High stakes in politics of Moscow patriarchate


Why is Patriarch Kirill delivering a fatal blow to the beloved project of Metropolitan Tikhon, the Sretenie seminary?

by Alexander Soldatov

Novaia Gazeta, 13-15 July 2019


The head of the Russian Orthodox Church delivered a grievous blow to a hierarch of his church who is influential among rank-and-file clergy and laity and has the reputation of the "spiritual director of the president," Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov). After the decision regarding the effective liquidation of the "main breeding ground of the Shevkunov cadres," the Sretenie seminary in Moscow, the metropolitan looks crushed and confused. But isn't the patriarch undertaking a risky game?


Novaia Gazeta has often written that the most likely candidate for the patriarch's throne in the contemporary RPTs is Metropolitan of Pskov Tikhon (Shevkunov). He has access to the highest offices in the Kremlin and the Lubianka, he has the reputation of the "spiritual director of the president" (which neither Tikhon nor Putin confirms, but they do not deny), he is the creator of the illustrious Sretenie monastery and seminary (with an illustrious press and choir), he has accumulated billions of rubles from sponsors and the state budget for constructing throughout Russia grandiose "historical parks" to acquaint Russians with the "correct" ideology—this hierarch has penetrated the homes and souls of millions of people with his best seller "Unholy Saints," the most often printed Orthodox book in all of soviet and postsoviet history. It seemed that nothing will stop the rise of the "Lubianka Archimandrite," after becoming the metropolitan of Pskov, to the pinnacle of church power.


But Patriarch Kirill, who knows too well the price of this power, decided to reverse the natural course of history.


What happened?


The decision to conduct a session of the Synod of the RPTs (for the first time in history!) on the remote and isolated island of Valaam did not bode well. The Synod assembled on 9 July in the magnificent church of the skete of St. Vladimir, access to whose territory is extremely restricted and controlled by the Federal Protection Service (FSO). The fact is that historically there was no such skete on Valaam. It was built in the 21st century in honor of the guardian angel of Vladimir Putin, the Holy Equal-to-Apostles Prince Vladimir, near the relatively remote and well protected bay of the Valaam archipelago. Besides the church on the territory of the cloister, two large cottages were built in Scandinavian style, one for the president and the other, more modest, for the patriarch. Approximately once a year the most secure meetings of the two heads of the Russian eagle are held here.


The skete serves as a living embodiment of the idea of "symphonia" of the church and state power, which Patriarch Kirill so dreams of but which has recently begun to evoke distrust in the Kremlin.


Behind the tightly closed doors of this skete, secured by the FSO, the Synod also gathered under the leadership of the patriarch. They started with the sensational decision about the retirement and dispatch to Lipetsk of the first vicar of the patriarch, Metropolitan Arseny, who administered the parishes of Moscow over the course of 30 years, who had been the right hand of the late Alexis II. But the next decision, aimed at Metropolitan Tikhon, muffled this sensation. With the goal of "optimizing" the system of ecclesiastical education, the Synod transferred to St. Petersburg the rector of the Sretenie Ecclesiastical Seminary, created by Tikhon and located in the monastery of the same name on Lubianka Street, and it appointed as acting rector Archbishop of Bereya Amvrosii, who is simultaneously the rector of the Moscow Ecclesiastical Academy in Sergiev Posad. Moreover, a special commission headed by Amvrosii was instructed to provide to the patriarch, by 1 August, "a draft for optimizing" the Sretenie seminary and Moscow academy, or speaking more simply, for absorbing the seminary into the academy, which is striving to move to Moscow and acquire the rich heritage of Tikhon.


The chief editor of radio station Echo of Moscow, Aleksei Venediktov, commented on what happened on his Twitter account: "Patriarch Kirill felt a threat. Metropolitan Tikhon's beloved project—the Sretenie Ecclesiastical Seminary-- is being 'optimized.' Next the Sretenie monastery will be 'optimized.' Harsh, your Holiness; harsh. . . ."


