The Church and environmentalists:
friends or foes?
February 8, 2023
  • Boris Knorre
    Non-Resident Fellow, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES), George Washington University.
Boris Knorre writes about the Russian Orthodox Church’s view of the environmental agenda. He explains that the clergy and believers are more likely to denounce Western politics and globalism than focusing on the problems of conservation.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s concern for the environment is reflected in a number of official Church documents, such as “The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” (section XIII “The Church and Ecological Problems”), as well as in a number of other official documents released between 2013 and 2015 (see here and here).

However, in both secular and ecclesiastical media, if one can find mentions of individual environmental campaigns organized in the dioceses, there is barely any evidence of significant environmental activity by the ROC proper. The portal “Ecological Work. The Moscow Metropolis of the Russian Orthodox Church” shows for instance a map of the ROC’s environmental activities (44 in total) from 2013 to 2021 in Russia and several post-Soviet states. A close look at this portal’s materials confirms that the ROC prefers to deal only with local and innocuous environmental issues, such as the environmental education of schoolchildren.

The Parish of Saint Martyr Varus in Mytishchi (Moscow region), headed by the rector, Archpriest Oleg Mumrikov, is an example of “safe” environmental activities. Father Oleg has created an “ecopark” in his parish where he organizes educational tours for schoolchildren, as well as special cleaning days (subbotniki) to clean the churchyard, the ecopark and the territory adjacent to the parish. Some analysts point out that these practices do not even qualify as environmental activism.

Meanwhile, the ROC consistently avoids any moves that might provoke conflicts with business or local administration. So, even in those rare instances when the ROC intercedes to protect wildlife or stop toxic manufacturing, it never goes as far as to betray its loyalty to local economic or administrative interests. And if an individual priest seeks to take a firm stand on an environmental issue, the Church authorities harshly rebuke him. In one example, Archpriest Sergiy Suranov organized the residents of the village of Detchino in Kaluga region to protest against the construction of a waste processing plant in 2013-14. In an interview with the author in October 2021, he said his reigning bishop had told him that unless he stopped his activism, he would be dismissed from serving in his parish.

In another example, Archpriest Igor Tarasov from Kolomna opposed the construction of a solid waste landfill in Moscow region in 2016-17. By that time, he had been banned from his ministry. For his participation in that action, he was threatened with defrocking. Some ordinary priests also hurried to “throw a stone” at the archpriest by condemning his actions in the media.

Similar cases have to do with nature conservation organizations seeking to collaborate with the ROC. For example, the director of the Vodlozersky National Park in Karelia and Arkhangelsk region, Oleg Chervyakov, turned to the Church and was ordained a priest, hoping that it would help the conservation cause. However, the local diocesan authorities did not encourage him to engage in environmental work, but instead urged him to contribute to historical ecclesiastical research in his locality. He moved away from environmental problems and soon resigned as national park director.

Focus on sin rather than the environment

One should not pay special attention to ecology and nature protection but deal with the spiritual health of a person, Father Mikhail Lebedik from Tver region was telling me. First of all, it is necessary to treat the very soul of a person, and if a person becomes spiritually healthy, it goes without saying that he will begin to treat nature responsibly instead of harming it.

And quite the opposite: without improving your soul, one still can’t do anything good, therefore ecological activity, protection of nature is all “external,” vanity, fighting with symptoms and not the disease. Even more, concerns about nature can be harmful, as they distract a person from spiritual issues. Let’s stop being distracted by secondary things! Let’s take care of the soul, struggle against sin, and then everything else will follow”.
"Such a reduction of environmental problems to the consequences of human sin – that is, being secondary to spiritual problems –
is common among Orthodox believers."
As is the perception of the environmental crisis through the prism of a “spiritual crisis” and man’s primordial sin.

And even if the environment is recognized as a legitimate matter of human concern, it is seen as “missionary” or catechetical-educational work: thinking about the environmental crisis can encourage a person to be closer to the Church, which makes them focus on their own spiritual and psychological problems.

The Orthodox clergy, along with believers, tend to look skeptically at international environmental standards, seeing them as guided by socio-economic transformations and consumer goals rather than by the spiritual goals. The former are criticized as greed for gain that ignores the tradition of the careful use of natural resources.

In criticizing “sustainable development,” the Church echoes adherents of Dark Green or Deep Ecocentric Ethics like Arne Næss and Patric Curry. Both Dark Green environmentalists and conservative Orthodox clergy speak against consumerist society, and both oppose prioritizing the economy, and even advocate zero economic growth.

Instead, they call for “ascetic self-restraint”. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, however, that is deeply rooted in monasticism and is not elaborated as lay ethics. So, from the point of view of many Orthodox thinkers, an alternative to consumerism is the asceticism peculiar to the monastic type of living found in medieval Russian monasteries, “whose economic activity was highly ecological, and the lights of monasteries... act as beacons on this right path of salvation.” However, as Galina Kruglova, a political scholar, rightly asserts, “while praising the monastic economy... the clergy completely forgot about the low level of development of productive forces at that time.”

The ROC also criticizes the goals of sustainable development from a purely theological perspective: environmentalists, the argument goes, seek to “bypass the redeeming sacrifice of Christ and achieve immortality by human ways,” meaning to solve the problem “without God.”

