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Orthodox spokesman challenged on church's political stance

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, Viktor Bondarenko, the founder of the "Russia for All" movement, and publicist Roman Bagdasarov gathered in editorial office of The New Times to debate about "Pussy Riot"
The New Times, 25 June 2012

Irina Yasina: Father Vsevolod, how does the Russian Orthodox Church view what the security forces and the judicial system are doing with these young girls? They acted out the first time in Epiphany cathedral. And the church did not pay any attention to them. But now in the church of Christ the Savior it took one minute for their action to be brutally suppressed. Then on the web there appeared a video clip with the song "Mother of God, Drive Putin away." And now they are being tried for the clip and not for what they did in the church of Christ the Savior. Moreover, I am profoundly sure that if they had sung "Mother of God, Preserve Putin," they would not have had any problems.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin:  The problem is not what and when they did it. The problem is in their position. They spoke out against Putin earlier also, but there was not such a negative reaction. In the church of Christ the Savior the name of God was associated with a vulgar word. Impermissible actions were performed in the church. Understand, a great deal has been said against the patriarch, and you yourself know how much has been said against Putin. But here it is that a blasphemous action was committed. Actions which offend religious feelings are very, very dangerous and now blood is flowing in the world because of them. We know that it is after such incidents, as for example the burning of the Quran, this happens. It is because of this that it is necessary to react with all severity. It is the government's business how it reacts; the church is not the investigator and not the court. But it is necessary to do everything so that such actions will be absolutely excluded. There are numbers of expressions that are completely impossible to state in one or another country. It is impossible to praise Hitler in Germany, for example.

Roman Bagdasarov: Notice that the longer the members of "Pussy Riot" remain in custody, the more people understand them and support them. Father Vsevolod mentioned several states in which such action are impossible by definition. And I would even mention one such state where attacks on religious feelings are very harshly punished. I am not sure that our government should take Iran as its model at this stage. In light of our multiconfessionality.

Chaplin: Iran also is a multiconfessional country and a very successful country, more successful than the contemporary West.

Bagdasarov: In Iran these harsh actions are backed up by a specific religious authority and a specific continuity of tradition. For example, the Shiite tradition that exists there. If one speaks about our country, then those people who speak out harshly against "Pussy Riot" are for the most part neophytes and often radicals.

Chaplin: There are quite diverse people in the church, but it is part of the church. It is a certain part of the church like all the others and they have the right to their own voice. It is mainly the older generation. And at the same time it is those people who have now learned not to be afraid to speak. After all now they are trying to intimidate the church. For every bold statement they are trying to arrange a public flogging. But it is now impossible to frighten us. It is possible to complain to the patriarch and it is possible to shout all sorts of nasty things on the Internet. But people in the church are used to speaking independently. And they are building a society as they see fit.

Zoia Svetova: Does the church approve the court's extension of the detention of the girls from "Pussy Riot"? Does the church not intend to stand up and call for mercy?

Chaplin: They insist on the correctness of their position, on a position that excludes their repentance. The court and the investigation should work as they have been working. I do not think that anyone should interfere in the course of their work, including the church structure. It is now important to say that. I am sure that God has given to me, and to other members of my church, a revelation, and I am sure that the Lord condemns what they did. I am sure that this sin will be punished in this life and in the future life.

Thus it is possible for there to be forgiveness on the part of the church when there is forgiveness on God's part. But that presupposes repentance.

Svetova: Where do you find out whether the Lord God forgives them or not?

Chaplin: I know. I think that God revealed it to me.

Bagdasarov: And I, as a believing person, can doubt that you know it.

Bondarenko: And I, as a person who believes in God, can doubt that I see signs of service to satanism in the action of "Pussy Riot."

Chaplin: I think that God revealed it to me and he also revealed the Gospel to the church. He promises an extremely harsh reward for any sin. Read the Sermon on the Mount. There is only one way out—repentance.

Svetova: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina wrote letters where they asked for forgiveness from believers. Is that insufficient?

