Close

Support Global Voices

To stay independent, free, and sustainable, our community needs the help of friends and readers like you.

Donate now »

See all those languages up there? We translate Global Voices stories to make the world's citizen media available to everyone.

Learn more about Lingua Translation  »

Russia: Pussy Riot and the Orthodox Reformation

Vladislav Inozemtsev, economist and opposition politician, recently published an opinion piece [ru] extolling the virtues of the protestant ethic and calling for the modernization of the Russian Orthodox Church. The article was a response to the sentencing of the three Pussy Riot members to two years in prison on August 17, 2012.

Inozemtsev was on trend. In the past several months, many Russian bloggers have compared the slow disaster of the trial to the start of the Protestant Reformation. For example, in an August 20 post, blogger, banker, and businessman Roman Avdeev expressed certainty [ru] that:

[…]перспектива у Московской Патриархии в ближайшем будущем, похоже, одна – возникновение раскола, а точнее – “православной реформации”, которая и станет реакцией наиболее духовно здоровых сил в нашей Церкви на нежелание священноначалия что-либо изменить в современной церковной жизни.

[T]he Moscow Patriarchate [of the Russian Orthodox Church], it seems, has only one perspective in the near future — a schism, or to be more exact an “Orthodox reformation,” which will be a reaction of the more spiritually healthy forces in our Church to the lack of desire on the part of the Church leadership to change anything about modern Church life.

Patriarch Kirill holds his first service as Patriarch, St Petersburg, Russia (5 April 2009), by Mike Kireev, copyright © Demotix.

Journalist Yulia Latynina framed the issue [ru] in a less optimistic fashion:

Если бы российское общество было действительно глубоко религиозным, то действия патриарха Кирилла привели бы к реформации, как разврат и симония римских пап привели к Лютеру.

If the Russian society was truly deeply religious, then the actions of Patriarch Cyril would lead to a Reformation, just as the depravity and simony of the Roman Popes lead to Luther.

These are just the latest examples of visions of a new Reformation — both published after the verdict. But netizens started making the comparison back in March, when there was still a chance that the young women might go free. The first netizen to mention it was LiveJournal user norlink, who commented [ru] on an altercation between Orthodox supporters of Pussy Riot and their critics:

противостояние обретает оттенок религиозной реформации, которую так долго ждали в России и отсутствие которой и завело нацию в исторический тупик.”

[T]he confrontation is beginning to resemble a religious reformation, for which Russia has long waited, and the absence of which has led the nation into a historical dead end.

Other examples include LJ users yakushev, who expanded [ru] on the point, adding that atheists will support the reformers in a modern version of the Reformation, and Mikhail Solomatin, who wrote a post [ru] neatly organizing the arguments of Pussy Riot defenders into protestant theological categories like “Adoption of Scripture as the sole authority and rejection of blind obedience to the Church” and “Faith in the possibility of direct communication with God.”

Of course, a Reformation needs more than just a cause. It needs leaders and examples. On August 18, it seemed that Russia found such an example. A priest named Sergey Baranov published an open letter [ru] to the Patriarch on his Facebook account. The letter began like this:

В связи с позорными событиями последних месяцев и в особенности вынесенным при прямом подстрекательстве священноначалия Русской Православной Церкви и людей, по недоразумению именующими себя «православными гражданами» неправосудным приговором в отношении Pussy Riot, я, заштатный клирик Тамбовской епархии диакон Сергий Баранов, официально объявляю о своем полном и безусловном разрыве отношений с Русской Православной Церковью Московского Патриархата и ходатайствую о снятии с себя священного сана.

Due to the shameful events of the last months, and especially due to the unjust verdict for Pussy Riot, rendered with direct instigation by the Russian Orthodox Church and the people who mistakenly call themselves “Orthodox citizens,” I, a retired cleric of the Tambov diocese, Deacon Sergei Baranov, formally announce my full and unconditional severance of relations with the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and request withdrawal of my holy orders.

