1/28/2017 – On May 17, 2007 ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia) officially signed the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate.
Black Cloud Over Moscow
~ Deacon Nicholas Chernjavsky
Over eighty years ago and half a world away from where I now sit writing this, what came to be known as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (aka Russian Church Abroad) was born. It was not a joyous occasion. In fact, the ascent of the communist regime in Russia , which was the reason Patriarch Tikhon issued the directive to form a separate church administration, was the dawn of the bloodiest persecution of Christians in history. This is not an overstatement.
I had not experienced it, but I knew those who had. Though I was raised in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, I was always aware of the sheer magnitude of the evil that had overtaken my parents’ and grandparents’ homeland. I remember looking at the icon of the Russian New Martyrs and being amazed at the countless number of people standing in a crowd stretching out to the horizon ready to receive the crown of martyrdom from the angels passing them out to those who stood firm in their confession of Christ. I’ll never forget the grainy black and white footage of churches and bell towers collapsing to the ground following the detonation of explosives at the base. One, after another, after another, after another… Almost as disheartening was seeing the churches that survived, many of which were turned into warehouses, movie theaters, and, most insulting, public toilets. I got to see these with my own eyes when I visited in 1991.
Perhaps the most haunting were the photographs of bishops, starting with Patriarch Tikhon himself, that were martyred for the faith – killed because they refused to compromise their unshaken belief in the Lord Jesus Christ and their sacred duty to His Church. I found them in the back of a book in Russian about the persecutions. Somehow, the sight of their faces brought to life the stories of the incredibly cruel tortures they endured at the hands of the Soviets. What struck me was just how many martyred bishops there were: two-hundred and eight. With four photos per page and just a tiny caption telling who they were and when they were martyred, I slowly leafed through that appendix. These are my heroes. These are the men who, in this age of cynicism, show that there are still those who are willing to drink of the cup that the Lord drank of and to be baptized with the baptism that He was baptized with. Their stories should be trumpeted from the heights, for they are the genuine article. No politics, no self-interest, just Christ.
Sadly, not all of the bishops in Russia endured during this dark period. Some were broken and capitulated to the communists. These were the ones that survived in slavery to the regime. After the Patriarch was martyred and his replacement was exiled, the Soviet government gave the leadership of the Russian Church to Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky), who infamously declared in 1927 that the Soviet Union’s “joys and successes are our joys and successes, and [its] sorrows are our sorrows. Every blow directed against the [Soviet] Union …we acknowledge as a blow directed against us.”1 This was a watershed moment and the term “Sergianism” began to be used with reference to the policy expressed in this declaration. From that moment on, the official bishops who had submitted themselves to the militantly atheistic communist state did not utter a word of public protest to anything the State did, even though the country was drenched in the blood of tens of millions of people. The present day Moscow Patriarchate is the inheritor of this legacy.
What followed this capitulation in 1927, unfortunately up until the present day, was a Church that marched in lock-step with the regime. If there were any rumors of persecution that made it to the West, they were vehemently and universally denied by the Patriarchate. In 1930, when the ruthless extermination of clergy and faithful by the Soviet government was at a fever pitch that was maintained for the next ten years, Sergius came out and told the world, “There never has been religious persecution in the USSR , nor is there now.” 2 And if churches are being closed, it is “not being initiated by the government, but by the wishes of the people, and in other cases, even by decision of the faithful.” 3 Outrageous lies became the face of a Moscow Patriarchate firmly under the boot-heel of the “wise, God-appointed leader of the people of our great Union ” as Metropolitan Sergius frequently called Joseph Stalin, one of the bloodiest dictators in history. 4
Those first bishops who led the Patriarchate in the Soviet period eventually died and gave way to new bishops. These new bishops grew up and were educated in the Soviet Union . The most promising and energetic apologists for the regime were recruited by the KGB and pushed up through the ranks to become the mouthpieces of the State. As one disillusioned ex-KGB officer put it, “The KGB’s near-total control of the Russian Orthodox Church, both at home and abroad, is one of the most sordid and little known chapters in the history of our organization.” 5 Indeed, the information that has become available on this topic paints a gruesome picture. Right up to the break-up of the Soviet Union , these bishops would faithfully make statements like, “The laws of this country forbid persecution of citizens for their religious beliefs,” 6 and “We are all united by our love for our Socialist motherland.” 7
I am writing all of this, not because I want to publicly skewer the Moscow Patriarchate. In fact, I can’t express in words how much I would love to see the Church in Russia completely cleansed! The joy this would bring to both Church militant and Church triumphant would be without bounds! No, the reason for my writing this is to explain my own view, to anyone who would care to read it, on why the current basis for rapprochement between the Russian Church Outside of Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate is completely wrong and would lead the entire Orthodox Church to bear the burden of the sins of those same Moscow Patriarchate bishops I have mentioned. This cannot be swept under the rug. It is not going away.
