You may have missed this interview by bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, who is in charge of external relations for the Russian Orthodox church, with this famous (and, naturally, liberal) magazine. Here's your chance to read it.
Transcript: Interview with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
Almost 2 years ago, the Economist met bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the man in charge of external relations for the Russian Orthodox church.
Although time has passed, the meeting of representatives of such different worldviews always provides food for thought. Bishop Hilarion, considered a brilliant theologian, speaks from a position that has become increasingly strange for the West....a position of national pride and traditional morality.
Hilarion is a very prominent and influential leader of the Russian church. He is one of the top 3-4 church leaders in Russia, the 'foreign minister' of the Russian Church, responsible for its relations with other churches and countries.
Here is the transcript:
The Economist: I'd like to start with the church’s role in a sense of national identity of Russians and how the church’s role in that national identity has changed since the end of communism.
1. Christianity has fundamentally shaped the national identity of Russians
I think if we look at the history of the Russian nation and of the Russian state it would be very difficult to overestimate the role the Orthodox church played in the fashioning of the Russian national identity.
And if you look at the Russian culture, not speaking of the medieval culture with its churches and icons and church singing, even if we look at the Russian culture of the 19th century, it is still very Christian, not only by its roots but also by its self-understanding and self-identity.
And you may look at two greatest writers of the 19th century: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Both of them were believers. One of them had a problem with the church, let’s put it this way, but he believed in Christ. And Dostoyevsky was a very Christ-centric writer and his writings are full of Orthodox messages and even quotations from the church fathers.
The same can be said about Russian music, about Russian painting. So, until the time of the revolution, this influence of the church and of Orthodox spirituality on the culture and on the people was quite obvious.
Then, there was this brutal eruption and disruption of the tradition and the Bolsheviks came with very strong atheistic and anti-religious aspirations and they wanted to change the culture and civilisational code of our nation.
But even after 70 years the Orthodox faith not only did not disappear, as they hoped, but in fact it became even stronger.
Relationship between Church and State is productive and healthy. No apologies.
This relationship is based on two fundamental principles. One principle is the separation of the church from the state and of the state from the church, and of mutual non-interference of the church and the state into the internal life and internal affairs of one another. This is one principle.
For example, the state does not dictate to the church anything related to its internal life. For example we never consult the state about the ordination of a particular person into episcope or into priesthood or moving a person from one position to another. Or, expressing some ideas. We are free in expressing what we think on social, moral and political matters.
We also freed the state of our direct interference. So for example, we prohibit our bishops and priests to participate in electoral activities, to take one or another side in electoral struggle or to take positions of authority. If, for example, a priest would want to be a deputy of the state Duma, he would have to renounce priesthood and only after this he can take this position.
The other principle on which the relations between the church and the state are based is the principle of co-operation in the areas in which such co-operation is necessary and deemed timely by both sides. And there are many such issues, for example various humanitarian projects. For example, the issue of the restoration of old churches. It is within the interest of the church but it is also in the interest of the state on a federal level and very often on the municipal level.
For example, in Moscow, there is a programme of restoration of historic churches and it is carried out with the assistance of the municipal authorities but they never take full responsibility for the restoration of a particular church. They would give a certain amount of money, but they would expect the church to raise at least half of the total amount.
But, nonetheless, the patriarch speaks of political matters.
But the Patriarch is (gasp) openly supportive of Vladimir Putin.
I think it’s not a new type of relationship, but I think President Putin is more successful than was President Yeltsin. But the church does not officially support any candidate for presidency or any political party.
Nevertheless, the church is free to express its position. If we are not satisfied with the state authorities, we say this. If we are satisfied, we also say this.
There was a time during the presidency of Mr Yeltsin when the church was quite outspoken against certain decisions and certain positions taken by the state. I suppose if the current president or the current authorities would take positions which are contrary to the church’s understanding, the church would speak up.
Indeed, the level of corruption in Russia is still very high. Maybe it is lower than it used to be, and also the level of crime is much lower than it used to be, for example in the 1990s. But still, there is a high level of criminality and there is a high level of corruption.
But I also notice that the state struggles against corruption. There was a case of a minister who was taken to custody because of, not only because of corruption. There are several cases when mayors of cities or governors of provinces are accused of corruption. So, there is at least a very strong intention on the part of the state to combat corruption.
On the other hand, if the church would have participated in these corruption mechanisms then, of course, it could have been rightly accused of being engaged in these dirty mechanisms.
But if the church stays outside and if the church speaks against corruption, as was the case many times with the patriarch’s speeches, then I don’t see why the church should be accused of being close to the corrupt people in the state.
If we look at the history of the Russian church, and generally if we look at the history of the Christian church, the general trend was always that the church would support the state except for the cases when the state is clearly against the church.
