Bringing Home the Message: “We Are Different!”
No. 3 2017 July/September
Sergey Kravets

Executive Editor of The Great Russian Encyclopedia publishers, Chief of the Religious and Research Center Orthodox Encyclopedia.

The growing role of traditional confessions in the modern world and the ability of the Church to advance national interests on the international arena is the topic of this interview granted to Russia in Global Affairs.

Russia is witnessing an upsurge of political activism of the Russian Orthodox Church. So far, it has been mostly concerned with domestic affairs—cultural and social. Is it possible that the trend may spread onto foreign policy and international relations?

This is happening already. The way I see it, we are living through a fundamentally different stage of international relations, and its meaning is still beyond our grasp. We habitually think that the religious factor enjoys an insignificant role in real politics. In Europe, since the middle of the 17th century, after the Westphalian Peace Treaty when religious wars came to an end, and in Russia since a more recent moment, starting from the 18th century, religious matters gradually stopped to determine foreign policy guidelines. Addressing religious issues could be propagandistically or ideologically motivated or they could be a means of propaganda and ideology or a tool to mobilize society, but they were never decisive. When Joseph Stalin asked how many divisions the Vatican had at its disposal he reflected a common trend.

But today the situation has changed. At first, in discussing the revival of Islam politicians and experts alike said that this religion was merely a cover-up for some political, government or economic interests. However, it turned out that the religious factor is something more than just an ideologeme, or a tool of propaganda or counter-propaganda. It is a rather strong factor by itself to encourage millions.

Naturally, the number of armor divisions does matter, but it is far more important to remember about the people who man these divisions. If they get killed in action, another 1,000 or 10,000 will step in. Or there will be no one to step in. That’s the greatest question of today.


But attempts are being made—at least, in public—to separate the religious factor from politics. Muftis keep saying that terrorists are wrong Muslims or not Muslims at all. If they are to be believed, the meaning of Islam is different, totally different.

But this is yet another piece of evidence that religion is staging a comeback as a world politics factor in its own right. We see that religious leaders or secular leaders who take this factor into account systemically and consistently take the helm of mass communities. And the reasons for which they make decisions more often than not stem from their religious mentality.

These days one can say for a good reason that the world is witnessing the comeback of the “good old new factor” whose influence on international relations will be increasing. The longer we ignore it as nothing but a propaganda cover-up for other factors or arrogantly refuse to take it into account in real politics, the more often we will find ourselves in ever more complex situations. Another matter of importance is the need to understand the mechanisms that bring this factor into being and make it work not from the outside, not in a detached manner, the way an indifferent student of religion would look at it, but by turning one’s mind to what is really important for millions of believers. Recently a diplomat said to me something like this: “We usually regard a religious service as some formal act after which we may get seated to decide matters over a cup of tea. Now we’ve got to learn to understand that the liturgy is not a formalistic gathering of a political party’s cell, but the center of religious consciousness.”

The elites may keep ignoring this “old-time” factor for quite a while, but then suddenly secular regimes may give way to those dominated by religious ideas and this process may be very painful. In other words, there’s the centuries-old pattern at work here: it all starts with “There’s no other way for them to go” and ends with “Who would’ve ever thought life would turn this way?” We should think hard about such matters well in advance and learn to understand that what is really true looks very different, and what is untrue is very far from real life.


For instance?

For instance, it is an integral property of religious consciousness to perceive confessional unity not just synchronistically (for example, there is a firm idea that at each given moment in time all local Orthodox Churches constitute one united Church and the same process is characteristic of other confessions), but also chronologically in its entirety. Decisions and actions starting from the very beginning of Christianity’s two-thousand-year-long history (or Islam’s fifteen hundred-year-long history) are crucial and relevant today and are not just a historical legacy, but tangible arguments in current polemics and an important factor in making decisions.

There are enormous Christian communities for which decisions made nearly 2000 years ago, at the first Apostolic Council, held in a tiny peripheral town of the Roman Empire are of decisive importance today. For millions of people these decisions concerning the canonical principles are still effective—possibly, to a lesser extent than when they were adopted, but still effective. Can you imagine in the context of current politics any allusions to, say a Rus-Polovtsy treaty? Impossible! But for religious consciousness this is normal.


But doesn’t this lead to archaization of consciousness and, consequently, of politics?

Generally speaking, it is impossible to regard the entire religious and cultural history of humanity as continued, steady and progressive. It is always a dialectic process. The advent of the new—and this is what we see today—always draws resistance from the old. But tradition does not necessarily mean archaism.


