal in October 1990, “With his peaceful and tolerant disposition Patriarch Aleksi will be able to unite us all.” [18] Aleksey was thus expected to be a conciliator and peace-builder who would work to resolve the tensions in Soviet (and soon, post-Soviet) society without upsetting the communist old guard who had reluctantly agreed not to interfere in the election process.

Unlike his two Russian predecessors whom Stalinist repression had cowed, Aleksey was born in Tallinn to an ethnically Baltic German family of emigres who had fled the 1917 Revolution. He grew up in a religious family prior to the Soviet invasion of his country, and thus, he was raised in a society in which the Church was essentially free. During his first year in office, as Soviet institutions remained paralyzed, the economy struggled, and millions of citizens suffered the fear and uncertainty of not knowing what the year would hold politically and economically, Aleksey shrewdly capitalized on the Soviet state’s weakness to insist on an increasingly public place for the Church in society. [19] Whereas Pimen had been shocked and unprepared for Gorbachev’s openness and desire to work with the Church, Aleksey quickly became a vocal advocate of what he regarded as the Church’s rights, calling for the Soviet government to allow religious education in state schools [20] and for a “freedom of conscience” law to protect believers from discrimination. [21] During the attempted communist hardliner coup in August 1991, the Patriarch shocked the Soviet old guard by publicly denouncing the plotters’ arrest of Gorbachev. [22] He went further and declared the plotters excommunicated (a largely symbolic gesture, since they were all atheists, this kind of bold gesture of defying the communists would have been unimaginable five years earlier). In a series of press releases and public statements, the Patriarch denounced the communist junta as illegitimate, implored the military not to attack the legitimate elected authorities, and demanded that Gorbachev be allowed to address the Soviet people. [23]

In order to better understand how the Church came to dominate Russian public and political life as it does today, it is crucial to first realize that the Orthodox religious revitalization began under Gorbachev, who, ironically, played a leading role in reviving this ancient anti-communist institution which would ultimately outlast the Soviet state he sought to restore. While Gorbachev departed from power in 1991 following the dissolution of the USSR, Patriarch Aleksey remained as the earthly head of the Church until his death seventeen years later.

As patriarch in post-Soviet Russia after 1991, Aleksey presided over Orthodoxy’s historic revitalization and re-emergence in Russian public life. It is a telling sign of his tenacity that Aleksey managed to outlast Yeltsin’s time in office, attend and formally bless the new President Putin’s first inauguration in May 2000, and, upon his death in December 2008 and his almost-official state-level funeral, receive official words of praise and elegies from both Putin and Medvedev.

Ms. Swezey recounted from her many visits to Russia how the Patriarch managed to retain a degree of popularity as his Church grew in appeal and public stature while old Soviet institutions crumbled, the Russian economy floundered under hyperinflation, and public confidence in democratically elected President Yeltsin quickly evaporated. As the economy worsened, the churches filled, becoming, as she recalls, stiflingly crowded on major holidays. Unlike his predecessors who never dared to publicly criticize the Soviet regime, during Aleksey’s first official visit to Germany in 1995, the Patriarch publicly apologized for the “Communist tyranny that had been imposed upon the German nation by the USSR”, for which Russian Communists criticized him for his supposed insult to Russian national memory. [24]

Symbolic of the Church’s ever-increasing role in public life, Patriarch Aleksey presided over the combined country-wide and international effort to rebuild the historic Christ the Saviour Cathedral in central Moscow, which Alexander I had ordered erected as a monument to Russia’s overcoming Napoleon’s Grand Army in 1812. Donations poured in from across Russia and the Orthodox world, and momentum continued to build for the temple’s dedication as a monument to all victims of Soviet oppression.

Ms. Swezey observed how it was universally known among all Russians that every Orthodox cleric, every seminarian seeking an ecclesiastical career in the USSR had to have a modus vivendi with the KGB; they were vetted by KGB officials and received frequent visits from their designated KGB handlers. Every Russian patriarch from Sergey on was rumored to have been a secret KGB agent, which the MP strenuously denies to this day. In an unprecedented gesture of transparency and reconciliation, Patriarch Aleksey boldly discussed the issue of collaboration between MP clergy and the Soviet state in a wide-ranging interview with Izvestia in June 1991, imploring forgiveness for the role Soviet-era hierarchs had in agreeing to the Soviet domination of the Church:

Before those people, however, to whom the compromises, silence, forced passivity or expressions of loyalty permitted by the leaders of the church in those years caused pain, before these people, and not only before God, I ask forgiveness, understanding and prayers. [25]

Serge Schmemann, award-winning son of the late Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann [26] and former Associated Press and New York Times Moscow Bureau chief, noted in November 1991 in The Times the many challenges facing Aleksey in the post-Soviet era:

Standing at the center of the magnificent Cathedral of St. Isaac [St Petersburg]… diamonds and rubies glittering from his miter and staff and with a host of Romanov princes, politicians and worshipers arrayed around him, Patriarch Aleksy II… was the image of the church victorious over seven decades of militant atheism.

Not long ago the great domed cathedral was a state museum, the Romanovs were a curse, no Soviet politician would dare step foot in a working church and Patriarch Aleksy was a bishop locked in a running struggle with atheist watchdogs of the State Council of Religious Affairs.

[F]or all the obvious gains of the Russian Orthodox Church and of religious freedoms in the years of perestroika, the 62-year-old Patriarch, like his country and his church, is also a leader who faces a barrage of new problems raised by the sudden outbreak of freedom.

In his sermon in St. Isaac Cathedral, the Patriarch… spoke of the urgent need for tolerance and unity. Those are themes to which the Patriarch returns often, as he did in a recent interview in Moscow.

[H]e seemed in personal awe as he checked off the statistics of the Russian church’s rapid revival. More than 5,000 parishes opened since 1988, 106 in Moscow alone. Baptisms tripled, marriages increased ninefold, the number of monasteries up from 18 to 121.

And yet the Patriarch also spoke, as he has in many sermons and speeches, of the deep and profound damage left by Communism.

“The greatest wound inflicted by the Communist dictatorship was lack of spirituality,” he said. “All other evils were the result of the planned, systematic and total eradication from the souls and consciousness of the people of the very notion of ‘spirituality.’ I am not even talking about the disgusting anti-church propaganda and actions against the church.” “I never thought the moment would come,” acknowledged the Patriarch,..

“We have to rebuild everything — charity, catechism,” he said. “The new generation has forgotten everything — the very word charity was barred from dictionaries. An immediate revival is impossible, but the will is there.” [27]

Symbolic of Russian society seeking to reexamine its immediate pre-Soviet past and freeing itself from Soviet communist propaganda, Aleksey II presided over the glorification of hundreds of Russian “New Martyrs” — bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and laity killed by the communist regime– including Grand Duchess and Abbess Elizabeth Romanova, widowed sister to the last empress, in 1992, and in 2000 the glorification of the “Royal New Martyrs”, the last Imperial Family, as “passion-bearers” (the assassinated Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarevich Aleksey, the Grand Duchesses, et cetera).

