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Stalin’s patriarchate

  • 23 May 2022
‘We removed him from the mausoleum’, wrote the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. ‘But how do we remove Stalin from Stalin’s heirs?’ The poem was published in 1962 but it’s still a good question. Today one of Stalin’s heirs commands a barbaric war against Ukraine with the enthusiastic cheerleading of another such heir — the leader of the Moscow Patriarchate reestablished by Stalin.

Stalin allowed a patriarch of Moscow to be elected in 1943 after a long vacancy to bolster morale against Nazi Germany. In the Cambridge History of Christianity, the late Michael Bourdeaux and Alexandru Popescu wrote that this restored patriarchate ‘became arguably the most “Soviet” of all institutions that remained after the collapse of the Soviet system’ — as the attempt to include a mosaic of Stalin in the new ‘main cathedral of the armed forces’ indicated. 

The current patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, and his subordinates have given the war on Ukraine their full support. Clergy in Russia who speak against the war are subjected to persecution. The only admonishment connected with the war from the official church has been to ask war-crazed faithful not to decorate their Easter cakes and eggs with the ‘Z’ symbol.

No wonder the Vatican cancelled the meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill which had been planned for June in Jerusalem. Francis has since taken the unusual step of recounting in detail a virtual meeting he had with Kirill in March. The Pope recalled that for ‘the first twenty minutes, [Kirill] read from a piece of paper he was holding in his hand all the reasons that justify the Russian invasion’ (it seems likely that Kirill recited to Francis the same talking points that he included in a letter to the World Council of Churches). The Pope responded that ‘we are not state clerics, we shouldn’t speak the language of politics’ and that a ‘Patriarch can’t lower himself to become Putin’s altar boy’.

It isn’t just this most ecumenical of popes turning away from Kirill. The stance of the Russian church’s leadership has provoked a wave of revulsion from disparate secular and religious sources. Hundreds of priests of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine have signed an appeal for an ‘international ecclesiastical court’ of Orthodox hierarchs to put Kirill on trial. The European Commission has proposed sanctioning Kirill. In a recent article, Geoffrey Robertson QC called for Kirill’s ‘acolytes’ in Australia to be deported. Others want the Moscow Patriarchate expelled from the WCC.