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Will Foreigners Elect The Next Russian Patriarch?

A decidedly mixed crowd of selectors will include businessmen, politicians, and representatives of sundry professions about whom some religious people have reservations.
A decidedly mixed crowd of selectors will include businessmen, politicians, and representatives of sundry professions about whom some religious people have reservations.
People without Russian Federation passports will form a majority of those who will take part in the election two weeks from now of the next patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, just one of the remarkable changes from the past with which the Moscow Patriarchate, the Kremlin, and the Russian people are now having to come to terms.

On the one hand, this reflects the disintegration of the Soviet Union since the last patriarchal election in 1990, a development that left almost half of the Russian Orthodox Church's congregations in now foreign countries such as Ukraine and one that was exacerbated by Moscow's overstaffing of bishoprics in Ukraine in particular.

And on the other, it is the product of the reunification of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (the so-called emigre church that emerged after the Bolshevik revolution) and hence the participation of its leading churchmen in this latest selection process.

Big Tent

But there are other ways in which the composition of the church assembly will be different. Nearly one-third of those attending will be lay members of the church, and many of them will be businessmen, politicians, or representatives of other professions about whom some religious people have decided reservations.

Archpriest Vsevelod Chaplin, the deputy director of the Patriarchate's External Affairs Department (which is headed by Metropolitan Kirill, a leading candidate to succeed the late Aleksy II), discussed these changes during an interview on the Russian News Service radio earlier this week.

On the one hand, he said, "citizens of the Russian Federation will certainly form less than half" of the delegates that will elect the next patriarch, "as far as it is now possible to calculate." More than one-third of the bishoprics, for example, are in Ukraine and in many cases, the leading churchmen there carrying Ukrainian rather than Russian passports.

And on the other, even though "some may not like it," businessmen "will take part in the election of the patriarch. But what are we to do if these people form part of our society and our church?" If the individual involved is a believer, why should he not have this opportunity given that the church is "not only the clergy, the monks, and the hierarchs"?

While Chaplin either sees this diversity as a strength or is trying to put the best face on it, many are less sure. Several news outlets have called attention to the presence among the delegates of Unified Russia deputies, the wife of a governor, and even the director of a circus -- people who many do not believe should play any role in this election.

Businessmen are particularly suspect in this regard, especially those who call attention to the widespread business activities of some of the leaders of the church, including Metropolitan Kirill, who is sometimes referred to as "the tobacco patriarch" because of his involvement with cigarette sales.

'Soviet Democracy'

At the same time, some religious activists believe that the presence of such people helps the Russian Orthodox Church stand up to those in the government who at many points in Russian and Soviet history have determined who has been chosen as the first person in the Moscow Patriarchate -- and who may well do so again this time.

Boris Falikov, a specialist on religion at the Moscow State Humanitarian University, told in an interview posted on January 13, that the enormous diversity of those who will be taking part in the election of the next patriarch recalls "Soviet democracy" and may make it easier for the Kremlin to determine the outcome.

As with the Communist Party in Soviet times, Falikov said, so now have the hierarchs of the church selected a certain number of "deserving people, academics, factory directors who are absolutely loyal" and can be counted on to vote as they are told by the churchmen who selected them.

Given the influence of the government and its security organs on the church hierarchy at present, it is also possible -- and, again, like in Soviet times -- that the real decision about who will be the next patriarch will not rest with either foreigners or these representatives of various professions, but rather will be made by the Kremlin even if it is not formally represented.

Paul Goble, a longtime specialist on the former Soviet space, is director of research at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (ADA). The views expressed in this analysis, which was first posted on Window on Eurasia (, are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the ADA or RFE/RL