God Exists and He Serves the Kremlin

Though the Pussy Riot trial is over, the culture war it launched in Russia drags on unabated. Pope Benedict XVI's abdication sparked the latest conflagration, when political analyst and spin doctor Stanislav Belkovsky addressed the Catholic leader's decision, calling it a path the Orthodox Patriarch ought to follow. Belkovsky laid out this advice in his opinion column [ru], published by newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets, on February 15, 2013. He also advocated the radical restructuring of the Church, which he claims is over-centralized and beholden to the state. In essence, he called for an Orthodox Reformation, replete with all the Christian fragmentation and democratization that followed Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses.

Within a week, more than forty members of Russia's federal legislature (mostly MPs, but also a few senators) appealed [ru] to the Investigative Committee and the General Prosecutor's Office, requesting an investigation into Belkovsky's article for extremism and inciting religious hatred. Belkovsky responded with a follow-up op-ed [ru] titled “Putin or Belkovsky?” on February 22 and a storm of media interviews.

Stanislav Belkovsky, March 2008, photo by Damir Kleimenov, CC 3.0.

Stanislav Belkovsky, March 2008, photo by Damir Kleimenov, CC 3.0.

In Belkovsky's follow-up article, he criticized the Church for ignoring his reform proposals, joking that its silence amounts to the stubbornness of a “fish banging his head against the ice” (a joke he first used in an appearance [ru] on Dozhd television). He did, however, acknowledge that three figures with ties to the Church—Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, and media big shot Nikolai Uskov—did respond to his February 15 piece. Belkovsky thanked Kuraev for opposing [ru] the criminal charges raised by the Parliament. (In a statement [ru] to Gazeta.ru on February 20, however, he exaggerated Kuraev's position as one of “support.”) Finally, he answered Chaplin and Uskov, whose reactions were less charitable, with insinuations of closeted homosexuality—Belkovsky's favorite tack [ru] in debates.

Indeed, Vladimir Golyshev (Belkovsky's coauthor for a 2006 book [ru] about Vladimir Putin's alleged vast wealth abroad) says [ru] the “extremism” charges are the Kremlin's delayed punishment for remarks [ru] Belkovsky made on live radio last month, when he speculated about the “key role” played by “the gay community” in the inner circles of Putin's presidential administration. This, Golyshev argues, mirrors the religious extremism smokescreen Putin used to take revenge on Pussy Riot, whose real crime—he claims—was their Red Square concert a month before the infamous “punk prayer” inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Golyshev's theory is a curious one. On the one hand, it's true that Belkovsky's February 15 article wasn't the first time he publicly advocated sweeping reforms for the Orthodox Church. In September last year, for example, Belkovsky's foundation co-organized an entire conference [ru] titled “Reformation: the Fate of the Russian Church in the 21st Century.” On the other hand, if we're to believe Golyshev that Belkovsky's recent gossip of gay enclaves explains his current trouble, it's a wonder that it's taken so long for this other shoe to drop. After all, it has been over a year since Belkovsky (incorrectly) predicted [ru] that Viacheslav Volodin would replace Boris Gryzlov as Speaker of the Duma, making Volodin “the first gay” to hold the office. (Volodin, who does not claim to be a homosexual, instead replaced Vladislav Surkov as First Deputy Chief of Dmitri Medvedev's presidential administration.)

And what of the Orthodox Community's supposed silence? Belkovsky likes to link the Church to United Russia, the nation's “political party of power,” arguing that both institutions have become a burden on Putin, whose international credibility suffers with every Pussy Riot trial and Duma deputy real estate scandal. Study the theological debates on the Internet forum Pravmir.ru, however, and it's difficult to embrace Belkovsky's theory about a religious-secular pact to oppress Orthodox reformists. In the last few days, Pravmir.ru has published Belkovsky-themed articles by four different authors—one by the aforementioned Andrei Kuraev, as well as texts by theologian Sergei Khudiev, Father Nektarii, and Archpriest Andrei Efanov. While Efanov does insist [ru] on the need to debunk Belkovsky's Reformation program, none of the men appear to endorse the Federal Assembly's interest in a criminal investigation. Father Nektarii even complains [ru] that the appeal to law enforcement is “more harmful [to the Church] than ten Belkovskys together.”

Khudiev's attitude deserves special attention. Highlighting the repetition of the word “interests” in the February 15 op-ed (as in, a Reformation would be in the “interests” of many Orthodox believers), Khudiev contends [ru] that Belkovsky's logic is fundamentally alien to the spirit of Lutheran and Calvinist reform. “A person with faith would never talk like that,” Khudiev concludes, arguing that Belkovsky seeks political ends by religious means.

Others, too, have wondered if Belkovsky's heart is really in it, when it comes to an Orthodox Reformation. That skepticism, however, is more often rooted in veiled (and sometimes overt) anti-Semitism. When Nikolai Uskov (mentioned above) responded [ru] to Belkovsky's proposal, he included the following suggestive question in a remark about Belkovsky's audacity:

Меня не удивляет и попытка политолога-мирянина (православный ли он вообще?) учить церковь, как ей следует жить.

It doesn't surprise me that this political-consultant-layman (is he even Orthodox?) is trying to teach the Church how it should live.

Elsewhere on the RuNet, bloggers were even less subtle. In a February 18 post, LiveJournal user Alexandra Ligamentia declared [ru] that Belkovsky “is not an Orthodox person, but a representative of an entirely different religious confession.” While she never uses the word “Jewish,” Ligamentia does include a photograph of Belkovsky embracing Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia's most notorious (and Jewish) oligarchs. And then there's Mikhail Matveev's LJ post [ru], titled “Belkovsky's Kyke Article About the Orthodox Church,” which is, well, exactly what you'd expect it to be.

For Belkovsky's part, he says that he's a practicing Orthodox Christian [ru]. And while his mother is indeed of Jewish descent, that hasn't stopped him from insisting that matters concerning the Orthodox Church are for him personal as much as political. “I'm a Christian,” Belkovsky told [ru] Polit.ru, “and I had the right to discuss this [on February 15] and I have the right to [continue to] discuss this.”

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