Annals of the Holy Russian Empire

The Chatanooga Times Free Press reports:

The glittering Christ the Savior Cathedral, a pale-white marble structure decorated with bronze statuary and swaths of gold leaf, is more than just Moscow’s grandest and most opulent place of worship. Built in the 1990s as a replica of a church dynamited by Communists in 1931, the cathedral symbolizes the Moscow Patriarchate’s rising political influence — which may be greater today than at any time since the 17th century. It also serves as global headquarters of vast and expanding business operations that experts say are worth several billion dollars.

To tens of millions of Russian believers, the Orthodox Church is first of all a sacred institution, a pillar of the country’s 1,000-year-old identity and culture.

The death of Patriarch Alexy II in December caused an outpouring of heartfelt grief, with crowds of people lining up to view his remains. On Feb. 1, top clerics enthroned Alexy’s successor, Kirill — a towering figure with a gray-flecked beard and sonorous voice — in a cathedral filled with celebrities and political leaders. The first person to receive communion from Patriarch Kirill was President Dmitry Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana.

These events would have been unimaginable in the Soviet era, when the officially atheist Communist government treated the devout like moral lepers and criminals, defrocking and imprisoning tens of thousands of clerics of all creeds. Now the church “has become a serious power in society,” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told The Associated Press in early March.

But critics claim that in the past decade the Moscow Patriarchate has sacrificed some of its spiritual authority in the pursuit of political power and commercial success. Some go as far as to compare the church to its former nemesis, the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo. Roman Lunkin of the Keston Institute, which studies religion in the former Soviet Union, says the church has “turned into an authoritarian and totalitarian structure.”

A priest who condemned the 2005 conviction and imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a leading foe of then-President Vladimir Putin, was defrocked and appointed to guard a church store in 2006. Orthodox leaders said the decision was not political, but had to do with the priest’s “discipline.”

Bishop Diomid of Chukotka, who lambasted Alexy II’s alleged subservience to the Kremlin, found himself demoted to the rank of a monk last year. The church accused Diomid’s supporters of planning to seize power in the Patriarchate.

A church council excommunicated Gleb Yakunin, a priest and former lawmaker, in 1997 after he headed a government commission that concluded that most top clerics, including Patriarch Alexy and his future successor Kirill, were KGB informers.

The church has long denied these claims as “absolutely unsubstantiated” and said top clerics had to “communicate” with the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs, which forwarded their reports to the KGB. The church also claimed Yakunin worked for U.S. intelligence.

“Unfortunately, Orthodox Christianity is antidemocratic and hails authoritarian rule,” said Yakunin, who spent years in the gulag for criticizing Soviet religious policies, during an interview in his Moscow office. Today, the 74-year-old priest leads the Apostolic Orthodox Church, a splinter group that is harassed by authorities in Russia and Belarus.

Despite the Russian constitution’s legal separation of church and state, President Boris Yeltsin and his successor Vladimir Putin forged a political alliance with the Orthodox Church — an alliance that has continued under Putin’s successor, Medvedev. Kirill is escorted around Moscow by a cavalcade of Kremlin security guards and was listed No. 6 on the government’s list of state dignitaries.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst with close Kremlin ties, says the church has become “the Kremlin’s Ministry for the Salvation of Souls.”

Church leaders have blessed Kremlin plans to eliminate some social benefits for the elderly, called on Russia’s youth to volunteer for military service in Chechnya and consecrated new warships and nuclear missiles, calling the latter “Russia’s guardian angels.” The church has also supported the Kremlin’s official ideology, which asserts that Russia’s unique historic role makes it unsuited for Western-style liberal democracy.

“The church is trying to offer a new anti-European Utopia,” prominent writer Viktor Yerofeyev complained in a December article in the French newspaper Le Monde. “Its main principle: Russian values are different from Western values.”

For the church, political loyalty has paid handsomely.

The State Duma, or lower house of parliament, is considering a bill to return to the church up to 7.41 million acres nationalized after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Both federal and local authorities have granted the church donations, tax breaks and broad immunity from government regulation of its businesses. Moscow officials, in particular, have helped the church raise money for favored causes — such as rebuilding the Christ the Savior Cathedral — by pressuring private business to contribute.

The cathedral itself reflects a dual focus on the spiritual and commercial. The structure has a dry cleaner, ATM machines, meeting halls for rent and convenient underground parking.

