A brilliant church leader shares his opinions on many controversial topics in a tense interview
While we rarely publish articles of this length, this interview presents a curious case which we thought readers might enjoy. Here's the backstory:
Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, the abbot of an ancient monastery in Moscow, Sretensky monastery, is a hugely popular and influential church leader, famous, among other things, for his 2011 bestseller Everyday Saints and the recent colossal church he built in Moscow recently.
This conservative bishop was asked to give an interview to a hyper-liberal website called "Open Russia" a pro-Western, liberal media institution that is openly opposed to the church. To everyone's surprise, he agreed.
The tension between them is evident.
The journalist, often exhibits a rather glaring lack of understanding and sometimes even politeness, as she tries to push her line of thought to the forefront, asking questions that are obviously provocative, such as: Does the Russian Church sanction extremism? Why doesn't it stand up to the government? the Russian Church betraying the believers today(just as it did in the Soviet Union? Is Bishop Tikhon Putin's spiritual father?
Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see a brilliant church leader share his opinions on many controversial issue such as Russian Church history, the armed conflict in Ukraine, the relationship between Russian church and state, the art of the Russian liberals, rumours about his relationship with Putin, the Russian Church's strong social influence and much else
Definitely worth your while.
—I am asking you about today.
—I think that the majority of the many-million-strong Russian Orthodox Church accepts the joys and misfortunes of contemporary Russia as their own. You say that the Church supports the government. Of course it supports it in everything constructive and good. And it calls upon the government to correct anything that is sick and bad. Why do you criticize the Church for that?
Have you ever thought about the fact that for over 1000 years of our history it was precisely the Church that in many ways created and formed the Russian nation? And there were times, let’s say, in the period of the Mongol Tartar invasions or the Time of Troubles when precisely the Church and only the Church saved and preserved Russia.
And why, after these thousand years of motherhood, can it not support the nation in everything constructive and good, and help it difficult times? Because the liberals don’t want it to?
—I am not comparing the positions. I am comparing the spirit.
—What do you mean?
—What does the intelligentsia criticize the Church for today? For the fact that it cooperates with the government, it glorifies the government. Remember the presidential elections of 2012, when Patriarch Kirill practically called all to vote for Putin.—That did not happen. The rules of the Russian Orthodox Church forbid calling anyone to vote for one or another politician or political party.
—Here is the quote: “I should say completely openly as the Patriarch, who is called to speak the truth, without paying any attention to political conjuncture or propagandistic accents, that it was namely you who played an enormous role in correcting the crookedness of our history, Vladimir Vladimirovich. I would like to thank you. You once said that you work like a galley slave—with only one difference: a slave has never produced such output, and you have had a very high output” (speech given on February 8, 2012 at a meeting of the president with leaders of religious communities). The Patriarch talks about Putin as a candidate “who has, of course, the greatest chance of realizing this candidacy as a viable position”. This is not a command, but it is definitely support, from which the flock should draw their own conclusions.
—Look, that is the Patriarch’s business. He decided that that is how he should give his speech in the presence of all the leaders of Russia’s religious congregations. I agree with you that this was support within the framework of the law, and not a direct call to vote for a candidate. You have said it correctly. So what is the crime here?
—The Church almost never criticizes the government. It never defends political prisoners. The Church supported the annexation of the Crimea, although there were differing opinions. The Church always holds to the “party line”.
—Let’s take things one at a time. “The Church does not criticize the government.” Undoubtedly, for the Church, as opposed to today’s oppositionists, criticism of the government is not an end in itself or the meaning of its existence. There you are right.
But when the Church considers it necessary to point out dangers and mistakes to the government and society, we of course say something. It is precisely from the Church, the Patriarch, and a multitude of priests and laity that the toughest criticism is demonstrated against the governmental law on abortions.
There were a collection of signatures, the Patriarch’s appearance before the Duma criticizing the government over this matter, criticism in the media and in sermons, after all. We are talking about millions of people, about a systemic cease to this outrageous permissiveness and systematic murder. We propose steps based upon international experience in decreasing abortions.
