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In Russia, An Outspoken Priest Falls From Grace 

Despite his downward career arc and his run-in with a senior ally of Vladimir Putin, former Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin says he still supports the president.
Despite his downward career arc and his run-in with a senior ally of Vladimir Putin, former Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin says he still supports the president.

MOSCOW -- Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin looked unassailable as a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church. A regular fixture across the Russian media for several years, Chaplin freely voiced ultraconservative, sometimes highly controversial opinions that his longtime patron, Patriarch Kirill, could not.

And then suddenly, on December 24, Chaplin was out -- relieved of his job when the church's public relations department, which he had headed since 2009, was merged with another in the name of "optimization," according to a terse church statement.

Chaplin soon found himself marginalized, stripped of access to the state media that once eagerly broadcast his pronouncements to the people. His change of fortune is a lesson in the fickle winds of President Vladimir Putin's Russia, where the staunchest allies of the Kremlin can find themselves out in the cold if they stray from the narrative of the day.

Abruptly on the outside, Chaplin lashed out at leaders of both church and state in an interview with RFE/RL. It was conducted in his modest new office -- a poky, wood-paneled shed in the garden of his new parish church in central Moscow.

Chaplin, 47, cast his ouster as the result of deteriorating relations with Patriarch Kirill, his longtime patron and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009, and a conflict with a top Kremlin official with whom he crossed swords last autumn.

Chaplin expressed support for Putin, citing what he called Russia's "monarchist" national conscience. But he raised the specter of a blunt and uncompromising force in the Kremlin that brooks no dissent -- and warned that as the circle around the president narrows "the degree of discontent is growing" in the ranks of the Russian elite.

He singled out Vyacheslav Volodin, the powerful first deputy head of Putin's administration who oversees domestic politics, accusing him of forcing his will upon the elite by issuing "ultimatums."

Blunt Force

"Mr. Volodin does not tolerate objections, does not tolerate independent positions, and expects that people will simply carry out his recommendations," said Chaplin, who wore a priest's frock and clicked at his desktop computer during interview questions. "As a person, I think he is quite authoritarian and is surrounded only by people who say yes."

Kirill has also shown an increasingly authoritarian, go-it-alone streak within the Russian Orthodox Church, Chaplin said of his erstwhile patron. He said a "classic example" was the patriarch's "absolute secrecy" about preparations for his historic meeting with Pope Francis in Cuba on February 12.

But when it comes to the relationship between the church and the Kremlin, Chaplin suggested that Kirill is more submissive.

In interviews on March 4 and March 15, he accused Kirill of not standing up to the authorities, suggesting the patriarch is imbued with the Soviet culture of collusion between state and church -- with the former firmly in control.

"The methods that he uses, his approach to…church-state relations -- this is what should retreat into the past. And it will definitely retreat into the past," said Chaplin, who told RFE/RL he has not spoken to the patriarch since his dismissal.

"A lot has remained from Soviet times when priests were too afraid to speak frankly to the people in power, to criticize them. This whole phenomenon is in the spirit not even of yesterday but of the day before yesterday," he said."It cannot go on for long."

Before his fall from grace, Chaplin himself was no critic of the church or the Kremlin.

Many liberals are unnerved by the seemingly close relations between Chaplin's old boss, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (left). and President Vladimir Putin (right)
Many liberals are unnerved by the seemingly close relations between Chaplin's old boss, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (left). and President Vladimir Putin (right)

In fact, he frequently seemed like a spokesman for a new, increasingly conservative Russian elite over six years as head of the church's Department of Relations With Society.

Outspoken and given to tirades against Western values, gay rights, and individualism, Chaplin once intimated that women wearing make-up and miniskirts were asking to be raped -- all the more so if they were drunk.

While anathema to the country's liberals, his rhetoric never seemed outlandish in the context of the supposedly "traditional Russian values" that Putin has frequently pitched as crucial for the country's well-being in his third term as president.

Like politicians such as ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who helps the Kremlin set the tone it seeks in society by taking conservative or anti-Western statements a few steps beyond what would seem reasonable for Putin, Chaplin said things that Kirill might feel queasy about stating publicly.

A Loyal Assistant

Like many Russians born in the Soviet era, when religion was suppressed under Communist Party rule, Chaplin was secretly baptized -- at age 13, in his case. He began his religious education in the mid-1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms were opening up society, and in 1990 he joined the Russian Orthodox Church's External Relations Department. A kind of foreign ministry for the church, it was headed at the time by his patron, Vladimir Gundyayev, later to become Patriarch Kirill.

The External Relations Department was set up in 1946 under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin with the understanding that it would give the state a measure of control over church policy, according to Geraldine Fagan, author of Believing in Russia -- Religious Policy after Communism. "That is the institutional culture that has nurtured…Chaplin, and he would not have made his increasingly sensational statements of the past five years unless he -- and Patriarch Kirill -- believed they chimed with the political mood sought by the Kremlin," she said by e-mail.

Considered a liberal in the 1990s, Chaplin's views hardened to the right in the Putin era as he climbed the ranks of the External Relations Department. When Kirill succeeded the late Aleksy II as patriarch in 2009, Chaplin was made a church spokesman, and the ultraconservative flavor of his rhetoric soon appeared on message.

In September 2011, Chaplin leaped to the defense of Putin's decision to run for president again in 2012 after four years as prime minister.

Putin's decision discouraged and angered liberals, who came out in large numbers to protest in the following months, but Chaplin hailed it as a rare case of a "peaceful" and "friendly" transfer of power in Russia.

Since Putin weathered those protests and returned to the Kremlin, he has held up the Russian Orthodox Church as a moral authority for the country, while Kirill called the Putin era "a miracle of God" shortly before the March 2012 election.

