On November 23, 2016, the European Parliament adopted a resolution against anti-EU propaganda propagated by Russia and terrorist groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda. The document states that Russia is using religious communities and pretending to be a defender of Christian values for its own subversive goals. The declaration provoked outrage in Moscow and subsequently pro-Russian media spread the news that “the EU is attacking Orthodoxy”. For years, experts were aware that the Kremlin was using the Russian Orthodox Church and its satellite churches for propaganda and intelligence purposes. The so-called. “Orthodox fundamentalism” was also called upon, as professed by small extreme groups, preaching aggressive religious exclusivism towards other Christian communities and denying basic principles of a democratic society and the rule of law. Things came to light as, over the past two years, the French authorities revealed that the Russian cultural and religious center in Paris, behind its “mystic” cover was actually involved in espionage. The problem is that after the changes in 1990 the Catholic Church, Protestant churches and local authorities in Europe have provided a huge number of temples to the ROC and have helped to organize the Russian parishes for new immigrants. The popular Western belief in the 90s that after its suppression under communism, the now free ROC would open up to its Western counterparts, proved naive and gave the Kremlin a huge intelligence network that reaches into the deepest layers of society – the family. What Soviet comrades couldn’t get to, i.e., the moral integrity of Christians in the West and East, which undermined the Soviet system worldwide, is today being exploited shrewdly by the Kremlin. To grasp the root of this current problem with the Russian abuse of Orthodoxy, we must go back at least a century.
The crisis of Orthodoxy in the 20th century
In the 19th century the Orthodox Church gradually entered a crisis phase, simultaneous to the decline of the Ottoman and Russian empires, and the creation of new nation states. This crisis led to special “autocephalism” (i.e., religious self-governance and independence), being adopted as a guiding principle of the new ecclesiastical and national communities, distancing itself from the historic path of Orthodoxy as centered around Constantinople and possessing a universalistic character. Highlighting autocephaly (i.e. self-governance), as opposed to the principle of conciliarity, results in the development of a sense of self-sufficiency and provincialism. This tendency in the Orthodox local Churches is inextricably linked with the establishment of national communities and the absolutizing of their selfish interests for expansion throughout the Balkans, despite the colorful ethnic character of the Ottoman Empire. This led to wars without positive effect for any of the “Christian nations” in Southeast Europe.
The resultant feeling of failure nourished the desire to move in the opposite direction. Initiatives for unity in the Orthodox Church began around the First World War. The revolution in Russia in 1917 and the minimization of the ROC under the Soviet regime also led to shifts in the relations between the churches. But the roots of the crisis go even further back in time. After the 1, Russia acquired the status of “guardian” of Christians in the Ottoman Empire. The ambition for territorial access to warm seas became a permanent Russian conquest policy, disguised with the propaganda myth of “the heir of Byzantium” or “Third Rome”. On the other hand, the arrival of Enlightenment ideas in the Balkans was accompanied by the formation of the modern Balkan nations and in this context, the Church was instrumentalized for the purpose of the so-called Nation-building. Thus, the Church came to be a cause for exclusion based on ethnic principle, instead of remaining a communication channel, parallel to the state, like the Catholic Church. This led to a crisis in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople encompassing in itself several ethnic groups and whose throne had been occupied not only by Greeks but also by Bulgarians, Serbs and Vlachs, began to lose its influence. In fact, even during the Russian expansion under the Empress Catherine the Great, the Constantinopolitan Church had lost to the ROC influence over vast territories in Central Europe and Ukraine. With the outburst of nationalism in the Balkans it also lost Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania (consistently, by schisms, with only the Serbs avoiding such a scandal – respectively in 1833, 1879, 1870 and 1885).
During the First World War, the idea gradually emerged that things could not continue in this way. The ongoing efforts at unity of the Ecumenical Patriarchs since the 19th c. were already perceived as entirely reasonable by everybody. That is – to normalize Church practice as it used to function centuries earlier, now impaired by new national realities, but in accordance with the new bodies of nation states in the region. The fact that while the Orthodox Church was torn because of nationalist extremes in the mid-19th c., the Catholic Church convened the First Vatican Council and curtailed any moves in the direction of independence, is quite significant.
