06/24/2023, 10.03
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The pacifist heresy of Russian Orthodoxy

by Stefano Caprio

The patriarchal accusations against pacifist priests astonishingly contain an explicit mention of "Tolstoyan heresy." Fr. Viktor Burdin responds to Kirill's excommunication of "universal value"  with the question "who can stop me serving God?", which another Orthodox priest from Moscow, the Italian Fr. Giovanni Guaita, often repeats in his homilies.

In the context of the dramatic turn of the war in Ukraine, poised between self-destruction and mutual reconquest of lands disputed for centuries, tension is also increasing on the ecclesial battle field, another dimension of the endless confrontation between the two faces of the Russian world and Europe itself.

Increasingly frequent cases of priests intolerant of military-patriotic rhetoric cloaked in Trinitarian haloes are being reported, and at the same time the sacred belt of patriarchal inquisition, which increasingly stifles the aspiration of priests, monks and faithful to profess a religion of peace, is tightening.

The straw that is breaking the camel's back was the forced transfer of Rublev's icon of the Trinity from the museum to the church, not only because of the possible damage to the masterpiece of Russian art, which seems limited for now, but because of the context of authoritarianism and propagandistic exploitation of a symbol of spirituality and mutual love, turned into a banner of the aggressive union of throne and altar.

It is one of the episodes that most demonstrates how far the distortion of the entire authentic tradition of Russian religion and culture can go, even in the name of "defending traditional values."

The most indigestible aspect of the affair, especially for the Orthodox clergy, was the brutal dismissal of protoierej Leonid Kalinin, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's council of experts on ecclesiastical art and restoration, a well-respected and beloved figure, who was even suspended a divinis "for his opposition to the transfer of the icon to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior."

Poor Fr. Leonid, after the axe of the wrathful Patriarch Kirill fell on him, publicly apologized, declaring that "evidently I was wrong, if this decision was made, it means they thought it through," prompting further reactions of outrage at those who so brutally eliminated the opinion of the most knowledgeable cleric on the subject.

He himself assured to "welcome the decision in peace, and I ask for the prayers of all those who know and love me, I try to do what I think is right, but I can always be wrong." Eventually the icon was placed in an airtight capsule prepared exactly according to Kalinin's instructions, making the patriarchal anathema even more paradoxical.

Meanwhile, "canonical radiations" of members of the Russian clergy multiplied, with accusations of "pacifist heresy," Kirill's response to those from the rest of the Orthodox world pointing to him as an advocate of "philetism," the identification of the Orthodox religion with the national cause, which Constantinople had condemned in the first half of the 19th century to counter revolt movements against the Ottoman Empire.

Then it was the Greeks and Bulgarians who had been accused of heresy, paving the way for the acceptance of the ethnic principle of the "national church," which later became the organizational system of all Orthodox Churches. In fact, the principle had been introduced by the Russians since the proclamation of the "Third Rome" patriarchate, the real origin of the Philetist heresy.

Therefore, it cannot come as a surprise that Kirill lashes out at "ecumenical" pacifism, which denies not only support for the "special military operation" in Ukraine, but the very foundations of Russian ecclesiastical ideology. After all, this discussion had inflamed the spirits throughout Russia in the early twentieth century, when the anathema was launched against Lev Tolstoy, the most religious-humanist, and at the same time anticlerical, writer in all of Russian literature.

On Feb. 22, 1901, the author of War and Peace was excommunicated by the Church Synod, then without a patriarch, under the chairmanship of Tsarist Minister of Worship (oberprokuror) Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the Russian "Torquemada" of the desperate defense of Holy Russia just before the revolutions. In fact, he resigned shortly thereafter, in 1905, after a senseless war by Russia against Japan, so reminiscent of the current ruinous campaign in Ukraine: the Russians thought they could subdue the Empire of the Rising Sun in a week, being stuck between islands and ports for weeks before succumbing to the intrepid Japanese counteroffensive.

Even then, a large proportion of the Russian soldiers and sailors were ex-prisoners forcibly sent from the lagers to redeem themselves in the war, who were unable to offer any resistance to the samurai, being largely in the grip of alcohol fumes, like the Russian soldiers in Bakhmut and Kherson.

