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The Russian Christ is coming … A testimony on the Russian Orthodox Church

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A feeling of pain and betrayal of Christ…

Since the start of the war, dozens of people have publicly refused to consider themselves children of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). One of them, the screenwriter and producer Ivan Filipov, tells how his almost forty-year life in the Church ended. We cannot judge the real number of people who left the ROC or even Orthodoxy, but it is a fact that the position of the ROC in these critical times for Russia, Ukraine and the whole world has created a problem for the conscience of thousands of believers.

I have been going to church since I was a child. When I was born, my mother and older sister had already been baptized and for some time went to a popular parish in Moscow. I remember that my father was baptized later – as a child I was strictly forbidden to tell about it to outsiders or to mention it in any way outside the family circle. Although it was the later, freer decade of the 1980s, people could be arrested for their faith, and Dad was a non-partisan, despite working at a research institute affiliated with the Communist Party Central Committee. Anyway, it’s been more than thirty years, and I still remember everything.

I remember being ridiculed in the yard for being a “believer in God” (they stopped after 1991), and once in the swimming pool my swimming coach took off my cross. I remember this episode especially well, because the cross was not on a chain that could be easily broken, but on a string – it was terribly painful.

To be completely honest, as a child I was terribly annoyed by “going to church every Sunday,” by “fasting days,” and by fasting in general. On summer Sundays at the villa — and at least we had a black-and-white TV there — I wanted to watch the Muppet Show instead of going to the Trinity-Sergius Lavra with my mother. And when I was in Moscow on Saturday night and Sunday morning, I wanted to go about my business or sleep instead of going to work. But no one wanted my opinion.

Nevertheless, I well remember the feeling that reigned in the churches in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was amazing. While the Church was either banned or in terrible conditions, I remember how differently the priests spoke, how the parishioners burned. But who knows, maybe now I’m idealizing my childhood memories. And yet.

All the time until my admission to Moscow State University, my life was closely connected with the Russian Orthodox Church. I went to church almost every Sunday, confessed and partook of communion. I studied in Sunday school, sang in the church choir, studied in the Orthodox high school. I can still speak Church Slavonic, and if you wake me up in the middle of the night and put me in a crowd, I will probably be able to sing the whole Liturgy from beginning to end.

But my relationship with the Church, sorry for the pun, has never been smooth. For some reason it didn’t go well. What I heard from the pulpit did not exactly match what I saw with my own eyes. A highly respected priest (now a bishop), who required his parishioners to confess first for themselves and then for their friends, confessed me. He wanted us to inform, that’s it. In high school, I was embarrassed when my physics teacher told me he dreamed of bombing all the Buddhist monasteries. It did not seem to me that this was very Orthodox. Or the chemistry teacher, who told us in class that the Antichrist would appear through genetic engineering, and a week later explained that he would come with a flying saucer. When I timidly asked if it was a plate or genetic engineering, she was offended for some reason.

Maybe the story of my relationship with the ROC could have ended when I came of age, but somewhere along the way I found faith. My own, very personal and very important to me. I did not find her when I went to church or in sermons, but she kept me in the Church for many years. Journalist Olesya Gerasimenko came up with, in my opinion, a very appropriate phrase for these situations. Speaking about the current state of the country, she added: “And as an end to my misfortune, I love Russia very much.” In my case, the comma sounds different: I sincerely believe in God, and that faith is very important to me.

I was not the only one who felt a dissonance between what was written in the Gospel and what I saw with my own eyes in church life. But church institutions have always come up with some excuse to explain not only the lack of change, but also the fundamental impossibility of change. For years we lived in Russia, where corruption pervaded all state institutions and every attempt to change something was met with the words “but this is Russia, this has always been the case” and other meaningless and familiar mantras. The same method of complacency is practiced by the Orthodox.

Why do priests, bishops, and finally the patriarch say one thing and do another? Why do they officially call “greed” a sin, and with all their lives show that their only goal is wealth? Why are priests disenfranchised and completely dependent on bishops? Why do they serve the political interests of the state? Why don’t they speak openly against injustice?

My mother always answered these questions of mine, quoting a famous priest: “The church is a place where Christ is crucified every day.” The priests – many of whom I asked the same questions – replied that there was no need to ask questions, it was not my job, I had to be humble. And it’s not just my personal story; this is how the whole Russian Orthodox Church is organized from top to bottom. If they are “crucified every day,” it is an inevitable process, so we reconcile and live as we have lived. Without changing anything.

However, it is better not to get answers to your questions than to come across another tirade by a provincial preacher about the “sins of the West” and, of course, gay parades. An Orthodox priest can, in principle, reduce any conversation to gay parades.