If we take the first generation of Christians, when apostles said that you should obey the state, you should pray for the emperor, and the emperor was a pagan at that time, he was a persecutor of Christians. Nevertheless, this position of loyalty to the state is more or less the trend which we can trace to the very early Christian times.
Even in Soviet times when the church was persecuted, the church authorities tried to figure out what would be the possibility for the church to exist officially. So, I think in any epoch and in every time the church tries to have a constructive dialogue with the state authorities without losing its own identity and its own positions.
You talked about the growth of the church in the past 10 or 15 years. I wonder if you could give us a sense of how it’s grown and how the nature of the ministry of the church has changed in that time?
Yes. Just to give you the sense, I will give you some figures. In 1988, the Russian Orthodox church had 6,000 parishes. Now, we have 36,000 parishes. Most of these new parishes are either the churches which were destroyed and were built again, or these are churches which were in ruins and were restored. Or, these are newly established communities.
When I speak about the parishes, as a rule it is both the church building and the church community. What does this figure mean? It means that every year we opened more than 1,000 churches: three churches per day for this entire period.
And it continues at the same speed. We had, in 1988, 21 monasteries for the entire Russian Orthodox church. Now we have over 950 monasteries. Which means that we opened more than 900 monasteries in less than 30 years and each of these monasteries are filled with monks and nuns. Their average age is… Most of them are quite young. So, it is an incredible monastic revival, again on an unprecedented scale.
We had three theological educational institutions and now we have more than 50 higher educational institutions which belong to the church. And we have about the same number in Russia of theology faculties and departments in state universities.
With regard to the social role of the church, the major shift was from the situation of a ghetto to the situation where the church is a very active actor in society, in social discussions, in the social processes.
There are now two church TV channels. There are TV programmes which are operated by the church and state channels. And the church is very actively present in the mass media, in the internet, and also in the social arena.
In Europe and in the United States, the church has been declining and the number of believers and the number of people who attend church is shrinking. How has this revival come about in Russia?
If you allow me to comment on the first part of your question. I think that at least to a certain degree, this decline of interest in Christianity is due to the fact that some Western Protestant Christian communities look for compromises with secular ideology.
For example, there are some Protestant communities which say that we should accept homosexual lifestyles and the church should bless homosexual couples and they even invent rituals of such blessing.
We in the Orthodox church believe that the doctrine of the church, and here I mean not only the faith, not only the dogma, but also the moral doctrine, it should remain unchanged. And while the trends and the fashions may change, we are not allowed to change the doctrine which was created by Jesus Christ and his apostles.
We have to see how to adapt this doctrine to real life because very often Christian commandments may seem too unrealistic. And here already we enter into this field of pastoral care, for example, how we deal with the homosexuals who are in every church. But we are against proclaiming what according to the scripture and tradition is sinful, proclaiming it as norm.
If we look at our situation of course, I think that this religious revival is due to the fact that even in the Soviet time somewhere hidden in the soul of the Russian people this longing for God, this longing for truth, and this longing for Orthodox spirituality was present.
It was impossible to openly express this faith, but it was still there and there were many people who were believers but who did not indicate this. Once the chains of the communist ideology fell apart, it became possible and millions of people started either to return to the church or to discover the church for themselves.
You mentioned that Putin has been more successful. From where you’re sitting, what would you, if you were writing a chronicle of Russian history, what would you highlight as Putin’s biggest achievements?
Well, I think not even speaking about things related to church, theology, to morality, we can look at the economic situation. I remember the situation of the beginning of the 1990s. I had three jobs and my total salary was $12. I received $10 per month in the Moscow Theological Seminary as a teacher, $1 I received in the church where I served as a priest, and $1 I received in the Theological Institute as a teacher.
At that time $12 was approximately the cost of 2kg of cheese. So with this salary combined of three working places I could probably survive for about a week. But I needed to survive for a month and I also had to take care of my mother. Fortunately, I do not have a family because I’m a monk, but still it was quite difficult. Many people lived in such a situation and people had to invent ways to raise money which we cannot even imagine now. For me, I usually did some translation work and then I received some money.
Now the situation is different. People receive good salaries. Maybe not as good as they were let’s say three years ago before the sanctions, but still they are reasonable, people can survive. There is now a middle class which practically didn’t exist in the 1990s. This is but one example, but I can give you many other examples.
I was wondering how you think he would be remembered in 300 years’ time, what would you record as his…?
You mean Mr Putin?
Well, I think his time has not yet finished. It is very likely that he will run for presidential elections and there will be another term. So, it is difficult to predict how people 300 years after will look at the entire period, but I can tell you how we look at it from our position now.
The level of popular support for President Putin is very high, even in spite of the sanctions, even in spite of the fact that the rouble fell down quite dramatically.
There is still tremendous support and you cannot explain it simply by propaganda or by the mass media. People are judging the situation from their own situation.
What is the church’s position on the situation regarding Ukraine? Because this has placed Russia in quite a difficult situation with the rest of the Western world and we’re living in a time you could say of growing isolation of Russia. Does the church support what happened there?