In September 1997, another major watershed moment in Russian church-state political relations took place when the widely unpopular President Yeltsin signed into law, despite vocal American opposition, a parliamentary bill “that protects the Russian Orthodox Church from competition with other Christian faiths…”. [28] While not officially establishing Orthodoxy as the state religion (forbidden by the Russian Constitution), “the law create[d] a hierarchy of religious groups, with the Russian Orthodox Church firmly ensconced in the first and most privileged category while rival Christian groups are afforded a secondary status.” [29]

Patriarch Aleksey unsurprisingly praised the law which cemented his Church’s predominant legal and political position, saying ”Today’s law is another step toward perfecting the legislation that secures and defends the rights of Russia’s believers”. [30] Despite that U.S. Vice President Al Gore had urged senior Russian politicians to persuade Yeltsin to veto the bill, and that President Clinton had personally urged Yeltsin not to sign it, the Church lobbied successfully to pass the legislation, which restricted the legal rights of faiths (mainly Protestants, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses) that did not have a long-established presence in Russia to organize, proselytize, and build houses of worship. [31]

For those who would espouse the Western liberal critical view and blame President Putin and Patriarch Kirill for (by Western standards) an inappropriate church-state relationship today, this law is vital to understanding that as early as 1997 the Church was essentially operating as a quasi-established state religion, a protected and state-supported institution, and that it was President Yeltsin, the Western-friendly ‘democrat’, and Patriarch Aleksey II, not Putin and Kirill, who presided over this new arrangement. It is astonishing that, in only a decade, the Church went from being a cowed, barely public institution in an officially atheist state under a timid Pimen (a man who had no idea how to influence Gorbachev) to being protected under Aleksey as a semi-established state religion.

 

The Church in Putin’s Russia: Developing into the unofficial State Church, 2000 to today

Putin’s first inauguration ceremony in May 2000 solidified in a symbolic way the Church’s increasingly dominant role as the preeminent religious institution in Russian society. The Patriarch was not only prominently present at the inauguration in a seat of honor, but he formally blessed the new Russian president with the sign of the cross in the name of the Trinity, and presented Putin with an icon of St Alexander Nevsky.

Photograph courtesy of Kremlin.ru: Inside the Dormition Cathedral (Uspenskiy Sobor) in the Kremlin, the Patriarch presents new Russian president Vladimir Putin with an icon of St. Alexander Nevsky at the latter’s presidential inauguration, 7 May 2000.

 

As this photograph shows, Putin began his first term as president with the Church’s full symbolic (and literal) blessing. How did church-state relations develop in Russia to the point that in 2015, to all intents and purposes, the Church has become the unquestionably leading religious institution in Russia, whose Paschal and Nativity services the President and Prime Minister publicly attend each year at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral? [32] One of the watershed moments was the 19 May 2007 signing of the Act of Canonical Communion between the MP under Patriarch Aleksey and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR) under Metropolitan Laurus at the Cathedral in the presence of then-President Putin and then-Prime Minister Medvedev. [33] All Orthodox bishops I have talked with about the Act reported that the President had taken a keen interest in the restoration of communion (all these hierarchs likewise hold the President in high regard, including ROCOR’s present First Hierarch, Metropolitan Hilarion Kapral, and the OCA’s [34] former reigning Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen, now a retired ROCOR bishop). It is impossible to know for certain whether Putin’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the reconciliatory Act is an example of his calculating politically to use the rupture between the Russian Church in and outside of Russia to solidify his political appeal among Orthodox around the world and Russian Orthodox in particular living abroad, or the genuine desire of a devout Orthodox believer who happens to be the Russian president to help facilitate the historic reconciliation. It is entirely possible that both political calculation and genuine piety informed Putin’s role in supporting the Act.

The extent to which, by 2008, Church and state had become firmly intermeshed and intertwined is evident with the Kremlin’s reaction to Patriarch Aleksey II’s death in December of that year. Immediately following his death, President Medvedev — widely held to be more personally devout than Putin — issued a presidential ukaz which “enjoined” that on the day of the Patriarch’s burial Russian cultural organizations and news broadcasters should cancel entertaining programs. [35] This decree stopped just short of ordering a day of full, official national mourning. While the President issued his decree, the Prime Minister (Putin) released a statement via Interfax, an official state news source, lauding Aleksey as a “a prominent figure in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as a great statesman” who “made a very considerable contribution to relations between various faiths.” [36] Putin also acknowledged that Aleksey “did a great deal to help establish a new governance system in Russia”. [37] Along with their wives, both Medvedev and Putin attended the funeral liturgy in Christ the Saviour Cathedral presided over by the Orthodox primus inter pares Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. [38] [39]

From left: Russian President Vladimir Putin, his then-wife Ludmila Putina, Svetlana Medvedeva, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at Aleksey II’s funeral liturgy in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow.

Bibliography

Aleksey II: Patriarch of Moscow”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 19 January 2008. Accessed 28 November 2015. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Aleksey-II

Davis, Nathaniel. A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Westview Press, 2003).

Gedney, Adam. “Reunification Service ROCOR and Moscow Patriarchate [Full] Moscow 5-19-2007”. YouTube. 29 December 2014. Accessed 28 November 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_Rq7px-Z0c

Gordon, Michael R. “Irking U.S., Yeltsin signs law protecting Orthodox Church”.  The New York Times. 27 September 1997. Accessed 28 November 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/27/world/irking-us-yeltsin-signs-law-protecting-orthodox-church.html

Greeley, Andrew. “A Religious Revival in Russia?”. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), page 253. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1386689?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Hunter, Ryan. “A short history of Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow”. Pravoslavie.ru. 14 October 2015. Accessed 29 November 2015. http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/86793.htm

Hunter, Ryan. “Remembering a spiritual giant of our time”. Juicy Ecumenism: The Institute on Religion & Democracy’s Blog. 17 September 2013. Accessed 29 November 2015. https://juicyecumenism.com/2013/09/17/remembering-a-spiritual-giant-of-our-time/

Interfax Religion. “Death of Alexy II a tragic and sorrowful event – Putin”. 5 December 2008. Accessed 28 November 2015.  http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=5458

Kolarz, Walter. Religion in the Soviet Union (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966).

Kutash, Ihor G. “The Soviet Union Celebrates 1000 Years of Christianity”. Christian History. Christian History Institute. Issue 18. Accessed 30 November 2015. https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/soviet-union-celebrates-1000-years-christianity/

Leustean, LucianEastern Christianity and the Cold War, 1945-91. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2009. 

Massie, Suzanne. “Reagan’s Evolving Views on Russia and Their Relevance Today”. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Kennan Institute. December 1, 2008. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Massie.pdf

“Патриарх Алексий завершил свой земной путь”. 9 December 2008. Accessed 30 November 2015. http://newsru.com/religy/09dec2008/pohoronypatriarha.html 

Pospielovsky, Dimitry. The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998).

Pravmir. “The Russian Orthodox Church and Contemporary Events: Dispelling the Myths”. Pravmir.com. 15 December 2013. Accessed 28 November 2015. http://www.pravmir.com/the-russian-orthodox-church-and-contemporary-events-dispelling-the-myths/

Sanidopoulos, John. “Atheism and Orthodoxy in Modern Russia”. 27 January 2011. Accessed 28 November 2015. http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/01/atheism-and-orthodoxy-in-modern-russia.html

Schmemann, Serge. “St. Petersburg Journal; Patriarch’s Church Revives, but Will Spirituality?”. The New York Times. 9 November 1991. Accessed 29 November 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/09/world/st-petersburg-journal-patriarch-s-church-revives-but-will-spirituality.html

Shevkunov, Archimandrite Tikhon (now Bishop). “His Eminence the Novice”. “Everyday Saints” and Other Stories. Accessed 29 November 2015. http://everyday-saints.com/eminence.htm

Указ Президента № 1729/2008. Kremlin.ru. 7 December 2008. Accessed 28 November 2015.