The text eloquently went on to criticize the Patriarch and the Church for a lack of compassion and understanding. The general reaction to the letter can be summed up by this enthusiastic comment [ru] from Olga Bakushinskaya's blog:

ИМХО, это начало новой Реформации. Есть предчувствие, что это российский Мартин Лютер

IMHO, this is the beginning of a new Reformation. I have a hunch that this is the Russian Martin Luther.

Not all supporters of a liberalized Russian Church were as ecstatic, however. For example, Vladimir Golyshev, a vehement Pussy Riot defender, has generally praised Baranov, but wrote immediately [ru] to criticize him for signing the letter with “a humble acolyte of ‘Your Holiness.'”

Unfortunately, this was not the only thing for which Baranov would be criticized. For one, people questioned his status as a priest. According to Baranov himself [ru], he retired in 2003, and has not served the Church since. However, the term Baranov uses, “заштатный клирик,” literally “a cleric not on staff,” is more complex than simple retirement. It is explained on one forum [ru] as something akin to an honorably discharged officer who no longer performs his military duties, but does not lose rank and can return to serve if needed.

A much more ominous accusation came shortly later. As it turned out [ru], a large portion of Baranov’s letter was plagiarized from at least three different sources: another Facebook post [ru], a column [ru] on Echo Moskvy, and an Echo Moskvy radio show [ru] transcript. It was unclear why such an important letter would be composed with such a heavy dose of plagiarism.

In addition, Baranov’s Facebook profile shares a number of similarities with the now-defunct profile of one Sergey Aristarkhov [ru], including the profile pictures and listed interests. The name “Sergey Aristarkhov” appears in Internet searches as a signatory to a 2011 petition [ru] to the Patriarch, requesting an investigation into the Bishop of Tambov diocese.

Facebook profile of Sergey Baranov and Google cache of Facebook profile of Sergey Aristarkhov. Screenshots, August 20, 2012.

In fact, there is a recent precedent of priests withdrawing from the Orthodox Church. Just last year, three priests from Izhevsk [ru] were “dishonorably discharged” for speaking out against the Patriarch and increasing bureaucratization of the Church. Nevertheless, it would be easy to assume that Baranov’s story and persona were fabricated — either a nuanced PR move by the Kremlin, or a heavy-handed attempt at astroturfing by the opposition. Thankfully, the Tambov diocese soon came out with a press release [ru] confirming Baranov’s existence, at the same time stating that he has been subject to a number of interdicts for his behavior prior to retirement.

Baranov has since been interviewed by several news agencies, and has promised to provide documentation [ru] proving that the diocese’s allegations are untrue. Neither BBC Russia Service [ru] nor Izvestia [ru] asked Baranov questions about plagiarism, by far the most disturbing and RuNet-discussed claim against him. Baranov has only addressed this topic in a radio interview [ru] with Russia News Service, where he acknowledged the plagiarism and said it was intentionally designed to prove that the text was written after a certain date, as insurance against the Church backdating his withdrawal, in order to claim that he was no longer a priest when he wrote it.

Logical fallacies aside (proof that the letter was written on August 17 in no way stops the Church from backdating his withdrawal; the letter refers to the Pussy Riot trial verdict, which also dates it), Baranov's reasoning does not adequately explain why the plagiarism was as extensive as it was. And what of the mysterious second Facebook account? Perhaps it is a pseudonym?

The story is still uncertain and developing, but at this point we can safely say that Baranov is not Russia’s Martin Luther.

2 comments

  • Gregory Levitsky

    Baranov was never a priest, only a deacon. It says as much in his own
    statement that you cited. Come on; if you’re going to claim to know even
    the slightest thing about the Orthodox Church (something one assumes
    you would need before waxing eloquent about a supposed coming
    Reformation), one would hope you could tell the difference between a
    deacon and a priest. We’re going to need you to do better.

  • […] non supportata (mi sembra un film gia’ visto), mentre il dibattito sembra piu’ vivace all’interno della comunità religiosa. Per sostenere la liberazione delle tre giovani artiste e attiviste è in corso una mobilitazione […]

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »

Guidelines

  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the best of Global Voices
* = required field
Email Frequency



No thanks, show me the site