The civil unrest in the Ukraine started several years ago, which led first to the fall of [Viktor] Yanukovych’s government and then to what followed.
One of the results of the current policy of the Ukraine authorities is the growing polarisation of Ukrainian society. We see that from the beginning of the 1990s there was a schism on the church level in the Ukraine. This schism was for some reason supported by the state authorities at that time. Then it conflated. Because usually schisms conflate only when they are supported by the state, and this was the case in the Ukraine.
But every schism brings division not only on the religious level but also on the cultural level, on the level of people’s identity. They feel themselves on two different sides of the barricades.
Interestingly enough, when there was a struggle between different sides during the time of the fall of Yanukovych, the faithful of our church, of the Ukrainian Orthodox church of the Moscow Patriarchy, they were on both sides of political barricades. We had those who supported Yanukovych, and we had those who didn’t support Yanukovych, and the church was very careful, and is still very careful, not to take sides in this political struggle even though the authorities desperately want the church to take what they consider to be a clear position.
But the clear position of the church is not to take sides and the church should be open to people of different political orientations. We cannot say for example that the church would exclude communists. We now have some members of the communist party who are believers and it’s a matter of their conscience how they combine this, in my view, un-combinable thing, but we have such people and we welcome them to the church.
If we look at what is happening in the Ukraine. Take for example the recent law about language, which prohibits the Russian language from being taught in the school. How can we possibly support this if we know that Russian is the language of millions of people living in the Ukraine. Initially, it was the law which was to ban all other languages except Ukrainian, and then there was a very strong reaction on the part of Hungary. There was also a reaction in Romania.
So, the proposal was modified and it is now stated that the languages of the EU are okay but the languages which are not within the EU are not okay. There is only one such language. We understand the trick.
By acting in this way, I believe that the Ukrainian government acts against its own people and without taking any judgement on the political relations between the states of Russia and of the Ukraine I believe that this type of action goes against the Ukrainian people. Namely against the very significant segment [of the population] which speaks the Russian language.
I am a professor of the University of Fribourg of Switzerland and I know Switzerland quite well.It’s a small country with four official languages. One of these official languages is spoken by three villages. Nevertheless, it has the status of an official language. Why in Ukraine the Russian language could not have a similar status? I believe that this polarisation is one of the factors which contributes to continual political unrest in the Ukraine.
We are also very concerned about the pressure of the Ukrainian state authorities on the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox church because there are several laws which are being proposed and all of them have discriminatory character with regard to the Ukrainian Orthodox church of the Moscow Patriarchy. One of the laws proposes that it should be called The Church Whose Administrative Centre is in the State Aggressor. Though, in fact, the administrative state of the Ukrainian church is in Kiev, not in Moscow. We only have spiritual links with this church but we have no administrative authority whatsoever on the Ukrainian church.
Another proposal is that it should be deprived of its historic name, Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and that it should be called The Russian Church in Ukraine, and treated not as national church but as a foreign missionary organisation with all consequences. Maybe we could stop because I really have no more time.
I wanted just to ask one very quick last question.
One very quick last question.
I am so sorry to keep you. We’re on the centenary of the Russian Revolution.
I was curious to hear your thoughts on how these events, from the point of view of the church, ought to be commemorated and how to reconcile the parts of the Soviet past, which are important to contemporary Russian identity, be it in victory in the Great Patriotic War, the reality of the revolution for the church and the consequences of communism.
And if I could just add to that, maybe also about the lessons from the revolution for the church and the state?
I think the biggest lesson is that we cannot build a just society without God. And I think the biggest mistake of the Bolsheviks was that they went against God and this is why God finally punished them, even though it took 70 years. I also believe that reconciliation is a very important concept and it is a concept which is very often used by the church in appealing to history, and appealing to the present situation.
But I do not believe that reconciliation can be achieved by a simple silence about the injustice which was done, about the crimes which were committed, about the atrocities which were done by the Soviet authorities towards their own people. We cannot simply ignore this past and say, “Let’s go no further, let’s not talk about this, it is in the past.”
We still have to talk about this and we still have to look for lessons because when people tend to forget history, they tend to repeat the same mistakes and we do not want to repeat such mistakes.
Finally, I think the most proper way to commemorate what happened is to commemorate the victims. This is what the church does in its liturgical service and also in canonising those who are believed to be martyrs and confessors. In 2000, we canonised by name more than 1,000 at that time but we also said that there are many who we will probably never know by name and who were martyrs and victims.
So, we have this long list of saints which is constantly updated, and we add new names to this list. Now, there are about 2,000 names on this list but still we say that this list does not exhaust the total numbers of martyrs and we commemorate them all. And even those who were not martyrs and confessors, we still commemorate them as victims of these terrible years and of this terrible epoch.
If you liked this interview, here's more from Metropolitan Hilarion.
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