It turns out that rationalistic perception of politics and historical development, which we largely owe to the achievements of the Enlightenment era, has become traditional. And the comeback of irrational, religious consciousness takes the place of the new, doesn’t it?

The powerful upsurge of interest in religion in Russia at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s indicates that the human being is a far more diversified and integral creature than the rational minds of the era of the Enlightenment thought him to be. The need for faith and religious self-identity is part and parcel of the human nature. It is not accidental that today’s society in Russia and not only in Russia is regarded as post-secular.

Of course, the resurgence of religious sentiment can be considered as a sort of protective reaction to the emergence and establishment of some new values, which usually occur through a revision of the universally established norms. This process is already obvious for politicians. In that sense the so-called rights of “generation next,” often presented as a logical development of universal values are not such in reality. Their unacceptability for religious communities, for traditional cultures could have been anticipated at the moment they were proclaimed.


In contrasting traditional values to the liberal ones, we claim that we adhere to the principles of Realpolitik and not venture into the realm of “moral values.” At the same time, we agree that the main contradiction of international relations today is evolving along the line of a clash between “the policy of values” and a new edition of Realpolitik. Doesn’t this look odd?

The way I see it, we will have to include the religious factor as a social and political value in Realpolitik. In other words, the religious factor will have to be rationalized and the way it influences political decision-making cleared up. One should be aware that there already exists a weak but growing tendency to achieve confessional unity. The Islamic world is uniting, although this was inconceivable just a year ago. The Vatican is trying to bring into one whole its 1.5 billion Catholics. Cooperation among the Orthodox is getting stronger. State sovereignty increasingly looks illusory in the modern world and this idea, too, is a factor for unification. And the historical commonality, and not just territorial one, is becoming the factor that will cement such unity. Allusions to decisions made many years ago, in different historical conditions, sometimes under the influence of different, long-gone political factors, indicate that these decisions are still in force today. Several years ago, I would have agreed that all references to the Canon are purely illustrative. Now such appeals begin to be filled with faith in them as a real solution. And this is enough for them to become so.

One of the considerable distinctions between contingently conservative politicians from contingently neo-liberal ones is that the traditionalists do recognize the hard fact that the world around is diverse, and that it incorporates different traditions—cultural, religious, etc., while their opponents keep saying that everybody is moving to one better system but at different speeds. So why not hurry up the slow ones just a little bit?


Do you regard the idea that Russia, for instance, is a country of catch-up development as an example of such false perception?

I most certainly do. In the early 2000s a German cultural worker, looking sadly out of a conference hall window at Berlin’s traditional LGBT procession outside suddenly asked me: “Are you different or just lagging behind?” And then added that it would be entirely up to us to make a decision. We are trying to explain: “We are different.” Certain things that have become customary and habitual in the West are not always tolerable or possible in our country. There are certain historical factors, certain traits of consciousness, some religious ideals that took a shape entirely different from the one that emerged within the framework of Protestant ethics. In response, we hear this: “You are not different! You are just lagging behind. We are just trying to hurry you up to make things easier for you.” We say that some things can be dictated to us, but, firstly, this will be ruinous for us and our consciousness and, secondly, the effects will be deplorable. It seems to our opponents that they are being deceived, that in reality it is the hardline old-timers who are reluctant to change and this explains why they resist. In the end, there emerges the image of some conservative monster. But in reality, this is evidence of the wish to avoid very painful and destructive processes, for it is clear from the outset that they will entail precisely this type of effects.


And how can one assess these effects? How can one distinguish between potentially risky changes and harmless ones? Between effective and ineffective?

This will be possible only if you are genuinely committed to the principle “Thou shalt not harm!” Then it is necessary to study tradition in detail to see what constitutes the identity of this or that society. Everything that endangers that identity is potentially harmful.

Otherwise the mechanisms of transplanting a new culture are turned on and the drive for success and socialization accessible to all who fit in well with the system of liberal-progressive views begins to be propagated at every step. Or you will fail to tap your potential and never get certain privileges. As a result, the traditional majority gets marginalized. This is how the process goes on. First, everybody agrees that it is the personal choice of each individual; next, it is turned into a legal norm that makes this choice possible; lastly, it becomes a legal norm that makes this choice privileged. Everything depends on the intensity of lobbying. We are beginning to understand that traditional cultures that for thousands of years rested upon foundations that looked unshakable these days appear inapt in the new situation and have no mechanisms to protect themselves from the avalanching changes.

But that does not necessarily herald “the progressists’” victory: it is a well-recognized fact that defiance of the traditional majority has brought very grave effects in the most religiously active community—Islam.

In contrast to Europe, Muslims have not experienced anything like the prolonged period of the Enlightenment, which eroded the traditional norms, first making the new permissible and then, normal. Changes were introduced from the outside, quite often in the form of kulturtrager support for colonial regimes. Modernization and Westernization was not linked with the internal tradition, it proceeded outside it. Small wonder, therefore, the effects were so dramatic.

The same process will continue in the countries where traditional values eroded more slowly, but retained relevance for a majority of the conservatively minded population, the way it happened in the United States. So far, such tricks as a protest-driven victory in a presidential election are the sole visible result. But at a certain point the risk of traditions being ruined may be very painful.


To what extent is the Church capable of advancing foreign policy interests of a state while addressing its own political issues?

If such a task is set to it straightforwardly, it will fail. But support for the intentions and initiatives of the Church that stem from its very nature will make sense. The Church is to have a free hand in running its own affairs. Then the results will be beneficial for government policies. But attempts to make the Church its immediate advocate will, firstly, provide the basis for a conflict—for it is very hard to explain to the government that certain things cannot be done by virtue of certain religious traditions, canons and regulations. Secondly, the intermediate results of the Church’s activity will be very hard to estimate. For this reason, one should develop an awareness that the religious factor and other moral factors will grow everywhere, in international politics too, and for a certain rather long period of time. They should be reckoned with and taken into account. And we should foresee the way they may affect large human communities, including religiously organized ones.


What can the Russian Orthodox Church do for improving relations between Russia and the United States? Will it help have the sanctions lifted?

I don’t think so. It should be remembered that the influence of Orthodoxy in the United States—be it Greek, Arab or Serbian—is utterly incomparable with the influence of Catholics or Protestants of various denominations; or with the influence of Islam, considering the influx of Muslim immigrants. The Russian diaspora in the United States is the “diaspora of salvation.” Russians went to the United States with the intention to stay there for a while, to wait for the situation in their home country to get back on the right track, when it would be possible to return home. This explains why they never set themselves the task of building up their influence overseas and take deep root there.

The only hope that I pin on the Russian diaspora in America is its expertise, its capability to explain some traditional things, important for the Russians. Without that understanding it is impossible to negotiate and reach agreement effectively at any level. The perception of the partner will be false.

But there are other examples from the recent past. Throughout the recent years the Georgian Church remained a powerful channel of Russia-Georgia interaction. Patriarch Ilia of Georgia, even during Saakashvili’s rule kept saying that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church were linked by unbreakable, sisterly bonds. In the fall of 2008, a joint Russian church and government delegation led by Mikhail Shvydkoi went to Tbilisi. We were not just present at the church service honoring Patriarch Ilia. Mikhail Shvydkoi read out the Russian president’s message of greeting to the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. And the group of officials standing near us, including then President Saakashvili, had to listen to that message. And then there followed a reception where Saakashvili was seated next to the Patriarch on one side, and Russian presidential representative Shvydkoi, on the other. That became possible only because Patriarch Ilia took his very special stance.


This is certainly a very positive example. But one can hardly state that such praiseworthy unity is observed across the entire Orthodox world. In Ukraine, the religious conflict has complemented the political one.

In the broader sense, this is a consequence of the processes that developed in the former Soviet republics after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When an anti-Russian “whatever the cost” stance becomes a cornerstone of a newly-founded state’s foreign policy, there emerges the wish to downgrade the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is portrayed as a direct agent of influence of the Russian state. After all, the whole Orthodox community in that country regards itself as part of the greater ROC community, with its own history, holidays and traditions. This may be very annoying, particularly in the context of the anti-Russian narrative, which very easily acquires an ethnic tinge. This is precisely what we can see in Ukraine these days.

The situation in Ukraine largely repeats what was happening in Estonia in the mid-1990s. The government is determined to reduce the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church or oust it altogether as the Church of the invading country, as it was then called. In Ukraine today, it is “the church of the aggressor country.” At the very beginning both scenarios are very much alike: the rhetoric and mechanisms are very similar. First, some breakaway entity is created. Then there follows a message to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, but the latter at first declares the head of the local church of the Moscow Patriarchate as the sole canonical and, consequently, legitimate one. That happened to Archbishop Kornili in Estonia and his present counterpart Metropolitan Onufri in Ukraine. At the same time, all requests by President Pyotr Poroshenko and the Ukrainian parliament addressed to the Ecumenical Patriarch for creating an independent Ukrainian Church under the aegis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople are being studied attentively and favorably. Everything proceeds along a well-trodden path. The immediate aim is to create—using government support, of course, and, if need be, outright violence—a parallel diocese, that is, to seize the canonical church territory of the Russian Orthodox Church.


Does the Ecumenical Patriarch act in the capacity of an arbiter? Or does he consider it possible to carry out direct expansion and active intervention?

The Ecumenical Patriarch is pursuing his own aims above all. Firstly, any pro-active stance enhances the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, at least in its own eyes. Secondly, it gives certain leverage. If the Ukrainian authorities think that under the Ecumenical Patriarchate or with its assistance they will manage to create their own national Church that they would be able to govern, they are very wrong. If the Ecumenical Patriarchate succeeds with the same scenario it staged in Estonia, the result will be the same. There will emerge a parallel hierarchy under a Greek from Constantinople. Any independence of the Estonian Church today is ruled out. The Estonian Orthodox Church is part of the Constantinople Patriarchate, an autonomous church. Nobody in Estonia had ever thought something like that would ever happen. In one of his letters to Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, when the Estonian affair had just reached its peak, Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I quoted rule 34 of the Apostolic Council of two thousand years ago saying that each people has the right to have its own bishop. But Bishop Korneli is not an ethnic Estonian, is he? That he has lived all his life in Estonia and was a priest there does not matter. All right, his Estonian is as fluent as his mother tongue, but again what does that really matter? And why is it so important that he even spent some time in jail for being a priest? He is not Estonian. After a certain while, in 1999 a new head of the newly-founded Estonian Orthodox Church was appointed. He is not an Estonian, but a Greek, born in Congo. He served all his life in southern France, in what was once an area called Gaul. When he learned about his appointment as Estonia’s Bishop he could not hide his surprise, for he had no idea where that country was. He suspected it might be some place in Siberia.

And there is one more circumstance we must bear in mind: the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a patriarchate without a territory of its own. On holidays, worshipers are brought to Istanbul by bus to congregate and fill the churches. In the meantime, Turkey is apparently saying goodbye to Ataturk’s secular legacy, and with the growing influence of the Islamic tradition in Turkey the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s foothold there is weakening. It turns out that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a patriarchate of the diaspora—it has no territory of its own. Nor does it have an Orthodox country that might be considered its canonical territory, or its own Orthodox people. If Poroshenko’s requests materialize in Ukraine, the Kiev Archdiocese will become part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.


What reasons does the Ecumenical Patriarchate have—apart from the “first in honor” title, which says little even to a congregating layman (let alone non-believers)—for explaining such intervention and for laying claim to supremacy in the whole Orthodox world?

It is historical memory, first of all. The Ecumenical Patriarchate in fact governed the entire Orthodox ecumene in the Byzantine Empire. It was the Patriarchate of the capital city then. Its influence was part of the mutual influence of the Church and state power—in conformity with the “symphony of power” theory, which postulates that an Orthodox sovereign and the Patriarch constitute one whole. That unity guaranteed the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s control of the entire territory of Byzantium.

In the Ottoman Empire, the imperial symphony fell apart, which was only natural. The head of the Empire was a Muslim, while local government prerogatives remained and ensured control of the entire Orthodox Church in the Empire and all Orthodox peoples. There was one exception, though—the Russian Orthodox Church, which existed on the territory of the only sovereign Orthodox country then.

A strong clash between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Constantinople Church occurred shortly before the fall of the Byzantine Empire over the union with the Catholics. In Russia, rejection of Catholicism began in the 11th century and by the 15th century it had become a firm anti-Catholic tradition. Then it turned out that the Ecumenical Patriarchate (at that moment Russia was still its part—a metropolitanate), the Great Byzantium gave us our faith, had utterly betrayed its principles and the Patriarch of Constantinople was almost the main advocate of communion with the Holy See. In a situation like that the separation of the Russian Orthodox Church became a forced measure. A new head of the Russian Orthodox Church was elected in Russia independently, by an assembly of Russian bishops and clerics.

