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Russian Orthodox Church Airs Its Dirty Laundry

Metropolitan Kirill has emerged as the front-runner -- for now.
Metropolitan Kirill has emerged as the front-runner -- for now.
The number of skeletons being dragged out of the closet during the current campaign to choose a successor to Patriarch Aleksy II is unprecedented for the Russian Orthodox Church. The stakes are very high -- the next head of the church might remain at the post for decades, making it extremely unlikely that any of his same-generation rivals could ever serve as patriarch. In the campaign struggle, the church's traditional spirit of corporate solidarity -- which protects it from being discredited in the eyes of society -- has been tossed aside.

It all started from the moment that a favorite emerged, when Metropolitan Kirill was chosen acting head of the church. One of the most charismatic church leaders, Kirill has spent the last month taking full advantage of his position and making numerous public statements. He visited the Sretensky Monastery -- a center of church conservatism -- and affirmed his commitment to traditional church tenets and expressed solidarity with the teachings of the newly sainted Archbishop Ilarion (Troitsky).

"When liberal ideas began to infiltrate theology, when some theologians began asserting that there is no difference among confessions, that they are all branches of one tree," Kirill said, "St. Ilarion, in his remarkable book 'There Is No Christianity Without the Church,' confirmed on the basis of the Holy Fathers and the Holy Writ that there is only one church -- holy, communal, apostolic -- and that is now the Orthodox Church."

Ilarion goes further in his book -- taking his argument to its logical extreme, he asserts that Catholics and Protestants are not Christians. But Kirill elegantly sidestepped this question and, in doing so, killed two rabbits with one stone: he pleased the conservatives without spoiling relations with the Catholics and Protestants with whom he still must work.

During his sermon at the Christmas Mass in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior -- in the presence of President Dmitry Medvedev -- Kirill chose a very timely topic: coping with the global economic crisis.

The Campaign Gets Dirty

However, according to the inevitable logic of campaigns, all the other candidates have set their sights on the front-runner. And in this case there is no particular need to launch a negative campaign. In church circles, there is no shortage of ultraconservatives who have no love lost for Kirill and who have over the past few years frequently accused him of heresy, ecumenism, Catholic sympathies, and so on (his appearance at the Sretensky Monastery was supposed to refute those allegations).

Metropolitan Kliment has been attacked through his archbishop brother.
But Kirill's dynamism and his public activity are obviously unpleasant for them, provoking a decidedly un-Christian sentiment that seems a lot like envy. At the same time, there are supporters of radical church reform for whom Kirill is symbol of opportunism and even of a certain mercenary streak, as he was among those who dragged the church into the morally dubious tobacco and alcohol dealings of the 1990s. Neither the ultraconservatives nor the would-be reformers need to be particularly incited against the favorite -- they are ready to say whatever they have to say against him at the drop of a hat. But Kirill's opponents might need to campaign against him among moderates, many of whom have for some time been outside of official church structures.

Kirill's supporters have a more difficult task, since none of the possible competitors has attracted as much public attention as Kirill has. As a result, the quantity of potentially compromising materials is smaller and it is harder to find people willing to come forward with such material. As a result, the front-runner's supporters are forced simultaneously to put their candidate forward and to explain why all the alternatives are not acceptable.

So, for instance, people following the campaign have been informed that if Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk is selected, then his brother, Archbishop Dmitry of Tobolsk, will practically become the co-head of the church. Dmitry supposedly runs his seminary like a prison camp and is a "genuine despot" capable of destroying anyone -- students, teachers, priests. Oh, and he doesn't believe in God, they say (these accusations come from an open letter issued by several Tobolsk seminary graduates and published by one of Kirill's most ardent supporters). And Kliment himself, they say, is personally to blame for the failure of the attempt to include "foundations of Orthodox culture" in the official school curriculum.

The interested public also was informed in advance of the beginning of the selection process about how the church will look if it is headed by Metropolitan Vladimir (Sabodan) of Kyiv, who might be supported by Ukrainian clerics. In that case, we are told, the church will really be run by the young Bishop Aleksandr (Drabinko), a student and close colleague of Vladimir's who was only recently placed (by Vladimir) among the church leadership. A rumor has been circulated that Vladimir will not run for health reasons and that the Ukrainians will instead put forward Metropolitan Onufry (Berezovsky), to which Kirill's team has responded with the "leak" that at a recent church council Onufry seemed well-disposed toward the recently deposed Bishop Diomid (Dzyuban) of Chukotka and Anadyr, who alienated church elders with his obscurantist proclamations.

There is a chance -- albeit an insignificant one -- that some provincial clergyman will throw his hat into the ring and get the support of some electors (on the Internet in the run-up to the selection process, the name most often discussed in this regard is Archbishop Rostislav of Tomsk). In order to head off such a possibility -- and by doing so, seeming to confirm its actuality -- Deacon Andrei Kurayev divides the pious churchmen "who charm people with their fairy-tale appearance" into three groups. Two of them are simply dismissed -- the "actor-hypocrites" and the "fasting cannibals" (the second group is distinguished from the first by the fact that although they themselves lead ascetic lives, they show "unrestrained pitilessness toward those under them"). The third group is more presentable -- the sincere monks who have separated themselves from the world. But members of this group are not suitable to become patriarch because of their lack of practicality.

It used to be that finding kompromat (compromising information) on church leaders was the business of militant atheists, who came up with a mixture of complaints about real church shortcomings, rumors of varying degrees of reliability, and outright slander. Now these same methods have been adopted by the so-called yellow press, for which there seem to be no moral limits. Now the campaign for patriarch has reached such a scale that several participants have thrown aside the etiquette that they previously observed and have been drawn into a kompromat war -- one that could have unfortunate consequences for the church.

Aleksei Makarkin is vice president of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. This comment first appeared on "Yezhednevny zhurnal." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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