According to Nikolai Mitrokhin, director of a research institute that studies religions in the former Soviet Union, the church built its fortune starting in the 1990s through trade in tobacco and alcohol, through exports of oil and sturgeon, by the construction of shopping malls and hotels and by operating jewelry stores — allegedly with counterfeit bling. The church also runs book publishing concerns and organic farms.

A church spokesman, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, confirmed that the Patriarchate controlled many businesses. But Chaplin said neither the tobacco nor the oil business proved profitable, and claimed the church is no longer involved in them. He also dismissed the notion that the church’s commercial deals had undermined its spiritual mission.

“I don’t see anything detrimental if the church can invest in this kind of work,” he told AP.

The Patriarchate does not make its financial reports public, but Mitrokhin estimates the Orthodox Church’s annual income at several billion dollars.

This secrecy has led to allegations — denied by the church — that it has engaged in money laundering. “All of their financial streams flow in the dark,” said Sergei Filatov, a scholar of religion at Moscow State University.

Today, the church says nearly half of its income comes from the four-star hotel in the Danilovsky Monastery, a short walk from the Kremlin, and a factory outside the capital that produces icons and other religious items.

The church sells religious goods in places like the golden-domed Holy Trinity monasterial complex in Sergiyev Posad, 100 miles northwest of Moscow, where on a recent day pilgrims lined up in the cold to kiss the sarcophagus of St. Sergius, one of Russia’s patron saints. Many of the pilgrims stopped by some of the dozen shops peddling icons, calendars and refrigerator magnets, or pricier goods such as jewelry with images of Jesus or the saints.

Some Sergiyev Posad residents grumbled about the commercial atmosphere. “It’s like a supermarket,” said Alexander Bekker, 38, a martial arts instructor and a devout believer. “What spirituality are you talking about among these merchants?”

Other believers say that the church’s affluence has helped spread the gospel, aid the needy and restore thousands of churches and monasteries destroyed or desecrated during Communist rule.

“We still have to rebuild what Communist iconoclasts destroyed,” said Father Vitaly, 51, a priest from the central city of Vladimir. “Funds won’t fly down from the sky.”

Top church officials may live amid pomp and splendor. But many priests scrape by selling candles and souvenirs, charging modest fees for performing wedding and funeral ceremonies and blessing new houses, offices or cars.

“We trust in God, but rely on ourselves,” said Father Alexander, a smiling 37-year-old priest, who consecrated a new office in downtown Moscow for $140.

Some experts say that the Orthodox-led religious revival has made Russia’s post-Soviet political leadership a kinder, gentler group than their Communist Party predecessors.

“In Communist times, authorities completely lacked human, moral principles,” said church historian Andrei Zubov, of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. “Now that many politicians are religious, they relate their lives to moral principles.”

8 responses to “Annals of the Holy Russian Empire

  1. Hail Columbia

    “A church council excommunicated Gleb Yakunin, a priest and former lawmaker, in 1997 after he headed a government commission that concluded that most top clerics, including Patriarch Alexy and his future successor Kirill, were KGB informers.”

    “Church leaders have blessed Kremlin plans to eliminate some social benefits for the elderly, called on Russia’s youth to volunteer for military service in Chechnya and consecrated new warships and nuclear missiles, calling the latter “Russia’s guardian angels.” ”

    I would’t expect anything less from the Lubyanka Patriarchate. After all, they already have patron saints for such sacred objects as nuclear missiles and for holy organizations such as the KGB… oops I mean FSB.

    Unbelievable, even though it’s nothing new.

  2. Well, excommunicating is better than murder. Alexander Men, who along with Gleb Yakunin were among few truly independent Orthodox priests, was murdered in 1990.
    And I am not talking about thousands of priests that were imprisoned or sent to psychiatric wards in Stalin or Brezhnev times.