Further there is the governmental policy on the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages. This indulgence in unregulated alcohol production has gone on under the guise of strengthening the free market.
The result of this criticism, and then the cooperation over many years between the Church and the government in this work is that new laws were passed several years ago to reduce alcohol consumption, and now changes for the better have occurred with regard to this problem—and the Church participated in this change.
Alcohol consumption per capita in 2008, according to the Russian Ministry of Health, was 15.8 liters (in reality it was about 18 litters) and by 2015 it was reduced to 10.5 liters. I can cite these figures because I was directly involved in this matter on the Church’s side.
Political prisoners. This is my personal opinion: If you personally know someone and know that he was in fact sentenced for his political views, you have a right to defend him from this arbitrary abuse.
Therefore this matter is truly exclusively personal for every priest. I knew one man, my friend, who was arrested and sent to trial for his political views after October of 1993. And precisely because I knew him, I was sure of him and his rightness and innocence, I came to the trial and defended him as a social advocate.
But if you do not know the person in the least, nor the essence of the matter, and you are only told that “from our point of view” this is a political prisoner… The Church does not have the facilities for investigation. You must agree that these are absolutely different situations.
About the Crimea. There are Church people who supported the reunification of the Crimea—very many of them, including those living in the Crimea. There are also Orthodox Christians who spoke out against it. There are priests who spoke out publicly against it and there were no repressions against them.
—Name those priests.
—Well, I can’t remember them offhand. I know that several people spoke their opinion on it. Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev, a clergyman in my vicariate in Moscow, wrote and spoke of it as being a mistake.
—But that is not what can be called “speaking publicly and there were no repressions against them.” We are talking about statements by Church representatives or hierarchs, and not about Fr. Andrei Kuraev’s blog.
—Of course our Fr. Andrei is not a hierarch, but neither is he an ordinary church blogger. He repeatedly and specifically publicly stated his opinion on the Crimea and there were no repressions against him whatsoever.
As for hierarchs—why do you think that they should have such an opinion on this issue that is identical to yours, and not be in solidarity with the ninety-five percent of Crimean inhabitants who voted for reunification with Russia?
—Well that same Deacon Andrei Kuraev gave an interview on the “Dozhd” (“Rain”) TV channel entitled, “This is Patriarch Kirill’s sin.” Did you see it?
—No. What was the sin?
—In Kuraev’s opinion, “Neither Patriarch Kirill, nor Metropolitan Hilarion [(Alfeyev), the head of the Church External Relations Department.—Trans.], nor Vladimir Legoida [the chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate department for interaction with society and the media.—Trans.] nor anyone else in that group gave a moral, ecclesiastical-moral, or theological evaluation of pogromist moods and acts.”
—Judging from what you’ve quoted this is once again about “Matilda”.1 (a film about Tsar Nicholas II that caused a scandal in Russia last year-RF Ed)The official representative of the Russian Orthodox Church Vladimir Romanovich Legoida several times officially stated that the Church categorically condemns any extremist acts with regard to the film “Matilda”.
Metropolitan Hilarion said the same thing. One would have to really make an effort not to notice these statements in the press.
—I understood that in speaking of “the Patriarch’s sin”, Kuraev meant that the Patriarch did not stop these people in time who were calling themselves Orthodox Christians but were essentially pogromists.
—You mean the organization, “Christian Nation?” Which consists of two people, both of whom, it seems, were already under investigation? I repeat, at the blessing of the Patriarch, his official press secretary and the head of the department for interaction with the media condemned any manifestations of extremism.
All the hierarchs in the many dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church warned their flocks in the local newspapers, on diocesan websites, and in other media about the unacceptability of protests outside of the legal field, although I am convinced that only deliberate provocateurs with no connection to the Church would go in for extremist activities.
As for lawful civil protests—do you suppose that the Patriarch should forbid them? Do you propose initiating ecclesiastical repressions against lawful protests?
—And what about the “Tsar worshippers”? What do you think of them?