Chaplin: There were no words of repentance there. The only step—half-step—in the right direction was made by Ms. Alekhina, who quoted Mandelshtam and at the same time the quote was chosen very well ("Well, I apologize, but deep down I haven't changed a bit"). But even while apologizing she continues to insist on the correctness of her position. This position, it seems to me, should be changed. Ms. Tolokonnikova wrote an even more interesting text in which the following was said:  "If someone feels offended, it is necessary to forgive" (from Tolokonnikova's letter to Chaplin, Apr. 2012): "I would simply be sorry if people consider me and my friends as enemies of Orthodoxy"). In this case it seems to me it is very, very important to reconsider what was done. And then the way will be open both for dialogue and for forgiveness, I hope. Because what was done is, of course, a sin that needs repentance.

Svetova: And what for you will be repentance?

Chaplin: The action was public, and therefore the change of position must be public.

Yasina: These young women have small children. They themselves are in prison, which more likely leads people to bitterness than to repentance. Don't you think that internal work on a person does not need to be done in prison?

Chaplin:  The Lord can move them to repentance by various means. Read Orthodox ascetic literature. For repentance the Lord sends a person both sorrow, and illness, and wars, and famine, and much else. The Lord acts in various ways.

Svetova: Is the Lord really so harsh?

Bondarenko: In the first place, I think that the Lord himself works it out and this would be the correct position of the church. If the Lord is offended, I think that he has the possibility of punishing—as Father Vsevolod said here—and by other means. I am surprised at the discrepancy and different understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. I have read it more than once. It is said there:  "Love your enemies; bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you. And pray for those who persecute you and offend you." Where did you see that the Lord is calling for punishment? I did not see that.

Svetova: Father Vsevolod, you said that somebody "is always intimidating" the church. Who and what for?

Chaplin: Every statement that deals with economics, the life of society, and culture is met by an outcry on the Internet. For example, the World Russian National Assembly spoke on the topic of wealth and poverty in Russia and that the society should be more just. In particular, it was suggested to introduce a tax on luxury and overconsumption. That was in 2007. Then many people cried out: why is the church meddling in economics? I think that the church should speak about everything—both at the level of the conciliar church thinking and at the level of individuals who, incidentally, may have different positions. About politics, about economics, the state of public morality, about culture.

Bagdasarov: And isn't there a danger of profanation—the church speaking about secular problems?

Chaplin: The ideal of a silent church is a false idea. It's an idea that was invented by a part of the soviet intelligentsia in order to have the possibility of creating a church that was convenient for it. One that would not challenge the mission the intelligentsia incorrectly took upon itself as teacher of the nation, which it tried to do in the 1970s to 1990s. Here is such a silent church, invisible, hidden somewhere there beneath the waters of the ocean like the city of Kitezh; it was just one of the anticlerical ideas that were born in that system.

Bagdasarov: So the church has always been silent.

Chaplin: No, it never was. Well this quiet and invisible church—that's an anti-church. It's a ghetto into which these people have tried to drive us.

Bagdasarov: Then you must acknowledge that the history of the Russian church is the history of an anti-church.

Bondarenko: I maintain that our church has become a part of the penal system. We do not have law enforcement agencies nor a court, but there is a single penal system which the rulers of this country use. I leafed through the basic law of the state, the Russian constitution. And I want to ask: why does the leader of the "Orthodox Church" public organization have more rights in our country than the leader of the Russian association of homosexuals and lesbians?

Chaplin: Oh, I did not say that.

Bondarenko: Or take the story of "Pussy Riot." Thinking people are outraged that we, in the sense of our state, have exceeded the bounds of the law and we are again living by concepts. Today we will try someone for the fact that it seems to somebody that Orthodox people have supposedly been offended. Tomorrow they will begin to try me because I eat beef, since a cow is a sacred animal of Hindus, and suddenly it seems they have here a religious association and they will begin trying me for offense to their beliefs. I think that first of all we must appeal to the constitution. The church violates the principle of freedom of conscience.  Article 14 of the constitution says that we have a secular state. Article 14 reads:  "The Russian federation is a secular state. No religion can be established as the state or obligatory religion. Religious associations are separated from the state and equal before the law."

Chaplin: We do not have the principle of the separation of church from state. Do you know about that? Let's clear up some of the myths that have been refuted long ago, but which people still try to voice in the public space. Of course, religious organizations, religious societies, and believing people, including those who belong to our church, have equal rights to express themselves just as LGBT activists. We, our church, no, excuse me, the state repressive apparatus, we cannot force anybody to agree with us. But we can express ourselves and we must and will do this. The LGBT community of course will do the same and anybody else. It is true, praise God, that now there are appearing laws that ban the LGBT propaganda among minors, and I consider that quite correct.