Let me first clarify that the personal spiritual state of those hierarchs who capitulated is not at issue here. They will be judged as we all will be judged, by Christ in the Final Judgment. Certainly, these bishops are to be greatly pitied. I would hope that I would have endured had I been in their shoes. However, I have four little reasons to think that I may not have endured running around the house right now. There, but for the Grace of God, go I.
However, it is essential that we judge ideas, and the idea of Sergianism as a way to “save” the Church is as without precedent in Christian teaching as it is lethal. Notice, what I am arguing is not that we should stop praying for or pitying the hierarchs whose strength failed them during what had to be an unimaginably terrible time. What I am arguing is that becoming Stalin’s sock-puppet doesn’t make someone a hero, and it certainly doesn’t save the Church. The heroes that were saving the Church were being tortured and killed in the Gulag. The Lord Himself, as well as millions who followed Him, showed us that this was the way.
Unfortunately, the position of the Moscow Patriarchate continues to stand at odds with this. In 2003, a book about Metropolitan Sergius, called The Guardian of the House of the Lord, was published by the Moscow Patriarchate. The book itself is a lengthy biography which also reads, in parts, like an apologetic work for the Church’s capitulation to the Soviet regime. If that weren’t bad enough, the forward was written by the current Patriarch, Alexy II, in which he praises the heroic path taken by Sergius and viciously castigates the critics of this path. Concerning those that did not follow Sergius in his submission to Stalin, he writes that these “schismatics”, “not having reconciled themselves to the new government, became a danger just as big as the persecutions.” 8 Sergius’ actions, on the other hand, only get words of praise, as he is credited with averting, “maybe even the destruction of the Russian Orthodox Church itself.” 9 Not one word about how human weakness led Sergius to a disastrous compromise and the sorrowful path of the enslaved Church in the Soviet Union . Had the Patriarch said this, it would be an admission that Sergius’ action, while understandable, was wrong.
But the Moscow Patriarchate’s actions show that it considers Sergianism to be anything but wrong. In fact, it is heroic. The Patriarchate tries to pacify critics by pointing to a sub-section in a document called the “Basis of the Social Concept” where it says that, in general, if the government asks the Church to do something it considers wrong, the Church is free to reject this. But at the same time, the Patriarch has blessed the construction of a memorial complex in honor of Metropolitan Sergius, complete with a square, a museum and a monument. 10 The only comparison I can come up with is if Britain decided to build a monument to honor the heroic actions of Neville Chamberlain, but that would be unfair to Chamberlain because his policy of appeasing Hitler was neither as deep nor as long lasting as Sergianism was, or perhaps I should say, is.
As a bishop of the Moscow Patriarchate during the Soviet period, how many times do you drive past a pile of rubble that was a church or a church converted into a public toilet, before you begin to doubt whether or not you are even serving, much less “saving”, the Russian Church? This question, of course, presupposes that there were bishops who deceived themselves into thinking that they were “saving” the Russian Church , but this is history. A more pertinent question is why does the Moscow Patriarchate continue to embrace Sergianism?
The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that the mentality of the present leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate stems from a Sergianist past, and they live in a state of subservience to the government even now. For example, in May of 2005, Patriarch Alexy wrote a congratulatory epistle to the president of Vietnam on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the communist victory in the Vietnam War. He called it a “glorious anniversary” and said that it opened up new horizons for the Vietnamese people. 11 Why would any Christian leader praise an event that led to a Vietnamese system of camps for reeducation and extermination, thousands of boat people fleeing misery and repression, not to mention the unimaginable terror that was unleashed in neighboring Cambodia ? There seems to be only two possible answers: either the Patriarch is a communist sympathizer, or the Kremlin directed him to write this. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated event in that similar letters have been sent to the leaders of North Korea and Cuba .
