06 September 2018

The Moscow Patriarchate and pension reform

His Holiness Patriarch Kirill and Protopriest Fr Vsevolod (Chaplin)

The political brinksmanship that keeps coming out of Istanbul of late seems to be gathering pace, and the takes in the Anglo-European media have been insufferably predictable. (My own take, from within the OCA, can be found here, for those interested.) Suffice it to say that Western observers consider the Moscow Patriarchate to be firmly under the thumb of the Russian government, if not willing stooges of Putin’s every whim.

As with many things, there is a grain of truth to this observation. Orthodoxy has never been quite as squeamish as Western forms of Christianity about cultivating a close relationship with the state, and that has often meant historically that the Church adopts a syntax and usage that are amenable to certain core state interests. But the actual concerns of the Moscow Patriarchate in recent days seem to put the lie to this ‘conventional wisdom’, if you look closely enough.

The big issue at hand for the Russian Church is not the tomos (though they’re concerned about that, too) but rather the deeply-unpopular pension reform raising the retirement age five years for both sexes. Now, in most Anglophone coverage of the pension reform, where the Church is mentioned at all, it is usually to highlight its silence and complicity in the reform – because that fits the ‘narrative’ that it serves primarily as Putin’s handmaiden. But the Church – and here I mean not just Patriarch Kirill and the representatives of his office, but the other hierarchs and the rank-and-file clergy – have been anything but silent on the topic!

That’s not to say they’ve had a united voice. (Actually, so far the only official thing that has been said by the Danilov is that the Church doesn’t really have a single united stance on the issue, which is prima facie true, but still a tad disappointing.) But there are three broad camps emerging within Church circles on the topic. The first is a quasi-Stoic, austerian stance that says that these pension reforms are painful but necessary, and ordinary people need to grit their teeth and tighten their belts for the sake of the greater good. (On the extreme end of this camp are those churchmen who say the reforms are a divine punishment upon the Russian people for their godlessness.) The second group takes a harder neutral stance than the Danilov itself has, and says that the question of pension reforms is outside the Church’s competence to address. The last group – the group to which I am certainly most sympathetic – says that the pension reforms are unjust because they are unfilial: that the people who have contributed the most to the welfare of Russian society in their lives, are now being punished for the mistakes of the young. (One is tempted to consider this logic somewhat Confucian; but the proper analogy to my mind is the Apology of Socrates.) This radical left-Platonist / -Confucian approach is being championed most vocally by none other than Protopriest Father Vsevolod (Chaplin)!

Now, Western media gloss Fr Vsevolod as an arch-conservative; when it comes to sexual ethics and cultural issues, they’re not entirely wrong to do so. But I’ve blogged before about Fr Vsevolod (Chaplin)’s – perhaps surprising to some – agreement with the Œcumenical Patriarchate, and low-key disagreement with the Russian government, on œcological ethics, to the point where I remarked that he came off sounding like Bill McKibben or Wendell Barry. (‘I love this guy’, I believe I said.) Not just on the environment, either: Fr Vsevolod has been outspoken on œconomic issues as well. He has called for progressive income taxation (a rebuke of Putin’s flat tax policies); has called for a populist alternative, anti-usury banking system; has castigated Russia’s oligarchs as ‘pathetic jerks’ and called for the confiscation of their wealth; and has praised the theory of protectionist, state-directed investment promoted by left-wing Russian œconomist Sergei Glaz’ev. This recent œconomic populism on Fr Vsevolod’s part is not at all out of character for him.

His Holiness Patriarch Kirill’s well-publicised differences with Fr Vsevolod are certainly real, but they have likewise been somewhat overstated. On the environment, banking, income inequality and even pensions, Patriarch Kirill has also in the past shown a fairly strong left-populist streak. However, they do differ in terms of tactics. Patriarch Kirill does tend to be more accommodating with regard to the state, to a point; Fr Vsevolod advocates a more direct and prophetic approach.

The Danilov may be slow, and it may be accounting for a disunited clergy on this pressing issue. But it is far from being the politically-neutered, abject state bureau it is often painted in the Western media and among its domestic rivals. There was a time when it actually was beholden to the state – namely, during the synodal period and then again under the Soviets after an all-too-brief reinstatement of the Patriarchate. But these historical circumstances – owing to the particulars of rule by Peter the Great, by Lenin and by Stalin – no longer obtain, to the point where a difference in degree of government control becomes difference in kind. Pretending that these conditions still obtain is bad history. More to the point, pretending that they do is actually a form of theological orientalism, as I have stated before, and it plays into dangerous sæcular orientalist fantasies about Russia.

On the present issue, however, I hope it’s not too far out of line to hope that Patriarch Kirill listens to Fr Vsevolod’s group, and urges the Kremlin in a stronger and more strident tone to keep pedalling back – or, better yet, scrap – these ill-considered ‘reforms’.

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