Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Stalin’s patriarchate

1 Comment

‘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.

 

'It would be wrong to attribute this state of affairs solely to the moral failings of any individual. While the Pope might consider it self-evident that ‘we are not state clerics’, the Russian church has acted as a state church for centuries.'

 

I suspect that such reactions have been animated by a profound sense of dissonance: most of us, rightly or wrongly, do not expect a religious leader to act like this. Instead of a church doing everything possible to end the war and restore peace (as its own social teaching seems to demand), what has been on display calls to mind the old Soviet joke about the border between ‘actually existing socialism’ and the promised communist paradise running along the walls of the Kremlin. The actually existing Russian Orthodoxy of Patriarch Kirill may not have much to do with Christianity but it is at least keeping its senior nomenklatura in yachts, chalets and expensive watches.

It would be wrong to attribute this state of affairs solely to the moral failings of any individual. While the Pope might consider it self-evident that ‘we are not state clerics’, the Russian church has acted as a state church for centuries — even as the Russian state underwent radical change. There is no space to explore this history in detail but some highlights include: The father of the first Romanov tsar taking the office of patriarch himself and going by the title ‘great sovereign’; the deposition of Patriarch Nikon in 1666 for ‘insulting the tsar’ and other offences; Peter the Great’s abolition of the patriarchate in 1721, with church governance transferred for almost two centuries to a ‘Most Holy Synod’ overseen by a government minister (and layman); and the Stalin-resuscitated patriarchate performing intelligence-gathering, influence and propaganda operations at international meetings (with a young Kirill contributing as a delegate to the WCC in Geneva).

The Moscow Patriarchate’s current stance sits squarely in this tradition. There is extensive evidence that the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church functions as a religious adjunct to the state, ‘increasingly subordinating the ROC to the needs of the regime’. As David Nazar SJ put it, ‘if Putin says something on Tuesday, the Russian Patriarch has to say the same thing on Wednesday but just putting the word “God” into the sentence’.

On the night of the Easter Vigil (according to the Julian calendar), Stalin’s heirs gathered not in the mausoleum but in the cathedral. In pride of place was Vladimir Putin, holding his candle and crossing himself repeatedly for the cameras (though some have claimed that Putin was not actually at the service but filmed his ‘scene’ earlier in an empty cathedral). Presiding was Kirill, who chose not to mention the war but took the opportunity to boast about the number of new churches built in Moscow. On the same day, a man standing in Red Square holding a sign saying ‘Christ for peace’ was taken away by police.

The wisest words I have found on this abject situation were spoken by the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk. He said that while reconciliation with Russia cannot be rejected, it must be preceded by two conditions. First, ‘stop killing us’. Second, new ‘Nuremberg trials’, as there cannot be reconciliation without accountability.

Whether or not an ecclesiastical trial, a criminal trial, or worse awaits Patriarch Kirill, the eventual reckoning with his church’s complicity in this war will not be limited to the actions of one aging ex-KGB agent. The Moscow Patriarchate has gone all in with Putin and its fate is connected to his. In the wake of commemorations across Europe of the victory over genocidal fascism in 1945, it might be worth recalling that the Nazi Reichsbischof did not long outlive Hitler.

 

 

 


 

Stephen Minas is associate professor of law at Peking University and senior research fellow at the Transnational Law Institute, King’s College London, where Stephen completed a PhD in law. Stephen has worked on climate issues in various capacities in domestic and international processes. He is an alumnus of Newman College.

Main image: Illustration by Chris Johnston. 

Topic tags: Stephen Minas, Russia, Ukraine, War, Stalin, Kirill, patriarch, Putin

 

 

submit a comment

Existing comments

The quote from David Nazar SJ, that “if Putin says something on Tuesday, the Russian Patriarch has to say the same thing on Wednesday”, reminded me of something the former Russian spy, Whittaker Chambers, wrote in his book “Witness” about the Stalinist mind. Writing about a colleague, Harry Freeman, he notes:
“He had been an ardent admirer of Trotsky…But the moment Trotsky fell from power, Harry Freeman became a Stalinist overnight, and so completely a Stalinist that he was outraged that I should suggest that he had ever been anything else….he was a faultless example of the Stalinist mind—instantly manipulable, pragmatic, motivated by the instinctive knowledge that political position (contingent in the Communist Party on unfailingly correct official views) is indispensable to political power.”


Ross Howard | 25 May 2022  

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union the Moscow Patriarchate was described by most of the Russian diaspora as 'The Soviet Church'. It was anathematised by the Russian Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) which still exists, headquartered in New York, but now in communion with it, but as a separate entity. Will there be a split again? Orthodoxy did survive the Soviet Union. Its brightest lights shone in what was called the Catacomb Church. I do not think any religious leader should make overtly political statements, support any war, or call for anyone to be tried. This is for politicians. What will happen to the Ukraine and the ultimate fate of both Putin and Patriarch Kiril, I have no idea. I just want the bloodshed to stop. Pope Francis is doing the right thing. So far the use of nuclear weapons has been avoided. We need to back off and attempt to defuse things.


Edward Fido | 27 May 2022  

Similar Articles

In the name of Kyrill

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 31 May 2022

Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow has received much justified criticism for aligning his Church alongside Vladimir Putin in the invasion of Ukraine. If we are to understand how he could think it is right to do so, however, it is helpful to know how he came to be Kyrill. The story of his earlier namesakes illuminate the conduct of the present Patriarch of Moscow. 

READ MORE

The pity of war

  • Gillian Bouras
  • 26 May 2022

In the photo I have just seen Vadim Shishimarin is in the dock, hanging his head. He is 21, but looks about 15 as he stands there in the polycarbonate box, the first Russian soldier to be charged and tried in Ukraine for a war crime. He holds the rank of sergeant and was a tank commander. At 21? (I’m embarrassed to recall how immature I was at 21.) It is likely he has a mother: I wonder how she is feeling right now, but think I can make a good guess.

READ MORE