Evolving Expectations: The Russian Orthodox Church and the Collapse of Communism

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The twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a self-evidently appropriate moment for reflection on the momentous importance of the revolutionary events of 1989 and their ongoing consequences. This paper contributes to the rapidly growing literature on the subject of “1989 – Twenty Years Later” by seeking to identify the political and economic expectations of the Russian Orthodox Church in the context of perestroika and glasnost.

In doing so, the paper looks at a social category that has previously received very little attention within the literature that investigates expectations in the communist-bloc countries as they neared the point of transition into the presumed “End of History,” that is, the category of religious communities within those countries. To be sure, one may note the relatively systematic exploration of the expectations of Catholic believers in the specific Polish case, but this circumstance is easily explained by the obvious role that the Catholic Church played in stoking the expectations in question. In the other former communist countries, the role of religion in the deroulement of the relevant events was not nearly as obvious, for which reason the expectations of believers themselves have remained obscured in scholarly analysis. While the scope of the present paper does not allow for a systematic comparative analysis of expectations among various groups of believers across communist Eastern Europe and the USSR, it is hoped that the present case study, focused on the Orthodox Church in the USSR itself, will serve as the basis for further in-depth analysis.


Prior to launching into the exploration of our topic, several conceptual issues must be dispensed with. First, the time-period under consideration is not easily condensed to “1989.” Unlike the case of the eastern European bloc, the communist system in what we might, for heuristic purposes, call “Russia” collapsed in 1991. Moreover, expectations of change among the Russian population at large regarding political and economic changes began substantially earlier, with perestroika which Mikhail Gorbachev launched in 1985. Yet, as the analysis in the paper will demonstrate, expectations of change within the identifiably Orthodox population (which will be defined below) began to be expressed no earlier than 1987, when they swelled in connection with the celebrations of the Millennium of Orthodox Christianity in Rus. Therefore, this paper addresses the timeframe from 1987 to 1991, as best fitting the particular circumstances of the case at hand. The choice of 1991 is obvious: by 1992, the territory of the Soviet Union had collapsed into fifteen new countries, all of which immediately engaged in state-building projects that radically changed the context in which the pre-collapse expectations had been germinating; thus the paper finishes its analysis with a brief remark on the expressed expectations of the Russian Orthodox Church in the immediate aftermath of the failed putsch of 1991.

Second, the object of analysis – the Russian Orthodox Church – is problematically broad. It may be understood, on the one hand, as the community of the faithful that considers itself as belonging, by baptism, to the Russian Orthodox Church. One problem with this definition is that, during the timeframe identified, there were at least three Orthodox ecclesiastical jurisdictions whose members could confidently call themselves specifically “Russian Orthodox”: the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and the Russian Exarchate of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (four, if we include the community of Old Believer parishes). On the other hand, the category “Russian Orthodox Church” might be understood as specifically institutional – the hierarchy and ecclesiastical offices that structured, in 1987 – 1991 – the liturgical life of the Orthodox faithful. With the USSR, for the time identified, this is clearly the Moscow Patriarchate. However, if we focus simply on the proclamations, epistles and other statements emanating from the offices of the Patriarchate, the obvious criticism arises that this would remain a formalistic analysis, ignoring the fact that the parishioners of the Patriarchate might have expectations that differed from those articulated by the hierarchy.

