In 1965, Yakunin and fellow priest Nikolai Eshliman sent an open letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei, decrying not only the persecution of believers but de facto church collusion in this persecution. Among other things, churches routinely complied with a requirement that all baptisms, church weddings, communions, and religious funerals be reported to the Communist authorities—often with dire consequences for the participants. The letter, drafted by several lay writers, was originally meant to be a collective statement by as many as two-dozen clergymen, including an archbishop. But everyone except Yakunin and Eshliman backed out. Copies of the letter were sent to senior members of the church hierarchy and to the Soviet government.
The reaction was predictable. In May 1966, Yakunin and Eshliman were defrocked by the Moscow patriarchate until they repented their criticism of church leadership; their appeal to the Synod was rejected.“Now, the church consists of people who only talk about how ‘we were persecuted’—even though they never were.”
Married like other Orthodox priests and a father of three, Yakunin found himself unemployable and forced to live on donations from sympathetic (and brave) believers. Undeterred, he threw himself into the Soviet Union’s then-burgeoning human rights movement, with a particular focus on the suppression of religious freedom—championing not only his fellow Orthodox, but also other faiths and sects. In 1979, he was convicted of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and spent five years in prison and Siberian labor camp—followed by two years in internal exile in the Far Eastern region of Yakutia.
All that changed with Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. In 1987, Yakunin was amnestied (his conviction was officially vacated four years later) and not only allowed to return to Moscow but restored to the priesthood in a newly unshackled church.
Wrongly thinking that he now had world Christian opinion behind him, Yakunin increased his efforts. His energy was prodigious. He collected more than 400 appeals from almost all Christian denominations in the Soviet Union and even included support for Jews and Muslims in his wide-ranging activities. This time the Soviet authorities themselves acted, and arrested Yakunin on 1 November 1979. At his subsequent trial, he received a sentence of 10 years, the first half to be served in a camp, the second in exile. Eight years into this, with Gorbachev at the height of his perestroika policy, Yakunin was released.
The next year, 1988, saw celebrations marking the millennium of the conversion of the Eastern Slavs. During these June weeks Yakunin and his wife, Iraida, whom he had married in 1961, held open house for religious dissidents, inviting foreign Christian leaders in Moscow for the events to visit his flat and learn the real truth about the persecution of the past 60 years, not the sanitised version as presented by the Moscow Patriarchate. The atmosphere in the flat was electric as a succession of victims of persecution told their stories.
In the post-Soviet era, Yakunin, who died on Christmas Day, served on a human rights commission, where he pushed for the publication of KGB files documenting the close collaboration between the spy agency and the Russian Orthodox hierarchy — including the fact that the then-patriarch of Moscow had served the KGB as a spy. Excerpt:
Accusations that Alexy, elected Patriarch in 1990, co-operated closely with the KGB under the code name ‘Drozdov’ (Thrush), have circulated since a parliamentary commission was allowed a brief peek at secret police files in Moscow in 1991.
But the Estonian text is the first publicly available document to support the theory that Alexy was more than a mere collaborator and that from 1958 he was an active agent, using the KGB as a career ladder at a time when the secret police persecuted organised religion.
Yakunin also found evidence in the KGB files that the current patriarch, Kirill, also served as a KGB agent. The Church defrocked Yakunin again, and later excommunicated him. Yakunin ended up joining a schismatic Orthodox sect, and continuing his human rights work. He was a defender of Pussy Riot, for example.
Whatever his errors in life may have been, Father Yakunin was right about the biggest things, and extremely courageous in a time when you could go far in the Church if you served the communist government and sold out your fellow Orthodox Christians. I have faith that this brave priest, despised and cast out by church authorities, rejoices with the angels today. May his memory be eternal.