JERUSALEM POST - 31 Aug 2000
Swastikas go to Russian church
By Rusell Working
(July 20, 2000) -- Russell Working
reports from Vladivostok on the growing antisemitic tendencies of the
the Russian Orthodox Church --
It is a muggy Wednesday afternoon in Russia's largest Pacific seaport
and as people meander home, a handful of men and boys position
themselves around the central square, an asphalt plaza decorated with a
monument to the communist revolutionaries who conquered the Far East.
The group's members are wearing black - boots, jeans, shirts, and berets
- everything except the armbands, which are red and white and decorated
with a bladed swastika. A "Slavic swastika," they will tell
They begin distributing a newspaper called Our Fatherland, which leads
with a story on Russian President Vladimir Putin's newly appointed
regional representatives who oversee the region's governors. Six of the
seven are Jews, the paper states in a story headlined, "The shadow
of Putin's Yid menorah lies upon Russia."
"Here, show it to your friends," a 16-year-old member tells a
The group are recruiters from Russian National Unity (RNU), a fascist
party so extreme that even this region's strongman governor, who himself
has been known to chortle out antisemitic sneers in public, was
prevailed upon to ban its inclusion in local elections.
In an interview, RNU members urged the lynching of the nation's
political leaders and expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler (a curious
sentiment, since Hitler regarded Slavs as subhuman).
What is disturbing is not simply that antisemitism exists in Russia -
extremists can be found in any country - but that it has found fellow
travelers in parts of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In recent years, antisemitism has been nurtured under the onion domes of
many churches, critics contend. To be sure, the hierarchy condemns
attacks on Jews, even to the extent of denouncing several synagogue
bombings in Moscow last year. But critics say the church has looked the
other way, as some clergy have worked hand-in-hand with the RNU and
other hate groups.
"The Russian Orthodox Church leadership does nothing to punish
bishops, monks or priests who promote antisemitism, even though as a
strictly hierarchical organization the ROC leadership does have means at
its disposal to bring its people into line," said Nikolai Butkevich,
research and advocacy director for the Washington-based Union of
Councils for Soviet Jews.
The council has documented a long list of cases in which local churches
encouraged antisemitism. Among them:
* The newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported in 1998 that the RNU has
close ties to the Kaluga diocese in central Russia and provides guards
for local churches, security for Orthodox festivals and workers to
restore local churches.
* The church newspaper Pravoslavny Yaroslavl, in the town of Yaroslavl
northeast of Moscow, regularly prints antisemitic articles,
announcements, and advertisements from the RNU and other extremist
* Vladimir Osipov, the Orthodox head of the Union of Christian Rebirth,
co-chairs the Organizational Committee of Russian Orthodox Forces
which calls for "the unmasking of the talmudic conspiracy against
Russia‚" and "hassidic and satanic sects" that practice
"ritual murder." When a group formed in Tula Oblast, near
Moscow, deputies from the regional and federal parliaments attended,
along with the editors of the local antisemitic newspaper Zasechny
Rubezh and the national newspaper Nash Sovremennik.
* In 1998, the leadership of the Orthodox diocese in Voronezh, 600
kilometers south of Moscow, allegedly blessed the swastika banners of
the RNU during a regional conference, Butkevich reported. (Reached by
phone, a church spokesmen in Voro- nezh denied this incident
* In 1998, over 100 RNU members participated in a religious ceremony at
the Diveyevo Monastery in the Volga River region of Nizhny Novgorod with
the permission of the monastery leadership.
* The headquarters of the RNU's Volgograd branch, in central Russia, are
located in an Orthodox church.
* In the Siberian Altai region, the Orthodox newspaper Revnitel
("Zealot") regularly publishes antisemitic articles. Slurs
against Jews and Masons are common in the newspaper.
* The official Russian Orthodox Church newspaper of the Ural region's
Kemerovo diocese, Pravoslavnye Vesti, is publishing the "Protocols
of the Elders of Zion" in serialization.
CHURCH officials deny there is antisemitism within their ranks. Reached
by telephone in Moscow, Father Vladimir Divakov, head of the church's
chancellery, or administrative office, said, "This problem doesn't
exist - certainly not in Moscow," and declined to take further
Other church officials bristle at critics' characterizations of
Butkevich said that Pravoslavnaya Gazeta, the official church newspaper
in the Siberian town of Yekaterinburg, regularly publishes articles by
leading antisemites. It has included articles by the late Metropolitan
of Petersburg, Ladoga Ioann, who has expressed his belief in the
veracity of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," and Deacon
Andrei Kurayev, who has written that, "If there is one religion in
the world that is based on racism, it is Judaism."
