A blessed Holy Week to you, too

PutinLukashenkoLightingCandlesRegular GetReligion readers will not be surprised to know that I noticed the New York Times story that ran with the headline, “Kremlin Rules — At Expense of All Others, Putin Picks a Church.” I noticed it and other people made sure that I noticed it, too.

It covers some of the territory handled by a recent Telegraph feature that I wrote about, a post that produced a giant silence on the comments board. Apparently, more people want to make sure that I know about stories critical of Eastern Orthodoxy than are interested in discussing them.

The Times story is, sadly, highly relevant and contains lots of solid reporting. Here’s a key chunk of it:

There was a time after the fall of Communism when small Protestant congregations blossomed here in southwestern Russia, when a church was almost as easy to set up as a general store. Today, this industrial region has become emblematic of the suppression of religious freedom under President Vladimir V. Putin.

Just as the government has tightened control over political life, so, too, has it intruded in matters of faith. The Kremlin’s surrogates in many areas have turned the Russian Orthodox Church into a de facto official religion, warding off other Christian denominations that seem to offer the most significant competition for worshipers. They have all but banned proselytizing by Protestants and discouraged Protestant worship through a variety of harassing measures, according to dozens of interviews with government officials and religious leaders across Russia.

This close alliance between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church has become a defining characteristic of Mr. Putin’s tenure, a mutually reinforcing choreography that is usually described here as working “in symphony.”

This is not, of course, a new story. I find it interesting that our newspaper of record is very concerned about the oppression of Methodists in Russia — a decade-plus after the initial efforts to crack down on rapidly growing Pentecostal and evangelical movements. Trust me, Methodists are not a booming force in Russian culture. Conflicts between the Russia and Rome are an even older, and more complex, story.

The oppression is inconsistent, which is why the story says it is present in “many areas,” rather than “all.” Russian authorities have tried to define which groups are hostile to Russian culture and which ones are not, a tricky and troubling business at best. The oppression is not as bad as under the Soviets (legal woes are not quite the same think as being butchered inside your sanctuary), but that is no excuse. Here’s another good summary of what is going on:

Mikhail I. Odintsov, a senior aide in the office of Russia’s human rights commissioner, who was nominated by Mr. Putin, said most of the complaints his office received about religion involved Protestants. Mr. Odintsov listed the issues: “Registration, reregistration, problems with property illegally taken away, problems with construction of church buildings, problems with renovations, problems with ministers coming from abroad, problems with law enforcement, usually with the police. Problems, problems, problems and more problems.”

“In Russia,” he said, “there isn’t any significant, influential political force, party or any form of organization that upholds and protects the principle of freedom of religion.”

Much of this is due to extreme forms of nationalism. But there is another reason for the defensive posture, which must be taken into account. I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service several years ago about corruption inside the Russian church that noted:

Outsiders must remember that this is taking place only a few generations after the Communists closed 98 percent of Russia’s churches and, in one brief period, killed 200,000 bishops, priests and nuns and then sent another 500,000 believers to die in labor camps. Millions later died in Stalinist purges. KGB records indicate that most clergy were simply shot or hanged. But others were crucified on church doors, slaughtered on their altars or stripped naked, doused with water and left outdoors in winter.

The KGB records also contain the stories of clerics who yielded. Russian Orthodoxy was a complex mosaic of sin and sacrifice, during the era of the martyrs.

So what is wrong with the story?

My main comment is the same as the last time around, following that Telegraph report. Orthodox readers would consider this half of a story, one lacking some critical and informed Eastern Orthodox voices.

pascha 02There are, you see, Orthodox people — journalists, even — who are highly critical of the Russian hierarchy. In fact, there are Orthodox people who have done some of the best research into the horrors of the Soviet era and its crimes. Like I said before, for a glimpse of that, 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, sadly, is out of print but easy to find.

This is a very complex story and there is a lot of information to take in. The Times article needed more voices, if it wanted to show what is happening on the ground in different parts of Russia.

Meanwhile, there is the issue of Putin himself. As I discovered years ago, when I ended up in Russia days after the 1991 coup — click here for more info on that adventure — the believers there have a special word to describe the political posturing that may be going on in this case. This brand of public figure is called a “podsvechnik,” or “candlestick holder.”

Some Orthodox believers even use this term to describe some of their shepherds. Here is another clip from that earlier column I wrote on this topic:

Many ask … if some of the church’s bishops are mere candlestick holders — or worse. 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.”

In conclusion, there is one other reason that many Orthodox believers are somewhat upset about this edgy New York Times story about their church — the timing.

This is Holy Week in the Eastern Christian churches, under the ancient Julian calendar. Today is Good Friday. In the late hours of Saturday night we will begin celebrating Pascha, the greatest feast in all of Christendom, which is called Easter in the West. It’s a hard time to read terrible news about a branch of your church, especially if it is old, incomplete, news.

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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.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I have seminary friends who are or were missionaries in Russia (Novosibirsk region). The irony is that 15 years ago my church (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod–the WELS) was invited by the Russian government to teach morals in the schools! A friend who was about to embark on his mission at the time noted the irony that the American government would not allow the teaching of the Ten Commandments in the schools but the Russian government was begging American churches to come and do the same.

    As far as know, there has been no adverse effects on WELS missions in Russia. Now, could it be that the evangelical approach used by the various churches. WELS tends to use low-key approaches and work within societal norms and restrictions. Basically, like the early church, find a need and address it and build relationships that way. Relationships spread the Gospel, not fancy evangelism programs.

