Regular 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.
There 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.