But reached by phone, Dmitry Baibakov, diocese press secretary and
editor-in-chief of Provoslavnaya Gazeta, denied that anything the paper
has printed could be construed as antisemitic.
"I think that this problem is artificial," he said.
"There is a Jewish community in town. We don't have much
cooperation with them, but we don't have much to do with them."
Critics say the worst of it is that church officials simply do not
recognize the problem.
"This is a big problem, as antisemitism was historically
characteristic of any Christian church, but now it is disseminated in
the publicly active part of the [Orthodox] church," said Alexander
Verkhovsky, a political scientist with the Moscow-based Panorama
Political Research Center who has studied extremism and antisemitism in
Russia and is also a Jew.
"There are no statements on the official level, but individual
priests do it all the time."
THE RUSSIAN Orthodox Church has often had a dark record when it comes to
relations with Jews. In times of trouble, Jews were convenient
As radicalism swept across the Russian Empire in the decades before the
1917 Revolution, monarchist bishops attempted to stem the tide by
supporting far-Right organizations.
In 1905, the year of an aborted revolt against Czar Nicholas II,
antisemitic attacks by such groups grew in number, the British historian
Robert Service states in his book A History of Twentieth-Century Russia.
"They hated the Jews, whom they blamed for all the recent
disturbances in the empire," Service writes.
"They helped to form gangs, usually known as the Black Hundreds,
which carried out bloody pogroms against Jewish communities in the
western borderlands. By stirring up a xenophobic hysteria, they aimed to
unite the czar and the Russian people."
Yet after the Revolution, the Orthodox Church, like other religions,
suffered in the crucible of Bolshevism as Lenin launched state terror
against "class enemies."
From the earliest years of the Revolution, Bolsheviks indiscriminately
shot Orthodox bishops, clergymen and ordinary believers. Hundreds of
thousands of Orthodox Christians ended up in slave-labor camps. The KGB
infiltrated seminaries and bishoprics, and communists co-opted the
church under state control.
In emerging from this era, the church gave some early indications that
it was willing to take a more tolerant stance than it had in the past.
Patriarch Alexy II, the current head of the church, attempted to reach
out to Jews during a trip to New York in 1991, Verkhovsky said. The
result was a firestorm in Russia.
"He talked about the close ties between Christianity and Judaism,
just banal things," Verkhovsky said. "But there was a big
reaction in the Russian church. Some powerful monks stopped mentioning
his name during the liturgy.
"There were no official statements, but not mentioning the
patriarch's name was almost equivalent to a schism, or a revolt. The old
monks, who do not normally get involved in church politics, are very
powerful. So, the patriarch never risked giving such a speech
NOW, AS extremism has grown in Russia, the Orthodox Church has assumed a
leading role in society. In 1997, at the urging of the church, the State
Duma, or parliament, adopted a law restricting the practice of religion
in Russia, despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion.
On the surface, the law permits the practice of Judaism, Islam, Roman
Catholicism and other religions that can prove they have been
established in Russia for more than 15 years. In practice, there is
little guarantee of such protection, and local officials have denied
registration to some Jewish, Moslem and Protestant groups, thereby
preventing them from legally organizing and collecting funds.
This, in turn, has encouraged discrimination toward groups long regarded
as mainstream in the West, such as Mormons and Jehovah's
Witnesses. (Indeed, priests in the Primorye region, where Vladivostok is
located, launched a smear campaign in the local media against Jehovah's
Witnesses last year, claiming they encouraged a young man to kill
himself; local Witnesses said the youth was not a member of their group,
and the group has never been known for encouraging suicide.)
Even a faith as old as Islam, which has a history in Russia that extends
back for many centuries, has run into trouble. City officials in
Vladivostok seized some land that Moslems had consecrated for a mosque,
saying Russian Orthodox officials had objected to its construction
because the completed mosque was to stand on a higher hill than any
church in town. And local officials in the city of Bryansk used the law
to deny registration to a Reform synagogue for two years.
Orthodoxy has become the de-facto state religion in Russia, with priests
given free rein to recruit on military bases, participate in public
ceremonies and visit the sick in hospitals - benefits not allowed to
In the central Russian city of Vologda, the Bishop Maximilian and the
federal tax police signed a joint agreement for the "spiritual and
patriotic upbringing of citizens," the business weekly Zolotoi Rog
reported in April. Under the agreement, according to the report, priests
hearing confessions have agreed to raise a number of questions for their
parishioners' spiritual health.
"You didn't lust for the wife of your friend, did you?"
priests reportedly ask. "Did you pay taxes? You didn't hide any
profit from the state, did you?"
The closeness between church and state manifests itself in other ways,
During a visit in May to Primorye, Alexy II bestowed a medal on Governor
Yevgeny Nazdratenko, a strongman who has cultivated a cult of
personality around himself and claimed to have received a $1 million
award as World Aristocratic Governor of the year.
Nazdratenko also once welcomed the autocratic president of Belarus
during a 1998 state visit by sneering about the number of Jews in
then-president Boris Yeltsin's administration.
At the local level, Orthodox leaders in Vladivostok say they do not seek
conflict with other religions, neither is ecumenism their goal.
"The Orthodox Church in Russia has taken a position of
patriotism," said Father Innokenty, spokesman for the church.
"We put it simply: It is the cultural and state form of religion
for Russia. If this cultural and historical tradition is diluted, it
puts the state of Russia in danger."
ANTISEMITISM has emerged in church conflicts over other issues.
In Yekaterinburg, former Bishop Nikon was close to the RNU, which
guarded his home church, Butkevich said. This seemed to matter little to
the church hierarchy, and he was only dismissed last year after being
charged with embezzlement and homosexuality. And as soon as Nikon got in
trouble, he adopted an age-old strategy for clinging to power: Blame the
"Two priests who were battling him were Jews [converts to
Orthodoxy]," Verkhovsky said. "Of course, Nikon's supporters
used this as a tool. They said that Jews who had become Orthodox priests
are not authentic priests."
At his farewell service, a contingent of RNU members attended in black
uniforms emblazoned with red-and-white swastikas, Butkevich said.
In Vladivostok, RNU members in the central square initially attempted to
present a reasonable face. They claim they have nothing against Jews per
se, notwithstanding their fliers filled with antisemitic slurs. But it
takes little prodding before they rant about Jews ("their essence
is satanic"), Roman Catholics and Masons, or explain that wealthy
American Jews secretly funded Hitler's rise to power (another odd
charge, from people who admire Hitler).
Like his comrades, RNU leader Vladimir Filippov, a middle-aged man with
a chest-length beard, expressed admiration for the Orthodox Church,
though Filippov himself is a member of a centuries-old splinter sect,
the Old Believers. But he grew enraged at the talk of the current
hierarchy, which he perceives as weak toward other religions.
"[Church spokesman] Vsevolod Chaplin - also not a Slavic name -
said there was kindness in the Catholic Church, which I think is a
sacrilege and a lie," Filippov said.
For extremists such as the RNU, Russia is engaged in a holy war, and
Jews are among the enemies. The party's newspaper states, "Everyone
who realizes the danger for the existence of Russia's people and purity
of the Russian Orthodox Church and is not fighting against Judaism or
Masonism, he can't even be called a Christian. He is not even a pagan.
He is a slave of Satan, and not a worker for Jesus Christ."
Such talk is dangerous, especially in a nation with a troubled history
regarding the Jews. But critics are still waiting for the censure of a
priest, monk or bishop who vilifies the Jews.
"Nobody is ever punished for antisemitism," Verkhovsky said.
|The Russian Orthodox
was the last interview Fr Alexander gave. It took place on 5
September 1990, four days before his death. There are grim clues
in his answers to the Spanish journalist, Pilar Benet, as to the
likely reasons why he was murdered and by whom.
|What tendencies are
now apparent in the Russian Orthodox Church?
conservative tendency is fairly powerful: it is strongly
anti-Western, hostile to all reforms and idealizes the past,
taking the harshest models from the past, even I'd say mediaeval
ones. This tendency is very popular in certain circles. In
Western terms, we could call it 'right-wing', it's a profoundly
might ask why this should be so in the church. One of the
reasons is the artificial selection which went on over several
generations through the merciless suppression of all forces in
the church that were alive and ready to experiment. If a bishop
displayed any spirit of freedom or independence of thought, or
propensity to experiment, he was immediately despatched to the
provinces or forcibly retired.
|In other words,
what happened in the church was a reflection of what was
happening in society in general.
and that's why the most conservative and right-wing elements
have been preserved, have survived, and multiplied. They found
favour with the functionaries and with the KGB. It is no secret
that the authorities liked the church which looked like an
ancient relic from the past, a museum.
the 1960s, there were some independently-minded and
forward-thinking individuals among the
clergy. They were pushed aside. The bishops were conservative.
