January 16, 2011

Sectarianism and Extremism in Russian Orthodoxy

Which Road Leads Away From the Church?

Aleksandr Baunov and Ilya Arkhipov
November 26 – December 2, 2007
Russian Newsweek

A young man, recently converted to Russian Orthodoxy, wandered into an ordinary Orthodox church in a Moscow side street. He was approached by an old woman, a donations box attendant, who began to instruct the young man: “You’d better take off that slip-knot. Our Lord did not wear neckties. The Devil lives in these knots.”

An old joke about a lonely Jew on a desert island who built himself two synagogues — one to go to and another one NOT to go to — perfectly fits modern Russian Orthodoxy. Already 10 years ago some of the most rigorous priests would not give sacraments to believers from “less Orthodox” parishes unless they repented and recounted their false beliefs.

There is another church, formed long ago within the confines of the Russian Orthodox Church. This inner church reads its own books, listens to its own authorities, and despises the bishopric. In the language of modern sociology, its followers may be termed “religious fundamentalists.” It’s just like the modern Islamic world, where universal peace is preached in one mosque, while jihad is preached in the one right next door, and both types of worshippers are “good Muslims.”

Orthodox fundamentalists say that the last days gave come and that the INN [Individual Taxation Number, said to contain a barcode with the number “666”] and the new Russian passports are the seals of the Antichrist.

Modern Russia is a country of neophytes. This goes for priests as well as for laymen. People go to monasteries in search for “starets” [sages] and spiritual teachers. But the sages and teachers themselves came to the church just 10 to 15 years ago, even though they pretend to possess spiritual insight comparable to that of Dostoyevsky’s “starets Zosima.” Lists are compiled and updated weekly of the most venerated “starets.” Thus, from the cursed world they have taken the worldliest feature — star ratings. Even a denunciative term has already appeared in the Orthodox Church: “young starets.”

The most radical of those fundamentalists summon the Church to canonize Ivan the Terrible, Rasputin, and Stalin. A settlement of such radical God-seekers was established not far from Moscow in the village of Koscheevo, Yaroslavl region. Its residents call themselves “Oprichnoe Bratstvo” [Brotherhood of Oprichniks, oprichniks being members of the guard troops formed by Ivan the Terrible].

Another alternative cult is the Brotherhood of the Redeemer-Tsar. Represented by once-popular singer Jeanne Bichevskaya, this group believes that Christ did not pay for all human sins and that the last Russian tsar had to complete the job. Adherents of this idea gather at the Taininskaya railway station, some 20 minutes from Moscow. They conduct a Rite of National Repentance by the monument to Nicholas II. People repent of various deeds of their ancestors, including the Decembrists’ uprising.

In the village of Diveevo [one of the most holy places of modern Russia is located there — the convent established by St. Seraphim of Sarov] there is a “groove” said to be the footprints of Mother of God when she appeared to St. Seraphim. According to the popular belief, the Antichrist will not be able to cross that groove, so fervent believers buy themselves houses in Diveevo to stay close to that holy place during the world’s end.

According to the main Russian expert, Alexander Dvorkin, indigenous sects account for more than half of all cultists in Russia and begin to export themselves to other countries. Ten or fifteen years ago people will go to cults straight from being functional atheists. The modern-day cultists are better described as heirs to the pre-revolutionary Russian God-seeking movements. And the key problem existed before the revolution, too. Russian classic writer Nicholas Leskov was especially interested in that problem. His favorite phrase was: “Russia is baptized but not educated” — meaning that people who claim to be Orthodox have an extremely vague idea of “what their faith is about.” This is also the reason behind the preposterous results of numerous recent polls — for example, according to pollsters, among 70-80% of Orthodox believers in Russia, only 40% believe in God, and only about 2% partake of the sacraments regularly.