—Have you ever seen at least one Tsar worshipper? Can you name at least one name? I have seen only one such lady. One. That’s all. I know that there are a few tiny groups who have proclaimed the Tsar [Nicholas II] “the redeemer”. It’s true that there are a few more of them than those two from “Christian Nation”.
But if priests hear about such sects, they try to talk to their adherents and explain to them their error. Do they really interest you that much?
—They are also very aggressive.
—We have activists of all different stripes in our country. But we don’t demand a ban on all crackpot “democratic schizophrenics” only because we don’t like them. If it inspires them let them pop up from time to time, each with his own repertoire, as long as they don’t break the law.
—And what about the protest at “Tannhäuser” in the Novosibirsk Theater?
—Another strange example. The metropolitan of Novosibirsk is a citizen of the Russian Federation, right? In accordance with the law, he filed a lawsuit to close the show based upon the Russian law against offending religious sensibilities.
And he won that lawsuit! Only later did the Ministry of Culture make the decision to remove that opera from the repertoire, because it could see a civil conflict quickly growing around this story.
—Did the Novosibirsk metropolitan take counsel with any of the other hierarchs before filing this lawsuit?
—Every bishop is absolutely free to make his own decisions. The more cautious of them ask advice. But it is their right to do or not do something.
—You were sharply critical of the film “Leviathan”. I quote: “This film is as much a piece of ‘art’ as what ‘Pussy Riot’ did in the Christ the Savior Cathedral.”
—That is not an exact quote. I said, word-for-word: “Those who applauded ‘Pussy Riot’ also applauded ‘Leviathan’. But aside from my negative attitude toward the film, which is connected with its obvious tendentiousness and hyperbole, no one, including your obedient servant, had any thought of making statements calling for the banning of that film.
I have repeated many times that bans are absolutely a dead-end and an erroneous path. Incidentally, the obligatory slander concerning this subject is becoming habitual.
Not long ago I was informed of the rumor that the premier of the show “Nureyev” by Kirill Serebrennikov was shut down either by me or with my participation. The author of this rumor was Alexei Venedictov. Where did he get it? My reply to him was very stern.
—But you answered him rather vaguely.
—I told him that he is lying. Is that vague?
—Venedictov wrote on his telegram channel that there were representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church at the show wearing civilian clothing. They didn’t like the show; they called you, and you called the Minister of Culture Medinsky.
—Lies. Morbid imagination.
—Then why are rumors flying around Moscow that you didn’t like Serebrennikov’s film, “Uchenik” (“The Student”)?
—I can’t say. I didn’t see the film. But I would like to watch it since the theme interests me. But why rumors are going around Moscow and St. Petersburg—this is happening only because rumors and gossip are the inspiration and delight of a significant portion of our progressive “creative” society.
—They love rumors. There was one well-known polemicist, Ivan Lukianovich Solonevich. He said, “Russia was destroyed by rumors and gossip,” meaning the February 1917 revolution.2 A rumor was generated that a telegraph line had been set up between Tsarskoe Selo and the German General Staff, and that Empress Alexandra Feodorovna was personally informing the enemy of all military secrets.
There was a rumor that because no rye flour was sent to Petrograd for several days that a famine would begin any day, although Petrograd had the most food of all the capitals of European countries fighting in World War I. That, by the way, is why some historians call the February revolution the “revolution of the sated”.
Now we know that there was plenty of bread available on the eve of the February revolution. 197 million poods (over 3.5 million tons.—Trans.) of grain were left until the next harvest; this would have been enough for the country, and the front, and to provide to the allies.
There were temporary interruptions due to deep snow and sabotage by high-ranking revolutionary conspirators working in the railway system. All of this ultimately led to controlled chaos, revolution, and everything else that followed.
Gossip, and more gossip.
Don’t think that I am intimating that the activities of today’s “creative class” and handshaking slanderers and gossipers will lead to revolution. That’s hogwash—they are too trivial and primitive when held up against the Guchkovs, Miliukovs, and Rodziankos.
But let’s leave that alone. I did not see the film by Kirill Serebrennikov that you are talking about, and have never watched anything he has produced.
—But you know who that producer is?