However, until 1961, nothing of actual consequence was done in the way of calling an Pan-Orthodox Council, because the first honor Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, whose Primate was supposed to convene it, had been in severe crisis since the Greco-Turkish war of 1922-1923. The situation worsened with the pogroms of Christians in 1953 during the celebration of the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed II. Such events were repeated in 1974 during the Cyprus crisis and led to a significant reduction in the Christian orthodox population in Istanbul. Despite the tensions in 1964 in Jerusalem, at a meeting between the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI, the anatemisms between the two churches from 1054 were finally removed. This happened during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) reaching out to Orthodox Christians.
The role of Russia / USSR
The crisis of Orthodoxy in the 19th c. Balkans was to a large extent caused by Russia’s attempts to dominate and take over the role as the center of Orthodoxy. This was problematic in that it did not have a Patriarch as the institution was abolished by Tsar Peter I, with the goal to keep a close eye on the Church. The apparent weakness of the Ecumenical Patriarchate under Ottoman rule, its constant debt to the Sublime Porte due to the specific tax system, the overload of tax and legal functions, alienated Ottoman Christians from their Church in the era of the so-called. “Ottoman enlightenment” and despite the reliefs for Christians in the 19th c., Russian diplomacy was aware that it was the strong factor in the region and could easily achieve dominance over Christian communities and gain access to the Straits and the South Seas. Until the early 20th century, Russia was the obvious winner in the Ottoman Empire and Moscow started to think seriously about the return of the institute of the Patriarchate as a sign of taking over Orthodoxy. Even the last Russian Tsar was personally considering a proposal that he be elected Patriarch after his eventual abdication. However, after the Bolshevik uprising in 1917, the ROC practically disappeared. Only three bishops survived and only 350 out of 50,000 parishes were still functioning by 1930. All monasteries and religious schools were closed and the missionary work of the ROC was banned. However, during World War ΙΙ Stalin became aware of the possibility of using the ROC for geopolitical purposes and after the war the construction of the “Orthodox Vatican” in Moscow began. A Pan-Orthodox Council in Moscow was organized, the idea for it taking place in 1948 or 1949. The naïve Ecumenical Patriarch Maxim V, a known Slavophile, almost agreed to attend, thereby obliging by his decision all Greek and Arab language Churches. The idea of the Soviet party-religious ideologists was for the Soviet Union to dominate outside the newly formed “Soviet camp” through the Orthodox Church, initially targeting immigration as the natural first-line foreign opposition to the USSR.
In the autumn of 1948, the Archbishop of America Athenagoras (Kokkinakis) was elected as the new Ecumenical Patriarch. His parents came from Ioannina and Bitola. He spoke freely Greek, Bulgarian and Vlach as family languages and also Turkish, English and French. His family left Ioannina before the Balkan wars and he was not familiar with the tense Balkan relations and paroxysms. During his tenure in the United States he managed to unite the divided Greek communities of Republicans and Monarchists. He first managed to attract entire Bulgarian parishes to his diocese and subdue the tension after the schism between the Bulgarian Exarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of 1872.
Athenagoras was known for his close ties with US President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, as well as to Harry Truman, with whom he often conversed on biblical themes. Upon the idea of Harry Truman a Plan for Orthodox-Roman Catholic resistance to Soviet communism and its global aspirations was initiated. Based on the regional structures of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, anti-Soviet activities were organized, which managed to block a number of initiatives by the ROC among immigrants. The Middle East proved to be a weak point, allowing a strong presence of the USSR because of the Israeli-Arab conflict, with the Patriarchate of Antioch coming under very strong Soviet influence. However, with the help of Western countries, especially the US and Britain, the deployment of agents and suppression of clerics from other independent Churches outside the Soviet camp by church emissaries of the KGB, was not allowed.
For example, British diplomacy supported the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, preventing a number of attempted possessions of property from the Russian side. Patriarch Athenagoras triumphed in 1951-1952, after having successfully stopped the attempted establishment of an Orthodox Vatican in Moscow, where the heads of Orthodox Churches would have been appointed.