Therefore, ideally, analysis of “official documents” from the Patriarchate would be either superseded by or at least complemented by survey data from the community of Orthodox believers for the years in question. Obtaining such data, however, proved impossible, as no such surveys were simply possible in the late 1980s, nor were they undertaken in the early 1990s. The reason is fairly self-evident, as even under late communism in the Soviet Union religious activities were suppressed and few people would have willingly admitted to being an Orthodox Christian, or to being a believer of any faith, for that matter. The work of Nathaniel Davis, Jane Ellis and other church historians of the period demonstrates convincingly that in the years preceding the Millennial Celebrations of 1988, the Soviet Union was quite close to fulfilling Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to demonstrate the last believer on television by 1980. There is also another issue, namely, that in the Russian Orthodox tradition there is no real equivalent to the Western Catholic/Protestant parishioner; in other words, people might attend the same church their whole lives without formally signing up as a parish member, which means that carrying out surveys among “parishioners” is a non-starter even if one assumes that believers would have, in those years, been willing to be identified as such and to speak openly about their expectations. As a result of these circumstances, there is simply no survey data available to provide a “popular” complement the “official” patriarchal statements. One way of getting around this problem, might, of course, be to conduct a series of in-depth interviews with currently living individuals who had been active Orthodox believers in the 1980s; however, given the time-constraints of the current project there was no practical way of conducting a representative set of interviews that would have fit the necessary criteria without going to Russia itself for several months worth of field-work; it is hoped that this might be possible in the future.

Another possibility explored during the research for this paper was looking at publications in the Russian religious samizdat, on the assumption that this would provide insight into “informal” expectations among believers. Here, however, a methodological problem presented itself, in that by the time period under consideration samizdat had generally ceased to exist as a form of expression in the USSR, meaning that the available materials would necessarily be dated to the period 1960 – the early 80s, and would not allow for a comprehensive study of the evolution of believers’ expectations for the period looked at in this paper, rendering fruitful comparisons with the formal statements of the Patriarchate impossible.

Given these constraints, this paper examines in detail “official” documents emanating from the administrative offices of the Moscow Patriarchate. These include the Patriarch’s appeals to the public or to government circles (in Russian, poslania patriarkha); resolutions of the Council of Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church; resolutions and protocols of the meetings of the Synod of Bishops; and other relevant statements by senior hierarchs. Most of these materials were gathered from the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate (Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii), the Moscow Patriarchate’s flagship publication, for the years 1987 – 1991.

The Evolution of Expectations around the Millennial Celebrations: 1987 -1988

As mentioned above, the millennial celebrations that began in 1987 proved in retrospect to be a seminal moment in the articulation (and one might even say, the crystallization of) the Russian Orthodox Church’s expectation vis a vis the ongoing changes in the political and social life of the Soviet Union. Within the traditions of Russian Orthodox bureaucracy, important dates are heralded by an epistle from the Patriarch to the faithful, informing them that something of great historical significance is about to occur. Thus, in 1987, the then-patriarch, Pimen, issued a “Pre-Counciliar Epistle” to the flock. In it, he pointed out what the Church at the time viewed officially as a “fortuitous coincidence”: the millennial celebrations began in concert with celebrations of the 70 th anniversary of the Great October. The attitude towards the Revolution of 1917 here provides an interesting starting point from which to analyze and appreciate the shifts in discourse that would develop over the subsequent few years. According to the Pre-counciliar Epistle of 1987:

“Those citizens of our Fatherland who believe in God, greet the 70 th anniversary of the Great October socialist revolution with feelings of deep satisfaction at having participated in the constructive process that transformed our Fatherland in the true interests of the people and created a powerful state – the Soviet Union. We highly value the unity of hopes and action of our Soviet people, its leadership, believers and unbelievers, united by freedom of conscience. Each of us…is now called by civic and religious duty to actively participate in the development and perfection of our society…

Here, we can clearly distinguish sentiments of loyalty and an expectation that the Soviet Union – already nearly perfect in every way — will continue to develop for the benefit of mankind. In the same text, one paragraph down, we find the only issue on which the Moscow Patriarchate, in 1987, found it necessary not only to expect but to demand changes in the socio-political order, namely,

“Over the course of ten centuries the Russian Orthodox Church has carried out its peacekeeping service…[Today]
we devote our efforts especially to the prevention of an atomic catastrophe.