The fatal blow, delivered by Patriarch Kirill to the main project of Metropolitan Tikhon, was disguised, of course, by the good motives of the reform of the system of ecclesiastical education of the RPTs, This system has been in profound and, possibly, hopeless crisis. For 24 long years (1994-2018) the Academic Committee of the patriarchate was led by the unspectacular Archbishop Evgeny. After several reform attempts in the system under his charge, stagnation has reigned. Numerous provincial seminaries, opened in the wave of the "religious renaissance" of the 1990s, could not find applicants and the means to nurture students. But even the leading ecclesiastical schools of the country—the Moscow and St. Petersburg academies—had a catastrophic loss of graduates who do not wish to serve in the church line. It was necessary to introduce a kind of serfdom, where graduates of the academies and seminaries sign legally binding obligations to work in the church for at least three years after receiving a diploma or to cover their accounts with astronomical sums for tuition and maintenance. Under Evgeny, the ecclesiastical schools of the RPTs moved to the Bologna system, implying a two-tier structure of higher education: a seminary course for a bachelor's degree and an academy course for a master's.


So the Sretenie seminary began to be distinguished from the Moscow academy only by its name: both of them offered study on both a bachelor's and a master's curriculum and their diplomas had equal weight. Moreover, in the ratings composed by the Academic Committee of the patriarchate, the Sretenie seminary sometimes even overtook the quality of the education of the Moscow academy (first place in the rating was held unchanged by the St. Petersburg academy, Patriarch Kirill's alma mater).


A year ago, the Academic Committee was taken over by the ambitious Moscow Archpriest Maksim Kozlov, the former rector of the church of St. Tatyana at MGU. In the year, he inspected nearly all of the ecclesiastical schools of the RPTs and even suspended the work of the most hopeless. However he had to acknowledge that Metropolitan Tikhon's Sretenie seminary has the best indicators in the system: in 20 years of existence, it graduated 550 seminarians, of whom 70 percent became priests and the rest work in various synodal structures.


The "optimization" dreamed up by Patriarch Kirill will destroy the best ecclesiastical educational institution of the RPTs. Numerous students of the master's program from Sergiev Posad will move into the extremely comfortable and pleasant premises of the Sretenie seminary. At the same time, as the new acting rector Archbishop Amvrosii promises, the Sretenie seminarians will also remain for now in their places (originally it was proposed to move them to Sergiev Posad). Thereby the Lubianka will become incredibly crowded; neither the monastery dorms nor the seminary's classrooms are designed to accommodate double the number of students.


This is all explained by the fact that master's students from Sergiev Posad should be closer to Moscow's academic center and libraries; travel by train from the lavra is "stressful" for young people. Even if that were so, then as Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev correctly notes, in Moscow that are a couple of quite "dead" seminaries that will never match Sretenie, the Perervin and Ugresh seminaries. Both are located on the campuses of monasteries that are significantly larger than Sretenie. But for some reason it was decided not to "optimize" them.


"The Sretenie seminary has been killed, it cannot be saved now," one of its students wrote on social networks. "And this, while last year, during the inspection of our seminary by a commission from the Academic Committee, Sretenie seminary showed the best results of students' knowledge by a large margin among all seminaries. According to the results of the inspection, our students received 6.51points and the next seminary has a rating of 5.39 and the next one, 5.29. . . . Sretenie monastery and Sretenie seminary always have been a single whole, one big family. This can be confirmed by all students and graduates of the seminary and all brothers of the monastery. And now in the monastery there will appear 200 outsider students who did not want to matriculate at this seminary. What will happen to the monastery?"


"May the Lord help the dear Vladyka!" exclaims another student, a devotee of Metropolitan Tikhon. "It is sad to see when your pet project is being redirected like they want. Lord have mercy! How inept it all is and most important, how vile. The next step is the genocide of all Sretenie graduates. God forbid."


Such is the ruthless logic of the personnel struggle in the Moscow patriarchate. In order to destroy a personal competitor, the patriarch is ready to go so far as to destroy a model seminary, which naturally will lead to the radical transformation of the monastery.


Is there a way out?