The Moscow Patriarchate again finds itself with a government that does not tolerate dissent. Ever since Vladimir Putin’s election as president of Russia , nostalgia for the Soviet past has increased just as personal freedoms have been eroded. This is not a man who would let a powerful organization like the Moscow Patriarchate do as it pleases, and he has found willing accomplices in the top hierarchs who continue to trumpet Sergianism as heroic. In today’s Russia , critics of the Kremlin are dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly, but this has not affected the Patriarchate, as there seems to be not a peep of criticism coming from those quarters. It is also a curious thing that it was Putin who initiated the process to bring the Russian Church Abroad under Moscow ’s influence.
Is it a hopeless scenario then? As long as we have God, we have hope. However, the Russian Church Abroad stands on the cusp of integration with the Moscow Patriarchate, effectively silencing it as a voice against the idea that those who capitulate to dictators are heroes. Before, it was a Russian problem. Now, it becomes the Orthodox Church’s problem. The Western Church has lived with the historical burden of the Inquisition and the Crusades but the Orthodox Church has been able to disassociate itself from any such tragedies – until now.
If persecution should resume, and someday it will, God forbid that what the Moscow Patriarchate paints as being heroic actions of Metropolitan Sergius should be taken as a precedent! We, as Christians, know that the future holds something called the End Times. When they will occur, nobody can tell, and certainly it isn’t good to be preoccupied by them. But someday, a great evil will grip all of humanity, and this evil will be looking for precisely the kind of bishops that the Moscow Patriarchate calls heroes – the capitulators. This is why it is imperative to loudly and thoroughly denounce the Sergianist innovation as being wrong and completely contrary to the example shown to us by the Church for two-thousand years.
The Orthodox Christian Church is the light to the world that the Lord provided for us at Pentecost. Steadfastly over the past two millennia, the Church has guided those in this storm-tossed life to a safe haven in the Lord. The world has fought against it.
But there is a black cloud over Moscow . Tens of millions died, while the bishops in the Patriarchate looked on. This black cloud will continue to hang there no matter how many agreements and resolutions come out swearing that it is white. The only way that it will go away is through the method demonstrated by the spiritual giants of old: repentance. A firm, loud and universal declaration, backed by deeds, that the way of Christ is not the way of compromise with evil, but a stand for Truth, even unto death.
Please pray for the bishops of the tiny Russian Church Abroad that they withstand the pressure to quickly unite with the Moscow Patriarchate under circumstances where rejection of Sergianism is feeble, forced and parenthetical and the embracing of Sergius’ path is being solidified as a proud Russian heritage. Also, we must pray for the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate, and of the entire Holy Orthodox Church as a whole that the dreadful legacy of the Russian Church ’s enslavement to the Soviet regime might not spread, but be expunged forever.
Deacon Nicholas Chernjavsky
The Protection of the Mother of God Parish (ROCOR)
1. Alexey Young, The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (St. Willibrord’s Press, 1995) p.31
2. M.E. Gubinin, Akti Svyateyshego Patriarkha Tikhona i pozdneyshiye dokumenti o preemstve visshey tserkovnoy vlasti 1917-1945 (St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Institute, 1994)
4. Vladimir S. Rusak, Istoria Rossiyskoy Tserkvi (1993) p. 444
5. Oleg Kalugin, The First Directorate (St. Martin’s Press, 1994) p. 197
6. Jane Ellis, The Russian Orthodox Church (Indiana University Press, 1986) p. 209
7. Christopher Andrew, The Sword and the Shield (Basic Books, 1999) p.498. This is a fascinating collection of KGB materials that were smuggled out of the Soviet Union by KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin. There is an entire chapter detailing the systematic infiltration and manipulation of the Moscow Patriarchate by the KGB.
8. Sergei Fomin, Strazh Doma Gospodnya (Moskovsky Sretensky Monastir’, 2003)
10. News item on the official website of the Moscow Patriarchate, www.mospat.ru, entitled “Svyateyshiy Patriarkh Aleksiy blagoslovil sozdaniye v Arzamse memorialnogo kompleksa, posvyaschennogo Patriarkhu Sergiyu (Stragorodskomu)”, April 22, 2005
11. Posting on the official site of the Moscow Patriarchate, www.mospat.ru, entitled “Predstoyatel’ Russkoy Pravoslavnoy Tservi pozdravil v’etnamsky narod c 30-letiyem pobedi v voyne soprotivleniya”, May 2005