It is, of course, a different question whether the extent to which these protestations of loyalty and admiration for the Soviet regime – which, after all, by the mid 1980s, had effectively strangled religious life on the territory of the USSR – actually reflected the sentiments of believers and hierarchy; by all accounts, even this late into the perestroika period the hierarchy was cowed enough by the powers-that-be that they did not dare express more than tentative hopes for systemic change. Within this context, the nuclear issue was the only acceptable area in which even tentative criticism might be voiced, particularly since focusing on disarmament fit within the Soviet government’s own discourse representing the USSR as a peaceful power faced with an arms-maddened American enemy and would thus not be automatically understood as disloyal. Careful analysis of other relevant excerpts from the Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii for 1987 demonstrates this pattern quite clearly: on the one hand, the profession of full loyalty to the USSR, particularly in the context of the 70 year anniversary of the Great Socialist Revolution, and on the other, a focus on the one issue where the Church feels it can expect and perhaps even affect change, i.e, nuclear disarmament. Characteristically, in an interview given by Pitirim, metropolitan of Volokolamsk (at the time head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s publishing department and an influential permanent member of the Synod of Bishops) to an Italian journalist in the fall of 1987, we read,

“The Church lived under the slave-owning regime, under feudalism,
under capitalism, it will live under communism as well. How? We do not know.
But under socialism, She has found her firm place.”

In the same interview, metropolitan Pitirim expresses the assumption that perestroika will ultimately lead to the successful development of communism as the inevitable next stage of human development.

At the same time, the discourse did not remain merely in the realm of expressing expectations that the regime would – perhaps in renewed form – survive and flourish; the official language of the Church at this stage still proclaimed (as it had since the late 1920s) that the Soviet experience had been good and liberating for the Russian Orthodox Church (the implication here being, why fix something that is working?). A striking example of this appears in the Epistle of Patriarch Pimen on the occasion of the Seventieth anniversary of the “Great October Socialist Revolution” in October of 1987. In this letter to the flock, the Patriarch declares that,

“Among its first acts, the worker-peasant government promulgated
the Decree on Separating Church from State. This democratic act gave the
legal foundations for the principles of freedom of conscience and the freedom
of the Church from state institutions.

If one looks at the matter from the vantage of historical facts, the mentioned decree served as the legal instrument with which the Russian Orthodox Church was stripped of all of its property, most places of worship were shut down and thousands of clerics repressed and/or executed: the representation of it in Patriarch Pimen’s 1987 Epistle in a positive light is indicative of the expectation – at least among the upper echelons of Orthodox Russian clergy – that the regime would survive and that there would be no altering of the fundamentally materialist principles on which it was governed. Simultaneously, the Epistle lauds perestroika as a positive government policy, without, however, without being too specific about the expected results:

“We call upon all of [the faithful] to [raise up your prayers] for the leaders of our Fatherland…to spiritually assist their truly titanic efforts at renewing and transforming social relations, on the basis of glasnost’,
democratization and new political thinking.”

What, specifically, this means (whether for believers or for the population in general), the document leaves obscured.

The same issue of the Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii contains an article by Aleksander, archbishop of Dmitrovsk, reflecting on the meaning of 1917 for the Orthodox Church; the article immediately follows the patriarch’s epistle. In it, the author writes in no uncertain terms of the benefits that the Church received under the Soviet state, and praises the actions of Metropolitan Sergii (Stargorodskii), specifically his 1927 declaration of loyalty to the regime (which in practice contributed to the Church’s decimation and the infiltration of its cadres by the KGB):

“Metropolitan Sergius firmly chose the path of the Church’s
participation in the new history, created by the Soviet people…

The message — appearing as the flagship article in the flagship journal of the Patriarchate in the issue commemorating 1917 — is clear: in the year celebrating the October Revolution, the archbishop underlines the overall loyalty of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Soviet state, i.e., the Church of Patriarch Pimen is the successor of the loyalist Church of metropolitan Sergius, and will not step outside the boundaries of the established church-state relationship.