VideoNews. “Russian President attends Easter services at Moscow cathedral”. YouTube. 12 April 2015. Accessed 28 November 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeOJXO0619g

Weekly, The Ukrainian. “1988: A Look Back: The Year of the Millennium”, The Ukrainian Weekly. 25 December, 1988, No. 52, Vol. LVI. Accessed 29 November 2015. http://www.ukrweekly.com/old/archive/1988/528813.shtml

Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii. No. 10 (October), 1990, p.16, quoted in Nathaniel Davis, A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Westview Press, 2003).

 

End Notes

[1] Hereafter, for brevity and consistency’s sake, I will refer to the Moscow Patriarchate as the “MP” and the Russian Orthodox Church as “the Church”.

[2] Sanidopoulos, John, “Atheism and Orthodoxy in Modern Russia”. 27 January 2011. Accessed 28 November 2015. http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/01/atheism-and-orthodoxy-in-modern-russia.html

[3] A lecture at which my godmother was present.

[4] Massie, Suzanne,“Reagan’s Evolving Views on Russia and Their Relevance Today”, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Kennan Institute. December 1, 2008. Page 6. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Massie.pdf

[5] Ibid.

[6] According to Andrew Greeley, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, this anecdote actually occurred between Gorbachev and Pope John Paul I. See: Greeley, Andrew, “A Religious Revival in Russia?”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), page 253. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1386689?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[7] Kutash, Ihor G, “The Soviet Union Celebrates 1000 Years of Christianity”, Christian History, Christian History Institute. Issue 18. Accessed 30 November 2015. https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/soviet-union-celebrates-1000-years-christianity/

[8] “1988: A Look Back: The Year of the Millennium”, The Ukrainian Weekly, 25 December, 1988, No. 52, Vol. LVI. http://www.ukrweekly.com/old/archive/1988/528813.shtml

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kutash, Ibid.

[11] Ms. Swezey obtained her MA in Russian History from Harvard, concentrating on Russian cultural and artistic history. Aside from her work at Hillwood, she ‎has also served as a Guest Curator at the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation. She lives in Washington, DC, where she served as the parish historian at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral for over thirty years. She has edited and authored numerous articles on Russian history, Orthodox iconography, and imperial decorative arts, especially Faberge, an anthology The Tsar and the President: Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln, Liberator and Emancipator, and The Romanov Family Album

[12] Hunter, Ryan, “Remembering a spiritual giant of our time”,  Juicy Ecumenism: The Institute on Religion & Democracy’s Blog. 17 September 2013. Accessed 29 November 2015. https://juicyecumenism.com/2013/09/17/remembering-a-spiritual-giant-of-our-time/

[13] Shevkunov, Archimandrite Tikhon (now Bishop), “His Eminence the Novice”, “Everyday Saints” and Other Stories. Accessed 29 November 2015. http://everyday-saints.com/eminence.htm

[14] Hunter, Ryan, “A short history of Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow”, Pravoslavie.ru. 14 October 2015. Accessed 29 November 2015. http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/86793.htm

[15] Upon his Stalin-approved election as Patriarch in February 1945, Aleksey I assured the dictator of his “profound affection and gratitude” and vowed to “safeguard the Church against mistakes and false steps” against the communist state. See: Kolarz, Walter, Religion in the Soviet Union (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966), page 55.

After Stalin’s death in March 1953, the collaborationist Patriarch Aleksey composed a statement of condolence to the USSR’s Council of Ministers: “…His death is a heavy grief for our Fatherland and for all the people who inhabit it. The whole Russian Orthodox Church, which will never forget his benevolent attitude to Church needs, feels great sorrow at his death. The bright memory of him will live ineradicably in our hearts. Our Church proclaims eternal memory to him with a special feeling of abiding love.” See: Kolarz, page 65.

[16] Davis, Nathaniel, A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Westview Press, 2003), page 86.

[17] Pravmir. “The Russian Orthodox Church and Contemporary Events: Dispelling the Myths”. Pravmir.com. 15 December 2013. Accessed 28 November 2015. http://www.pravmir.com/the-russian-orthodox-church-and-contemporary-events-dispelling-the-myths/

[18] Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii, No. 10 (October), 1990, p.16, quoted in Nathaniel Davis, A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Westview Press, 2003), page 284.

[19] “Aleksey II: Patriarch of Moscow”, Encyclopaedia Britannica. 19 January 2008. Accessed 28 November 2015. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Aleksey-II

[20] Mandated by a parliamentary law signed in January 2013 by President Putin.

[21] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ibid.

[22] Davis, 96.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Pospielovsky, Dimitry, The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998),  page 394.

[25] From an interview of Patriarch Alexei II, given to Izvestia issue No 137, 10 June 1991, entitled “Patriarch Alexei II:—I Take upon Myself Responsibility for All that Happened”, English translation from Nathaniel Davis, A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy, (Oxford: Westview Press, 1995), page 89.

[26] Father Alexander Schmemann, a prominent Russian Orthodox theologian of the St Sergius Institute in Paris and former dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary in NY, played a leading role in negotiating the autocephaly of The Orthodox Church in America (OCA), headquartered in Syosset, NY. The OCA received the Tomos of Autocephaly from the MP in 1970. Most of the world’s canonical Orthodox jurisdictions do not recognize the Tomos, since it was given at a time of Soviet oppression of the MP. Thus, to most Orthodox jurisdictions, there are 14, not 15, autocephalous or “local” (national) Orthodox Churches, with the OCA, like ROCOR, falling under the MP’s jurisdiction. The OCA disputes this, and insists upon its autocephaly.

[27] Schmemann, Serge, “St. Petersburg Journal; Patriarch’s Church Revives, but Will Spirituality?”, The New York Times. 9 November 1991. Accessed 29 November 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/09/world/st-petersburg-journal-patriarch-s-church-revives-but-will-spirituality.html

[28] Gordon, Michael R, “Irking U.S., Yeltsin signs law protecting Orthodox Church”,  The New York Times. 27 September 1997. Accessed 28 November 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/27/world/irking-us-yeltsin-signs-law-protecting-orthodox-church.html

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] VideoNews, “Russian President attends Easter services at Moscow cathedral”, YouTube. 12 April 2015. Accessed 28 November 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeOJXO0619g

[33] Gedney, Adam, “Reunification Service ROCOR and Moscow Patriarchate [Full] Moscow 5-19-2007”, YouTube. 29 December 2014. Accessed 28 November 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_Rq7px-Z0c

[34] The Orthodox Church in America (OCA), headquartered in Syosset, NY, received the Tomos of Autocephaly from the MP in 1970. Most of the world’s canonical Orthodox jurisdictions do not recognize the Tomos, since it was given at a time of Soviet oppression of the MP. Thus, to most Orthodox jurisdictions, there are 14, not 15, autocephalous or “local” (national) Orthodox Churches, with the OCA, like ROCOR, falling under the MP’s jurisdiction. The OCA disputes this, and insists upon its autocephaly.

[35] Указ Президента № 1729/2008, Kremlin.ru. 7 December 2008. Accessed 28 November 2015.

[36] Interfax Religion, “Death of Alexy II a tragic and sorrowful event – Putin”. 5 December 2008. Accessed 28 November 2015.  http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=5458

[37] Ibid.