Nevertheless, to mimic international support, the ROC had to surround itself with local Churches to implement joint international initiatives. A “Pan-Orthodox” meeting in the Kremlin was organized in 1953, aiming to proclaim Moscow the center of Orthodoxy. In this respect, the ROC attempted to elevate the Czech and Slovak, as well as Polish Churches to the rank of Archbishopric. The Bulgarian Church was also uncanonically elevated to the rank of Patriarchate in 1953, although Bulgarian bishops were against it because they knew that this was a non-canonical and purely political act that would bring them nothing but conflict with the Ecumenical Patriarchate as well as dependence upon Moscow. Romanian Church had had a Patriarchate since 1925, but for the “colleagues” in the ROC the Romanians proved unexpectedly difficult to “persuade”. The Georgian church was also uncanonically declared a Patriarchate – it stands today in a straddled position of loyalty to Moscow because of dependencies of its bishops due to their affiliations as secret agents. As it was unable to develop agents in the US, the ROC created a plan for the establishment of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA), in place of its parishes in the US, Mexico and Canada. The aim was to eliminate the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) and to obstruct the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the USA where the latter had around 80% of Orthodox parishes. Both churches were actively involved in the causes of their oppressed brothers in the USSR and the occupied countries and were defending their religious rights.
Although OCA is recognized by the ROC and its satellite churches with a request that it will be the “Church of America”, i.e. it will eliminate all other dioceses (church jurisdictions), its influence remains marginal. However, in recent years it has been successful in trying to absorb all Bulgarian parishes in the US, in a plan apparently coming from the Kremlin, while in Europe, the vicar of the Russian Patriarch Kirill and a man close to Putin – Tikhon (Shevkunov) was carrying out in parallel the ordaining of priests in Western neighborhoods with Bulgarian communities. They purposefully encouraged to melt the Bulgarians and to declare them as belonging to the ROC. There were two notorious cases in Switzerland and Majorca last year.
Nevertheless, the whole “spy war” of the USSR in the 50s and 60s against Orthodox Churches in the free world failed to bring the much-desired impact. On the contrary – it provided greater moral and political support to the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras to represent the Orthodox on a global scale, before the most authoritative international organizations and in dialogue with other Christian churches. This line was continued by the next Patriarchs Dimitrios and Bartholomew. The latter made a big step in 1993 with the recognition of the Estonian Orthodox Church as autocephalous, to remove it from the influence of Moscow. Despite the discussions in 2008 with President Yuschenko for the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) as autocephalous, probably due to pressure from the Turkish government on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, it did not happen. Also, the problem with the recognition of the Ukrainian autocephalous status is associated with the indecisiveness of Kiev to reform the legal framework disavowing the rights of the Russian Church to be based in its territory. Moscow today is afraid that UOC will be recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate due to the historical fact of the latter’s baptism of Ukrainians in the Middle centuries and that these territories fell under its jurisdiction until the end of 18th c., and even in some areas up to 19th c. An emblematic example is the Crimea. Therefore, Russian Patriarch Kirill has threatened Bartholomew’s life a number of times when among his close affiliates.
Meanwhile, the ROC is conducting ecumenical activities through the World Council of Churches (WCC), after it was accepted along with the other “fraternal socialist churches” in 1964, planting Soviet spies in high places in different organizations for peace and inter-religious and inter-Christian dialogue. A prominent example is the Bulgarian church historian Todor Subev, installed by the KGB as Deputy General Secretary of WCC. This is the highest position reached by the KGB in international organizations of the western world, that is if it is proved that Ms. Bokova is not a Russian spy. And today, despite the radical language promoted by the ROC to other Christians, Moscow’s religious leaders are always “smiling” when in the West. This raises the question to what extent bishops of the “people’s churches” are legitimate bishops since they have been elected in collaboration with atheistic regimes, often with the purpose of spying. A number of canonical rules of the Orthodox Church pronounce them to be “false bishops” and question their canonical status. Unfortunately, after the changes, the other Orthodox churches, led by the universal enthusiasm for unification, closed their eyes to this problem of “socialist churches.”
