Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Sergei Chapnin, author of the First Things article “A Church of Empire” was recently fired from his post at the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate for criticizing the patriarchate's policies. On January 5, he was interviewed by A portion of the interview is translated below. —Ed.

Is the war in Ukraine a very serious blow to the Church?

It's certainly a very serious ordeal. Because the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) behaved very carefully in the public sphere for many years, until the second Maidan, it achieved very good results. People began simply to call it the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, without adding “Moscow Patriarchate.” It genuinely was both the largest and the most influential church in Ukraine. And the fact that it canonically answered to the patriarch in Moscow was not of great concern.

But after Crimea, there was a reassessment of the churches' role. The noncanonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate came to be seen as a national church, and the UOC-MP became the “Moscow Church,” somehow “not our own.”

The problem of self-identification is very serious for the Orthodox. Even in the UOC-MP, there are quite a few parishes that no longer commemorate the Patriarch of Moscow at the Liturgy. I should clarify that the jurisdiction of the church is determined, in part, by the commemoration of the name of the church's primate at the Liturgy. In Ukraine they would first commemorate the Patriarch of Moscow, then His Beatitude the Metropolitan of Kiev, and then the local bishop. So now, without leaving the UOC MP, some priests have stopped commemorating the Patriarch—a stance actively supported by their congregants. This is a mild form of internal opposition within the Church.

One simple fact shows just how serious the problem has become: a year ago Metropolitan Onufriy of Kiev and All Ukraine insisted that his priests commemorate the Patriarch, but on December 28, 2015, he suddenly changed its position and recognized the priests' right not to commemorate Patriarch Kirill.

For the Church, this is one of the signs of serious geopolitical catastrophe. And it raises a very serious question: what will happen to Ukraine in an ecclesial sense? There is no way Moscow can influence the situation in Ukraine.

The patriarch needs to maintain the status quo. Whatever wonderful and commendable things he may do, if the UOC-MP breaks away under his watch, that is the only thing Patriarch Kirill will be remembered by. It's like a toothache, and it's unclear how to treat it while they're injecting the painkillers.

In theory, there are two options: wait until it all blows up, and the UOC becomes independent on its own. Or to take the lead and grant independence. There is not enough willpower to accomplish the latter. The Metropolitan of Kiev does not have a clear path; instead, he is trying to balance between the interests of different groups, and so far he is succeeding.

In your opinion, should the church build a “national policy”?

It is dangerous to mix religion and national identity. We must have the courage to consistently say that these are two different things. Yes, there is a connection between them, but you cannot equate one with the other. The Church is, before all else, the fellowship of those who believe in Christ as Savior and jointly participate in the Liturgy. Everything else—politics, nationality, ethnicity, culture—has to take a back seat.

In antiquity, the church's unity was emphasized in its name. They called it the Orthodox Church of such and such a land: of Antioch, of Jerusalem. Later, geography “jumped” to the start of the name and became an adjective: the Serbian Church, the Russian Church, and so on. This way the national element became much more prominent, and fomented the rise of nationalist mindsets within the churches.

Anyone who says, “I am a member of the Russian Church!” is usually talking about patriotism, not so much cultural as political. Orthodox are now Russian patriots first, and everything else second. But the Russian Orthodox Church today has the trappings of a national church. As soon as Russia starts to use Orthodoxy as a form of national identity, not only in Ukraine but also in Belarus, the Baltics, or Kazakhstan—that's where the trouble starts.

Once they tried to say that the Russian Church encompassed the territory of Russia, and that the Moscow Patriarchate was what held it together. It was a nice idea, but it didn't work out.

What about the realm of ideas? There is great geopolitical patriotism and fervor in our country today, which seems to be expressed even more strongly in the Church.

The main thing that happened in the ideological sphere in recent years is that Russia came to grips with its own history, so to speak. It decided that we can be proud of the history of the Soviet Union. The thought is: this is a mighty history, and we are its heirs, so we value that great and victorious history.

What does this mean? Today the Church—without any outside pressure—recognizes the general secretaries of the Communist Party as great rulers of the Soviet era. Whatever atrocities Stalin committed, it is thought that his great accomplishments cannot be diminished, since Russia won the war under his guidance. It's as though that makes up for his crimes.

