My Orthodox Christian writer friend Frederica Mathewes-Green did an Ancient Faith Radio podcast recently about the Pussy Riot event. She received the following e-mail from a young Muscovite, who has given me permission to publish it, provided I take his name off, because it’s too politically risky for him to say these things. This is really interesting stuff:

My name is [deleted] I am a listener of AFR and a fan of your podcasts. I’m 26 years old, an Orthodox Christian, living in Moscow. As you can possibly guess, I am writing to you about the recent podcast “Russian Blasphemy”.

I completely agree with you on the matter of the importance of sincere prayer, and of how painful, insulting and disrespectful the blasphemous “prayer” of the “PR” band had been. But, unfortunately, while listening to your podcast, I could not help feeling, that you were either ill-informed or misinformed on some very crucial matters, pertaining to the scandal, the court case, and especially – the position of the Moscow Patriarchate.

First of all, there is no such charge as “blasphemy” in the secular legislature of the Russian Federation, nor were the “PR” band members calling for religious hatred, for which they were charged and convicted. They performed a blasphemous act; but they did not call the people to kill or persecute Christians, Jews, Muslims, or any other religious groups, and only such an act falls directly under the “call for religious hatred” charge. If such a charge as “blasphemy” existed before the incident and if the government simply enforced existing laws to a certain “crime” – no one would have said a word. But instead, the state court gave these women 2 years in prison.

Moreover, from what you said, it seems like the “PR” band was supposed to get 7 years, but the Church asked the sentence to be eased to 2. Again, this was not the case.

“Officially” the Church did not keep silent until the verdict was carried out by the court (as it was stated by the Patriarchate’s representatives this spring). Nor did it call for pity or mercy to the “sinner”. On the contrary. Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, such as the Head of the Department of the Public Relations – archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin and the Churches’ attorney – the nun Serafima (Chernega) called for “righteous” punishment for this act of hatred. This was directly said by our Patriarch in the beginning of April, when he called the Orthodox Faithful not to tolerate the new rise of blasphemy and not to allow the punk band’s act to be seen as a mere political protest. The Patriarch is a strong speaker, and won a powerful emotional response from his flock, talking about how the band sinned against Our Lord, against the Orthodox shrines, against Our martyrs, our nation and the fallen soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, (in whose memory the Cathedral was erected). Was this a Christian response? Was this an attempt of a responsible pastor to calm his faithful down and appeal to Christian mercy and prayer?

After the court’s verdict, the recently formed High Church Council (a parallel to the Lesser Synod), said that “While Christ forgave those, who insulted Him as a Man, He called against blasphemy on the Holy Spirit”. Forgive me, but is this not strikingly similar to some, ill-drafted Nestorian statement? When Our Lord was raised up on the Cross, and asked God to forgive those, Who nailed Him to the Tree, was this done as a Man, or as a God? Neither the Eastern Orthodox, nor the Oriental or Catholic Churches now of such a separation between the Divinity and Humanity in Jesus. The statement goes on to say, that no forgiveness is possible without the repentance of the sinners (not Holy Communion – simple forgiveness). Meanwhile, I do not remember a passage in the Gospel, where the Saviour asks us to demand an official repentance from the one who offended us, before “granting” him forgiveness.

Unlike his predecessor – Patriarch Alexei II (of Blessed Memory), who managed to sustain excellent relations with the state, yet skillfully refrain from direct involvement in politics, our current Primate got the Church directly involved in the most scandalous and passionate election campaign in modern Russian history. His support of Putin – whose right to run for a third, 6-year presidency is more than questionable – put the Church under direct attack not only from some kind of atheistic “liberals”, but from the wide range of common people, who have no real protection from corrupt government officials and have nothing but contempt, fear and hatred for the state “powers”. How would you feel, if you personally knew dozens of people, who were required to vote for Putin and his “United Russia” party under the direct threat of losing their jobs – and then hear the Patriarch, our Patriarch and the Primate of our local Church, call the protests of hundreds of thousands of desperate people, who came out ot ask for their right to vote – “ear piercing shrieks”?