Today, there are more open-minded people among the bishops, but
among the rank and file clergy, there are more conservatives.
But even so, the tendency towards protectionism, i.e.
conservatism, is prevalent everywhere. Besides, the liberals are
a bit afraid of it.
|Would you say then
that in a sense the liberals are living underground?
The general trend nowadays is a reaction against the destruction
of national values. Since the Communists can't get things done,
then let's have a monarchy, an idealized monarchy; since the
Party's failed, then let's restore the church just as it was
before the revolution. Though we forget that it is precisely
because the pre-revolutionary church was the way it was, that
the catastrophe happened. But nobody is interested in this any
more. It's all nostalgia for the past.
|To what extent
would you say that this is dangerous?
causes a great deal of disappointment to people who are weary of
the ideological yoke. They looked for open positions among
Christians, but instead they've found a new version of the
|Are you not
disturbed by the fact that today the Russian Orthodox Church is
proving itself to be wholly incapable of renewal? In this
respect, the church could really only be compared with the
Communist Party, don't you think?
course, the only difference is that God helps the church but not
|What is your
opinion of the so-called Karlovci Church?
church is even more conservative than the Russian Orthodox
Church and it is a monarchist church, which is what people find
attractive. That is all I have to say. In general, religious
awakening is a natural thing. Our society is, on the whole,
potentially quite religious. When it was deprived of its faith,
it transferred its religiosity to the political sphere. Now,
disappointment with the old gods has set in and there is a
return to tradition.
is understandable that Communism did not like anything national
because it wanted a levelled down society. It wanted citizens,
not nations. The communists acted just like the rulers of
ancient Assyria. When they conquered a country, they deported
the peoples they had defeated and settled people from other
subjugated areas in their place.
was this done? So that people lost their national identity. So
that there was no centre of resistance and all people became
mere subjects of the king. Nationalism is a completely
understandable reaction, it's to be expected, it's self-defence
to keep some form of cultural identity. Nationalism is not a
completely normal state of affairs, it's reactionary, but still
the reaction is legitimate.
|Do you think this
is a temporary phenomenon or ... ?
The fact is that people will tire of it. People cannot spend all
their time engaged in a form of cultural narcissism, they'll get
fed up. At the end of the day, even the most committed patriots
will tire of it.
|So is Russia
currently living through a phase of narcissism?
I'd say it's just beginning. But it's harmful and dangerous
because it makes society idealize itself. This is very
characteristic also of our clerical circles. They think they're
wonderful. When we believers celebrated the millennium of
Christianity , there was not a single word of repentance,
not a single word about the tragedy of the Russian Church, only
triumphalism and self-congratulation.
understand that every culture, every nation, must to a certain
degree love its own identity, but now this has got to the point
where we love ourselves and no one and nothing else. Even the
Catholics in our country have become nationalists. Take the
Greek Catholics in Ukraine. You might think they belong to the
one universal international church, but they are behaving like a
group of nationalists. The Lithuanian Catholics are also
process of returning to national traditions has started after
long years when these were suppressed. We should respect this
process. I do respect it and I understand the fact that art in
its actual forms has to be national. But, at the same time, it
is imperative to avoid the dangers of a shift to the right. You
see, the open model is acceptable to those who are sure of their
own ground. Those who stand on shaky ground prefer a closed
model because it is easier for them.
fifteen years ago, a young man at my church started making
occasional visits to the Baptist Church. I told him, you are
Orthodox, of course you can go there because the church is
everywhere, Christ is everywhere, the gospel is everywhere. Do
both: go to the Baptist Church and don't forget your own
spiritual roots. And when I explained the open model to him, he
said, Oh dear, how uncomfortable! He ended up by becoming a
person could only be either a Baptist who did not recognize
Orthodoxy, or an Orthodox who cursed the Baptists. He wanted to
have a little hole to hide himself away in. Apparently Peter the
Great also suffered from a psychological disorder - the fear of
open spaces. He built himself tiny little rooms and so on. There
is an illness like that - the fear of open spaces. In the
history of religion, there is also this fear of open spaces.
|Now more and more
Orthodox are turning to the Karlovci Church. Is this some sort
of shift to the right?
|What about people
looking for something more to the left? Where can they go?
