COVID-19: A Challenge for the Russian Symphony

By: Cyril Hovorun

August 19, 2021

Russian Orthodoxy and Nationhood in the Age of COVID-19

In my article “Is the Byzantine ‘Symphony’ Possible in Our Days?” published four years ago in the Journal of Church and State, I argued that, although the Byzantine type of symphonic relations between the church and the state constitutes a model for the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), this model is illusionary and unattainable in modern Russia. Indeed, the spell of this illusion was broken by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the top level, leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church still fully comply with the official policies and rhetoric of the Russian state. The latter was inconsistent in facing the pandemic. Initially, the state demonstratively ignored the pandemic and mocked the efforts of more responsible governments to deal with it. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not much differ from other like-minded leaders, such as Donald Trump of the United States or Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who considered alarms about the early outbreaks of the virus as proof of the assumed liberal inadequacies and conspiracies. When Putin realized that it was not precisely inadequacy and conspiracy, and when his country, together with the United States and Brazil, rocketed up to the top of the nations with the highest rates of coronavirus infection and death, his policies became more cautious and mindful of the dangers of COVID-19.

On the top level, leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church still fully comply with the official policies and rhetoric of the Russian state.

So did the policies of the Russian Orthodox Church. Initially, ROC leaders, and speakers on their behalf, hesitated to introduce restrictive measures or speak up about the risks of coronavirus—in contrast to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, for example, which immediately took drastic measures and bluntly warned about the dangers of the new disease. Only later did the Russian church’s leaders become clearer and more outspoken about COVID-19. The change in their public attitudes coincided with changes in the Kremlin’s standpoint. One can clearly see that the symphonic pattern continued working on the top level.

However, this pattern failed on the lower and grassroots levels. Many laypeople, priests, and even bishops refused to comply with the requirements of both civil and ecclesial authorities. In some Russian regions, bishops and local governors openly clashed with one another. The most publicized clash occurred in the city of Yekaterinburg on the eastern outskirts of the Ural Mountains. Local governor Yevgeny Kuyvashev wrote in his Instagram that he disapproves of the traditional religious procession dedicated to the murder of the last Russian tzar, Nicholas Romanov, and his family in 1918. His reason for disapproval was that the participants in the procession do not observe hygienic measures and may contribute to the rise of COVID-19 cases in the region. The local bishop, Metropolitan Yevgeny Kulberg, also through social media, rebuked the governor and insisted that the procession must take place regardless. This was an outright public confrontation between local civil and ecclesial authorities, unheard of in modern Russia so far.

Many laypeople, priests, and even bishops refused to comply with the requirements of both civil and ecclesial authorities. In some Russian regions, bishops and local governors openly clashed with one another.

Such acts of disobedience have different driving forces. None of them, however, are purely religious. They all have some admixture of politics, which I call “political orthodoxy” and explore in more detail in my book Political Orthodoxies: The Unorthodoxies of the Church Coerced. In the case of Yekaterinburg, for instance, many people are driven to the procession by their devotion to Tzar Nicholas Romanov as a personification of ideal Russian statehood. This is a mixture of religious and political beliefs, often with a tilt to fundamentalism.

Various conspiracy theories constitute another motif for people in Russia, especially religious groups, to ignore or reject preventive measures to contain the coronavirus. Even bishops accept and disseminate such theories. 

Various conspiracy theories constitute another motif for people in Russia, especially religious groups, to ignore or reject preventive measures to contain the coronavirus.

The most recent example happened in the Solovetsky Monastery in the White Sea region in northern Russia. It is one of the “symphonic” monasteries—visited by the Russian president and financed from the Russian state budget. This did not stop the abbot of the monastery, Bishop Porphyry Shutov, from embarking on conspiracy theories and disregarding the official policies of the Russian state. In July 2021, he stated in a sermon that the vaccines against COVID-19 modify the very human nature and make human beings susceptible to external control:

The vaccine is a genetically engineered, high-tech product. It contains cells, proteins of either RNA or DNA matrices. These agents integrate into the human genome, change it, modify it, edit it. At this point, any Christian responsible for their salvation must stop…What is a genetically modified person? Or, if you like, a person with a genetically edited genome? To what extent does the image of God remain intact in him? And who can guarantee that this intervention does not damage our image of God?… Does the person who has experienced these interventions really remain an autonomous and sovereign personality? Or has the control center of our behavior moved somewhere outside?

Soon after the recording of this sermon was published on the official website of the Solovetsky Monastery, it would be removed from the website and YouTube. Apparently, the sermon was eliminated under pressure from the Moscow Patriarchate. There were no other sanctions against the bishop—in contrast to another so-called “COVID-dissident,” priest-monk Sergiy Romanov.

Although lower in his hierarchical rank than Bishop Porphyry, Sergiy is much better known across Russia. He is one of the leaders of the Tzar Nicholas movement that brings together tens of thousands to the aforementioned processions in Yekaterinburg. He is also outspoken in his criticism of the measures against the pandemic. The sanctions of the Russian Orthodox Church against him were severe: He was defrocked and excommunicated from the church altogether. Such a rigid reaction by the church to this COVID-dissident can be explained by his blunt criticism of the church and state authorities. He even dared to insult Vladimir Putin publicly.

This case clearly demonstrates that the symphony between the church and the state still holds on the top level but is shaken to the ground on the lower levels.

This case clearly demonstrates that the symphony between the church and the state still holds on the top level but is shaken to the ground on the lower levels. An increasing number of people on the grassroots level trust neither their ecclesial nor political leaders. Some are disappointed by restrictive measures, and many by insufficient and inconsistent policies that failed to tackle the spread of coronavirus in Russia.

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