by Oleg Moroz
Literaturnaia gazeta, 29 July 1997

The meaning of the chess-playing combination, which the communist-patriotic opposition thought up and skillfully carried out, has become quite clear. I have in mind the noisy story about the new law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" (sic).

The combination was unbeatable. If the law were to be enacted, then to the social tension already existing in the country would be added interreligious tension of enormous force. A genuine war would have begun among various confessions. Who would benefit from that is clear. And now that Yeltsin has vetoed the law, a conflict of a somewhat different kind has arisen--between the authorities and the so-called "traditional" religions, principally the Russian Orthodox church (RPTs).

The reaction of RPTs to the presidential veto was unprecedented in its sharpness. Since 1927, from the time of the famous declaration of Metropolitan Sergius, Orthodox bishops have consistently built their relationships with the authorities on obedience and submission, which was an object of continuous ridicule and reproach from all kinds of nonconformists and freethinkers. And now, almost like a mutiny, Patriarch Alexis II declared that the new law "already enjoys broad public support" and that its rejection "can create tensions between the government and a majority of the people."

The threat is serious. On top of all the problems and traumas that Russia is already experiencing and the 15,000 actions of protest against delays in the payment of pensions that have occurred in the country since the beginning of the year, now there is this. Communists and national-patriots could not even dream of a greater gift. True, at a press conference in Saint Daniel's monastery one of the leaders of RPTs, Metropolitan Kirill, declared that the position of the Moscow patriarchate "is not a position of opposition but a humble desire to speak the truth to its people in a fateful moment of our history."

Well, in the past decades the leadership of the Orthodox church has had a multitude of opportunities to speak the truth to the people, when the cathedral of Christ the Savior was demolished and when hundreds of other churches were destroyed and transformed into storehouses and pig sties, and when thousands of priests were imprisoned, exiled, and shot. But it decided to pronounce the word of truth only now, when the relationship toward the church and religion has changed radically, when churches are not being destroyed but restored, and when priests have received unprecedented freedom.

Let us be frank: the word pronounced by church prelates is not a word of truth but a word of resentment. Resentment that the president refused to secure legislatively the "leading and guiding" role of RPTs in the spiritual life of our society. Indeed it, this role, is great and it relies upon a millennium-old tradition, but before the law all religions must be equal. That is the ABC of democracy.

What is most amazing, thanks to the undisguised intrigue conducted by the unreconciled opposition, the church, independent of the wishes of its leadership, has wound up in the twinkling of an eye in the same camp with its recent oppressors and persecutors, its recent executioners. And it has wound up in opposition to those who are helping it recover from its recent multitude of traumas and to stand on its feet.

In the case of the law "On Freedom of Conscience," as in many other events, the communists apparently have gotten around Chernomyrdin well. His representatives supported the draft. He himself commented on the law rather vaguely: "Everyone who cannot be in our country, those sects which work against it and are antihumane and generally inhuman will cease to exist." And not a word about the unconstitutional, discriminatory essence of the document.

Of course, relations between the church and authorities can change and evolve in some way or another. Several leaders of RPTs with whom I spoke recently consider it useful if in these relations the church side would exert an "element of sharpness." This, in particular, was suggested by the dean of the faculty of Saint Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Institute, Father Andrei Kuraev. In his opinion, by means of a sharpening of its tone in conversation with authorities RPTs can strengthen its political influence, which is clearly insufficient today either for a defense of the interests of the church itself or for a defense of the interests of those people who are turning to it for help.

It is possible that this really is the case. However I think that the moment for "sharpening the tone" and the means by which it is effected have been chosen quite ineffectively. It is not clear how such an experienced and clever leader like Patriarch Alexis II could allow himself to be manipulated and not figure out the true intent of the unprincipled political chess players. Perhaps it is explained in part by his ill health.

I was reminded of the words of His Most Holiness, spoken in a conversation with me in November 1990 (they were published in LG): "Subordination of the church's interests to political ones and the transformation of the church into an instrument of politics always damages the faith and the church, and it always leads the church to Golgotha." Isn't that the case here?

We will nevertheless hope that in the near future there will be a meeting of President Yeltsin and the primate of RPTs which will allow them to resolve the conflict that has arisen and defuse the misunderstanding. (tr. by PDS)

Russian text: Oleg Moroz

(posted 18 August 1997)