In the event, by October of 1987, concretely expressed “expectations” on the part of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy remained explicit only on the level of arms control: specifically, in the run up to the Washington summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the ROC

“hopes for […] the quick conclusion of a treaty forbidding all
nuclear arms testing; the continuation of serious work towards liquidating
long-range ballistic rocket systems; and a firm agreement that cosmic space
should be used only for peaceful purposes.”

The fact that this statement was made jointly by Filaret, Metropolitan of Minsk with Ari R. Brauer, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of the United States suggests that it does perhaps reflect the hopes of the Orthodox bishops, and was not simply dictated by the interests of the Soviet State.

Still, in the last two months of 1987, leading into the Jubilee Year of 1988, the Patriarchate began to frequently and consistently express support for the processes of perestroika and glasnost’, which included, in very general terms, praise for the markedly warming attitude of the government towards the Church, accompanied by tentatively expressed hopes that this would lead to positive changes in the lives of Orthodox believers. Eventually, in March 1988, Patriarch Pimen for the first time openly declared that,

“We are glad that changes going on in the country are positively
affecting the Church as well [particularly in the realm of registering new
parishes and the return of a few monasteries].

A month later, the expression of the Church’s (formal) expectations moved from the pages of the ecclesiastical press into the realm of real politics: On April 29, 1988, the Patriarch and the members of the Synod of Bishops met with Mikhail Gorbachev, the first such meeting between the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Orthodox leaders in five decades. In the official chronicle of the Patriarch’s speech on the occasion, Pimen thanks Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev for the positive effects of perestroika on the registration of parishes and the return of some monasteries and a general – if informal – policy of easing restrictions on religious activity. At the same time, the Patriarch points out that,

“Not all problems in the life of the Church are being resolved; we
hope that in the context of the democratization of life in our society they
[the problems] will be resolved in a manner beneficial both for Church and

The official chronicle goes on to mention that, “in the subsequent conversation the members of the Synod … put forth a number of concrete questions tied to the normalization of the Orthodox Church’s activities.

While the exact subject of the “concrete questions” remained unarticulated in the official chronicle of this historic meeting, by June 9 of the same year they were made clear in the course of the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, held in honour of the Millennium of Christianity in Russia. Specifically, the Council’s Epistle to the faithful first praises, in general terms, the “process of perestroika” which is

“expected to put aright the negative consequences of the past and
guarantee for our society all-encompassing positive development in the spiritual,
social, economic and political spheres of life.”

(Here, we see the beginnings of critical Orthodox assessment of the Soviet past). In terms of the situation of the Church itself, the Epistle welcomes ongoing positive changes and expects that, as registration of parishes becomes easier, “We will soon have enough parishes to satisfy the needs of believers.” However – and this is the major shift in the discourse – the expectations expressed in the Epistle do not remain on the level of hopes for procedural improvements: the Council for the first time mentions plans for a new law on freedom of conscience that will,

“we believe, more fully guarantee for believers the implementation
of existing Constitutional rights and will grant the Church wider opportunities
for the promulgation of Her mission.”

The same Local Council sent a letter to Gorbachev, expressing support for perestroika in the warmest possible terms:

“we express our support to You…and the course you have embarked
on for the renewal of the moral-spiritual life of our society, for the continuation
of social-economic development, and the perfection of socialist democracy.”

Significantly (and impossible a year earlier), the Council conveys to Gorbachev that the Russian Orthodox Church is “deeply concerned about the future image of our Fatherland and feel it our duty to participate in its formation on the basis of our Christian convictions.

Based on the above discussion, we can draw the following conclusion: the two year period from the start of 1987 to the end of 1988 witnessed subtle but significant development in the expression of expectations by the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy regarding the process of perestroika and glasnost.’ Here, the major change – from lauding the October Revolution as guaranteeing perfect conditions for the freedom of conscience to the expressed expectation that the new law on freedom of conscience would “more fully guarantee existing rights” and “grant the Church wider opportunities for the promulgation of Her mission” – crystallized in the immediate context of Millennial celebrations in mid 1988.