Even in his sermon on the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Patr. Kiril managed to mention the gay parades. He said that the cowardly West demanded that Donbass conduct them, but since Donbass did not agree, we will defend it. In fact, this is my favorite example. Since I was young, I have had many friends among gays, lesbians and gay activists. I want to say that this has never been a topic of conversation. In any case, none of them – and it’s about dozens of people and several decades – talk about gay parades as much as Orthodox priests. I think that in all the time I have spent in these companies, I have heard something about gay parades twice, about the fact that one of my acquaintances accidentally came across a pride in Berlin or Tel Aviv.

This state of affairs suits (or did it suit?) Most of the Orthodox people I know – my friends, relatives, acquaintances. You say to yourself: there is an earthly Church, which is an institution created by people, which is governed by people and contains human vices – after all, as you know, man is a sinner; and there is a Church “as the body of Christ,” a metaphysical Church which performs the sacraments and which is not vicious because it is not connected with men. And when you understand that, you move on. Ignore the shortcomings as much as possible, but believe that there is grace in the Church that allows it to perform the sacraments.

Such moral equilibrium requires, frankly, considerable human effort. I know this from my own experience. In the first place, the problems start with the priests. These problems are two and are closely related.

The first. As soon as an ordinary person accepts dignity, he begins to act as if a higher truth has been revealed to him, which is known only to him. At the same time – and this is the second difficulty – in the vast majority of cases this person knows very little about the world around him. I know many such examples when people I have known since childhood, who were weak students, idiots and even sadists, became priests and were immediately filled with a sense of their own infallibility. It is absolutely impossible to talk to them, let alone argue, because they are unable to assume that they may not be right.

I spent seven years of my career as a journalist, and for the next fourteen years I worked in Russian television and Russian cinema. Believe me, I have met many narcissistic people, stars who are infinitely confident. None of them, in their worst moments, can be compared to Orthodox priests. What a dogma of infallibility of the pope (eternal thorn in the Orthodox world) – try to build a discussion with any priest, much less with a bishop. This is impossible and unbearable. I’ve been trying to do this for decades, and from a few dozen priests I know well, it was as many as two.

And here you are regularly communicating with people who know very little, have never been anywhere, have never seen anything, with very few exceptions have never read or seen anything, do not know foreign languages, etc., but are absolutely sure they are right. It’s hard. But you hold on because you believe.

Most people I know who have left the Church have done so at a relatively young age, but still adults. The problem is that the Orthodox world is like a greenhouse. A closed airtight world in which you are always told from childhood how you should think and that the world outside this airtight greenhouse is “evil”. Then you go out and it turns out that you were lied to. And literally at every turn. It was at this moment of awareness that many of the people I grew up with left the Church.

When you ask why the Church is silent when lawlessness is happening around it, the answer is always the same: “The Church is out of politics.” This is such a desperate lie that I really don’t understand how people still don’t bother to say it out loud. Of course, the Church is part of political life only when it comes to “right” politics. This has always been clearly seen in the sermons and public speeches of various priests. And I don’t even mean the famous pillars of “atomic Orthodoxy” like the late Dmitry Smirnov, but ordinary priests who invariably continue from the pulpits the eternal story of “God’s chosen Russian people” and “sinful West.”

For as long as I can remember, this endless chatter has not stopped, and I remember all my arguments on this subject. Among my relatives was a famous priest – a very good man, but an impenetrable idiot who always argued with me about politics and history. I remember all these conversations: in 1999, for example, he predicted the impending collapse of the dollar. And recently, while reading the military news, I remembered one of his appearances on Radio Radonezh, dedicated to the “nobility of the Russian soldier,” which, of course, contrasted with the “brutal cruelty” of the American soldier.

So no. The ROC has been part of the state propaganda machine at all times and in everything, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, but always as an integral part. It is true, of course, that priests, bishops, and parishioners refuse to think of themselves in such categories.

I have a favorite example of such a church dichotomy. After the scandal that took place in Russia during the premiere in Cannes of the film “Leviathan” by Andrei Zvyagintsev, I and Alexander Efimovich Rodnyansky, for whom I worked for many years, decided to try to understand the reaction of the church leadership to the film . Maybe to understand how to work with the film and in general to understand exactly what we need to be prepared for. Together with Fr. Andrei Kuraev, whom I asked for help, we went to a bishop in the north – to show the film and talk.

The stern bishop watched the film and told us sternly that it was a heinous slander against Russian life, an example of monstrous Russophobia. Of course, there is no such corruption in Russia, much less such horrible alcoholism, and everything shown in Leviathan is a lie. And then the bishop took us to lunch and, sitting at the table, began to complain.

He complained that there were problems with the completion of the cathedral in his hometown: the iconostasis had to be completed. He found a local company that could do it for a million and a half rubles, and a sponsor who was willing to give him the money, but the patriarchate has banned orders from local people and requires them to be ordered only through Sofrino, which wants twenty and five million… And then the bishop began to complain that there were villages in the diocese where his priests could not go without a police escort because all the inhabitants had delirium and immediately started shooting at every stranger with a weapon…

Many times I mentally returned to this conversation, trying to figure out how this was possible. As in condemning the film Leviathan, so in his own words about drunkenness and corruption, this man was completely sincere. How is that possible? I don’t know, but this is the way the ROC has lived for decades.