This symbiosis has unnerved liberals, rights activists, and representatives of minority religions in a country whose constitution says it is a "secular state." When the punk protest band Pussy Riot burst into Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012 and implored the Virgin Mary to "drive Putin out," its members said they were mocking the close ties between the church and the Kremlin.

It was during the controversy over Pussy Riot that Chaplin gained prominence, and he condemned their action in the strongest terms, once claiming that their stunt demonstrated the "satanic rage" of the Russian political opposition.

His rhetoric often seemed to place him at the vanguard of Putin's conservative pivot -- and even in its most extreme forms, it seemed to express real Kremlin fears.

In a bizarre twist, Chaplin stuffed several of the Kremlin's bugbears into a single book. Written under a pseudonym but revealed in 2015 to be Chaplin's work, the dystopian e-novel Machaut And The Bears is a warning against liberalism in which Moscow in 2043 is overrun by Ukrainians, Islamists, and homosexuals, culminating in a nuclear apocalypse.

Deteriorating Relations?

Chaplin seems to have fallen out of favor when his remarks on prominent issues such as the wars in Syria and Ukraine veered from the signals that Kirill and the Kremlin wanted to send out.

Chaplin told RFE/RL that over the past year or so,his relations with the patriarch began to deteriorate as they disagreed on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which broke out in April 2014, while he also believed that the church's "tonality should be more critical" of the state. In addition, he said that he had openly disagreed with Kirill on administrative affairs within the church.

Chaplin has vocally supported the Russia-backed separatists whose war against Kyiv's forces has killed more than 9,100 people in eastern Ukraine, and he has called for more aggressive support of the "Russian world" -- a term describing Russian-speakers in other countries of the former Soviet Union and further abroad.

Kirill -- whose flock includes millions of Ukrainians associated with the Kyiv-based branch of the church -- has taken a different tone, and in June 2014 called for an end of the "fratricide" between Ukrainians and Russians.

And while Putin spoke in 2014 of the "Russian world" and "Novorossia" -- a tsarist-era term now used to claim that much of Ukraine should belong to Russia -- those references have faded away. Moscow has repeatedly indicated that it does not plan to try to make the separatist-held areas in eastern Ukraine part of Russia.

Chaplin made clear he believes Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church badly let down eastern Ukrainians who looked to them for protection and leadership.

Russia and the church should have been more supportive of people in eastern Ukraine "who are, to a larger extent than the new [separatist] authorities, oriented toward Russia, toward preserving the Russian language," he told RFE/RL. "We shouldn't have betrayed these people."

Other prominent Russian champions of "Novorossia" have also dropped out of view from state media, including nationalist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin and Igor Girkin, a former commander of antigovernment military forces in eastern Ukraine. In addition, previous separatist leaders have been replaced by figures the Kremlin can more easily manage.

Inside the church, a number of outspoken figures on both the liberal and conservative sides of the spectrum have been pushed out in the past few years -- a trend that seems to support critics' contention that Kirill has been increasingly determined to silence independent voices.

'Holy Struggle'

Chaplin may also have hit the wrong note when, in giving his blessing to Russia's bombing campaign in Syria on September 30, he described the fight against terrorism as a "holy struggle."

Some in the Middle East took the remark as a declaration of a crusade against Muslims, and Islamic State (IS) militants made reference to the comment when they issued a videotape in October urging Muslims to wage "jihad" against Russians as well as Americans.

IS claimed it was behind the bombing that brought down a passenger jet carrying vacationers back to Russia over the Sinai Peninsula on October 31, killing all 224 people aboard.

Fagan pointed to Chaplin's "holy struggle" comment as a possible trigger for his dismissal, although she said there were likely other factors at play. She said Putin takes care to maintain a "delicate balance" between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's 15 million Muslims.

"Chaplin's Syria comments upset that balance, but it's not clear who called for his dismissal -- Muslim representatives inside Russia (or abroad) and consequently someone within the Russian government, or the Russian government directly," Fagan said. "I doubt the initiative originated with Patriarch Kirill, as…Chaplin has been his indispensable assistant since the 1990s."

Vyacheslav Volodin, the powerful first deputy head of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration who oversees domestic politics
Vyacheslav Volodin, the powerful first deputy head of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration who oversees domestic politics

It was around the time of the "holy struggle" comment that Chaplin also entered into conflict with Volodin and the Kremlin through an argument over the Public Chamber, an advisory body in which Chaplin still holds a seat.

On October 7, Chaplin accused the partially Kremlin-appointed leadership of the Public Chamber of "authoritarianism," calling a press conference in which he said his proposals were being ignored.

Writing two months before Chaplin's ouster, Aleksei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, cited this as a turning point when he "unexpectedly became a figure in conflict…with state structures to which he had always been loyal."

A few weeks before his dismissal, Chaplin did something else that the Kremlin, church or both may have seen as a transgression: He had a meal at McDonald's, perhaps the most prominent symbol of U.S. influence in Russia, in the middle of a strident state media campaign casting the United States as Russia's main foe.

After camera footage of his lunch at a Moscow McDonald's surfaced, he shrugged it off as "no sin."

Despite his downward career arc and his run-in with a senior Putin ally, Chaplin expressed support for the president. And while he must now look mainly to the more liberal media as a platform for his opinions, he is no liberal -- though he does say that, for Russia's sake, Putin needs to be able to hear voices of dissent.

"I believe Russia needs strong, personalized power. We have a monarchist conscience, and I believe this is good. What's more, I think that feedback is needed between the monarch and the people," Chaplin said. "And therefore, of course, I think it is important that people can speak out, so that the president can hear."