In the 1960s for that reason Mount Athos monks pressed the Ecumenical Patriarchate not to convene a Pan-Orthodox Council. Bishops with epaulets are not bishops. In that era, this monastic community became important as Mount Athos was becoming a center of pilgrimage as erstwhile traditional pilgrimage destinations in the Holy Land were becoming dangerous because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Accordingly, the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself decided to redirect much of the flow of pilgrims from the Holy Land to the Holy Mount Athos in order to avoid conflicts and kidnappings. Unfortunately, today, after Moscow propaganda has worked in Mount Athos for two decades, this monastic community is now pro-Russian in its majority. One should not underestimate either the flow of money that is being poured there by Russian sponsors. In May 2016, a visit by Vladimir Putin and the Russian Patriarch Kirill to Mount Athos, led to scenes of servility on the part of the official leadership of the monastic republic, although it is subject to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The same can be observed in Greece itself, where the real Russian investments other than real estate, do not constitute a major part of the economy, yet focus exclusively on the media business. They have showered the local population with myths of “Orthodox unity” , anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism. Surprisingly, this mythology was gradually adopted by broad masses in Greek society since the late 1990s. In this regard, there have been indicative attempts to denigrate the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Greece over the past two decades. So, one of the important centers of the pro-Western Orthodox community was successfully eliminated with pure propaganda tools and the use of historical problems with Turkey and the Cyprus crisis of 1974.
As for the other Balkan Orthodox churches, the Serbian church, while protecting its own interests, is standing close to the Russian due to the enormous levels of russophilia in Serbian society, especially after the Yugoslav wars. The same can be said for FYROM, which over the last decade on a government level began to push anti-European and pro-Russian policy. Romanian and Albanian churches, however, kept a considerable distance from the ROC, having a clear vision for European Development and an educated clergy. In Central Europe, the Czech and Slovak Church is also under the direct leadership of Moscow. It was rocked by scandal in 2013, when its Primate Christopher was removed with the active efforts by the Russian authorities and replaced with Rostislav who was placed there to receive money amounting to 200 mln. Euros restituted by the Czech government. Meanwhile, Christopher proved his innocence in court, but was forced by Russian diplomats to withdraw. However, Polish, Finnish and Estonian churches were able to emancipate successfully from the ROC over the last three decades.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) to this day remains the closest satellite of the ROC. Since the beginning of the changes, at the last meeting between people from the leadership of the Bulgarian State Security and KGB, it was agreed to continue cooperation in the sphere of religion and culture. Since then almost all ordained bishops graduated from schools in Moscow. All of them show clear signs of dependence. In recent years, they specialize at the Foreign Policy Institute of Moscow University, led directly by Hilarion (Alfeyev) and go through the whole check and recruit procedure by Russian intelligence. In turn, the Bulgarian state not only does not hinder this process, but helps it. There was a scandal with the case of the Russian Intelligence influence in the Bulgarian Synod by its resident Filip (Vasiltsev) whose extradition by SANS had no sustained benefit. Also questionable is the role of the Directorate of Religious Affairs of the Council of Ministers, which does not prevent Russian actions in the country, on the contrary.
In the 19th century Ottoman and Russian diplomacy managed to fragment Balkan Orthodoxy into “national churches”, unable to maintain a certain level of alternative diplomacy based on religious empathy. Hence they became easy victims of manipulation and their orientation is towards Moscow. Such a notorious example is the putsch against Stambolov (1887) – The Synod of the Bulgarian Exarchate stood on the Russian side. Similar examples can be observed in other local Orthodox Churches, whose loyalty to Moscow turns out to be stronger than to their states. Otherwise, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union failed to take over Orthodoxy as it met with serious opposition from Russian and other immigrant communities, as well as from Greek-speaking churches located in the free world. However, today the Kremlin has managed to plant propaganda in Greek society and eliminate the old Russian immigrant communities in Europe, by replacing church trustees across Europe with people loyal to the Kremlin and becoming the “tutor” of Mount Athos monks, Serbian national Orthodox moods and groups of Orthodox fundamentalists worldwide. Although several Orthodox churches have remained independent from Moscow, Russian dominance in EU Orthodox communities is much more powerful than during the Cold War. As if the Kremlin has taken a lesson from its failures of the 20th century.