Numerous small factions that preach various alternative forms of Orthodoxy are not going to dissent, and thus many parishes and monasteries, still being formally Orthodox, become sectarian in nature. These people do not seek to leave the church but rather to refashion it in their own way. Though not formally sectarian, in reality they possess a sectarian mentality.

Here’s how this mentality is described by a modern Orthodox theologian from the University of Vienna, Vladimir Martinovich, Th. D.: shift of religious worship from God to a certain cleric with total surrender to his will; belief in automatic efficacy of religious rites without necessary understanding of their meaning; apocalyptic ideas that encourage fear of the outside world; “polytheism” that consists of exaggerated veneration of saints “for any conceivable occasion”; extremist tendencies that stimulate hatred towards certain groups of people depicted as the main enemy of the Church.

The reasons for this sectarian mentality are obvious. “Such things happen very easily,” observes Fr. Georgy Kochetkov, a very popular priest among the Moscow intelligentsia. “People strive for an intense spiritual life; they are dissatisfied with the weakened, diluted, bifurcated parish life. And having this zeal, they fall prey to what the Apostle Paul calls ‘zeal not according to knowledge.’”

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov is himself a “sectarian.” He is thus labeled by the fundamentalist faction in the church. The mid-1990s witnessed a peak of confrontation between the liberal movement represented by Fr. Gregory and the ardent supporters of the “old ways.” Fundamentalists won the victory: they threatened to leave the church, and the church leaders surrendered to their pressure; restrictions were applied to the parishes and monasteries that championed an “impudent” attitude towards the Tradition in order to “please” the newly converted intelligentsia.

But after the fundamentalists used the church leadership to defeat the liberals, it was the turn of the church leadership itself to come under fire. It is now considered by the fundamentalists to be the most liberal and ecumenical part of the church, and thus their main enemy.

Deacon Andrei Kuraev, professor of the Moscow Spiritual Academy, believes that the church itself bears responsibility for the proliferation of such ideas. “The question is why these people, who are already Orthodox, were unprotected before the crazy preaching of this sick person [Pyotr Kuznetsov, leader of the Penza doomsday group]. Let us enter an ordinary church or monastery, and we will see that it is extremely hard to find a book about Christ there, but there are plenty of books about the Antichrist.”

According to him, at least 20% of all Orthodox clergy support the position of Chukotka bishop Diomedes, who published an open letter to the Patriarch this spring. In his letter the hierarch from Chukotka blamed the Church for the departure from pure Orthodoxy. By this he meant that the Russian Orthodox Church was engaged in ecumenical dialog, endorsed democracy, and justified the INN and new passports. Finally, Bishop Diomedes accused the church leadership directly with aiding the Antichrist, since it had organized an interfaith summit and a joint address to the leaders of the Big Eight. With this, according to Diomedes, they in effect recognized the authority of the Big Eight, which “is an agency of the worldwide Masonic government and makes way for the coming of the one world leader, the Antichrist.”

“There are conditions that predispose the church to the formation of sects,” admits the Patriarch’s press secretary, Fr. Vladimir Vigilyansky. According to him, the danger of schism is very real, but the hierarchs don’t want to provoke it because they feel responsible for their laity: “There are some people who, as in the Gospel parable, are afraid to gather up the tares, lest they uproot the wheat with them. The Patriarch tends to think that one preserved sprout of wheat has more value than dozens of tares.” Judging by the Penza events, the tares are deeply rooted already.

Andrei Kuraev does not believe that the kindness of the hierarchy will save the church from schism. “Fear of schism, if it paralyzes the church, only hastens it. Sometimes, as in the Penza case, I even wish that such schisms would have happened already, so these people may not identify themselves with the Orthodox Church anymore. Then it will be clear where there’s Orthodoxy and where there’s a sickness disguised as Orthodoxy.”

But, then the Church is different from the sects in that it accepts everybody, all paupers and cripples, whereas sectarians do not tolerate any deviations from the “sure road to paradise.” Thus, by anathematizing such people it would admit its inability to heal spiritually sick.