  3. In 1927, the last valid real Russian Patriarch, Holy Confessor Tikhon (Bellavin) died, probably poisoned to death by the bolsheviks, after pronouncing upon them and their bloody revolution, his solemn, anathema! It was the communists’ goal, at first, to 100% exterminate all religion, but most especially the centuries old Russian Orthodox Church, the very bulwark and center of Russian culture, of ‘the 0ld order’, for many past centures,….that had to be liquidated!…
    But, then came dear Hilter’s betrayal and his Nazi invasion of Russia, and then dear uncle-Joe, realized that he NEEDED the Russian Church (or a semblance of it), to rally the Russian people to fight the invading Germans. So, he told some of the few (weak-willed-traitor) bishops left then (most of the clergy having been murdered off…together with many millions of others…of ‘the old order’):
    “If you want a church, I…..will give you, MY church!…and if you want a patriarch, I….will give you, MY patriarch!”….So, thus was started the ‘Moscow Patriarchy’, created by uncle Joe in 1943.
    It was not truly a continuation of the formerly valid free Russian Church, under it’s last true Patriarch, Tikhon (Bellavin), but a new horrible/graceless/satanic creation, a pseudo-‘church’ to specifically serve the purposes of the Kremlin. After the defeat of the Germans (whom many many Russians welcomed with open arms, SO great was their hatred! of the communist-butchers who had filled all of Russia with murder and pillage and atrocities beyond counting!)…the Kremlin’s plan, was again, to gradually & methodically strangle and eventually eradicate the church….but they could not fully implement this, as too many average Russians would not tolerate this,(i.e. if…’religion WAS the opium of the people,’ then at least opium….as does religion…. gives relief from pain, while communism gave only sorrow and destruction and hopelessness!) But, over the whole soviet period, the Moscow Patriarcate was infiltrated and mostly staffed at it’s higher episcopal posts, by specially seminary- trained KGB operatives AND others who though they were not directly KGB-agents, yet they were subservient to the KGB for…practical/opportunistic reasons, i.e. virtual slavish stooges and fifth-columnists….reporting on everthing and everyone, to the KGB apparatus.
    When glasnost came, and Yeltzin, then…..briefly there SEEMED to be, finally, a chance for this pseudo-church, this Stalin-created “Moscow Patriarchy’ to finally come clean and begin the hard process of internal repentance and the whole-sale removal of all the betraying/athiest agents among it’s leadership, etc. BUT THEN! came, dear Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin! And too, when he began his neo-soviet process of taking power to himself and his KGB, the super-corrupt Moscow Patriarcate was STILL run by KGB operatives regardless. But…..the new party-line, regarding this official Russian-Orthodoxy, then took a new direction: NOW….Russia…..NEEDS…it’s ancestral religion….to strengthen the…moral fiber of the
    Russian people/nation (because filthy/vile/athiestic/murderous communism had SO demoralized the nation, that ALL was coming apart, on all levels of Russian life!… it still is NOW too!)…i.e. now it is TIME for the sobering/positive effects on society of…stern religious influences ….though still, controlled by the KGB (of course!). Hense now, under pretend-Czar-(Thug) V. Putin, he and his KGB murderous immoral gangster henchmen,…for their practical…purposes of controlling the masses better….are now portrayed as: “The Defenders of Orthodox Christianity”(but, do ANY of them, really, believe that there is a God!?)….and thus, promoters of all sorts of pious churchly/patriotic activities (rebuilding churches, re-gilding church domes, even building Russian Orthodox Churches in some strange countries around the world……which have few if any, local Orthodox believers to attend them!….and too, that ‘church’s clergy’ blessing missiles and bombs and….etc.) Well, I could go on and on. This KGB sponsored and run ‘religiousity’ is purely a shame, a MASSIVE & WELL-RUN & STAFFED! false-front for mass mind control IN Russia, and for espionage abroad. Yet, how very many believe these BIG lies, including virtually all of the world’s
    other official national Orthodox churches, and even many Protestants and Roman Catholics and others….in the west and elsewheres.
    We are all supposed to accept that: Russia is free now, athiesm there ‘has fallen’, and Orthodox Christianity there is NOW……pure as the driven snow! (?) Well, to fully comprehend the beast that is the Moscow Patriarchy, one does need to remember, that at least in it’s lower parish/local levels, there are indeed many real believers among the lower clergy and of the common laymen, who when they go to church or when they pray at home, ARE truly praying and who DO possess a genuine Christian morality in their daily lives. But, even they….are enslaved by a dark corrupt anti-Christian and ultimately, anti-human system, which is not at all, what it pretends to be.
    Reader Daniel…praying for the salvation of the Russian people, and for the peace of the world!

  4. You said it right:

    The current Russian orthodox church is not a church, it is a sham and a shame, it is a pseudo-church.

    And it won’t improve morality in Russia at all.

  5. I don’t want to offend my Orthodox friends, but Russian orthodox church was always closely aligned with tsarist government. So, when the post-Soviet government dropped the atheist party line, it was very easy for the church (that was unofficially tied to the government during the Soviet times, anyway) to become official partner.