They can stay within the Moscow patriarchate. Some people are
trying to go off to the Catholics. Two or three people from my
parish have done that.
|Have you ever
considered this course of action yourself?
because I believe that the church is one, so it wouldn't make
any sense to me.
|How would you
describe Pope John Paul II?
of my parishioners knew him when he was still a bishop. Everyone
liked him. The fact that he is a little strict is perhaps not a
bad thing as a counterbalance to the general disintegration. He
is criticized for his attitude towards family life, for example,
for his views on abortion, but abortion is murder after all, all
the more so now when contraception is available.
|So, you think
contraception is normal?
is not my own opinion. I have consulted with our bishops and
they are of the opinion that a person has a right to practise
birth control. Otherwise, they may bring more children into the
world than they can support, in which case they will become
animals rather than human beings.
|Is the conservative
tendency in the church reflected in military and political
our nazis support this tendency and there are many of them.
Take 'Pamyat'; it is full of nazis and fascists and their
numbers are mushrooming. Why is there anti-ecumenism? Because
ecumenism demands that you respect another person's model of
Christianity. Instead of this, we have hatred. The word
'catholic' has almost become a term of abuse now, like in the times
of Taras Bulba.
|Have you witnessed
any particular disturbing symptoms recently?
if you don't call the growth of Russian fascism disturbing, what
else is! Of course I have! And very many church people are very
actively supporting it.
has been a joining up of Russian fascism with Russian
clericalism and nostalgia among church people. It's of course
shameful to us believers because society was expecting to find
in us some kind of support and instead support goes to the
fascists. Of course not everyone shares these attitudes - it's
only a tiny percentage. I can't say what that percentage is
because I haven't studied the figures. But wherever you go,
whoever you meet, this one's a monarchist, this one's an
anti-Semite, that one's anti-ecumenist and so on. And people
keep putting labels on, even those people who never used to be
like this. Do you understand? It's typical, a feature of our
times, the era of reaction. When Gorbachev opened the
floodgates, reaction as well as democracy poured in. But
reaction is always more aggressive.
|What is your
opinion of Patriarch Alexi?
he's an intelligent man. For example, when he was still
metropolitan he was the first publicly to condemn Soviet
neo-fascism and anti-Semitism. He was the first and, as far as I
know, the only one to do so.
|Recently, I visited
[the town of] Tyumen' and there I met a priest. I had a
conversation with him and he seemed a perfectly ordinary,
pleasant person until suddenly he said, 'Well, of course, I do
not trust Moscow, it is full of Zionists. There, the church is
full of Jews ... '
fear of Zionism is typical. In 1975, fifteen years ago, I gave
an interview which was published in Paris.
They asked me then whether there was any anti-Semitism in the
church. I said that I hadn't come across any, not on a mass
scale. Fifteen years later and the picture has completely
changed. I wouldn't say the same thing now. Anti-Semitism has
become, unfortunately, one of the distinguishing features of the
|Are you of Jewish
uncomfortable asking you this.
should you feel that way?
|The point is that
you in your position are an ideal target for anti-Semitism.
course, that goes without saying. I feel it. I have been a
priest for a long time, thirty or so years, but this has only
started to happen now. I feel it in the way people behave
towards me, in the way they talk to me, in everything.
|What do you
personally think of the problem of anti-Semitism?
think this is a question of social psychology. There has to be a
category of people who are held responsible for the sins of
society. They are the personification of society's own sins.
of admitting that we destroyed our own sacred things, people say
that it was Kaganovich who gave the order to destroy the
church of Christ the Saviour. If the people hadn't wanted to
desecrate it, it wouldn't have mattered who had given the order.
They would have killed Kaganovich and saved the church. But the
people went and blew up thousands of churches. That means people
are to blame. But it's a very difficult thing to admit and so
you have to find someone to blame. It's easy to swear at the
Jews. A coward will always pick on someone defenceless.
|Is it true that, in
conservative circles, communists are being identified as Jews?
but this is artificial because sixty years ago there were many
Jews among the Bolsheviks, but my generation does not remember
this. I remember the communist authorities being comprised of
people of Russian, Ukrainian and Caucasian descent. Kaganovich
was the only Jew.
|Then the real
problem is that the people don't want to admit their
responsibility for what took place in this country?
a comparative analysis of de-nazification in Germany and de-stalinization
here and you'll understand.
|What about you
personally? How do you view your work in this sense?
don't. All I do is carry on working. There are people who write
history and people who simply live and work in it. I belong to
the second category.
|Yes, but when you
preach, you do put forward certain ideas.
my ideas can be found in [this book] here!
|In the Bible ...
of course. The gospel is the foundation of life.