Increasing Fragmentation Inside The Russian Orthodox Church
October 16, 2023
  • Cyril Hovorun

    Professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at Sankt Ignatios College, University College Stockholm, and a director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles

Ecclesiologist Cyril Hovorun outlines the differences within the Russian clergy over Russia’s war in Ukraine and explains what might be behind recent reshuffles in the Russian Orthodox Church.
After Russia’s war against Ukraine escalated in February 2022, most members of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its clergy and hierarchs, supported it. There were two “tracks” of such support: active and passive. The leader of the former is the Moscow Patriarch Kirill. Since the first days of the “special military operation,” he has been its most vocal proponent and advocate, setting the pace for those following the active track. Indeed, many Russian hierarchs, clergymen and laymen do.

Prigozhin fans in the church community

The majority of members of the Russian Church, however, prefer to the slow track. Even though they might agree with the patriarch’s pro-war rhetoric, they support the war passively and silently.
There are many such silent supporters of the war in the Russian Orthodox Church community outside Russia, in the West.
Archimandrite Vassian (Zmeyev) was expelled from Bulgaria for “purposefully influencing the social and political processes in Bulgaria in favor of Russian geopolitical interests.” Source: Wiki Commons
They realize that an active pro-war position would immediately make them suspect and could result in what happened to the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, Archimandrite Vassian Zmeyev. He was not so talkative about the war, but he was active in promoting its cause across the Western Balkans.

As a result, on September 21, Bulgaria’s State Agency of National Security initiated his deportation from the country, together with two other representatives of the Russian mission in Sofia, who are citizens of Belarus. They had to leave the country the same day. Several days earlier, on September 17, North Macedonia had declared Archimandrite Vassian persona non grata.

The rise of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, culminating in his “march on Moscow” in June, created a third track within the Russian Orthodox Church.

Some of the Wagner rebels, including Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitri Utkin, were killed in a plane crash that gave rise to suspicions that they were “liquidated” on the Kremlin’s orders. Others believed to be associated with Prigozhin, such as Russian army general Sergei Surovikin, were demoted. Igor Girkin “Strelkov,” who was not involved in the rebellion directly but publicly embraced its goals, was put in prison.

Prigozhin and Surovikin, however, became heroes for many Russians who believe that Putin is not decisive enough in conducting the “special operation” and want even more blood and death in Ukraine. These same people also insist that nuclear weapons should be used to change the tide of the war.

There are many such activists in the Russian Orthodox Church, at all levels of its hierarchy. They are outwardly loyal to Putin, but inside they deeply sympathize with Prigozhin. They try to reconcile Putin and – posthumously – Prigozhin through religious arguments. Thus, some of them stress that Prigozhin was not a Christian, even though he was buried according to the Orthodox rite. His neo-paganism, they claim, was the main reason of his fall. Had he been a true Orthodox Christian, the fall would not have happened.
“It is noteworthy that Prigozhin’s supporters among the Orthodox do not recall his atrocities, such executing mutinying Wagnerites by smashing their heads with a sledgehammer.”
Metropolitan Leonid (Gorbachev) of Klin, appointed as patriarchal exarch of the newly created Exarchate of Africa in December 2021, was removed by Patriarch Kirill from the post in October 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
Patriarch Kirill and “turbo Z-Orthodoxy”

The apologists for Prigozhin and Co have taken a “turbo track” in their support for the war. I call them the “turbo Z-Orthodox.” They are more vocal in demanding more action against Ukraine than the plain “Z-Orthodox” following the slower tracks of support for the war.

It is difficult to identify the numbers of the turbo Z-Orthodox or their percentage among supporters of the war. I assume their numbers are significant. They also have informal leaders among the Russian hierarchs. Patriarch Kirill is not one of them, as he carefully promotes Putin’s “orthodoxy” while assessing the results and progress of the war. However, his vicar bishop, the Metropolitan of Klin Leonid Gorbachev, seems to diverge from this “orthodoxy.”

Before Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, Leonid was vocal in supporting this aggressive cause. During Prigozhin’s rebellion, he became more cautious in his public statements and dryly supported the line of Patriarch Kirill. After the Wagner group’s fall, however, he retained its leader’s warmongering, turbo rhetoric.

There is another important connection between the late Prigozhin and Gorbachev — Africa. Until recently, there was a consensus among the Orthodox primates that the second in the rank among them, the Patriarch of Alexandria, exercised exclusive jurisdiction over the entire continent. After the Alexandrian Patriarchate recognized in November 2019 the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate broke from that consensus. It declared the Alexandrian Patriarchate schismatic and decided to establish its own, parallel structures in Africa.

The scramble for Africa 

In my view, Alexandria’s decision to recognize the independent Ukrainian Church was not a reason, but rather a long-awaited excuse for Moscow to set its foot on the African continent.
“The underlying reason was the Moscow patriarch’s desire to demonstrate to the Kremlin his usefulness in the developing scramble for Africa.”
The Church of All Saints at Kulishki (Moscow) is the administrative center of the Patriarchal Exarchate of Africa. Source: Wiki Commons
Before the Moscow Patriarchate’s exarchate in Africa was established in 2021, the Kremlin carried out its neocolonial policies in Africa mostly through the hard power of the Wagner group, which offered its services to unpopular and undemocratic regimes in several African countries. The Moscow Patriarchate thus offered the Kremlin soft power. Now, Moscow has two arms stretching into the African continent: the Wagner group and the Russian Church.

The person in charge of the Moscow Patriarchate’s presence in Africa was until recently the above-mentioned leader of the turbo Z-Orthodox, Leonid Gorbachev. Because of his activities, he was defrocked by the Patriarchate of Alexandria, but neither he nor Patriarch Kirill seem to care. Leonid’s lieutenants on the African soil, such as Georgy Maximov and Andrei Novikov, also defrocked, are also turbo Z-Orthodox. The latter was a secretary of the diocese of Odesa, until he had to flee Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Patriarch Kirill made him rector of a prestigious parish in Moscow, where Igor Girkin and other radical proponents of the war were frequently spotted.

There is no evidence that Gorbachev himself collaborated with Prigozhin, even though one can easily assume that he and other representatives of the “African exarchate” were in touch with the Wagner people on the ground in Africa.

Russian embassies might be possible meeting points for the two arms of the Kremlin, the political and the clerical.

The patriarch, however, seems to believe that there was a connection between Prigozhin and Gorbachev. After the fall of the former, Kirill demoted the latter, first in September, by depriving him of his parish in Moscow and, then, on October 11, by removing him from the position of “African exarch.” This demotion was a clear signal that the patriarch seeks to distance himself from the turbo track, which Leonid represents.

In conclusion, one may say that the Russian Orthodox Church faces increasing fragmentation. On the one hand, there is a division between those who are for and against the war. On the other, there is a widening gap in the camp of supporters of the war between those who do not question Putin’s strategy in Ukraine and those who think that the Russian president is not decisive enough.
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