May 30, 1996

Church Leans Toward Yeltslin in Russian Vote


MOSCOW -- On a recent visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, Patriarch Aleksy II of the Russian Orthodox Church tipped his hand about the Russian presidential elections. "Today, in this fateful time for Russia, President Boris Yeltsin has played a great role in uniting the people," he said at a news conference. "If the old regime comes back to power, the country will suffer new tremors."

The patriarch, who has repeated such warnings elsewhere, is stretching the limits of a church ruling made in March that prohibits clergy from officially campaigning in the presidential election. Aleksy II neither endorsed President Boris Yeltsin flat-out nor directly condemned the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who in his campaign for the Kremlin has promised to respect religious freedom.

But the patriarch's meaning was clear. Out in the provinces, where church bells clang authoratively once again, his meaning can be heard clearer still.

In the "red belt" region of Ivanovo, 200 miles northeast of Moscow, Archshop Amvrosy tells parishioners not to vote for the Communists, and makes no bones about it. "Of course, the church is completely prepared to support the current president," he said. "We can do it during services. We have that right."

Now revived and once again respected, the Russian Orthodox Church barely survived 70 years of oppression by the Soviet state. It has spent the last five years recovering confiscated property and restoring desecrated churches, ordaining new priests and trying to reunite a flock that was steeped in atheism for more than three generations.

In a society where public trust has dangerously eroded, and almost all authority figures are suspect, the church is the country's only venerated institution. And no other institution in Russia has a more compelling historical motive for fearing a Communist victory.

Torn between a desire to be independent of secular politics and fears that its newfound independence would not survive a new Communist regime, the Russian Orthodox Church is unmistakably working to re-elect Yeltsin.

But it is almost impossible to gauge how much political influence the church has on voters. There are an estimated 60 million believers in Russia. In Moscow alone, the number of parishes has grown from 50 to more than 200 in the last five years.

Even many nonbelievers support the church as a symbol of Russian culture and national pride -- including Zyuganov, who has broken with Marxist-Leninist dogma and recast himself as a God-fearing patriot to court the nationalist vote. Many believers attend church regularly, but will vote against Yeltsin -- who many blame for their economic insecurity and the decline in Russia's stature -- regardless of what their local priest recommends.

And there are priests who support Zyuganov. The Rev. Aleksandr Shargunov, who was harassed by the Soviet KGB in the 1980s, is one of the more prominent Russian Orthodox clergymen to have publicly endorsed the coalition of "patriotic" forces led by Zyuganov. Leader of a movement called "For the Moral Revival of the Fatherland," Shargunov recently attended a campaign meeting with Zyuganov that was shown on television.

His colleagues in the church say the deeply conservative priest is driven by outrage over the "immorality" and Western values that have flooded Russia and that the Communist candidate promises to curb. Shargunov declined repeated requests for an interview.

But their views are laid out unambiguously in their manifesto, entitled "The Moral Genocide of Our People Must be Stopped." Among other things, its signers complain that, "the current administration launched a large-scale propaganda campaign of violence and debauchery. Intensified by the hypnotic infuence of the media, this campaign makes our compatriots consider the most horrible vices as normal phenomena."

At his church, however, few parishioners seemed aware of Shargunov's political stand. "Oh, that cannot be," one elderly worshiper said last Thursday after services. "Communists are Godless. There must be some mistake." Others echoed her shock and disbelief.

Shargunov's endorsement of Zyuganov did not go unnoticed by the patriarchate -- or unpunished. Aleksy II had long been scheduled to officiate at the Feast of St. Nikolas service at Shargunov's parish, St. Nikolas-in-Pyzhi, and the congregation was eagerly expecting him last Thursday morning. The patriarch did not show up, and instead attended a different service at another Moscow church.

The patriarchate may be loathe to pursue the matter, however. Though a church spokesman explained that Shargunov's endorsement appeared to be a "violation of the resolution of the Holy Synod," he also said he was not sure further rebuke would follow. "Of course there will be very serious discussion on this subject within the patriarchate," said Aleksandr Bulekov. "But we have to take into account that this is a very painful issue, given that there are many believers who share his views. We do not want to creat any splits among believers over the upcoming elections."

There are also deep ideological splits within the church. There are clergymen who seek real independence from the state and greater diversity within the church. Traditionalists want to restore the Russian Orthodox church to its pre-Revolutionary role as a national religion bound to a strong Russian state -- they demand, for example, the canonization of the last Czar. They despise Yeltsin as a "Westernizer" who betrayed Russia's sovereignty.

The patriarchate, moreover, is still traumatized after it came close to severing all ties with the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, in a dispute dispute between factions of the Estonian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Earlier this month, a temporary compromise was reached and the rift patched over, but the threat of a schism still looms.

But church leaders are fearful of a Zyuganov presidency. In Moscow, the gleaming gold domes of Christ the Savior Cathedral, which was razed by Stalin in 1931 and entirely rebuilt by the patriarchate and the City of Moscow this year, pay tribute to democratic leaders' efforts to placate the church. But outside major cities, church officials complain that their efforts to revive religious schools and church activities are often thwarted by local officials who continue to mistrust the church -- and could be encouraged by a Communist victory.

"As bishop of Smolensk, I can tell you that we had a very difficult time establishing a religious school there," said Metropolitan Kyrill, who heads the patriarchate's department of external relations. "And already, we are hearing local officials who say, 'when Zyuganov gets into power, all this will stop."'

He added, "I don't think the Communists will destroy churches or kill priests. What worries me most about a Communist victory is that it will reactivate the old guard to return to the old ways, and the authorities in Moscow won't even know about it."

The patriarchate has not prevented Zyuganov from visiting religious sites. But unlike most other prominent political figures, the Communist leader has not had a private audience with the patriarch. His reception at monasteries and churches has been civil, but chilly.

After the Communist leader paid a call to the famous monastery of St. Seraphim Sarovsky in Deveyevo earlier this month, The Moscow Times reported that Metropolitan Nikolai of Nizhny Novogorod, commented dryly, "He came to see what is still left and needs to be destroyed."

That is the message that the Yeltsin campaign hopes the church will help spread.

Focus groups, commissioned by the Yeltsin campaign, indicate that most voters only hazily recall how the Communists curbed freedom of speech and movement, but the oppression of the church remains a vivid, palpable memory.

The campaign contemplated featuring a priest in its political ads to remind voters where the church really stands.

"We thought about it a lot, " said Mikhail Margelov, an ad executive with Video International, the advertising company that is producing political ads for Yeltsin. "But we finally decided that it might backfire and play into the hands of the opposition, since the church is not supposed to officially be involved in politics."

The powerful mayor of Moscow, a co-chairman of the Yeltsin campaign, has no such qualms. Giant billboards all over Moscow feature Yeltsin and Yuri Luzhkov shaking hands against the glittering gold and white backdrop of the Kremlin's Ioann Lestivichnik church and belfry. Above it, the logo reads, "Moscovites have already made their choice."

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company