MOSCOW -- Since his return to Russia and subsequent jailing in January, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has been the subject of heated debates amid a wave of criminal cases and harassment against those who publicly endorse him.
Students have been expelled and supporters of all stripes subjected to punitive measures for speaking out in favor of the Kremlin critic and his yearslong campaign against authoritarian President Vladimir Putin.
But throughout the clampdown, one institution has largely maintained a guarded silence: the Russian Orthodox Church.
So when Aleksei Uminsky, the head of a parish in east-central Moscow, urged “Christian mercy” for Navalny in a two-minute video posted online, his words prompted a spate of accusations and an unusual public apology that forced the institution to break its silence and exposed a division within it over political issues and proximity to the state.
“For me as a priest, it’s not so important what an inmate’s name is or what crime he was convicted of,” Uminsky says in the video, without specifically endorsing Navalny or his politics. “But what is hugely important for me are the words of Christ, who urges the same attitude toward every person who finds themselves behind bars as toward Christ himself.”
Navalny’s deteriorating health since he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on February 2 has been a cause célèbre for Russian civil society and many public figures concerned about the scale and severity of the state’s campaign to root out opposition ahead of parliamentary elections expected in September.
It’s also the latest dark turn in Navalny’s monthslong ordeal, which began with his poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent in August, continued with his jailing upon his return from treatment in Germany, and now, his relatives and supporters allege, could reach a grim denouement with a hunger strike that he commenced in early April over inadequate medical care at a notorious prison 100 kilometers east of Moscow.
Church leaders, who hold sway over millions of faithful in Russia, have been tight-lipped over the Navalny saga. So heads turned when, within two days of Uminsky’s public plea on April 7, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Spas TV channel aired a lengthy tirade against the priest.
During a one-sided, 90-minute program titled Who Is Dragging The Church Into Politics And Making Martyrs Of Criminals?, Sergei Karnaukhov, a lecturer in politics at a Moscow university, described Uminsky as a “criminal in a cassock” and suggested the priest should be arrested before he “plunges our church into an abyss.” Karnaukhov called for a broader, concerted campaign to discipline priests who undermine Russia’s constitution.
Uminsky, a well-regarded priest who has published extensively on the topic of church teaching and served as a television host in his own right, has long cultivated a reputation as one of the few Russian clergymen who openly sympathizes with the opposition. He has visited Russian prisons to speak with inmates and chaplains and has added his name to initiatives in support of jailed Russian protesters.
In 2019, amid a crackdown following rallies in Moscow that led to prison sentences for participants, Uminsky was one of more than 180 priests who signed an open letter urging the authorities to show leniency and free arrested activists. It was an intervention in politics that church scholars said was unprecedented in Russia since the 1991 Soviet collapse, and it prompted a move by church authorities to discipline some clergymen who endorsed it.
Karnaukhov’s denunciation of Uminsky’s statement was in line with the Kremlin’s long-standing conspiratorial narrative about protests and those who back them. But despite its close ties to the state, the Orthodox Church has often been riven by conflicting views over whether and how to respond to opposition protests and the authorities’ often violent tactics to suppress them. And the stance of Uminsky, a respected clergyman, has only deepened that ambivalence.
“Uminsky has long irritated the most conservative members of the church,” church expert Roman Lunkin told RFE/RL. “But disciplining him would risk alienating other church members, especially young believers who may feel sympathy for Navalny.”
Against this backdrop, Karnaukhov’s public condemnation of Uminsky’s stance -- and especially his calls for criminal charges -- elicited a spat among bodies tied to the Russian Orthodox Church, a generally ultraconservative faith whose head, Patriarch Kirill, has aligned himself publicly with Putin and been accused of, and vehemently denied, engaging in large-scale corruption.
Orthodoxy And The World, a popular news website focused on church issues, announced it was severing ties with Spas TV until the channel apologizes to Uminsky. Karnaukhov’s words represented the “mockery of a respected priest,” the outlet said. After several other church figures and religious experts criticized the Spas TV program, the channel promised to issue an apology to Uminsky.
The apology, or something close to it, came at the end of a studio discussion on April 12. Golovanov, the Spas TV presenter, stopped short of defending Uminsky, but acknowledged that airing Karnaukhov’s accusations was a mistake. He said the church’s role was to rise above social conflicts and mediate peace between warring parties. He promised his program would return to its original primary focus: church teaching and questions of faith.
"Spas TV, like the church, unites people of all stripes,” Golovanov said. "Sorry to all those who were offended.”