Ecumenical News International ENI News Service / 8 June 1998

Intellectuals claim 'book-burning' dishonoured Russia's leading theologians

By Andrei Zolotov

Moscow, 8 June (ENI)--A "battle of the books" has broken out in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-biggest city, after reports that the local Orthodox bishop, a well-known conservative, ordered the destruction of works by some of the 20th century's leading Orthodox theologians.

A group of Orthodox intellectuals have claimed that last month Bishop Nikon of Yekaterinburg ordered the burning of what he called "heretical" books which had been confiscated from students at a church seminary.

Among the "heretical" books were the works of respected 20th-century Orthodox theologians, Alexander Schmemann, who died in 1983, John Meyendorff, who died in 1992, and Alexander Men, who was murdered in 1990.

The controversy in Yekaterinburg, 1300 km east of Moscow, is a sign of the growing nationalist, ultra-conservative movement which is exerting considerable pressure on the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Bishop Nikon has denied that the books were burnt. Liberal members of the Yekaterinburg church have refused to speak on the record about the incident, but some church officials have confirmed the allegations off the record, and the book burning is being widely discussed in Moscow. ENI also obtained a copy of the complaint which a church member, Innokenti Grigoryev, sent to the Moscow Patriarchate.

An informal group of Christian intellectuals from the Vstrecha Enlightenment Centre in Yekaterinburg said that a diocesan council meeting on 5 May told priests they should not recommend "certain" Christian books to their parishioners.

Later that day, during a search of the seminary's dormitory, books by Schmemann, Meyendorff and Men were confiscated. Andrei Sannikov, a Yekaterinburg journalist who reported the story on local television, said that several volumes had been burned in an iron box in the school's courtyard as students looked on.

A dissident priest in Yekaterinburg, Oleg Vokhmyanin, was also defrocked 5 May. According to a copy of Bishop Nikon's decree, obtained by ENI, Vokhmyanin was punished for "commitment to latter-day teachings that reject the tradition of the Holy Fathers and do not have the approval of the whole Orthodox Church". He also was accused of "persistent refusal in helping to discredit dangerous and heretical delusions".

Bishop Nikon's spokesman, Boris Kosinsky, told ENI that he knew nothing about the burning. But he later added: "It is the bishop's will, and I cannot comment on it."Nikolai Ladyuk, a priest who the Vstrecha centre claims was present during the book burning, has denied this. He said that no books had been burned, but he confirmed that they had been confiscated from students.

"Maybe that's the way it should be done," Ladyuk told ENI. "Students are students. If they read bad books, nobody knows what will come out of it." He went on to complain about "various kinds of filth brought from the West."

Of the three theologians whose works were confiscated, Men's views have always been considered controversial, but Schmemann and Meyendorff, both of whom held the post of dean at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, are widely respected as mainstream Orthodox thinkers. Both tried to formulate Orthodox Christian responses to the challenges of modern pluralistic society, and their books, smuggled into Russia under communism, led many Russian intellectuals to the church.

Patriarch Alexei II, the church's leader, has often expressed his admiration for Schmemann and Meyendorff, whose books are studied in seminaries and religious schools across Russia.

However, for arch-conservatives within the church these theologians are regarded with suspicion because they helped inspire the modernist movement within the Russian Orthodox Church, led by a Moscow priest Georgi Kochetkov, who has now been suspended.

Alexander Schmemann's son, Pulitzer Prize-winning US journalist Serge Schmemann, who spent many years in Russia as a correspondent for the New York Times, told ENI in a telephone interview from Jerusalem that his father's work "inspired and encouraged many believers in Soviet-era Russia, including Patriarch Alexei II, who often spoke of Father Schmemann as 'my great teacher'."

He added: "To hear that a bishop of the church, now living in freedom, is capable of an act so repugnant and godless fills me with dismay and anger."

Alexander Schmemann's widow, Juliana Schmemann, now living in New York, has written a letter to Patriarch Alexei asking him to clarify the situation.

She told journalists: "I am sure that most of the faithful in the Russian Orthodox Church, those who read [Alexander Schmemann's] books and know his teachings, will be deeply troubled and shocked by the brutal burning of his books. But I firmly believe that sooner or later truth and fairness will prevail."

It is unclear whether the Moscow Patriarchate will investigate the Yekaterinburg incident.

Archbishop Sergy, chancellor of the Russian Orthodox Church, who oversees the patriarchate's relations with its dioceses, said that he had spoken to Bishop Nikon who had told him that no burning took place.

"It is fantasy," Archbishop Sergy told ENI. "I cannot imagine that such savagery could take place."

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