    It appears to me, on the surface, the reporter used a template of religious restrictions and didn’t dig deeper into details. Was it really an effort to curb competition to the Russian Orthodox Church? Or do selected officials see a need to protect citizens against an aggressive, and perhaps at times abrasive, religious group? Did some groups cross that fine line from religion to politics? If these crackdowns are only in certain places, was there an attempt to locate where groups are allowed to flourish and see why they may not be affected? Or is this an attempt to show the disparate vagaries of the Russian government?

  • http://www.saintjonah.org Fr. John Whiteford

    I don’t think it is quite fair to talk about the state of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1991 as if that has much to do with where things stand today. The Russian Church has undergone a huge renewal between then and now. I also don’t think it is fair to describe Putin as a candle holder. I don’t pretend to be able to look into the man’s soul, but he goes to Church and on pilgrimages when the cameras are not on. I would not pronounce him a saint, but neither would I assert that he is insincere.

    Also, the Keston Institute did a lot of good during the cold war, but they get a good bit of funding from the US government, and so their view of the Church and of life in Russia is not without a political slant.

  • http://www.saintjonah.org Fr. John Whiteford

    What the Russian government has certainly cracked down on is foreign Churches pumping money and missionaries into Russia. That is not the same thing as persecuting native Russians who simply want to practice their own faith.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I did not say Putin is a candlestick holder. I said there are Orthodox who have raised the question, along with others.

    The “funds pouring in” statement is correct. However, the restrictions have gone beyond that. The distrust of ALL outsiders is certainly a large part of the picture.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    A glimpse into the size of the issues involved:


  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Terry, a blessed Good Friday and Pascha to you and yours.

    “Yet, like many Russian officials, he referred to Protestant churches with the derogatory term “sects.”” Isn’t this the standard Vatican line, let alone from bishops in South America and not that long ago in the US?

    The telling observation was a bit of a buried lead — atheist recently Communist party officials who are now all about making sure they are keeping groups happy that support their power base, even when it now is the church.

    But i’m thrilled that the Washington Post is interested in evangelical Methodists when they are harassed and persecuted for their faith . . . i’m sure we can find them some stories along those lines nearer home! (Hey, it may be Pascha for TMatt, but it’s General Conference for United Methodists this week and next — fasting optional.)

    The bottom line is this is presented and structured as another story about creepy, shadowy, robed, candle-lighting, liturgical (ewwwwwww) religious people who can’t be given the benefit of any real consideration beyond the assumption of “they can’t be up to any good behind those copes and beards and monastery walls,” while the friendly folks doing familiar looking church stuff in apartments, and handing out toys in orphanages, mayn’t quite be our sort, but they sure don’t seem threatening, so let’s just uncritically take their side.

    Until they actually have some social influence themselves, in which case we’ll take them down a peg or two.

  • Julia

    Happy Pascha.

    The Times had a place on-line for Russians to comment in their own language which was then available on the English language web version in translation. I must confess to having spent hours browsing to get a flavor of the widely differing opinion of the Russians about all this. Really fascinating.

    The Polish Church is going through some of the same agony of ferreting out or living with clerics who were co-opted or forced or blackmailed to cooperate with the Communist regime.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt
  • Aleksandr Andreev

    Truly Christ is Risen!

    The State Department report linked to is completely inaccurate and entirely biased. The report spends pages talking about schismatics, such as the so-called “Russian Autonomous Orthodox Church”, and the alleged troubles of Protestants in getting registration. It completely ignores the fact the Orthodox Church has been often unable to get its property back from the government and that it’s rights are violated on a regular basis.
    Consider, for example:
    * The Church is not allowed to have chaplains in the Russian army.
    * The state does not recognize Theology degrees as valid higher education.
    * Thousands of churches remain museums operated by the government. Others are operating as churches but still controlled by the government and leased to the church.
    The State Department does not mention these issues. On the other hand, much of the alleged discrimination against Protestants and schismatics could not be confirmed independently.

    It is also sad to see that in this joyous season Terry is jumping aboard the “Russian Church is corrupt” bandwagon. This topic has been circulating on the blogosphere since circa 1990 and culminated in the recent Fr Michael Oleska opus where he blames the Russian Church for the persecutions of the 20th century.

    Passengers of this bandwagon usually make general claims such as “The Russian Church is very corrupt”, “many church officials were KGB agents”, “most Russian bishops are homosexuals and pedophiles”, etc. But for some reason they are at a loss to tell us who exactly is corrupt, worked for the KGB, or is a homosexual. Public opinion surveys show that this corrupt church is the most trusted institution in Russia. Something wrong with this picture?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I think you seriously overstated what my post said. I noted that some of the best and most accurate critics are Orthodox. You do not have a complete picture of the debate without that. Do you know Father Webster’s book? He is an OCA priest in good standing and not simplistic at all.

    And what are the public opinion surveys you cite? Do you have a URL?

  • Aleksandr Andreev


    Christ is Risen!

    Here’s an article in Russian http://www.idelo.ru/423/18.html.
    You could probably translate it using Google Translations.

    The study was done back in 2006, and according to its results, 50-70% identify themselves as Orthodox. 68% of respondents “trust the Orthodox Church”, 18% “distrust the Orthodox Church” and 13% have “no opinion”. That makes the Russian Orthodox Church the most trusted “social institution” in Russia.

    As for Fr Webster’s book, while in general testifying to his enormous intellectual prowess and making some good points about Christian moral philosophy, it, unfortunately, is one more apologia for the OCA. Just like similar works in the past (e.g. “A History of the Orthodox Church in America (1917-1934)”), it suffers from canonical lapses, historical inaccuracies, and quasi-scholarly claims by OCA apologists.

    Being “in good standing” in the OCA is not necessarily a good thing these days, depending on who assigns the standings.

    I agree with you, however, that, despite its other shortcomings, it is far from simplistic!