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Russian Academy Walks Back Honorary Degree For Orthodox Patriarch


Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia (left) and Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko (2nd left) will have to live without the titles for now.

Following an outcry from its academics, the Russian Academy of Sciences has decided to retract its decision to name the head of the Russian Orthodox Church an honorary professor.

Patriarch Kirill was due to formally accept the award at the academy's headquarters in Moscow on January 22 along with Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko. The decision to bestow the title on the speaker of the upper house was also reversed.

"The question of awarding the title of honorary professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences to Patriarch Kirill and Valentina Matviyenko had not been thoroughly thought out," Yury Balega, vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told RFE/RL's Russian Service on January 21.

According to Balega, the question of honoring Kirill with the title will only be discussed on January 22 with a vote expected to follow on whether or not to support the move.

In announcing its original decision on January 18, the academy said it was honoring Kirill for his role as a "big popularizer of science," spokeswoman Svetlana Popova told Interfax on January 18.

"As Einstein said, the theory of relativity speaks to the genius of the Creator, and in this sense, there are no contradictions," Popova was quoted as saying.

The announcement came not long after Patriarch Kirill mused that smartphone users could be courting the "Antichrist."

In an interview with Russian state media on January 7, Kirill said he was not entirely opposed to high-tech gadgets, but warned against "falling into slavery" to smartphones, which he explained made it possible for humans to be controlled by external forces given their ability to collect user data.

"Control from a single point is a harbinger of the coming of the Antichrist," Kirill told state-run Channel One television on Orthodox Christmas.

Patriarch Kirill (left) walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (left to right), Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, near Moscow in September. Critics say the Russian Orthodox Church serves the interests of the state.
Patriarch Kirill (left) walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (left to right), Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, near Moscow in September. Critics say the Russian Orthodox Church serves the interests of the state.

Members of the Russian Academy of Sciences were not only angered with the decision to name Kirill and Matviyenko honorary professors before any debate. Some noted that the academy's new charter, adopted in 2014, does not even include "honorary professor" in its statutes, Balega explained.

Under the previous charter, the academy could honor "outstanding figures of world culture, scholars, statesmen, and public figures."

However, the charter change apparently hadn't cooled academy members from handing out honorary professorships in the recent past, including to the late former Israeli president, Shimon Peres, in 2012, and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the current head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, in 2015.

In Russia, the academy has also anointed local politicians with the title, including former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, whose wife was alleged to have amassed a fortune largely due to her husband's political connections.

And Luzhkov wasn't the only controversial Russian official to be so honored. Vladimir Resin, who succeeded Luzhkov, has also been dogged by corruption allegations, including his alleged ties to firms reportedly seeking tenders in a massive Kremlin-backed housing project in Moscow.

And the selection of a religious figure is also not unprecedented. His predecessor, Patriarch Aleksy II, was also an honorary professor, Balega noted.

Many of the body's academics apparently had little if any issue with so honoring Kirill, but objected to the way it was done.

Not seeking input from academy members before reaching a decision was "shameful," academy member Yury Apresyan said. "Bureaucrats have nothing to do with science. This is the wrong procedure, I believe," Apresyan told RFE/RL.

"I don't see anything terrible in awarding such a title, but this decision should be made openly and soundly," said Askold Ivanchik, chief researcher at the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In the past, members of the academy have criticized the organization for caving to interference from state officials.

If the academy decides to reverse the decision, Kirill will not be without academic plaudits. The Russian Orthodox Church leader holds the title of honorary professor at the Moscow-based National Research Nuclear University.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Mark Krutov of RFE/RL's Russian Service
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