I see a serious spiritual and theological problem in the fact that the Church openly talks like this. In honoring Stalin as a “great leader,” we insult the memory not only of the saints who suffered during the years of persecution, but all those who fell victim to the Stalinist regime. The Church was virtually destroyed by Stalin, and now it recognizes his service to the nation. It's an incredibly fragile position, and I would say, a spiritually unhealthy one. And now, Igumen Evstafii calls for Lenin's remains to stay in their Mausoleum. Communists in various cities erect busts of Stalin, and the Church remains silent.

But it's widely held that Lenin and Trotsky destroyed the Church, while Stalin in fact revived it after he gained enough power and a casus belli appeared.

This is not true. In the 1920s, the church existed both legally and illegally, that is, in the catacombs. It was virtually destroyed in the 1930s, and its blood is unquestionably on Stalin's conscience. The temporary change of course after 1943 was a tactical decision by the Communists. If someone sees anything more in this, he is deluded.

The flourishing of all things Soviet is an obstacle to the formation of a modern Orthodox culture and a new Orthodox identity. If we embrace the Soviet past and take pride in it, then we should reject the heritage of prerevolutionary Russia, which the Communists destroyed by all means possible. It's one or the other.

By ignoring this choice, Russia has fallen into “hybrid religiosity,” that is, we are reviving Orthodox traditions as well as Soviet ones. This fusion leads to the formation of a post-Soviet civil religion, which exploits Orthodox tradition but in fact is not Orthodoxy.

This is a new version of “Orthodoxy without Christ.” We care very much about Russian saints and Russian greatness; we care about being a patriot. Prince Vladimir and Alexander Nevsky, for example, acquire special significance, while we somehow forget the the Gospel, and Christ Himself isn't quite so necessary.

The idea of American civil religion is relatively well-known. It, too, serves as a form of national identity with a strong messianic component, but differs fundamentally from post-Soviet civil religion: it includes God. Yes, God without a name—the Absolute, as the Supreme Intellect. But in post-Soviet civil religion there is no God at all.

Well, then, what is the fate of the “liberal” wing? How does one go about being an “Orthodox European” in today's Russia and its Church?

Of course, the “tentatively liberal” wing hasn't gone anywhere. By the way, you should avoid this artificial dichotomy between “liberals” and “patriots.” The first are better called Christian democrats, and the second, followers of the post-Soviet civil religion. Christian democrats are those who do not see themselves as isolated from European Christian civilization. Many have been to the West and have seen how the Orthodox live in Greece, the Catholics live in Italy and France, and the Lutherans live in Germany. There are aspects of crisis there as well, but Christianity in Europe is much more rooted and vigorous.

Those Orthodox who participate in global Christian culture are not especially visible. For them the profession of faith is foremost a personal choice, an action. They do not feel the need for declarations, for public demonstrations, to fight for traditional values. The source of faith is Christ Himself, not fighting for values.

And plenty of Orthodox dioceses in Russia have long-standing and positive relationships with those very same Catholics. Orthodox priests easily visit them in Europe, befriend them, and arrange student exchanges; one receives a grant, another collaborates on social projects. It just goes unpublicized in order to fend off accusations of “betraying Orthodoxy.”

There are those who want to pick fights and find enemies, and there are those who just want to labor on the Church's behalf. People who believe in Christ are peaceful.

What cautious predictions can we make today?

We are on the threshold of major changes. The biggest taboo, the ban on direct criticism of the Patriarch, has disintegrated in recent years. And it has been destroyed in the most radical possible way: not by a person off the street, but by one of his closest aides. For many years the Patriarchal court commanded some, and quietly whispered to others, that anything can be forgiven except for criticism of the Patriarch. This worked for almost seven years. It's not that everyone feared him, but that much was entrusted to the Patriarch when he was elected.

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin broke the ban on criticism the day after his resignation, but it would be naive to suppose that it was only an emotional reaction to the Synod's decision. It's is a definite indication that trust is no longer a universal tool of church governance. The situation in the church has been destabilized, and may soon become unmanageable. But in any case, it's too early to discuss it.

I won't talk about timing, but it's certain that church life, and the Church itself, will change significantly in the coming years, in the direction of simplicity. Pathos, puffing up the cheeks: all that froth requires financial security. But there's less and less money, and froth inevitably dies down. The ones who will remain are those who lived peacefully and prayed. I hope that these Orthodox Christians will become more visible.

Interview by Leonid Smirnov
Translation by Ivan Plis
Full text available at

More on: Orthodoxy

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles