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‘I can’t stand the lies’: The priests’ letter rocking the Kremlin

Priests process through the Russian capital carrying an icon of St Peter of Moscow (Getty)

“I was very depressed by the severe prison sentences, but even more so by the mere thought that the Church could remain silent on this matter. The open letter turned this around. That is why I signed it.”

Fr Andrei Kordochkin speaks to me in a sunny courtyard of the parish where he has served for the past 15 years: St Mary Magdalene Russian Orthodox church in the north of Madrid. Around us dozens of parishioners socialise joyfully after the Divine Liturgy, over lunch with traditional Russian and Ukrainian dishes. The 41-year-old father of two, educated at Ampleforth and Oxford, is one of 182 Russian Orthodox clerics worldwide who signed an open letter to the Russian state authorities. It created a sensation.

The text – still open for signature on an independent Orthodox website, pravmir.ru – criticised as “unjust” and “cruel” prison sentences meted out last month to democracy campaigners who demonstrated against the blocking of opposition candidates from Moscow City Council elections. In a respectful yet firm tone, priests and deacons alleged glaring miscarriages of justice and condemned “any violence, be it by protesters or by authorities”. (As we went to press, further mass demonstrations were being held in Moscow.)

“A court should be able to defend a citizen from arbitrariness of the executive and the police, otherwise its existence itself turns into a stage prop and a formality,” the letter said. “We are concerned that court sentences look more like intimidation of Russian citizens than justice.”

Quoting St Paul and St John the Evangelist, the letter ended with a call to God to give Russians strength to live in mutual respect and love.

Although not overtly political, the letter touched upon the most controversial and least talked-about theme inside the Church: its changing relationship with the Russian state. It is arguably unprecedented in Church history both in scope and significance. The last time anything comparable happened was in 1965 when two dissident priests, Gleb Yakunin and Nikolai Eshliman, wrote an open letter protesting against the anti-religious policies of the Soviet government. Both men suffered persecution from the communist regime, though Yakunin lived until 2014 and was even a member of the Duma in the 1990s.

The 182 clerics’ powerful message surprised Russian public opinion, long used to the Church’s pliant attitude towards the Putin regime, and no doubt stunned both the Kremlin and the Church’s primate, Patriarch Kirill, who hardly expected such a development.

Vakhtang Kipshidze, deputy director of communications for the Patriarchate, tried to downplay the letter. He said that the Church always tried to improve the lot of prisoners but it should be done discreetly and through official channels. There were 40,000 clerics in the Russian Church, Kipshidze pointed out – not a very subtle reminder that those who published the open letter are a small minority.

Some of the signatories are well-known media figures with deep pastoral experience and a track record of good deeds. For example, Fr Alexei Uminsky, whose Moscow parish runs a charity helping the homeless and whose books include a popular commentary on the St John’s Gospel for lay people and catechumens. He visited one of Putin’s arch-enemies, the dissident billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, when he was serving his sentence (allegedly for fraud) in a penal colony a decade ago. Another priest, Fr Alexander Borisov, is a well-known veteran priest whose church, only five minutes’ walk from the Kremlin, gave sanctuary to protesters chased by police during recent demonstrations. Fr Andrei Kordochkin of Madrid, whom I spoke to, is a writer and commentator who has just published a book dealing with the uneasy relationship between
Christianity and patriotism.

However, most signatories are from Russian towns and villages, where they live at the mercy of the local hierarchy who can find all sorts of ways of punishing them. That nearly 200 clerics decided to show their true colours is a sign that the Russian Orthodox Church – a direct successor of the Kremlin-dependent Church of the Soviet era, is in trouble. As one of those who signed the letter wrote to me privately, “I have no more strength to withstand the hypocrisy and lies. If they try to punish me I’d rather leave the priesthood than submit.”

“They” are the Church hierarchy, consolidated and by now mostly hand-picked by Patriarch Kirill. Since his enthronement in 2009, he has nearly doubled the number of bishops, most of whom are loyal to him personally, eliminated perceived enemies and competitors, and installed allies in key positions.

The state, although officially neutral in religious matters, is channelling hundreds of millions of roubles to the Russian Church, via different schemes, from restoration of religious properties to social-work projects. The patriarch is guarded by the Federal Protection Service, the most secret of Russia’s many security services, responsible for keeping high state officials, including Putin himself, out of harm’s way. The service is rumoured to number between 40,000 and 50,000 people. At the same time most priests do not have regular salaries and depend on their parishioners, local business people and the largesse of the diocese for their livelihoods.

In exchange the patriarch and the bishops put their pulpit at the service of the Kremlin, cautioning the faithful about the dangers of democracy; lauding Putin as one who has restored Russian pride; lending support to the Russian operation in Syria as a rescue mission to save the Christians; and, most important of all, toeing the Kremlin line on Ukraine, which is allegedly mired in “fratricidal strife” and “civil war” instigated by the ever-perfidious West, the source of all evils and the eternal enemy of Russia.

This close alliance between the Orthodox Church and the state has created a backlash against the Church, especially in the big cities and among young people and intellectuals. While 10 years ago anti-religious (and especially anti-Orthodox) manifestations in the public square were limited to a few diehard atheists, today social networks and what is left of an independent media are full of denunciations of the “Putin-cheering, Porsche-driving, caviar-eating pests in anachronistic robes”. This is a dangerous caricature of a Church which not that long ago was treated with respect or, at worst, with indifference. In May hundreds of demonstrators in Yekaterinburg, an affluent 1.4 million-strong city in the Urals, stood their ground for days against the police and private security personnel, successfully preventing the construction of a new church in a popular park.

The patriarch and his inner circle put all this down to “secularist activists taking their cue from the West”. They also blame “traitors in cassocks” – those clerics who go public with or leak stories of graft and sexual abuse in the Church to the media.

Another official representative of the patriarchate, Alexander Shipkov, considered to be Patriarch Kirill’s public alter ego, accused the signatories of the clerics’ letter of plotting to “abolish the patriarchate and introduce elections of bishops, priests and abbots”. The letter contained nothing of the kind, but even if it did, this would be no more intolerable to many among Russia’s overworked and underpaid priesthood than the necessity to conform to the current system of praying, obeying and paying even more on the hierarchy’s whim.

The open letter took the existing crisis in the Russian Orthodox Church to a new level. It also made waves among those critics of the Russian regime who had thought the Church was a lost cause in their struggle for justice and democracy. That clerics came out in defence of those hounded by the state will no doubt make many think twice about the role the Church could play in the future. It may even be that they saved it from becoming irrelevant in a new Russia that will eventually emerge after Vladimir Putin has gone.

Konstantin Eggert is the Russian and Baltic affairs analyst of DW (Deutsche Welle). He was the BBC’s Russian Service Moscow bureau editor from 2002 to 2009