Were there any dissidents? Of course there was! Many of us who know them have publicly expressed their disagreement. For example, they called for mercy on the Pussy Riot girls, questioned corruption, prison torture, police violence and the authorities. But they were always a minority. People with my convictions saw these priests as a lifeline – if there is one in the Church, say, Fr. Alexei Uminski, so I will stay, so not everything is dead. As long as there is at least one righteous man, I will not let the city perish. While there is Fr. Andrei Kuraev, who speaks and writes boldly, exposing vices, we can tolerate the existence of Fr. Andrei Tkachov, who preaches hatred.

This is a very important question, a matter of principle. I have closed my eyes to the vices in the Church, because I believe that God is in it. Let the Church be terrible, let it be cruel and indifferent, but God also speaks to us through such a church.

Then Fr. Andrei Kuraev was expelled. I remember very well what I wrote on Facebook the other day: the miners took a canary with them to the mine – it detected the presence of methane. If the canary in the cage stays alive, you can work, and if it is dead, you have to run. I think Fr. Andrew plays the role of such a canary in the Church. He helped the ROC not to lose its human face completely. But he was expelled.

I did not leave the Church immediately. I think I stopped going to church after another brutal crackdown on protests. The discrepancy between what was said from the pulpit and what was hidden became too great. It is impossible to talk about love and compassion, about sacrifice and willingness to die for your neighbor from people who are silent when they see violence and injustice.

And then came February 24th.

I was sure that someone would speak. I had no doubt about Patr. Cyril – it would be strange to expect Christian behavior from him, but I had faith in the priests I knew personally. I knew them as worthy and good people. I was wrong. I read the letter from the priests who had publicly spoken out against the war, and found no name of an acquaintance of mine in it. Honestly, it was a shock to me. A real shock.

Today we are discussing many public figures who speak for or against the war and those who are silent. Actors, musicians, bloggers – people who influence millions of citizens, are responsible to society, they must state their position, to announce it, not to remain silent. At the same time, however, an actor, say, has the right to remain silent. After all, he did not promise to be a master of words, but has another profession. However, the priest does not have such a right. The priest is a shepherd, and if the shepherd is silent, he is like salt that has lost its power.

Another context is needed here. When I was studying at an Orthodox school, a NATO military operation began in Yugoslavia. And every day we began with a prayer for our Serbian brothers, who “suffer at the hands of the Basurmans (infidels).” This was spoken of in the churches; the whole Orthodox community talked about it incessantly – very publicly and loudly. And now the Russian army has entered Ukraine, killing and bombing churches (sometimes churches belonging to the ROC). And all the priests I know who so loudly defended the Serbs against NATO are silent… And not only silent – the patriarch, the bishops and a number of priests loudly and publicly support the war…

For a long time I had the feeling in the Church that God had not abandoned her. This no longer holds me back, because I do not believe that God has remained in the ROC. It seems to me that on February 24, He left and closed the door tightly behind Him. And since that’s the case, I’m leaving too.

When I leave, I don’t think about Patr. Cyril or for the bishops, but for the priests I know personally and who kept silent. Some say they speak out against the war in their Sunday sermons, which is probably not a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t buy public silence.

These people found an opportunity to speak out against the gay parades or the “Leviathan” slanderous slander. They did it publicly and loudly. Therefore, there must be such an opportunity to speak out against the terrible bloody war. Although, frankly, I don’t believe that’s going to happen. Because I remember very well all the tales about “the special Russian history”, “the special Russian spirit”, “the special Russian piety”. I know all too well about the generous donations and the apartments donated by important officials of the presidential administration.

The war that Russia has been waging with Ukraine for two months is in the name and at the expense of all the priests who have remained silent (or supported or sanctified the equipment that went to war). On behalf of Fr. Vladimir and Fr. Ivan, Fr. Alexander and Fr. Philip, Fr. Valentine and Fr. Michael. “Russian peace,” as Putin and his generals understand it, is impossible without the Russian Church. It is no coincidence that the army received its giant, ugly temple, and it is no coincidence that the patriarch blessed the military for the “special operation” in Ukraine. All this is not accidental, but logical. For thirty years, they built new churches, revived monasteries, and engaged in missionary work to make possible Bucha, Gostomel, Irpen, Kharkiv, and Mariupol.

The verses from the song “Russian Christ” (2017) turned out to be surprisingly prophetic:

Spread the good news far:                
cold as ice, the heart torn out     
clothed in gold, doomed to our world 
the Russian Christ is coming!

Source: Holod magazine

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