—Of course I do.
—How do you know if you have never watched anything by him?
—This surprises you? He’s a well-known figure. I read the news.
—“The Student” is a harshly anti-clergy film.
—I know that much, I know of its plot. Only from what I’ve heard, it is not anti-clergy but more a film that exposes aggressive fanaticism and super-correctness—phariseeism.
—But you’ve never seen it? And you haven’t shown it to Putin?
—You wish to make a joke?
—I am telling you what they say.
—You never know what they’ll say.
—Then explain why?
—Because, I repeat, there are plenty of liars and gossipers in the world.
—Is it just to make trouble for you?
—I think that for the most part, it’s in order to create the illusion that they are well informed and important.
(The interviewer asks about articles and films being produced against the interviewee, and who is paying for them.)
—As far as I know, the “Dozhd” TV channel is making a film about you because you play such a large role in politics.
—Are you being ironical?
—It is written everywhere that you are Putin’s confessor. And you never deny it.
—“Dozhd” ordered a film. There will soon be a great flood of similar films and articles about the Russian Orthodox Church. We know about this. We view this calmly.
—Why do you say, “ordered”?
—There are people who think that its [the Church’s] influence should be weakened to a minimum.
—Influence on the government?
—First of all on the people.
—In Russia the government controls everything.
—Here you and I diverge somewhat. In my humble opinion, God controls both Russia and the world.
—But nowadays all the people in our government are believers.
—All of them? Of course not all of them.
—Dozhd only has 70,000 subscribers. So it’s not a big influence.
—“Iskra” (The Spark) newspaper had an even smaller circulation in its time. But it successfully helped to start a fire [of revolution.—Trans.]. So all is not lost for the folks at “Dozhd”.
—That’s a conspiracy theory. People have a purely journalistic interest in you. I for instance have one question. When you were young, when you studied at the cinema institute, you read The Gulag Archipelago in samizdat. Why then do you trust the KGB and the FSB?
—In what way is this trust expressed? Especially explain about the KGB.
—For me the two are one and the same. After all, you don’t deny that you are Putin’s confessor?
—I have already repeatedly said that for answers to questions about Christianity, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has the possibility to consult with no small number of competent people, from His Holiness the Patriarch to ordinary priests and laity. Among such clergy is also your obedient servant—this is true.
The president regularly visits Valaam Monastery, and talks with well-known spiritual fathers on Mt. Athos. Incidentally, when you say “confessor” you of course mean some evil-doer who is capable of having a special influence on the president.
It’s your right to fantasize as much as you like on this subject or to create any number of enthralling fairy tales, but the fact is that no such person exists in nature—if only because the president, as most everyone knows, does not tolerate any direct or even oblique attempts to influence him.
It is simply laughable to suggest such a thing. Any analyst who has objectively studied the president’s movements over the span of his public life in politics can grasp this fact. The rest is for people who like conspiracy theories. Incidentally, I have had to repeat this ad nauseum.
—But you do know the president?
—Well, who doesn’t know him here? Oh, all right—I do have the pleasure of being somewhat personally acquainted with him.
—Well, you are being evasive.
—Why? Forgive me, but if I say that I somewhat know him it only means that I really do know Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin a little. Whoever can say that he knows our president fully, let him cast the first stone at me.
—Who wrote first that you are the president’s confessor? Wasn’t it you yourself?
—Of course not. I know that journalist. I won’t name him right now. I respect him, although then, sixteen years ago, when he first wrote something like that in his article, I was terribly disappointed in him.
—Do you get any benefit from being called the president’s confessor by the media?
—I don’t pay any attention to it.
[The interviewer says that all the high-ranking officials came out to meet him when he was in Ekaterinburg, at which Bishop Tikhon answers that he came to that city to open an exhibit as the head of the Patriarchal Council for Culture and as a member of the presidium for the Presidential council on culture and art. He was met at the airport by other bishops and members of the local government administration. He discussed with them the opening of a historical park. In this case the governor himself came, but in other cases the governor sends his representative.]
—Does it bother you that the Russian government persecutes those who think differently?