With the fall of Byzantium all of Constantinople’s patriarchs became civil servants under Muslim sultans. What could the Russian Church do in a situation like that after hearing for so long from Byzantium that the most important was the symphony of the Orthodox Church and an Orthodox sovereign. What kind of symphony could one talk about? All symphony became ours! Russia had now an Orthodox ruler and an Orthodox metropolitan. That is how the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome came into being. We began to identify ourselves (and felt that way for quite a long time) as not just the only sovereign Orthodox power, but as a power responsible for all Orthodoxy on the globe. Hence the tremendous financial, material and political assistance to the Orthodox churches. All treaties contained a mandatory demand for easing pressures on Orthodox believers. The Russian tsar felt his personal responsibility for the Orthodox Christians, because he was the sole Orthodox monarch.

The Kiev metropolitanate joined the Russian Church in 1686. It was an absolutely legitimate transition and it caused no doubts for the next three hundred years. But what makes religious consciousness so special is that today’s actions must rely on tradition, so some church figures and historians in Russia and abroad are generating new interpretations of the events and documents of 1686. True, this will contribute to the development of history as a science but it has an unmistakably political aim.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate turned from bad to worse. The Bulgarian, Romanian, Serbian, and Greek churches went away. The patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem became sterner in advocating their rights. The large Greek diaspora in America proved the sole robust pillar for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to rely on. It was from the United States that Patriarch Meletius Metaxakis arrived to declare, first, that since the Patriarch of Constantinople was ecumenical (the term dates back to the Byzantine era), the entire diaspora was his, regardless of nationalities, and, second, he had the powers of the supreme arbiter in relation to all other patriarchates and all other churches.


But what is the response of the Orthodox unity? Does it exist in reality? Or is there none? After all, the Pan-Orthodox Council was in fact upset, wasn’t it?

Not quite so. There does exist unity, of course, at the most basic levels—dogmatic and liturgical. Problems arise when unity at the political level is on the agenda. The question always revolves around the degree to which each of the participants is prepared in this or that pan-Orthodox situation to address one’s own specific problems when an opportunity offers itself… And how does he understand that unity? As a union of equals, sharing the same goal and ways to reach that goal, or as a union with the leader, who identifies the goals and ways of achieving them, proceeding from its own interests? At this point I’d like to get back to Constantinople to point to a most unpleasant trait of Constantinople’s policies—the persisting desire to take advantage of an occasion to address one’s own problems, and not pan-Orthodox ones. This does upset pan-Orthodox unity, no denying that.


What about inter-confessional cooperation? To what degree is it possible?

I believe that in the context of developing the awareness of common threats to the basic universal cultural values, inter-confessional relations will begin to play an ever greater role. The issue of the day that stands between the Orthodox and Catholic churches can be formulated like this: Do we, faced with the threat of destruction of traditional values, have enough strength and reasons to pool efforts to defend what is important for us and for you? Or are our historical, religious, dogmatic, canonical and other disagreements (above all, historical obstructions erected over centuries by either side) so great that there is no chance of surmounting them—even at a time when the danger has been realized by all?


In the language of experts and diplomats it may sound like this: Can the Church serve as a soft power resource?

There is no doubt it can. It is a soft power resource, a resource that has the power to explain and to create the country’s image. An image of traditional Russia and the Russian people, who possess some incredible internal stamina that makes them capable of getting through the harshest tests they arrange for themselves. When it comes to preserving and conveying that image, the Church may prove very helpful and appropriate. This image will be far more important and lasting than the image of a victor nation, of a strong power having a tremendous military potential.

The image of a nation capable of preserving itself no matter what happens is an image for “domestic use.” The image of a “major military power” is far clearer to everybody around, although it is somewhat scaring. What other, less formidable messages can we send to the rest of the world?

The Russian people are a people of three indisputable values: Russian literature, Russian mathematics, and the Russian woman. These three values are beyond doubt a very paradoxical blend of the soul and mind.


True, Russian mathematics is associated first of all with Nikolai Lobachevsky, with everything that goes beyond the bounds of a flat surface, the bounds of routine mathematics.

I would also recall Dmitri Yegorov and Pavel Florensky. Why are Florensky’s ideas still in demand in Europe? Because they break with the conventional outlook. Russians are generally not very systemic, probably inconsistent and not very ambitious, but they are capable of breaking the bounds of daily routine and commonplace thinking while at the same time preserving their self. In fact, the whole Russian literature is exactly about that. Also, this is true of the Russian woman who has been able to stand all the pains, including Russian mathematicians and Russian literature classics.

Interviewed by RGA editor Alexander Solovyov.