[38] Указ Президента № 1729/2008, Kremlin.ru.

[39] “Патриарх Алексий завершил свой земной путь”, 9 December 2008. Accessed 30 November 2015. http://newsru.com/religy/09dec2008/pohoronypatriarha.html 

 

Metropolitan Hilarion, DECR Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate, Greets Catholic Synod on the Family in Rome

Published by Mospat.ru,  the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations. With the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk greeted the Roman and Eastern Catholic delegates at the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of the Catholic Church on the “Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World” in the Vatican on 20 October 2015.

Your Holiness!
Your Beatitudes, Eminences and Excellencies!

On behalf of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus I extend fraternal greetings to you on the occasion of the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of the Catholic Church on the theme of the family.

In our restless and disturbing world the human person needs a firm and unshakeable foundation upon which he can rest and upon which he can build his life with confidence. At the same time, secular society, aimed primarily at the gratification of individual needs, is incapable of giving the human person clear moral direction. The crisis of traditional values which we see in the consumer society leads to a contradiction between various preferences, including those in the realm of family relationships. Thus, feminism views motherhood as an obstacle to a woman’s self-realization, while by contrast having a baby is more often proclaimed as a right to be attained by all means possible. More often the family is viewed as a union of persons irrespective of their gender, and the human person can ‘choose’ his or her gender according to personal taste.

On the other hand, new problems are arising which have a direct impact on traditional family foundations. Armed conflicts in the contemporary world have brought about a mass exodus from areas gripped by war to more prosperous countries. Emigration often leads to a disruption of family ties, creating at the same time a new social environment in which unions of an inter-ethnic and inter-religious nature arise.

These challenges and threats are common to all the Christian Churches which seek out answers to them, proceeding from the mission that Christ has placed upon them – to bring humanity to salvation. Unfortunately, in the Christian milieu too we often hear voices calling for the ‘modernization’ of our ecclesial consciousness, for the rejection of the supposedly obsolete doctrine of the family. However, we ought never to forget the words of St. Paul addressed to the Christians of Rome: ‘And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God’ (Rom. 12: 2).

The Church is called to be a luminary and beacon in the darkness of this age, and Christians to be the ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light to the world’. We all ought to recall the Saviour’s warning: ‘If the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men’ (Matt. 5: 13-14). The salt which has lost its savour are those Protestant communities which call themselves Christian, but which preach moral ideals incompatible with Christianity. If in this type of community a rite of blessing of same-sex unions is introduced, or a lesbian so called ‘bishop’ calls for the replacement of crosses from the churches with the Muslim crescent, can we speak of this community as a ‘church’? We are witnessing the betrayal of Christianity by those who are prepared to accommodate themselves to a secular, godless and churchless world.

The authorities of some European countries and America, in spite of numerous protests, including those by Catholics, continue to advocate policies aimed at the destruction of the very concept of the family. They not only on the legislative level equate of the status of the same-sex unions to that of marriage but also criminally persecute those who out of their Christian convictions refuse to register such unions. Immediately after the departure of Pope Francis from the USA, President Barack Obama openly declared that gay rights are more important than religious freedom. This clearly testifies to the intention of the secular authorities to continue their assault on those healthy forces in society which defend traditional family values. Catholics here are found at the forefront of the struggle, and it is against the Catholic Church that a campaign of discrediting and lies is waged. Therefore courage in vindicating Christian beliefs and fidelity to Church tradition are particularly necessary in our times.

Today, when the world ever more resembles that foolish man ‘which built his house on the sand’ (Matt. 7: 26) it is the Church’s duty to remind the society of its firm foundation of the family as a union between a man and woman created with the purpose of giving birth to and bringing up children. Only this type of family, as ordained by the Lord when he created the world, can forestall or at least halt temporarily modern-day society’s further descent into the abyss of moral relativism.

The Orthodox Church, like the Catholic Church, has always in her teaching followed Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition in asserting the principle of the sanctity of marriage founded on the Saviour’s own words (Matt. 19: 6; Mk. 10: 9). In our time this position should be ever more strengthened and unanimous. We should defend it jointly both within the framework of dialogue with the legislative and executive branches of power of various countries, as well as in the forums of international organizations such as the UN and the Council of Europe. We ought not to confine ourselves to well-intentioned appeals but should by all means possible ensure that the family is legally protected.

Solidarity among the Churches and all people of good will is essential for guarding the family from the challenges of the secular world and thereby protecting our future. I hope that one of the fruits of the Assembly of the Synod will be the further development of Orthodox-Catholic co-operation in this direction.

I wish you peace, God’s blessing and success in your labours.

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Magnificent Rachmaninov arrangement of “Glory to God in the Highest”

British traveler Nigel Fowler Sutton maintains this superb YouTube channel which features magnificent Russian Orthodox choral music, photo montages of scenes from daily life in pre-revolutionary Russia, etc. Here he shares this magnificent rendition of Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Glory to God in the Highest” (Hexapsalmos) from the All-Night Vigil Op. 37, No. 7 as performed by the Children and Men’s Choir of the Moscow Choral Academy. The photographs are of the Church of the Annunciation in Taininsky, Moscow Oblast.

Слава в Вышних Богу…
Шестопсалмие
Музыка С. Рахманинов
Всенощное бдение, Op.37. № 7
Детский и мужской хор московской хоровой академии

Glory to God in the Highest
Hexapsalmos
Music by S. Rachmaninoff
From the All-Night Vigil Op. 37. No.7
Sung here by The Children’s & Men’s Choir
of the Moscow Choral Academy

Photographs:
Church of the Annunciation in Taininsky, Mytishchi District, Moscow Oblast

A short history of Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow

Interior of Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

Interior of Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral (Храм Христа Спасителя) is the mother cathedra or see of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, whose current primate is His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia. The cathedral is located on the north bank of the Moskva River to the immediate southwest of the capital’s Kremlin fortress, where, inside the Dormition Cathedral (Uspenskiy Sobor) all Russian tsars and tsarinas have been crowned and anointed. Christ the Saviour is the tallest Orthodox cathedral in the world, standing at 103 metres (338 feet) above the pavement. The main sanctuary (temple) can fit over 10,000 standing worshipers.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow.

On Christmas Day in 1812, Russian Imperial forces drove the last of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grand Army off of Russian territory — once 600,000 men strong, now a mere 20-30,000 remained. In thanksgiving, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825, r. 1801-1825) signed a Manifesto ordering the construction of a magnificent Cathedral in honor of Christ the Savior in Moscow as a thanksgiving to God and to honor the victorious Russian army.

The Emperor’s Manifesto reads, in part:

To signify Our gratitude to Divine Providence for saving Russia from the doom that overshadowed Her and to preserve the memory of the unheard of efforts, loyalty and love for our Faith and Homeland displayed during these difficult days by the Russian people, We hereby intend to build a Cathedral in honor of Christ the Saviour in our capital city of Moscow, wherein the appropriate Decree will be issued in due time. May the Almighty bless Our intentions. May our intentions be fulfilled. May the Cathedral stand for many centuries. Let the incense of thanksgiving, together with love and a desire to imitate the feats of our anscestoral feats, burn before the holy altar of God for many generations.