—In this matter there is a fundamental difference between soviet times and our times. During soviet times, we knew specific people who were repressed for thinking differently according to the political codex. In the first half of the twentieth century these were, say, the new martyrs, whom we all know.
Later, already within our own memory, everyone in our country knew people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Zoya Krakhmalnikova, and Alexander Ogorodnikov (a famous Orthodox dissident and organizer of the Christian seminar; he spent ten years in prison.—Auth.), while in the churches they prayed for Victor Burdiuga (sentenced in 1982 to three years in prison camp for possessing and distributing anti-Soviet literature.—Auth.), and Nicholai Blokhin (sentenced in 1982 to three years in prison camp for possessing anti-Soviet literature.—Auth.).
I know the last three personally. But today I simply don’t know the names of those people who are incarcerated in camps and prisons for their convictions.
—You probably don’t have the opportunity to follow this, but such cases are being falsified everywhere, and we have just the same political prisoners as we did then. There are fewer, but they exist. The Church should defend those who have been innocently condemned.
—Do you want us to head a dissident movement?
—That would be too much. I understand that you were in favor of the reunification of the Crimea.
—And the war in the Donbass?
—Have you heard of the Ukrainian film producer Oleg Sentsov, who was sentenced to twenty years because he supposedly wanted to blow up the Lenin statue in Simferopol? He was defended by producer Alexander Sokurov. You should know that the government today, albeit not on the same scale, basically does the same things it did before.
—I saw it in the news.
—Another question: Which is closer to you—Metropolitan Philip (Kolychev) (who was murdered at the orders of Tsar Ivan the Terrible for his criticism.—Trans.) or Metropolitan Sergius (Starogorodksy) (who was famous for signing the compromising declaration with the soviet regime.—Trans.)?
—Metropolitan Philip was a great saint and a man of remarkable courage. He rebuked the Tsar for evil-doing that was absolutely obvious to all. But he did not have the choice before him that tormented Metropolitan Sergius.
Metropolitan Philip knew that he would rebuke Ivan the Terrible and then die, but Orthodoxy and the Church would go on. Metropolitan Sergius, however, had a different choice to make: the first option was to save the Orthodox Church in the legal space of Soviet Russia.
But this would mean consenting to the most serious compromises, in order to prevent the renovationists, who followed upon the Bolsheviks, from taking over Russia.
The renovationists’ activities, which were supported and encouraged by the theomachic government, were leading to the replacement of Orthodoxy with the pseudo-Christianity that the renovationists preached. Similar situations are known in the history of the Universal Church. As time goes on, as we know from that same history, a return to Orthodoxy, to true Christianity among nations who have gone through similar calamities becomes impossible.
Metropolitan Sergius knew this very well, and by preserving the Church, waited it out until the crumbs of the Church institutions that were left after those repressions could be brought back together and restored.
The second choice offered to Metropolitan Sergius was to give up on the Church’s legal existence, heroically perish along with his brothers, and remain irrefutably a hero for eternity. But this would have opened the door to unhindered strengthening in the country of this false Christianity—renovationism in its various forms—with no alternative. There would have been a huge probability that the Local Russian Orthodox Church would have been totally and forever destroyed in its hierarchy. There are such examples in history.
“Let my name perish in history, as long as the Church be benefitted”—these words belonged to holy Patriarch Tikhon. Metropolitan Sergius could definitely have repeated them. He himself said, “The easiest thing for me now would be execution.”
Of course we cannot say now whether the Local Russian Church would have been saved had it taken a different course. Maybe, despite the renovationists’ totalitarian pressure and political power, the government’s all-out support of them and its all-engulfing repression machine, Orthodoxy could have been reborn in the 1990s from what would have remained of it underground. But this is only conjecture.
Those people lived in those times and in those realities.
They were responsible for the Church before God, and they will answer for their decisions and acts at the Last Judgment. I repeat: It is not for us to judge!
Click here for the full interview:
spoke with Bishop Tikhon (Shevkunov) of Egorievsk
Translation by Nun Cornelia (Rees)