In a recent article published on the website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, we were given a glimpse at Russia’s political landscape under Putin, and told in conclusion that, when Putin ultimately goes the way of all flesh, he will leave behind him an inevitable legacy of upheaval and national strife. The article is convincing; indeed, in light of Putin’s devastating political machinations over the years, it points to the only possible outcome.
In spite of this, many otherwise rational Westerners – especially those of a conservative bent – remain willing to give the Russian president the benefit of the doubt, or even laud him for his apparently clear moral perspective, his plain speech, and his support for traditional Russian religion as embodied in the Orthodox Church of Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. This clear moral perspective and support for the Church, however, must be generously defined if it is to accommodate the Western admirer’s enthusiasm, as it has no problem at all eliminating those who would criticise it, and running roughshod over the very liberties that make it possible for comfortable Westerners to admire Putin’s construct in the first place.
Worse than Putin from one perspective, however, is the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) itself which, at least since the rise of the current Patriarch and probably since the fall of the Soviet Union, has colluded every step of the way with the state. I say ‘worse’ because, while collusion may appear to be a judicious path to those that think it could entail not just approval for the Church, but active encouragement, and so represent a worthy exchange, it necessarily requires compromises that can only serve to undermine the Church’s integrity. And compromise is precisely what the MP has done.
So, for example, reports have circulated for years about Patriarch Kirill’s personal wealth, as well as that of some of his priests, and it is an open question as to where it all came from. This in itself could be seen as scandalous, but the denials of his office that such signs of wealth were ever in existence and the manipulation of facts in order to conceal the truth brings shame upon the Patriarchate and all who conspire with it. There is more, though. Indeed, a single article like this is not enough to chronicle the manifold abuses of history, contempt for whole peoples and nations, and betrayals of fellow Christians not of the Russian Fold, that have been perpetrated by a few members of the Moscow Patriarchate in concert – consciously or unconsciously – with the regime of Vladimir Putin.
What is frightening in the midst of all this, however, is not that the lie represented by this two-headed hydra will prevail. After all, countries such as Canada and Australia, Poland and the Baltic States, have put paid to the political nonsense being spouted by the Kremlin, while the words of religious leaders such as the bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church have drawn attention to the questionable behaviour of the leadership of the MP. Rather, what is actually frightening is the fact that one day Putin will die, and as the political edifice he has built crumbles (as surely it must), the whole Orthodox Church in Russia will suffer for the actions of certain figures within the Patriarchate.
That this should be the case seems so manifestly obvious that it should not have needed writing. Yet, it is astounding just how taken certain quarters remain with representatives of the regime, such as the Metropolitan Archbishop of Volokolamsk. It is as if his (as yet un-critiqued) musical compositions and overestimated theological assessments have earned him an unassailable place in the heart of every Western convert to Orthodoxy. And that is to say nothing of traditionally-minded Roman Catholics who have been seduced by his apparently cosmopolitan air and the fact that he seems to stand so confidently as a representative of that ancient faith so appealingly rendered by the likes of Dostoyevsky. Yet this failure on the part of Westerners to engage more seriously with the actual content of his testimony in recent years might itself be counted as a type of collusion. After all, he continues belligerently and maliciously to denounce Ukrainian Greek Catholics at every opportunity; and while slights against ‘Uniates’ may not be so problematic to some Orthodox, the aggressive statement of the MP on the nature of primacy in the Church released in December 2013 remains the basis for the Metropolitan’s public comments on the issue, and should raise alarm bells among all the Orthodox for its not-too-subtle move toward asserting Moscow’s natural place as the successor to Constantinople and so Orthodoxy’s new primatial abode.
Moscow’s imperialism, whether secular or ecclesiastical, should alarm us all. It is aggressively antagonistic; it shows a profound disrespect for peoples and for history; it is violent and vulgar. Most importantly in this context, though, it also poses great danger to the integrity of the Church. Who, after all, is going to be able to trust her when the current relationship between Church and State comes to an end? Who, when the Russian people experience their own political and intellectual awakening, will see in Orthodoxy a prophetic witness to truth as opposed to a political beast? What, when the current joint political and ecclesiastical regime lose the battle to hold back modern decadence and moral decline (even if the struggle to do so is born of sincere intention, which is in itself doubtful), will the people turn to for moral direction? Surely, the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, in its current incarnation, is too compromised.
In a hundred years, Putin’s hold on the reins of power will not seem to have been either so impressive or long. He will, however, have left a legacy in need of emergency treatment, for it is impossible that such a figure should disappear and for anything but a vacuum to follow. This means in turn that, however expedient his patronage may seem at this juncture, it is inevitably toxic. And no matter how much a power like the Moscow Patriarchate might perceive itself to be acting autonomously, it most certainly is not. Every confrontational or contentious act the Patriarchate undertakes advances the cause of Putin and his quest for empire. Yet it does so at its own peril, for there is one despot in Russia already, and he does not share power.