From spiritual argument to conspiracy theory

Many Orthodox believers, especially ultraconservatives, go even further in their criticism, drawing on a conspiratorial-mythological argument by which the world is an arena of a battle between “Good” and “Evil.” The global – mostly, Western - elites are associated with “Evil” as, according to neocolonial logic, they are engaged in conspiracies against developing countries, especially against Russia. One of those conspiracies, as this theory goes, is the environmental policy of developed countries, whose aim is to impose control over developing countries and limit their sovereignty.

This view was popular especially among the faculty of the Ecological Department at the Russian Orthodox University for about 15 years starting in 1996. Nikolai Krupenio, who served as the Ecology Department’s Dean from 1999 to 2009, claimed it was undesirable for Russia to join international conventions on climate change, like the Kyoto Protocol, as it does incomparably less harm to the environment than developed Western countries. The faculty members tried to inculcate it in their students. This view is also common among ROC ultraconservatives, and can be traced in the headlinesof ultraconservative media, such as Tsargrad TV or Russkaya Narodnaya Linia (The Russian People’s Line): consider for example, the headlines “Protocols of the Overseas Wise Men” and “Protocols of the Ozone Wise Men,” obviously alluding to the notorious anti-Semitic treatise The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

It is noteworthy that the author of the “Protocols of the Overseas Wise Men” was Pavel Florensky, the grandson and namesake of the famous Russian theologian executed in 1937.

Some Orthodox ultraconservatives truly believe that there was a conspiracy against the Christian Orthodox faith by secret “Jewish Masonic forces,” which today has morphed into a conspiracy of global elites – in particular, those who pursue global environmental and climate action.

For instance, Andrei Karpov, a consistent contributor to Russkaya Narodnaya Linia, believes that what lies behind the “climate agenda” is not genuine concern for the environment but a desire on the part of global elites to arrange a grandiose redivision of the world, similar to what took place after World War I and World War II. Karpov argues that for Russia, open participation in an armed conflict can be more beneficial than involvement in the climate agenda: “The war can be won. By agreeing to a version of the climate agenda, we are definitely losing.” Orthodox ultraconservatives expressed such militarist views even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and moreover did so in such a peaceful realm as environmental protection.

Divisions over demographic issues

Another, no less significant point of contention between the ROC and environmentalists is children. The ROC rejects the notion of birth control, family planning, etc. and insists that, ideally, an Orthodox family should have as many children as God grants. Since 2012, this idea has been supported by the state’s conservative population policy, which is aimed at increasing the birth rate.
"In conservative Orthodox circles, any mention of birth control is interpreted as a conspiracy of global elites against most of humanity."
Archpriest Maxim Obukhov, head of the Orthodox medical and educational center Life and chairman of the public organization For Life and the Protection of Family Values, called environmentalists fascists because of their ideas about birth control. Source: VK
In particular, it is common to criticize the Club of Rome and its founder Aurelio Peccei, as well as analysts who prepared reports on this topic for the Club of Rome.

Greta Thunberg’s speeches in 2018-19 caused almost unanimous criticism in the ROC milieu and were followed by declarations by Orthodox analysts that birth control for the sake of preserving the biosphere balance was reminiscent of the fascist eugenic experiments of the early 20th century, aimed at artificial selection of human nature.

For example, Archpriest Maxim Obukhov, head of the Orthodox medical and educational center Life and chairman of the public organization For Life and the Protection of Family Values, accused environmentalists of fascism because of their ideas about birth control. Obukhov contends that today’s global climate agenda broadly shared in the West is directed against humanity itself. He condemns environmentalists as successors of the founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Margaret Sanger and as Nazis with their ideas of “redundant people.” According to Obukhov, the environmental movement is politically dangerous because it “invests in organizations that engage in birth control, in political projects that interfere in the politics of other countries.” The UN, UNESCO and WHO are claimed to be “involved in reducing the birth rate” and therefore advocating “environmental extremism.”

Similar ideas have been expressed by individual ultraconservative Orthodox analysts. For example, Igor Romanov, a regular author at Russkaya Narodnaya Linia, condemns the World Wildlife Fund and calls it “fascist.” The ideologists of the global environmental movement, Romаnov says, seek “to cultivate a new breed of man through eugenic and transhumanistic experiments.” To him, ecologists’ understanding of man as part of nature is deeply demonic.


In the late-Soviet and the early-post-Soviet periods, many ROC theologians reflected on the Christian approach to environmental issues in a humanistic spirit, focusing on the sublime attitude to nature as a creation of God, which should be treated with care and reverence. In particular, similar thoughts were expressed by such theologians as Metropolitan Anthony (Blum), Archpriest Alexander Men’, Bishop Michael (Mudyugin), Patriarch Alexy II and Archimandrite John (Ekonomtsev), as well as by lay theologians, in particular, Nikolai Gavryushin, Piama Gaidenko, Leonid Vasilenko and some others. They emphasized the importance of reverence for nature and its preservation. Today such theological arguments have all but disappeared, and when talking about the environment, Orthodox believers put an emphasis on denouncing Western politics and globalism rather than on the problems of preserving nature.

It should be mentioned, however, that Orthodox believers share some of the ideas professed by environmentalists: for example, a generally critical attitude to technological progress and the centrality of economic growth; a call for a revision of economic priorities in favor of environmental conservation, including pushing zero economic growth. The Orthodox and environmentalist worldviews also both criticize consumerism and call for self-restraint and asceticism. However, the differences that separate the Orthodox community and environmental groups are currently preventing cooperation.
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