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In a conversation about Russian Orthodoxy some dozen years ago, that famous source who can only be quoted off-the-record, the Senior Vatican Official, said to me, “They only know how to be chaplain to the czar—whoever he is.”

Such asperity reflected deep frustration over the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow’s continued rudeness (some would say, cruelty) to John Paul II and its nasty habit of throwing sand into the gears of the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. And my interlocutor surely knew that there were exceptions to his rule: men like the late Fr. Alexander Men, axe-murdered in 1990, almost certainly because politicians and senior Russian Orthodox churchmen feared that this son of a Jewish family might, in a free, post-Soviet Russia, help craft a new relationship between religious and political authority; men like Fr. Gleb Yakunin, a founder of the Christian Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights who did hard time in the Gulag as a result; men like the country pastors who, since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, have been rebuilding Russian Orthodoxy in the countryside, one wounded soul at a time.

Yet there were also hard truths in that Senior Vatican Official’s comment. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been in thrall to political power for centuries, and its twentieth-century history was a particularly unhappy one. The Bolsheviks hated pious priests, so Lenin and his successors ruthlessly crushed authentic Russian Orthodox religious life—the expression of a great spiritual and theological tradition—wherever they could; the list of ROC martyrs to communism is a long and noble one. After Stalin rehabilitated the ROC in his campaign to ramp up Russian nationalism after the German invasion of June 1941, the leadership of Russian Orthodoxy, the Patriarchate of Moscow, became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Soviet regime, and specifically of its secret police, the KGB. Patriarchs of Moscow were senior KGB officers; the present Patriarch, Kirill, began his career as an ROC representative at the World Council of Churches in 1971 when he was twenty-five years old, a sure sign of KGB affiliation.

In recent years, Kirill and his “foreign minister,” Metropolitan Hilarion, have been mouthpieces for Russian president Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reconstitute something like the old Soviet Union in the name of a “historic Russian space,” an exercise in Great Russian irredentism that has taken a particularly grave turn in Ukraine; concurrently, they’ve conducted a campaign of seduction in the Vatican and among American evangelical Protestants, putatively in service to a united front against western decadence and secularism. But in the ironies of history (or the strange ways of divine providence) the Ukraine crisis, in which Kirill has been duplicitous and Hilarion mendacious, just might initiate a break in this historic pattern of Orthodoxy playing lap dog to authoritarian power among the eastern Slavs.

As the people of Ukraine rose up against the kleptocratic and despotic government of Viktor Yanukovych last year, in the Maidan movement of national moral and civic renewal, the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches faced a dramatic choice: stand in pastoral solidarity with the people, or stand with the state that was brutally repressing Ukrainian citizen-reformers? The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches (Byzantine in liturgy and Church organization, but in full communion with the Bishop of Rome), did not face this dilemma; the UGCC was long the safe-deposit box of Ukrainian national consciousness, and in the post-Soviet period it has devoted its public life to building Ukrainian civil society. But the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches did face a historic fork-in-the-road: civil society, or the state?

The choices made have not been unambiguous. But the evidence to date suggests that more than a few Ukrainian Orthodox leaders and believers have chosen to stand with civil society, rejecting the Patriarchate of Moscow’s support for Putin’s Great Russian nationalism. If that new alignment holds, it may eventually lead to a history-changing revolution in Orthodox understandings of the right relationships among Church, state and society: a development that would, among other things, vindicate the memory of Orthodoxy’s twentieth-century martyrs.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. His previous articles can be found here.

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