After over 40 years of initial construction paid for by donations from across the Russian Empire and with imperial patronage, the cathedral was first consecrated on 26 May 1883 in the presence of Emperor Alexander III and senior members of the Imperial Family along with numerous Church and foreign dignitaries. Demolished on Soviet dictator Stalin’s orders on 5 December 1931, the site was initially envisioned to hold a colossal monument to Marxist-Leninism, a gaudy skyscraper called the “Palace of Soviets” raised to the memory of Lenin. Here is a brief video showing the cathedral’s destruction.

Fyodor Klages (1812-90).

Fyodor Klages (1812-90). “Interior of the Cathedral of Christ Saviour in Moscow” (1883). The cathedral before its destruction.

Photograph taken of the demolition of the cathedral on Stalin's orders, 5 December 1931.

Photograph taken of the demolition of the cathedral on Stalin’s orders, 5 December 1931.

Plans for the “palace” stalled during the Great Patriotic War (WWII), and afterwards the foundations were turned into the world’s largest open-air swimming pool, in which numerous Soviet citizens drowned. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly-free Moscow Patriarchate announced plans to rebuild the demolished Cathedral on its pre-revolutionary model and scale. Funds poured in from all across the former Russian Empire, including from Russian emigres living in Western Europe and the Americas. Construction was finished by 2000, and HH Patriarch Alexey II consecrated the new cathedral along with numerous other Russian clergy on 19 August 2000. Besides functioning as the Patriarch’s cathedral church, the building is a monument to the suffering of the Russian people under communism and a symbol of the resurgence of Orthodoxy in Russian cultural life following 1991. Every year, the President and Prime Minister of the Russian Federation attend Nativity (7 January on the civil calendar/25 December on the Julian) and Pachal midnight services in the cathedral, and are greeted with an address by the Patriarch, who they in turn address with the traditional festive greeting “Christ is Risen!”, “Truly He is Risen!” (Христос Воскресе! Ваистину Воскресе!).

In front of the iconostasis (icon stand/wall) and altar solea inside the cathedral.

In front of the iconostasis (icon stand/wall) and altar solea inside the cathedral.

moscow-cathedral-christ-saviour01

Nigel Fowler Sutton notes

Here I present a look at the history of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Built as a result of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, the Cathedral was a thanksgiving for Russia & the victorious Russian Army. Construction lasted for 40 years & resulted in the largest Orthodox Cathedral in the World. Following the Russian Revolution, Stalin had the Catherdral blown up to make way for the Palace of Soviets, a “skyscraper” to Socialism & the memory of Lenin. Only the foundations were built by the time Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. Work ceased & following victory in 1945, the foundations were turned into an open-air pool. I actually swam there in 1966…… In 1994, the pool was closed and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour rose again. This time taking a mere fraction of the time to build. This is the story……..

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia Seeks Abortion Ban in Russia

Patriarch Kirill 3

Under the Soviet Union, Russia became the first country in the world to decriminalize abortion, and during the Soviet period abortion was widely used as a primary form of birth control. I have known a number of older Russian woman who, tragically, had multiple abortions. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the revitalization of Orthodoxy in the countries of the former Soviet bloc, the abortion rate remained high as the period of shock privatization saw many Russians endure terribly low wages, high unemployment, high alcohol consumption, etc. The Russian Orthodox Church steadfastly urged reforms to the adoption system, state assistance to unwed mothers, and, above all, the preservation and revitalization of marriage. His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia has addressed this issue in numerous homilies and at many conferences. In January 2015 he appeared before the Lower House of the Russian Parliament, urging lawmakers to act to reduce the number of abortions and ensure stable population growth.

Published here by RT on 22 January 2015 is the Patriarch’s address:

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church has called upon MPs to begin a campaign against abortions, starting with canceling state sponsorship for the procedure and aiming at a total nationwide ban.

If we manage to cut the number of abortions by 50 percent we would have stable and powerful population growth,” Patriarch Kirill said, speaking before the Lower House on Thursday. This was the first ever speech of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church before the State Duma.

The argument that a ban would cause an increase in the number of underground abortions is pure nonsense. People have to pay money for these operations and our task is to make the price of a legal infanticide the same as of the illegal one. Taxpayers must not pay for this,” the church leader told the MPs, suggesting the exclusion of abortion from the list of services covered by the obligatory medical insurance program.

However, the Patriarch acknowledged the solution to demographic problems was complex. According to him, apart from bans and restrictions, the state must help young families with money and housing and also introduce strict ethical norms in the medical sphere, giving doctors additional stimuli to care about the life of “conceived children.”

The top Russian cleric again attacked surrogacy in his parliamentary speech, urging lawmakers to take steps to completely replace it with adoption.

In mid-November last year, a large assembly formed of lawmakers, rights activists, medical experts and members of various church-related groups passed a resolution seeking legislative changes to ban all abortions, saying human life begins at the moment of conception. The authors of the document said that although Russia ratified the International Convention on Children’s Rights in 1990, the authorities still do nothing to “protect children before birth.”

The bill brands abortions as murder and completely bans them along with contraceptives “with an abortive function” – morning-after pills and intra-uterine devices.

In October 2013, an official representative of the Russian Orthodox Church attacked abortions and surrogacy as a “mutiny against God,” and less than a month later State Duma Deputy Elena Mizulina said in a speech that the community must urgently stop tolerating abortions and surrogacy, as they threaten to wipe out the population of Russia and the world as a whole.

The move gained little support from other politicians, who argued that such a ban would only lead to more illegal abortions that are much more dangerous and leave many women infertile, only aggravating Russia’s demographic problems. Eventually Mizulina had to play down her statements, saying that she merely wanted to draw attention to the problem and start a discussion, not introduce any legislative bans.

According to pro-life activists, every year about 1 million women in Russia have induced abortions with only 10 percent of them being carried out for health reasons.

Patriarch Kirill 1

Patriarch Kirill 2

Romanov Family Invited to Return to Russia

As many of you have heard by now, a Leningrad Oblast legislator, Vladimir Petrov, affiliated with President Putin’s ruling party has extended a formal invitation to the two rival branches of the Romanov family to reside in an old imperial palace, either in St Petersburg or the Crimea, and begin to take up a host of national functions. RT reports:

A regional lawmaker has addressed the heirs of the Romanov imperial house with a request to return to Russia promising them a special legal status and one of historic palaces in Crimea or St. Petersburg.

Vladimir Petrov of the legislative assembly of the Leningrad Region wrote letters to Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and Prince Dimitri Romanovich asking them to become symbols of national culture and maintaining traditions, like in many European nations that retained their monarchies to this day.

Coming as it does from a relatively minor official in Putin’s governing United Russia party, Petrov’s invitation does not mark a restoration of the Romanov monarchy, but the beginning of what will likely be a several years-long process of deliberate rehabilitation of the living Romanov family members. Should HIH Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and HIH Prince Dimitri Romanovich accept Petrov’s invitation, we would likely see their incorporation into leading echelons of Russian high society. They would serve, as Petrov notes, as a symbol of national unity and historical identity, an institutional connection to Russia’s pre-revolutionary imperial past, and as non-political embodiments of Russian heritage and cultural history.

Petrov writes:

For the whole length of its reign the Romanov imperial dynasty remained a foundation of the Russian statehood. At present Russia is undergoing a complicated process of regaining its glory and worldwide influence. I am sure that in this historical moment the Romanovs would not stay away from all processes that are taking place in Russia…

Petrov “suggested that this move would help to smooth political controversies within Russia and help to restore the “spiritual power” of the nation”, adding that he and other United Russia leaders in the Leningrad Oblast legislature “would very soon develop and draft a bill “On the special status of representatives of the Tsars’ family” that would give some guarantees to the returning Romanovs. He also said that the royals could use one of the palaces that belonged to them before the revolution and that now remain vacant or are misused.”

To this day a lot of wonderful Tsar’s palaces near St. Petersburg are either empty or used not according to their destination. I think if one of these palaces is used as an official residence of the Romanov family it would only be for everyone’s benefit,” the lawmaker said in comments to Izvestia daily. He noted that another option was to settle the royals in the Livadia Palaces in Crimea.

So far, Prince Dimitri Romanovich has not yet commented publicly on the invitation, but Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna’s representative, ” the head of the Chancellery of the Russian Imperial House, Aleksandr Zakatov” told Izvestia “that some representatives of the dynasty were ready to move to Russia. However, he noted that Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna held a high post of the head of the imperial house and therefore her return should be decent and solemn.”

Noting that the Grand Duchess claimed neither “property or political privileges [or]  powers, she only wants the imperial house to become a historical institution and part of the national legacy”, Zakatov observed that “this recognition must be manifested in a legal act” passed by the legislature before Maria Vladimirovna would consider moving to Russia.

While the “two major competing branches of the Romanov dynasty – one headed by Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and the other by Prince Nikolai Romanovich” have often sparred with each other in the past century, “their representatives often visit Russia and take part in various events.” As RT reports, “none of them have made any political claims.”

RT notes growing support for the possible reestablishment of the constitutional monarchy: “An opinion poll conducted in 2013 in connection with the 400th anniversary of the Romanov royal house showed that 28 percent of Russian citizens would agree to the rule of Tsars…” My own hope is that, with a peaceful and popular restoration of the monarchy some years from now in the wake of the Romanovs’ rehabilitation, Russia could continue to strengthen its post-Soviet national identity and economy, and civil society at large.

No less prominent a person than His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia has publicly supported HIH Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna’s claim to the Russian throne, observing the following:

Are the claims of the descendants of the Romanovs to the Russian throne legitimate? I would like to say right away that there are no pretenders. Today, none of those persons who are descendants of the Romanovs are pretenders to the Russian throne. But in the person of Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and her son, Georgy, the succession of the Romanovs is preserved—no longer to the Russian Imperial throne, but to history itself.

And I should acknowledge with gratitude to this family and to the many other Romanovs the current contributions they make to the life of our country. Maria Vladimirovna supports a great many good initiatives, she makes visits to Russia, she meets with people, she grants noble status to ordinary people who have in various ways distinguished themselves. I remember very well how, when she was visiting Smolensk, she elevated an old peasant woman to noble status who had done much for her neighbors during the difficult years of the war and immediately after the war. Thus the cultural contributions of this family continue to be very significant in our society.

As His Holiness notes, the Grand Duchess has already been closely engaged in fulfilling non-controversial, ceremonial aspects of imperial duties that would typically be performed by a constitutional monarch. This pattern of already-existent engagements and public activities would likely set an example for any further incorporation of Her Imperial Highness or the other Romanov claimants into Russian public life. With their presence at major national and religious events celebrated by the Russian State and the Russian Orthodox Church, we would likely see an ever-increasing rise in support for the monarchy’s restoration.

This could be a huge, groundbreaking development, with could being the operative word. While the Romanovs are not being offered the Russian Throne, the Leningrad Oblast is offering them residence in one of the many imperial palaces that surround St Petersburg. If they accept, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and Prince Dimitri Romanovich will likely be acting as cultural figures in Russia, showing up to all the culturally and historically important events and celebrations, and doing charity work on the side, much like King Alexander II in Serbia and Tsar Simeon in Bulgaria. While this is not an invitation to return to the Imperial Throne, this action will surely help rehabilitate the image of Monarchy in the collective mind of the Russian people.

Clandestine plans possibly exist between the Kremlin and the Danilov (MP headquarters) to restore the Romanov House in time for the 2017 centenary of Emperor Nicholas II’s abdication or the 2018 centenary of the imperial martyrdoms. One thing is certain: Petrov could not have extended such a high profile invitation to the Romanov family without the Kremlin’s direct approval and Putin’s subtle encouragement. As one priest friend of mine observed, an eventual “restoration of the Romanov dynasty represents a breathtaking turn of events because it repudiates the Marxist claim to historical inevitability that lies at the heart of that spiritually bankrupt (and murderous) ideology. Like him or not, Putin is a very smart man, arguably one of the strongest leaders on the world stage today. This man understands culture and history.”

This is precisely why a minor Leningrad legislator could not have done any of this without first checking with the Kremlin and the Danilov. This carries the clandestine approval of Putin and his inner circle as well as the Patriarch. We are about to see a breath-taking overturning of the “inevitable” Marxist “once you become a republic you can’t go back” Hegelian view of history. As the same priest observed, when it comes to the possible eventual restoration of the Romanovs, “Dostoevsky may trump Nietsche, at least in the Christendom of the East.”

My thoughts on Paul Coyer’s Forbes essay on Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church

This is a fascinating article which all Russianists should read, even if they strongly disagree with it.

The author, Paul Coyer, a Forbes commentator and professional foreign policy analyst affiliated with several interventionist Washington think tanks, accurately notes the close collaboration between the Russian State under Putin and the Russian Church. He assumes it is a bad thing, and doesn’t provide any actual empirical evidence for his claims in this area, but simply regurgitates the usual “Russia should be a Western style democracy” Washington line, bemoaning the lost promise of the Yeltsin years when, likely unbeknownst to him, the suicide, abortion, and unemployment rates peaked following the Soviet collapse while wages and life expectancy plummeted.

Many of Dr Coyer’s observations about the close relationship between the Russian State and the Russian Orthodox Church are correct. Where I disagree with him is his view that this close relationship is either unnatural, evil, or both. Where Coyer sees disingenuous mafiosi looking to atone for their sins in the fact that so many Russian oligarchs are contributing funds to rebuild churches demolished under Soviet rule, I leave room for a less cynical possibility: that the move to rebuild Empire-period, ancient churches which the Soviets destroyed constitutes a society-wide impetus among Russians of all classes to reconnect with the best aspects of pre-revolutionary culture, which was inextricably bound up in, permeated by, and historically defined through the mission of the Church.

It is cultural imperialism of the worst kind, an extraordinary ignorance and arrogance, to assume that everyone in the world wants Western-style liberal democracy and total separation of Church and State, when, on the contrary, the tradition of Russian society for a thousand years has been ever-more centralized rule (Kiev to Novgorod to Vladimir to Moscow, and Grand Princes to Tsars to Emperors in the “gathering of the Russian lands”) and close collaboration (symphonia in Greek, cooperatio in Latin) in areas of common social witness and motives between the political rulers and the Church. The symbol which more than any other defines symphonia is the double-headed eagle (one head the Church, the other the State) which the Romanovs adopted as their own from the earlier Byzantine or East Roman empire (330-1453). You may despise Putin, as many Westerners do, but all Coyer’s article shows him to be is a masterful politician who has a powerful sense of history, religious revival, and Russia’s national identity and the soul of its people.

When Putin came to power he shrewdly noted the ROC’s useful role in boosting nationalism and the fact that it shared his view of Russia’s role in the world, and began to work toward strengthening the Church’s role in Russian society. Early in his presidency the Russian Duma passed a law returning all church property seized during the Soviet era (which act alone made the ROC one of the largest landholders in Russia). Over the past decade and a half, Putin has ordered state-owned energy firms to contribute billions to the rebuilding of thousands of churches destroyed under the Soviets, and many of those rich oligarchs surrounding him are dedicated supporters of the ROC who have contributed to the growing influence of the church in myriad ways. Around 25,000 ROC churches have been built or rebuilt since the early 1990′s, the vast majority of which have been built during Putin’s rule and largely due to his backing and that of those in his close circle of supporters. Additionally, the ROC has been given rights that have vastly increased its role in public life, including the right to teach religion in Russia’s public schools and the right to review any legislation before the Russian Duma.

The glue that holds together the alliance between Vladimir Putin and the ROC, and the one that more than any other explains their mutually-supporting actions, is their shared, sacralized vision of Russian national identity and exceptionalism. Russia, according to this vision, is neither Western nor Asian, but rather a unique society representing a unique set of values which are believed to be divinely inspired.

Superb essay on U.S. and U.K. media’s ongoing Russophobia by Catherine Brown

I know no Russian who has any knowledge of Russia’s representation in Britain who is not strongly critical of it. I too am depressed by it, specifically because I think that it is intellectually and morally demeaning, and counter-productive to a dangerous degree.

-Dr Catherine Brown

I could not agree more with these words. They describe the sentiments held by all of my Russian friends, of all religious persuasions, and of all political persuasions. Of my Russian friends–only three of whom are from Moscow, and none of whom are active members of Putin’s political party– all of them nonetheless strongly support President Putin’s policies, believe he has had a strongly positive impact on their country’s economic development, and believe that Crimea, historically part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev drunkenly signed it over to the Ukrainian SSR in the 1950s, is now rightfully once again part of nasha strana.

Noted British professor, author, and academic Dr Catherine Brown recently published a superb essay “Deconstructing Russophobia” on her blog. By her own admission, Dr Brown has “no ethnic, financial, professional or political ties to Russia whatsoever. It follows that I am not a Russian expert – but nor am I, on the other hand, parti pris. I am a friendly, distanced observer of the country.” This is the way I would describe my own godmother, a lifelong Russianist who has no ties to Russia save her abiding interest in the pre-Soviet Tsarist period, especially its magnificent artistic, cultural, and religious heritage.

Dr Brown, while not claiming herself to be “a Russian expert”, is nonetheless immensely qualified from her decades of direct experience with all matters Russian to write on the topic. Her academic resume is of the highest calibre:

My academic position is as Senior Lecturer and Convenor (Head of Department) of English at New College of the Humanities in London.

I took a BA in English Literature at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, then an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the London School of Economics. I lived in New York and Moscow, and learned Spanish and Russian, before coming back to literary academia with an MA in Comparative Literature at University College London, and a PhD at Caius College Cambridge as an Anglo-Russian comparatist.

I taught English at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Greenwich, before starting in my current position in London in 2012.

Dr Brown begins her essay by reeling in her readers with a gentle yet damning satire of the ongoing idiotic British and American narrative of Putin as a tyrant and thug:

Imagine that Vladimir Putin were not a murderous autocrat and kleptocrat who has spent his fourteen years in power living up to his KGB past and dragging Russia ever back towards Communist autocracy, illiberalism, and expansionism. Imagine that instead he were the one of the greatest leaders that Russia has had, whose policies have helped produce a massive rise in living standards and life expectancy, recuperation of national pride, and enforcement of the rule of law, who has tackled kleptocrats and gangsters wisely and well, whose foreign policy has on balance been realistic, diplomatic, and conducive to peace, who has presided over a country of which the human rights record is considerably better than that of the United States and in which civil rights are improving, and who richly deserves the steady support of 65% – currently at a Ukraine-related high of 83% – of the population that he possesses. It is my understanding that the reality is closer to the second scenario than the first…

Dr Brown notes that, since the early 2000s, she has noticed a steady improvement in the conditions of life for ordinary Russians under Putin’s tenure as President and then Prime Minister:

A year later, on a visit, the situation was slightly better. The most extravagant misery was no longer apparent. A year later, better still. And that has been the consistent pattern on all my visits since then. Capitalism has been getting its gloves back on. Public facilities are in a much better state. Nothing is sold in dollars and Western brands have Russian rivals. A sensible tax structure means that businesses and salaried employees can and do pay their taxes. One sees no-one drunk in public. Muscovite women no longer exaggerate their femininity in a way which testifies to financial insecurity and a strenuous imitation of a pornographically-imagined West. And most reassuringly of all, to Westerners used to this custom, people have begun to smile. Even the hardest cases – the babushki guarding the museum rooms, and the border guards at passport control – will now return a smile. Last year, for the first time, I felt that Russia was in a new phase – the post-post-Soviet, in which people are no longer waiting for normality to be re-established, or yearning to live in a ‘normal’ country. A new normality, and a new optimism, have emerged.

Dr Brown also notes how the Western condemnation of the Russian government’s prosecution of activist group Pussy Riot for their “punk prayer” on the solea of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral was both grossly inaccurate and flagrantly hypocritical. She also observes how Pussy Riot are anything but a legitimate musical band or decent political activist group, noting that prior to their desecration of Christ the Saviour Cathedral, they had done even more offensive things in public to attract attention:

In certain respects the operation of the Russian law is more lenient than the British. Prior to their ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, members of Pussy Riot had performed public sex in a museum, and thrown live cats at workers in a McDonalds restaurant. In Britain such acts could have resulted in prison sentences of at least two years, whereas in Russia they were not prosecuted at all. One reason why Pussy Riot were prosecuted for their ‘punk prayer’ was that it disrupted and parodied a religious act of worship, which is specifically prohibited under Russian (as also British) law, and which is particularly comprehensible in a country with a history of state persecution of religion.

Dr Brown goes on to note how the Russian human rights record is far superior to that of the United States, with Russia incarcerating fewer prisoners, the death penalty no longer practiced at all there, and Russia not allowing its President to “authorise the kidnap, torture, and killing of domestic and foreign citizens without trial” as the United States has done since the authorization of the Patriot Act.

Let us compare Russia to the United States (China being of course much worse than both). The US has around 730 to Russia’s 598 prisoners per 100,000 of the population. It uses the death penalty, executes minors, and empowers its President to authorise the kidnap, torture, and killing of domestic and foreign citizens without trial. Russia does none of these things. The US government has significantly curtailed Americans’ civil liberties under the Patriot Act, extensively spies on the media activities of its own and other countries’ citizens, and detains hundreds of people without trial in an international network of secret prisons. Russians’ civil liberates are now more strongly guaranteed by law than are Americans’; there is no evidence or suggestion that Russia kidnaps individuals abroad or outsources torture, nor that it runs a torture camp resembling Guantanamo Bay, nor that the FSB spies on Russian citizens to anything near the extent that the NSA spies on Americans, let alone on foreigners. In this respect – the extent of spying on their own citizens – Russia and the US have changed places since the end of the Soviet Union.

Dr Brown’s essay is refreshing in that she analyses Western media’s biases against Russia from a purely secular perspective. Thus, her analysis appeals to the majority of Russian scholars in Britain and the United States who are not Orthodox. Nonetheless, I think her essay would have befitted from one additional area of analysis: religious identity. This is a core difference between American and British civilization and Russian civilization. Neither Britain nor the United States have been defined by a single unifying, common religious heritage, whereas all of Russian history is closely tied to the country’s embrace of Eastern Orthodox Christianity over a thousand years ago. Unlike the mostly non-religious country of Britain, Russia saw no inter-confessional religious wars, and large Muslim and Buddhist religious minorities continue to live in Russia today.