Religious associations are separated from the state. That is, the administrative structures of religious organizations. What does that principle signify? It is interpreted in the fifth article of the law on freedom of conscience and religious associations and it means that religious associations are not governmental bodies, praise God. And the state does not conduct religious functions for itself. The principle does not mean anything more than that. The church as a worldview and religion as a phenomenon cannot be separated from the state in the same way as the people cannot be separated from the state.

Bagdasarov: That is just sophistry. Then even Buddhism is not separated from the state.

Chaplin: No. Of course not. Our society is not secular. Part of it is secular and part is religious.

Bagdasarov: You said that the church is not separated from the state. Probably you have in mind not the state but society?

Chaplin: The church as a substantial part of the people is not separated from the state and cannot be separated.

Bagdasarov: For me this is all news that our church is not separated from the state. I always thought that the church cannot be separated from society, because there are various social organizations, including church and religious ones, and the church is part of our society; that is absolutely correct. Just as gays and lesbians are part of our society. But you maintain that our state is not more secular, right?

Chaplin: It cannot be separated from a worldview or from religion.

Svetova: If the church and state are united, does that mean the church cannot criticize the authorities?

Chaplion: For Orthodoxy, the symphony of the church, state, and people is the norm. We are not ashamed that we believe this is correct.

Bondarenko: When Patriarch Alexis (Alexis I headed RPTs from 1945 to 1970) served a prayer service for the health and later the repose of Stalin, was that in unity with the people? I think that in its essence RPTs is an anti-people church; it always sides with the government, always, at all times. Under Ivan the Terrible Metropolitan Filipp was not on the side of the government and Maliuta Skuratov smothered him. All the rest were on the side of the government and therefore it is essentially anti-people.

Chaplin: I do not think that the people and the government should always be in conflict with one another. Here we are faced with a difference of ideals, if you will. You, Viktor, represent to a greater degree a western social ideal which posits an eternal conflict among branches of government and between the people and government.

Bondarenko: Separation, but not conflict. Independent judiciary, independent investigation. Separation.

Chaplin: Multiparty system, continual political competition, economic competition. The Orthodox social ideal is different; it is the ideal of the unity of the people and the government, of diverse strata of people and religious communities.

Svetova: When the people go out into the streets expressing their protest against the government, whose side does the institution of the church take?

Chaplin: That is a question to what extent there really is in this case a popular movement and not a struggle for one side or of several elite groups. The government should respond to a popular movement with a change of course, as our Patriarch Kirill said. But I am for symphony, I favor that the ideal of unity, which is characteristic of our historic tradition and our mentality, would be expressed in all of our political processes. And in future reforms, which sooner or later will of course occur, including in the political sphere. I do not think that the church should become a part of the governmental authority. There is always discussion between the church and the government. In the first place, these discussions deal with the concerns of the people—not the Muscovite crowd but the majority of the people which, incidentally, now thirst for justice, thirst for fixing the many processes that were traumatic to people's souls, which happened in the 1990s. They thirst for more harmoniously arranged inter-ethnic relations; we know that this is a big problem.

Bondarenko: Do you think that the church is a good physician for healing such problems?

Chaplin: Including for the government. It is very important that the church speak on all these topics.

Yasina: You say that people are dissatisfied. That is true. All social surveys show that the demands of those whom you call the Muscovite crowd and the demands of people in the provinces are in agreement. There are four: health care, education, good housing, and justice. Justice is interpreted very specifically as a fair trial and normal law enforcement agencies. This unites everybody. Can RPTs address the state and say:  "Listen to what the people are saying to you. Because justice should be for all, both for the first persons and for their vice-premiers, and for common people, because justice should be for all and not for the chosen," and this is absolutely the church ideal, as you say. So, can the church address the government with a call to listen to just demands?

Chaplikn: That is the way it constantly talks about this.

Ysina:  Why are they not listening to you?

Chaplin: For now they are not listening. Because in order for them to listen the church needs to take a maximally active public position. What is the difference between the church and the political opposition? We have stood for all these topics, we have stood really for many years, much longer than the famous rallies. But at the same time the church, although sometimes it is accused of striving for power, does not pursue power. We do not strive to seize political power. Why do people not believe the leaders of the opposition movement? Because they understand that they are doing all of this in order to take power.