The ruinous war was followed by the first Russian revolution, heralded as early as January by the popular demonstration led by Pope Gapon, a priest of socialist sympathies who had called for all groups to remove their political and polemical flags and inscriptions, advancing toward the Winter Palace by raising sacred processional icons.

Gapon wanted Tsar Nicholas II to come down to meet the people, and an appearance by him would have been enough to satisfy the crowds, but the generals and relatives had convinced the tsar to take refuge in Tsarskoje Selo Castle, far from St. Petersburg, and opened fire on the masses of peaceful unarmed demonstrators. The government declared 130 dead, other sources counted between 600 and 2,000, and it was the beginning of the end of the Tzarist regime.

The excommunicated Tolstoy raised his voice against the massacres, even stating that "never were religious persecutions so frequent and fierce as today," and it is striking that in today's patriarchal accusations against pacifist priests, there is explicit mention of "Tolstoyan heresy."

The writer had actually inspired a new variant of pacifist religion, called precisely tolstojanstvo and contemptuously tolstovščina, precisely the term used these days by Putin propagandists and preachers to expose anti-war priests to public ridicule.

Hieromonac Afanasij (Bukin), who was serving at the Russian mission in Jerusalem, had been removed last February when he spoke out against the military operation on its first anniversary. In recent days he explained on Facebook that he had been reduced to the lay state by the ecclesiastical court with extremely aggressive motives, as the ruling reads, "the cleric betrayed the ecclesiastical oath and apostolic rules, with even more depraved motives, not only for the words expressed, but for the refusal to submit to ecclesiastical authority."

Another hieromonk, Father Jakov (Vorontsov), spontaneously left the Russian Orthodox metropolis of Kazakhstan, before being in turn expelled, stating of the church authorities that "the Evil One has taken possession of their hearts, which are now incapable of distinguishing good from evil...can it be that Russian saints have performed their great miracles and sacrifices in vain? Could it be that Russian culture has become fertile ground for the growth of the Antichrist? I believe not, and I trust the many Russians who do not want war, even if they do not have the courage to say so openly."

It is no accident that those speaking out are monks, mostly in peripheral locations. In fact, most of their brethren live in communities led by faithful enforcers of patriarchal directives, and parish clergy are held back by their many families, being uxored by tradition.

The vast majority of priests must protect their many children, many of whom will continue their parents' mission, becoming in turn popy and popady, priests and priests' wives, according to the "caste traditions" restored after the Soviet winter.

For that matter, even under the atheist regime it was the few priestly families who preserved the Orthodox faith, so much so that Patriarch Kirill himself is the son and grandson of priests.

One of the few priests who has had the courage to risk even the fates of his own family is the parish priest of Kostroma, 500 kilometers north of Moscow, Viktor Burdin, also called the "Savonarola of Kostroma." 51 years old, a priest since 2015, he was initially the vicar of the church in the village of Karabanovo, whose pastor was a historic anti-Soviet religious dissident, Father Georgij Edelštein, now 91, with whom he signed several letters of protest even before the invasion of Ukraine, and was among the initiators of the letter of 300 priests after the operation began.

He, too, is now reduced to the lay state, with formal charges of "lying pacifism" or "pseudo-pacifism," to be distinguished from the "authentic" pacifism that defines peace according to the interests of the Russian people and the victims of the "Ukrainian genocide in the Donbass," according to the patriarchal record of his condemnation.

Father Viktor further infuriated Patriarch Kirill by seeking to move to the service of the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, and the excommunication now claims to have "universal value." Burdin responds with the question, "Who can prevent service to God?" repeated often in his homilies by another Orthodox priest from Moscow, Italian Father Giovanni Guaita, who came to Russia 30 years ago with the Focolare movement and became a member of the patriarchate, driven by ecumenical convictions and love for Russia.

One of his interviews is blowing up on YouTube, "the one sin that cannot be forgiven," that of using faith to inflict death. Faith is not the property of state and church officials, even the most distinguished and powerful: it is the way to peace, as priests and the faithful around the world actually know.


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