When the Russian Orthodox Church is in the news, which has been quite often of late, the image that comes to mind is of an army of archbishops and abbots, commanded by Patriarch Kirill I, operating in conspiracy with the country’s authoritarian rulers in the Kremlin. This is not without reason. The church’s conservative clerics have, in fact, given their support to the government’s most polarizing recent laws, including the jailing of three members of Pussy Riot for offending believers’ religious sensibilities, legislation proscribing “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” and the institution of a limit of three legal marriages per Russian, to discourage divorce.
But to conclude that the Russian Orthodox Church is nothing more than a bastion of extreme conservatives is to miss the many ways that change is being forced upon it. In some sense, the church’s ultraconservatism is on the wane -- for confirmation, one need only look to what’s happening among the laity, rather than to the very top of the church’s hierarchy. Devout Orthodox Christian journalists, academics, and political scientists -- as well as free-thinking priests -- are becoming increasingly assertive as alternative spokespeople for their faith. This burgeoning Orthodox intelligentsia is already posing a challenge to the conservative church hierarchy and, by extension, to Vladimir Putin’s regime.
This is not the first time that the church has produced prominent dissident intellectuals. Early in the twentieth century, Father Georgii Gapon was one of the Russian Empire’s most prominent liberal critics, leading an unsuccessful workers' demonstration in 1905 that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Russian public was captivated by charismatic priests such as Father Alexander Men and the dissident Father Gleb Yakunin. In 1992, Yakunin co-chaired a parliamentary investigative committee that exposed a vast network of collaborators among clerics, particularly at the highest levels.
But the current crop of dissidents is different: although they are devout, they are not all members of the
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