    And as the government became criminal, church became partner in crime without much problem.

    And morality? Who cares about morality when there is so much moolah at stake!

  6. psalomschik,

    I forgot to say – excellent summary of church history!

  7. To Elmer: Yes, indeed, it is both a sham and a great shame!

    Just a few more comments on important points raised by this excellent article, …though I believe that this article is way too KIND to the current status quo in Russia, especially regarding the place of official-(KGB controled) religion. Firstly, in agreement with Fr. Gleb Yakunin: yes, for good and for bad, the Eastern Orthodox Faith ( a product of early Christianity PLUS it’s Imperial-Byzantine long history, which was the state-religion brought to the Russians via Prince Vladimir) is very preoccupied with…authority, it’s own and that of it’s annointed-imperial civil/military Rulers…of all past ages, and present times too. In Orthodox spirituality, ‘free-thinking’ (i.e. individual questioning of Church authority….or….civil authority….is a …’sin’ to be confessed before a priest. And why? Because, quoting the Apostle Paul’s epistle, “all authority is from God!” In a sense, (if exaggerated!) this is but anByzantine-Christian earlier version of the later Moslem motto: ‘as Allah wills’, or…’whatever will be, will be’…i.e. we humans have virtually zero to do with events, …we just must ACCEPT what comes our way. Therefore, with this fundamental bottom-line spiritual formation of the Russian character through the many past centuries, Russians, who though they are famous for being argumentative on some
    personal disputes between individuals, in general, they…follow the fearless leader, both of the church and also of the nation, not questioning ANYTHING! It is their national cultural HABIT and normal mode of existence. For that reason, yes!…..Russian culture is rather unsympathetic and indeed even rejecting of western/rationalistic/humanistic ideas of personal liberties, democracy, etc…..many of which concepts stem from the historical Protestant revolt against Rome. But, is this a strength or a weakness of the Russian character? Unfortunately, we see, today, that this mindset just makes it easier for the KGB government and the KGB-run official ‘church’ to hold sway over the masses. As long as the Moscow Patriarchy’s ‘clergy’ correctly perform the intricate and lengthy Orthodox worship rituals, garbed in the proper Byzantine regalia…with thick clouds of incense and many bells ringing and mumble the correct Church-Slavonic prayers (this ancient Church-Slavonic language is akin to Chaucer-English, ….for modern English speakers, if not even more unintelligible to the modern Russian!)….and observe the many many Orthodox ritual/tradition-demanded other fasts & feasts and public processions, etc. (mostly handovers from the Imperial Byzantine Court)….as long as all of this public display of intricate-religiosity is kept up, …then many Russians are…satisfied and indeed happy. It is this public DISPLAY of the ritual externals of the Eastern Orthodox religion, that Putin and his gang support and promote,…i.e. the myth of ‘Holy Russia’.( a version of: ‘Heaven On Earth’)….continued, by Pseudo-Czar Vladimir Putin. But as far as obeying the deeper religious teachings of that religion: the Ten Commandments (as, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, etc.), or the ethical Golden Rule of Jesus, or all expressed in His Sermon on the Mount, etc…..all of THAT, these current ‘Orthodox’ KGB rulers of Russia today, …ignore. As far as what is in the hearts and souls of any of these deceiful folks, truly…only God knows. For sure, what exists there now, is indeed, ‘better’ than the former mass arrests/mass imprisonments/’dissappearances’ of clergy and believers/destructions of churches/etc. OR….is this really…. better? But, sure, the present party-line is for the public-promotion of the official-religion (while surpressing the others), pretending to be religious themselves (‘proof ‘of which is: Putin crossing himself, and kissing icons!…and the Communist Party hailing the ‘re-establishment of Holy Rus’ and also printing on it’s front page the Easter greeting: “Christ Is Risen!”, etc.) Behind the scenes, tortures/assassinations and other vile & corrupt deeds are ordered and carried out. This official religiosity in Russia today, is similar to Italian-Mafia hitmen, who…because they (culturally) are baptized Roman Catholic, they always wear a cross around their neck or a rosary….’for good luck’….when they rob and murder. Of course, there are many average Russians who are not blind to all of this,…and who are indeed morally repulsed by it, but their general resigned-fatalistic attitude is: “But, what can I….do!?”
    Reader Daniel

  8. Well, you might go back even farther than that and blame – Emperor Constantine, who mixed up government and religion.

    Once again, however, Reader Daniel, you have captured it exactly.

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