Bondarenko: What does RPTs think that it has the right to judge? Why? For many centuries, up until Peter I (Peter I abolished the patriarchate in 1721--it was restored in 1917) the institution of the church was not separated from the state. The church was the government.

Chaplin: And the country lived well, better than western countries.

Bondarenko: I was not there and I do not know that. I have only read Peter's decrees and I see how the country lived and that he had to issue ukases that one should wash once a week and not wipe one's hands on one's beard. If we began to have something, then it was only thanks to western custom that Peter brought from Holland. We got the canvas frame, brush, paints, telescope, microscope. None of this could have been done if Peter had not understood that with the Russian Orthodox Church he never could pull our country out of the Byzantine, prechristian slavery system.

And now RPTs is again beginning to interfere in the construction of the state. Remember you were building it for a thousand years, and in 1917 it collapsed in two months. Why do you think that you can manage to do now what you failed to do then? Excuse me, has your design changed? Has your terrain changed? Once you had "God's anointed on earth" as the head of state, and it perished. And now you are again trying to reconstruct this building, with the same blueprints, the same methods, on the same spot.

Chaplin: The state collapsed in 1917 precisely because the church was torn from the people.

Bondarenko: And why was it torn?

Chaplin: Because of your Peter. Before him the people were happy, and then they became unhappy.

Bondarenko: Have you seen "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"? There in the madhouse, especially after electric shock, everybody also was happy.

Chaplin: People's happiness is not determined by money, nor frames, nor brushes.

Yasina: There is the concept of "civilization," and people want to live in a civilized society, and they want to change. Incidentally, the leaders of our country are advocating what they call modernization. That is a movement forward, to innovations and the like. It turns out that you are dragging us back to the time of Ivan the Terrible.

Chaplin: Whether modernization is needed, which would not agree with the wishes of the people, is an enormous question. Technological modernization should not be accompanied with the decline of national consciousness. That is because modernization that is not organic for the country always ends in tragedies. And the tragedies that occurred under Peter soon after him only confirmed that.

Yasina: Father Vsevolod, I have a very simply question. The Russian man does not fasten his seatbelt, he drinks everything that warms him, and while drunk he jumps into water at undesignated places. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of people perish from this. We know the statistics on mortality in Russia. And if one does not change the consciousness, does not instill a feeling of responsibility—because when you do not fasten your seatbelt you are a fool risking not only yourself but risking your own elderly parents and risking your own small children. That's modernization and that's the breakdown of consciousness.

Chaplin: It is not very good when people do not buckle up and conduct themselves irresponsibly, but it is much worse when a person all his life in concerned only about his own health, about a carefree life and material interests. This is worse than not buckling up.

Bagdasarov: Unfortunately RPTs has incompetently lost that enormous credit of trust that it could have had. This is the cooperation of church and state on which Father Vsevolod insists. It began with Metropolitan Sergius (after Metropolitan Peter refused to pledge allegiance to the bolsheviks he was arrested and Metropolitan Sergius Stragorodskii became head of the church). Recall how it was bought, what the famous 1927 declaration of Metropolitan Sergius cost. That declaration cost those priests who did not agree with Metropolitan Sergius and who automatically were declared disloyal to the current governmental power. And the governmental power had the full right to repress them.

Svetova: Unfortunately, even after the end of the USSR, the RPTs did not repent for cooperation with the government, which repressed believers.

Bagdasarov: I agree, there was no kind of repentance, that is on the scale of the repressions that accompanied Metropolitan Sergius' declaration; our church did not give an adequate answer. Why did it not give these answers? Why cannot RPTs repent? This is the biggest question, more accurately, the biggest answer to the question why we have come to the present situation where RPTs is losing even more of the credit of trust. Let's say the Catholic church periodically repents for something—the inquisition, cooperation with Nazis. Why can Catholics do this? Because (I will use a metaphor) the Catholic church is an adult, with a complex fate, perhaps even a warped fate, perhaps even crippled, but it is an adult. If we speak of the Russian church, then it is a minor, in principle, a teenager who has not developed into an adult. It does not even understand what has happened to it and why. And the fault is in that very symphony of church and state of which Father Vsevolod Chaplin has spoken here.