British history is marked by years of intermittent violence between Catholics and Protestants, with the pendulum of persecution veering from the targeting of both Catholics and Lutherans under Henry VIII, to savage persecution of Catholics under Edward VI, to the Marian persecution of Protestants under the infamous “Bloody” Mary I, to a less intense but still damning level of persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth I and James VI and I. The English Civil War was fought in large measure because Puritans despised the High Church Anglican King Charles I, whom they feared was sympathetic to Catholicism, while in 1689 the English Bill of Rights specifically disenfranchised English Catholics and made them second-class citizens under the law.

The United States is the first nation in history to have been uniquely founded without a national confession, a single, unifying religion, and so we have no concept of what it means to have a people’s national identity married to their religion. Suzanne Massie, American author, Russian expert, and President Reagan’s adviser on Russian culture and history, understood this when no one else did: that a significant factor behind the disconnect between Russia and the U.S. was the complete unfamiliarity of Americans, on a cultural level, with the notion of a nation being founded on one religion. Reagan called Massie “the greatest student I know of the Russian people.” Massie writes in her memoirs Trust But Verify: Reagan, Russia and Me that:

“There were reasons for our official blindness, among them that in the United States we have the tendency to see everything as a reflection of our own beliefs. Being “like us” is equivalent to being “right.” We in America can choose our religion as if we were shopping for a new car, changing at will, and harbor thousands of offshoots and sects. Because our history is founded on personal choice for all religions we have no experience or understanding of a religion that represents a nation, and we find this somehow disturbing. The history of Russia is the opposite, and the communist regime of the Soviet Union always understood this fact completely.” (135).

In fact, far from having “a religion that represents a nation”, our national identity is in many ways influenced by our lack of a single, unifying religion. Russian history, void of the religious wars that devastated Europe in the wake of the Reformation, is one of largely peaceful coexistence between the Orthodox majority and local religious minorities. While we have all read of the infamous anti-Jewish pogroms that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century during the Tsarist period, the inescapable reality is that all of these tragedies occurred not in Russia proper, but in Ukraine, predominantly western (Greek Catholic) Ukraine.

I interviewed Suzanne Massie in late November 2014 after Liturgy in the Holy Archangels Chapel in Washington, DC, where my spiritual father regularly presides over the divine services. She and I share the same godmother– my godmother is a dear friend of hers– and we were both received into the Church within a year of each other. Massie told me that to know Orthodoxy is to know Russia, and to know Russian history is to begin to know Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is inextricably bound up in Russia’s national identity. The only intellectual force — if one wants to so denigrate the term “intellectual” — that ever pushed for the separation of this dual Russian and Orthodox identity was Marxist-Leninism, or, more properly, what came to be Soviet Bolshevism.

What Massie insisted that Reagan learn, and what President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron and their advisers remain sadly ignorant of to this day, is that one cannot hope to understand Russia today without first coming to understand its religious history. Russian Orthodoxy is the only cultural and religious institution that survived Soviet rule. It is the single and deepest connection Russians have to the pre-revolutionary period, to the thousand years of Russian history before the Soviet nightmare. If you dismiss Orthodoxy’s role in shaping Russian history, as both Obama and Cameron clearly have, you will remain profoundly ignorant of the most basic aspects of Russian cultural history.

The Orthodox Christian faith has influenced the very foundations of Russian society. The Russian word for ‘Sunday’ is воскресенье (voskresenie), [Christ’s] ‘Resurrection’, while the most common phrase for ‘Thank you’, спасибо (spasibo), is a compound of Spasi bog — literally ‘God saves’ («Спаси тебя/вас Бог» means, literally, “God save you” ). The Russian word for peasant–the vast majority of Russians in Russian history — is крестьянин (khrestyanin), literally, a Christian. These nuances are all tragically lost on those who rule in Washington, London, and Brussels today.

The very heart and soul of Russia — the Orthodox Church — is experiencing a steady, imperfect yet unstoppable revival, and all that this merits from senior U.S., British, and EU policymakers is cynicism. Take for example the widely circulated yet disputed figure from the Pew Forum that, as of 2008, only 7% of Russians attend Orthodox services every month. This claim merits deeper examination. Even if we take that statistic as accurate, Russia’s population is currently 144 million, so seven percent of this figure is just over 10 million people. By contrast, in England, which still has an official, state-funded Church, only 800,000 Britons attend Church of England services weekly, out of a population of 64 million.

Russia is experiencing a cultural renaissance, a rediscovery of its true identity after seventy-four years of enforced atheism and Marxist-Leninist ideology. Should we miss the opportunity to reach Russians where they are, at this moment in their history, I fear we will lose a crucial chance to genuinely come to better understand Russian society’s past, present, and future.

One cannot understand the religious revival taking place in Russia today if one does not first understand, and contrast it, with the state-sponsored suppression of and attempted extermination of religion under the Soviets. When the Bolsheviks had taken power, Massie writes, they attempted to completely destroy all vestiges of religion, considered the chief obstacle to building an ideal socialist state:

“. . . all religion was considered Enemy Number One, but Orthodoxy the most dangerous, to be eradicated with all the ruthlessness they could command. They set out to commit what can only be called a genocide of the Church. In 1918 they began to wage what they called a “war on God.” All manifestations of religion were prohibited as were all Church holidays, even Easter and Christmas. Liturgical music was banned until the mid-1980s. Sunday was made a compulsory work day. . . the word god was always to be spelled in lower case. Thousands of historic churches and all their treasures were destroyed outright. . . Millions of icons were destroyed, broken, or sold abroad along with other treasures of the Church. Multitudes of priests and believers were murdered outright, more imprisoned or sent to labor camps. (136-37).

A quarter century after the fall of the USSR, the most important national institution in Russia today, the only one to outlast the Soviet Union, remains the Russian Orthodox Church. It is impossible for anyone hoping to understand Russia to do so without first coming to understand the guiding role the Church played—and continues to play— in forming the country’s national identity.

Link

WikiLeaks: Orthodox Church pervades all aspects of Russian society

From this RIA Novosti article published on December 11, 2010:

The Russian Orthodox Church is making a strong effort to assert its influence over Russian society and politics, documents released by the WikiLeaks website reveal.

A classified cable sent by U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle to Washington contains comments on his meeting with Archbishop Hilarion, head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Relations in January 2010.

“In a January 28 conversation with the [U.S.] Ambassador, Archbishop Hilarion freely admitted that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been extending its reach further into all areas of society,” the document posted by the Russian Reporter magazine says.

Hilarion explained the ROC’s desire to promote current government policies, including the so-called “managed democracy.”

“Hilarion essentially equated authoritarianism with stability, noting that Russians have always liked having a strong and powerful figure at the top,” the document says.

“Calling the ROC “a significant actor” in the life of the country, Hilarion said that Patriarch Kirill is “not only symbolic,” but can also influence major currents in Russia, including its political development.”

The influence of the Orthodox Church has been on the rise since the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite the fact that the Russian Constitution separates the church from the state.

The ROC also appears to be “first among equals” in the context of the new program to teach religion in schools in 19 regions of the country.

Russian Reporter is a partner of the WikiLeaks website in Russia.