The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church wants to transform its headquarters at Sergiyev Posad into “an Orthodox counterpart” to the Vatican, Jerusalem and Mecca. Such a program could cost the country as much as 140 billion rubles ($2.3 billion), increase centralized control over the Church and, supposedly, protect its hierarchs from criminal prosecution (Rex, July 7). But the idea, which has been floated before over the last 20 years (Versia.ru, July 8), is now being attacked for its costs as well as its very pretensions. Around 90 percent of the money for such an undertaking would be borne by the state and thus the taxpayers of Russia, many of whom are not even Orthodox. And moreover, the idea of an “Orthodox Vatican” in Moscow is undermined by the Russian Patriarchate’s continuing loss of influence at home as well as abroad.
Backers of this notion maintain that the Kremlin is solidly behind the Patriarchate’s project even though it would cost the state budget three times as much as Moscow currently spends on urban development for Russia as a whole—money the government does not have. And they are defending it as “a national project” rather than just support for the Russian Orthodox Church (Znak.com, June 27).
But criticism of the idea is mounting and may cause the Church and its supporters in the Kremlin even more problems than anyone had suspected. In a recent article for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for example, Moscow-based financial analyst Aleksandr Razduyev writes that the costs are simply too high. And this money, once spent, would not bring much in terms of returns given the Patriarchate’s losses abroad and its increasingly negative image among Russians themselves (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 27).
Aleksandr Khaldey, a Russian nationalist commentator, agrees and expands on these points. He argues that “Russia is not experiencing growth in the economic or spiritual spheres that might allow its Orthodox Church to aspire to the position of a world leader. On the contrary, [the Church’s] loss of Ukraine and the growing danger of the loss of Belarus as well do not give any basis to consider the Orthodox World to be on the rise, [or that] the spiritual authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church [could be considered] symbols and leaders of this rise” (Rex, July 7). This past January, the Universal Patriarch in Constantinople accorded a tomos of autocephaly (independence) to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which had heretofore been beholden to Moscow. And some in Belarus are now considering following suit (see EDM, September 13, 2018; October 24, 2018; January 16, 2019).
“The split of Orthodoxy continues,” Khaldey adds. Moreover, “within Orthodoxy […] the closeness of the secular powers and the Church authorities is angering the population and making both one and the other extremely unpopular. To speak in this situation about universal plans for preparing to transform [Moscow] into some kind of center of world Orthodoxy is a utopia. There are no such people in the Kremlin or in Sergiyev Posad,” he insists, “simply because they would long ago have lost power by being so obviously inadequate” (Rex, July 7).
But despite all this widespread criticism, there are three reasons why this project is likely to go forward, albeit perhaps in a less dramatic way than Patriarch Kirill and his Church might hope for. Those reasons lie in the nature of Orthodoxy, the nature of the Russian Orthodox Church itself (especially after its losses in Ukraine), and the calculations of the Kremlin.
First unlike Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity has never had a single head. Instead, it consists of more than a dozen autocephalous churches—many of which are ancient but tiny, often with as many hierarchs as faithful, alongside a few large national churches, the largest being the Russian and the Ukrainian. To be sure, there is an ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople; but despite his pretensions to a higher role, as on display during Ukraine’s pursuit of autocephaly, he remains primus inter pares and lacks the power and authority of the pope in Rome. Some of the smaller historical patriarchates undoubtedly want to maintain that status quo and even view Moscow as a useful ally against Constantinople. Moscow has exploited and even promoted such attitudes in the past (Credo Press, September 9, 2018). Building an even more impressive center on the outskirts of Moscow will not give the Russian Patriarchate the status of a Vatican, but it will help it maintain the image of a necessary counterweight to the ecumenical patriarch.
Second, the Moscow Patriarchate needs this construction project not only to boost its income and wealth—always important to Kirill (Ahilla, May 27, 2019)—and impress the smaller Orthodox Churches, but also to obfuscate its rapidly diminishing status as the largest Orthodox Church in the world. In the wake of Kyiv’s autocephaly, churches in Ukraine that had been subordinate to Moscow are shifting to the Ukrainian jurisdiction at an ever increasing rate (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, March 30; Ahilla, February 21, March 30). If that trend continues—and polls strongly suggest it will (TSN, May 22)—the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will soon outnumber the Russian one in terms of parishes and bishoprics; it already almost certainly outnumbers the Russian Church in terms of the number of active believers, despite the fact that the total Russian population is more than three times that of Ukraine’s. Building an impressive showplace could help Kirill distract attention from that development.
And third, the Kremlin likely will continue to support Kirill’s project, albeit not at the level the Church leader wants. President Vladimir Putin can ill afford to lose yet another lever of influence abroad. And anything that suggests a contraction of the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) to the borders of the Russian Federation is something he will certainly try to oppose (Newizv.ru, October 16, 2018). Moreover, the Kremlin leader is loath to sacrifice the Church due to its role as a legitimator of his domestic political system—however disappointed Putin may reportedly be in Kirill personally (Openmedia.io, May 30).
Consequently, despite the criticism and the cost, and despite the traditions of Orthodoxy (Russian and otherwise), the Moscow Patriarchate is likely to obtain something that looks like a Vatican. But like so many other institutions in Putin’s Russia, this “Orthodox Vatican” will be a fraud—an arrangement designed to give the impression of something rather than being the thing itself.