From the Millennium to the Collapse

As the political and economic changes in the USSR accumulated speed after 1988, so the Russian Orthodox hierarchy’s expressed expectations began to gather pace. In early 1989, the language was one of joy at the sudden easing of restriction on religious life and of hope that the Church could now more fully participate in the process of renewal associated with perestroika: indeed, the expectation here clearly was that perestroika would result in a renewed and healthier USSR, in which (Christian) morality (nravstvennost’) would serve as a foundation for a just society. An excerpt from the Christmas sermon of Metropolitan Juvenalii of Krutitsa and Kolomenskoe, a senior member of the Synod, in early 1989 is typical of the discourse that characterized this period:

“We are all inspired by the fact that this past year we especially
felt on ourselves the first positive fruits of perestroika, when the life
and position of the Russian Orthodox Church began to so clearly change for
the better…We have entered the New Year with hopes for the continuation
of the developing process of democratization of our society and the greater
involvement of the Holy Church in this blessed process…

In the same sermon, Juvenalii expressed both satisfaction that religious actors could now be elected as People’s Deputies to the Supreme Soviet and his hope that,

“If representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church will be called
to this new service, their activities would serve the good of the Church,
of believers, and of our beloved Fatherland.

And indeed, as the (free) elections to the Supreme Soviet in 1989 neared, three senior hierarchs were put forward as candidates, including the Patriarch, Metropolitan Pitirim and Metropolitan Aleksii of Leningrad. Immediately after his candidacy was announced, Patriarch Pimen declared that,

“By putting us forth as candidates for People’s Deputies, the
electorate has the right to expect from us, Church actors, a unique spiritual
contribution into the great task of renewal and of moral regeneration of
[…] our Fatherland.

In an interview shortly thereafter the Patriarch gave the first indication that the Church no longer regards existing political structures as adequate, and expects positive changes in this sphere:

“At the moment, it is clearly of highest importance to form competent
organs of state power, that are genuinely responsible to the people.

Subsequently, in the summer of 1989 metropolitan Aleksii spoke to the People’s Deputies in what was historically the first such speech by a religious leader in the history of the USSR; in his words,

“All of the Orthodox people […] of our country not only support
perestroika […] with all their hearts, but they also see in the continuing
processes of renewal the real manifestation of their hopes and expectations….”

Pointing out that, from the point of view of the Russian Orthodox Church, true renewal is not possible without society’s moral renewal on the basis of spiritual values, Aleksii continued,

“The Church […] is ready to take part in this process of moral
renewal of our society, and it is with hope that we expect the adoption of
the law on freedom of conscience that will allow the Church greater opportunities
for participating in the life of our society.

Aleksii’s speech was followed by that of the third deputy from the Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pitirim; in it, he specified how, exactly, the Church viewed the further development of perestroika and its own participation in the process:

“It is time to objectively evaluate the potential of a religious
worldview as a constructive factor in the process of economic and sociocultural
development…It is incontrovertible that the Church can find its place in
perestroika not only in the moral and spiritual spheres, but also in some
programs of economic development, ecology and book publishing, all aimed
at the confirmation of moral values…

The overall point is that by mid 1989, the Church leadership was quite openly optimistic about the future development of perestroika and the Church’s own participation in the process; it is important to note, however, that for the most part the expectations expressed were situated in the realm of social renewal, still only tentatively touching on political changes (never going as far as demanding the dismantling of the Party system, still less demanding compensation from the regime for the seventy years of atheistic repressions) and saying nothing whatsoever about market reforms.

