Half a story about Russian Orthodoxy

town church russian easterDay after day, your GetReligionistas receive a steady stream of email from people who seem to pay little attention to what it is that we actually do at this weblog.

We receive notices from publishers who want to send us books so that we can review them, even though GetReligion does not do book reviews. We receive notices from people who want to cover upcoming news events. We hear from people who pass along news tips so that we will write articles about them (perhaps they are trying to reach me because of my Scripps Howard column). We receive waves of tips about editorials, opinion columns, articles in religious magazines and other kinds of writing that we rarely, if ever, discuss.

Most of all, people struggle to understand that this is not a weblog about religion news in and of itself. It is a weblog about mainstream media coverage of religion news. There are times when that line blurs, but we strive to keep an eye on it.

I also receive quite a few emails from people who, quite obviously, want me to comment on trends and events in Eastern Orthodoxy, especially if the stories point out weaknesses in my own church. Then, when I don’t write about these articles — because the coverage isn’t all that unusual, in terms of being really good or really bad — the readers often write back to accuse me of ignoring what is going on.

Here is one recent example, drawn from the Telegraph. The headline is nice and blunt, “Orthodox Church unholy alliance with Putin.” The story by Adrian Blomfield focuses on the ties President Vladimir Putin, his successor Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Patriarch Alexei II — calling this an “unholy alliance.”

The president, a proud adherent, has allowed the Orthodox Church to regain much of its Tsarist-era lustre and has won the enthusiastic support of religious leaders in return. …

The relationship might seem odd. It was the KGB, after all, that led persecution of the Church in Soviet times, when priests were regularly jailed, tortured and executed. Neither this nor accusations that Mr Putin is restoring many of the attributes of Soviet rule seem to bother Alexei.

Although he has never confirmed it, the patriarch, like the president, is a former KGB agent codenamed Drozdov, according to Soviet archives opened to experts in the 1990s. Many in the Orthodox hierarchy are also accused of working as KGB informers, a fact that critics say the Church has never fully acknowledged.

The key word in that last sentence is “fully.”

PutinPatriarchAlexeiThis is, of course, painful and tragic territory and the reality in the Russian church is very complex. You will find none of that complexity — both good and bad — in this completely one-sided story. And what is the reality? Here is a small piece of one of my attempts, as a columnist, to sum that up:

Two weeks after the 1991 upheaval that ended the Soviet era, I visited Moscow and talked privately with several veteran priests.

It’s impossible to understand the modern Russian church, one said, without grasping that it has four different kinds of leaders. A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

That’s painful and that’s real.

There is so much information out there. There are, of course, Orthodox people who are highly critical of the Russian hierarchy. In fact, there are Orthodox people who have done some of the most candid research into the Soviet era and its crimes. There are people who can talk about the good that is taking place in Russia, as well as the bad (and there is plenty of that).

For a glimpse of the reality, check out some of the reviews of the brutally honest “The Price of Prophecy” by the American priest Father Alexander Webster. Or get your hands on the book, which is out of print but easy to find.

There are many stories to be told, in the Putin machine. The Telegraph article does little or nothing to offer any form of debate about these topics. Thus, I didn’t pay much attention to it. It wasn’t worth commentary. However, the article does exist and you are free to read it.

As is often the case, the best critics of a church or movement can often be found inside its own doors. It helps to seek them out.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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