Chaplin: The church should support certain relations with any state, even with persecutors. The whole history of the church bears testimony to this. With the persecutors of early Christians under the Romans and with persecutors who in their time seized Byzantium and, being infidels, exterminated Christians. Relations were maintained with all of them.

Svetova: The conflict of the church with artists began after the "Beware, Religion" exhibit in the Sakharov Museum. At the time believers considered some displays blasphemy. The organizers of the exhibit were sentenced to fines. Then there was the "Forbidden Art" exhibit, and again a trial of the organizers of the exhibit. Now there is the case of the punk prayer service of the "Pussy Riot" group. But where is the boundary in relations between church and artists across which the church should not step?

Bondarenko: At the end of the 1990s I collected icons and very soon came to the conclusion that the church needed a new artistic language. At the time I conceived the idea of making an iconostasis in code, that is using the possibilities of computer graphics. I called this project "Iconostasis XXI." Both the Russian Museum, the Historical Museum, and the Tretiakov were prepared to display our project. We chose the Tretiakov. They telephoned me and said that it was necessary to settle with the church. Don't forget that it was the time of the soft regime. That is also when we became acquainted with Father Vsevolod.

The church supported my project with the condition that we would not call it "Iconostasis XXI."  And it was Father Vsevolod who gave it the title "Deisis/Intercession." At the time we communicated very well with the church officials. Then, when the anthem of the Soviet Union returned, I began to have doubts. I began to reread Gogol, Chekhov, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and I suddenly saw that here is a thousand-headed hydra that holds my country, my people and it has not changed at all.

Chaplin: So who is guilty of all this.

Bondarenkop: Neither you nor Christianity, nor Orthodoxy. It is a metaphysical hydra that is constantly mimicking. One time it is pagan, and then if it needs to it wears crosses, then it wears hammers and sickles, and then the sword and shiled of KGB. And now Chekists stand with candles in their hands at the rite of this hydra. I believe that a divine inspiration can come to a murderer and he can repent and enter paradise. But I do not believe that all the layers of former communists, KGB workers, who were yesterday's persecutors and killed priests have now become sincere believers. And here they are now persecuting those who come to the church and sing "black limousines, golden epaulets. . ." (a quote from a "Pussy Riot" song). And so I have now begun a new art project.

We do not want to offend anybody; we want to present a certain artistic statement. It will be icons in the dock. With halos. The artist who is drawing these works is a believing girl from an Old Believer family. I told her to take communion from a priest. We are drawing a new Trinity. And the artist has said to me several times now: "I am afraid; Mama is afraid."

Svetova: Why draw a new Trinity?

Bagdasarov: It is because there has again arisen the problem of the interrelationships of art with religious images that require a new, contemporary expression. And it is very important that the topic of these interrelationships be freely discussed. The goal is to say that artists have the right to deal with sacred images.

Svetova: And is the church ready for renovation?

Chaplin: Much has changed in the church, and will change, and I think that the level of public activity will change further in the direction of its expansion and in the direction, incidentally, of greater diversity of expression with which you will have nothing to do. So I as a church bureaucrat should try to arrange the whole church, and public, and information flow in the direction of some greater unity, but it is as a bureaucrat with 27 years of experience that I understand that this is no longer possible. Thus there will be the most diverse views in the church, from the extreme right to the extreme left. From extremely conservative to extremely liberal.

Svetova: Not long before Easter Nadezhda Tolokonnikova asked you to come to see her in the SIZO. Why did you refuse?

Chaplin: A priest visited her who was visiting prisoners in that jail, but she refused to talk with him. I am afraid that her request for a visit was sent to me not as a priest but as an attempt at some political game.

Svetova: In Matthew's gospel Christ says: "I was in prison and you visited me." If a prisoner had summoned Christ, he would have gone to him in prison. Why did you not go?

Chaplin: Prison is not the area of my pastoral resaponsibility.

Yasina: Just like the patriarch responding to the letter of Orthodox believers in which they asked him to have mercy on the girls from "Pussy Riot"?

Chaplin: His Holiness the patriarch, who feels the pulse of the church very well, listened to that pulse.

Svetova: That is, the RPTs remains on the position of harsh punishment?

Chaplin: The patriarch has said nothing about punishment; he says that this is sin, and both God and the church await repentance.

Discussion conducted by Zoia Svetova and Irina Yasina

(tr. by PDS, posted 26 June 2012)

Russian original posted on, 25 June 2012

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