This was said at a meeting with the candidate V. Putin on February 8 2012. The two “Punk prayers” took place roughly two weeks after the Patriarch’s meeting with Putin (the one and only candidate for presidency, with whom the Patriarch and other religious leader decided to meet, which can rightfully be seen as open political backing). Moreover, thanking Putin for his personal part in the “unparalleled” spiritual recovery of Russia and of its Church, the Patriarch forgot to mention his own predecessor – Patriarch Alexei II, our beloved Father who actually led the Church during the 17 years of recovery from the Soviet desolation. The current Patriarch did not even mention Alexei, not even once!
Should we, as Orthodox, as Christians, not ask ourselves – had the Patriarch asked his flock to forgive the blasphemy, had he given the judgment to God, and not to the state court, had he called for these women to be released and “go in peace”, would the current rise of anti-clericalism and this strange cult of making the “PR” band into prisoners of conscience and “political  martyrs” actually taken place?

There is also another problem, pertaining to “blasphemy” in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The resurrected Christ the Saviour Cathedral does not belong to the Church. It belongs to the government and is under the “care” of a certain “Fund of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour”. This organization runs several souvenir shops around the cathedral, a restaurant – recently built right by the cathedral, as well as a car-wash and a banquet hall, located in an underground complex directly beneath the Church. This gives rise to popular belief that “the Church” rents the halls of its cathedral for expensive corporate parties and banquettes. But instead of fighting for the Cathedral “to be a house of prayer”, the Patriarchate not only conforms with the current state of affairs, but parallel with the “PR” case, the Church won a lawsuit, defending its right for the commercial use of the cathedral premises – along with the infamous “Fund”. What kind of “message” is this supposed to give the nation, which does not differentiate between the patriarchate’s officials and the Church as a whole?

What other Cathedral, in what other Orthodox patriarchate or diocese belongs to a state-owned commercial organization, which builds a banquet hall in the place of a crypt? Yet, the Patriarchate does nothing, disregarding the waning reputation of this magnificent, truly resurrected cathedral.

In light of recent events, should we, as Orthodox Christians, not honestly ask ourselves – “what really happened?”, “what could have caused people to start this unjust, senseless act of blasphemy and protest in Moscow’s cathedral?”, “Why so many Christians, including the Primate of our local Church, who shed so many tears listening to the Passions narratives, fail to show Christian mercy when beset by a single act of blasphemy?”. Instead, we go on the defensive, carrying out relics, calling on for the State’s protection and retribution.

But, as Orthodox Christians in Russia, we are beset by both – attacks from the “outside” insulting our Church, as well as from irrational and irresponsible actions of our own clergy and even – the patriarchate’s officials. Unlike our brothers and sisters in Albania, Finland, Georgia, the OCA, and, of course, in the Antiochian Orthodox Church – we, in Russia, have no ability to ask or receive accountability from our hierarchs and primates. And this, truly has a devastating effect on the state of the Church and its reputation in Russia. Should not such problems be openly addressed outside the internet? Should not we speak of our own sins in the wake of new attacks on our Church?

The sin of someone who blasphemes, yet does not belong to the Church, is grave, there can be no doubt. But if we, as Christians, by our actions cause the rise of blasphemy against the Church, is not our sin far greater? Somehow, we seem to skillfully evade such questions.

Please, forgive me for such a long message. I have the deepest respect for you, and this was why I wanted to make a clear and full statement regarding the situation in my country and my local Church.

God Bless You and may He Grant You Many Years!
Yours faithfully in Christ,
[Name]
Moscow, Russia

Frederica wrote back to the Muscovite, who responded:

Thank you very much for your response! It is an honour to hear from you personally.

Believe me, I am absolutely not trying to argue with the point you made – about how disturbing and painful the blashemy has been. I totally agree.

The problem is that in Russia it immediately passed beyond that. The effects of the Soviet battle with Church have not entirely dissapeared; in many ways, the Soviets have succeeded. The vast majority of the population, even if they are baptized, wear a cross and have an icon in their home and car, do not know their faith, and do not go to Church. They see the Church as a place where you can go and “place a candle” to God or a saint, if you feel bad, meanwhile viewing the clergy with a considerable amount of suspicion (especially, if it’s not some king of monastic elder, but a parish priest – with a family, an i-pad and a car). That is why, as you said, they will not and cannot, in this case, differentiate between “Putin” and the Church, and, more importantly – between certain acts of clergy or Patriarchal misbehavior and the Church itself.

But among the “church-going” Christians, who were offended and shared the pain that you talked about, conservative, nationalistic (more – nationalistic, than Christian) sentiments are widespread and highly  popular. Many Orthodox go into a rage at the slightest prospects of introducing modern Russian into the services, at the prospects of certain Orthodox hierarchs meeting with the Pope (the Ecumenical Patriarch is regularly slandered), and at what they view as “American” or “Western” attacks on Holy Russia (the one and only true center of Orthodoxy, as they see it).

So the problem is that the Patriarch and the patriarchate in the “PR” case did practically everything they could to make the unchurched majority see the court verdict as another proof of Church-State affiliation (so, in the eyes of a common, unchurched person the Church becomes part of the infamous, despised  Russian “elite”), and to incite rage and dismay among many of the active church-going Orthodox people – rage and paranoia against the “blasphemers” and those “westerners” and “liberals” that are trying to desecrate our country, the Holy Rus.

Where do we, as Orthodox Christians in Russia, go from here? On one hand, we see ongoing attacks against our Church; yet many  of these attacks are motivated not by pure, “satanical” hatred, but by acts of clergy and hierarchical misbehavior, or their involvement in politics. On the other hand, we see our Primate and the patriarchate – who do not hold themslevles accountable to the clergy and laity – attempt to restore some sort of pseudo-monarchical system of Church-State relations.

And knowing how fragile the political situation is, how many people fear and mistrust the State – many of us feel the future of the Church, and especially the mission to the people – compromised and put under direct risk of steady decline.

Many of us would be glad, as the Metropolitan Philip Saliba once said, “to put our house in order”, to make our Mother Church seek the spiritual renewal, that took place in many of the Orthodox Churches in the XX century,  of which the vast majority of the population and even of the clergy know absolutely nothing about. Only a few read Fr. Alexander Schmemann, (preferring the more asketical, concrete and somewhat agressive Seraphim Rose); and the absolute majority of clergy that I have met know nothing about Metropolitan Philip, or Anthony Bashir, or Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, or Archbishop Dimitrii Roister, or Archbishop Iakovos. Had I not lived in the States, for a time, I would have never heard of them either. The majority of Russian faithful has no idea about what Orthodox Church life may and has become, living in a reality, which resembles the Russian Synodal period or the life of nationalistic Balkan monarchies.

And those few, who would strive for the renewal (a banned word among the Russian faithfull), can only blog, talk and pray, because we have practically no chance to even adress the problem publicly.

In a follow-up e-mail to me, the Muscovite writes:

The situation we, as Christians, are going through in Russia is troubling. And the troubles are on the rise. Just a day ago there was a fight in Moscow, when a young man, wearing a T-shirt saying “Theotokos, chase out Putin!” (a quote from the infamous punk-band) was beat up by “Orthodox” youth activists for insulting their “religious” feelings. To give you an idea about how divided and controversial our clergy’s reaction is to the problem. One well-known priest, Father Alexei Uminskii, said that he condems not the young man with the purely political statement on his shirt, but the “Orthodox” youth activists, who made T-shirt with verses from 1 Corinthians, 13, and went about the city beating up those, that offend their “Christian” feelings. Meanwhile, another well-known igumen said that he would, despite being a monk, join the youth and hit the young man on the head for insulting his religious and patriotic feelings, since Putin is the president and the symbol of our country. Here is the link, unfortunately – it is only in Russian:http://www.pravmir.ru/konflikt-iz-za-futbolki-v-podderzhku-pussy-riot-provokaciya-ili-revnost-o-vere/

Also I would like to say, that I am not trying to “slander” His All-Holiness, the Patriarch of Moscow, the ruling bishop of my diocese. But I am seriously worried, when I see a bishop, who would think it easier to organize meetings and processions “in defence of the Faith and the Good Name of the Church” than to provide open accountability for his financial and political actions.  If he has nothing to hide, why try give rise to “patriotic” feelings of the flock instead of providing them with a simple audit?