In the ten years of administering the RPTs, Patriarch Kirill has managed to almost completely break up the pockets of opposition within the church and to build a strict vertical of power, if you will, stricter than in Putin's Russia as a whole. None of his entourage dares to cross him. "He is destroying all life in the Russian church," says an anonymous source in the Moscow patriarchate, on condition of anonymity. Father Andrei Kuraev, a former professor of the Moscow Ecclesiastical Academy who is in deep disgrace, notes that in deciding the question about the fate of the Sretenie seminary and the Moscow academy, the patriarch did not consult with anyone at all. There were no sessions of the academic councils of the academy and seminary and the corresponding commission of the Inter-council Presence of the RPTs did not meet. "How many of the academy fought in the 19th century for their independence. And see, all its remnants are scattered," Kuraev laments. He also notes that "optimization" will cut off from the former Sretenie seminary many sponsors who specifically help only Metropolitan Tikhon. And the patriarchate, which is known for its stinginess and spoiled by injections from the budget, will not maintain the ecclesiastical schools from its own means.


Archbishop Amvrosii, who was appointed by the patriarch for carrying out the black work, is already called in the RPTs the "undertaker" of the Moscow Ecclesiastical Academy. Such serious tectonic shifts will entail the destruction of its unique tradition, formed within the walls of the St. Sergius Holy Trinity lavra since the 40s of the last century and even maintaining somewhat of its prerevolutionary heritage. Amvrosii is predicted to have a brief rectorate in the "unified" ecclesiastical school. In Kuraev's opinion, the head of the Academic Committee himself, Fr Maksim Kozlov, aspires to his place, while in the opinion of church historian Sergei Bychkov, it is Metropolitan Ilarion, whose place in the Department for External Church Relations remains very shaky after the rupture of fellowship between the RPTs and the patriarchate of Constantinople and the growing international isolation of the Moscow patriarchate.


Leonid Sevastianov, the director of the Foundation of St. Gregory the Theologian, who was close, in the past, to the financial activity of Patriarch Kirill, considers the events involving Sretenie seminary as an indicator of the complete absence of sobornicity, or the fundamentals of church democracy, in the Moscow patriarchate. "Imagine," he says "you start a project with the blessing of the hierarchy; you find sponsors and enthusiastic activists for this project; and you collect an enormous amount of private money for it—and suddenly by the signature of the 'chief' alone, this project is closed. The question is: how will you be able the next time to mobilize active laypeople and sponsors for some new project, if you reliably know that in two or three years the project will be buried?" In his opinion, the devastation of the Sretenie seminary "speaks of the coming complete fall of the level of education and training of priests, who for this reason will become completely incapable of competing in public discourse."


Meanwhile Metropolitan Tikhon is trying to recover in Pskov, turning it into an alternative center of church life. He is already building there the largest of his "historical parks," and he has attracted money from Moscow sponsors for the restoration of key monasteries and the cathedral church of the diocese. And in the autumn he intends to open a local seminary in the Pskov caves monastery, where he plans to build one like Sretenie, with super-modern auditoriums, Byzantine mosaics, and an interactive library. Tikhon is a perfectionist. There is just not enough "human material" for his project in Pskov. Whereas in Moscow, almost 5,000 persons consider themselves his parishioners, all 26 churches of Pskov number only 1,600 regular parishioners. The youth among them constitute an extremely insignificant percentage.


To be sure, Tikhon's views on the neo-Byzantine project and on Putin's divine appointment and on the spiritual succession of soviet and imperial history are extremely debatable from the point of view of a liberal. But the current crackdown on him is not related to ideology. The patriarchate would definitely crush any strong, creative figure with any views, if his scale and influence could compare with Tikhon's. Knowing the broad connection of Metropolitan Tikhon with the highest pinnacles of the Russian security structures, it is difficult to avoid the impression that what is happening with him is the projection onto church life of the battle of the Titans unfolding around the coming transfer of power before the end of the Putin era. And just as it is still impossible to predict the outcome of this battle among the big generals, it is impossible to predict it among the generals in cassocks also. The odds of the sides are still even. (tr. by PDS, posted 14 July 2019)


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