In June 1989, however, the tone began to markedly move in the direction only tentatively outlined above by Patriarch Pimen, of expressing hope for concrete changes to the political system, aimed at rectifying the injustices of the communist regime. In June of that year, the Moscow Patriarchate formed a committee charged with “examining materials connected with the rehabilitation of clergy and laity […] repressed in the Soviet period. Thus, in contrast to the discourse in 1987, the rhetoric of the Church hierarchy moved from recognizing the Soviet regime as the optimal for the Church’s existence towards increasingly openly calling that regime oppressive, and, by implication, in need of demontage. True, in June 1989 this was still couched carefully in expressions such as “we are happy to participate in the renewal and building of a law-based state (implying that the present state is not law-based); at the same time, declarations in support of perestroika and the Church’s desire to participate in the process “of renewal” continued to pour forth from the Patriarchate along the lines described above until the fall, when the obvious general systemic crisis appeared to move at least some bishops towards the realization that it was perhaps time — and safe enough — to put forth the Church’s own vision of what kind of society perestroika should lead to, encompassing political, economic and social aspects of this question.

Significantly in this respect, in October 1989 the Council of Bishops issued a resolution “On Social Problems,” in which it called for the government to

“Think about new economic structures and mechanisms that would …
lead to the creation of such an economic and social order that would allow
for more effective and just development.

What, exactly, this should entail was expressed in a published report (“The Church in Relation to Society in Conditions of Perestroika”) to the same council by the then-archbishop of Smolensk, Kirill. According to Kirill,

“Society (read: the regime) should provide every citizen with the
opportunity to …. freely chose their way of life…raise children in correspondence
with their beliefs, to chose their own profession…to receive and exchange
information…We must emphasize the importance of the freedom of conscience…”

It is important to note that in the process of perestroika the Soviet regime had significantly, in fact, relaxed its restrictions in the spheres enumerated here, but had not, in fact, renounced past practices; thus Kirill’s program might be read as demanding if not the dismantling of the communist system then at least far-reaching transformations.

The death of Patriarch Pimen in early 1990 occasioned the convocation of a Local Council of the Russian Church (including representatives of the laity) for the election of a new Patriarch. Against expectations current at the time, the Council went beyond the ostensible reason for its convocation, on the one hand electing metropolitan Aleksii of Leningrad as the new Patriarch, while on the other, issuing what might be called program statements regarding the rapidly transforming situation in the USSR as it neared its death-throes. What stands out here is something that remained characteristic of the Moscow Patriarchate’s formally expressed understanding of the historical events of those years: the precise expectations regarding economic and political changes tend to remain relatively vague (“restructuring of the economy,” “democratization”), while the ongoing process is understood as “renewal” involving “spiritual healing,” one that is expected to continue in the foreseeable future.

Still, as the first year of Aleksii II’s patriarchate rolled out, the language of the official Church rhetoric became more and more openly critical of the communist regime’s past deeds (though always remaining supportive of M.S. Gorbachev’s endeavours). True, in his speech given at his first audience as patriarch with Gorbachev in June, immediately after the Local Council, Aleksii refrains from criticizing the regime and expresses gratitude and support to Gorbachev; at the same time, he expresses the expectations of the Church:

“We hope you understand the feelings of hope with which believers
await the adoption of the new law on freedom of conscience and religious
organizations, which, we hope, will bear witness before our own people and
before the international community the high level of democratization and
the maturity of the perestroika process in our country.

Aleksii’s careful rhetoric can be contrasted, however, to the polemics
emanating from the members of the Council that elected him. The issue of the
Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate that followed the publication of Aleksii’s
address to Gorbachev published the reminiscences of a number of Council delegates;
from the first of them the general tone of discourse about the preceding 70
years is one of approbation. For example, Metropolitan Anthony of Surouzh clearly
indicates that he views the past as “unfree” and the perestroika
era as a sudden, unexpected flash of freedom; his interview is followed by
that of Metropolitan Irenei of Vienna and Austria, who refers to the pre-Gorbachev
era as “likholetie,” a Russian word that roughly translates as “years
of woe.” For Archbishop Platon of Iaroslavl and Rostov, the country was
emerging from a period during which many traditions had been lost and which
had caused a great spiritual hunger. While some of the comments focused on
the immediate problems facing Soviet society, the delegates were consistent
in regarding the preceding years in a negative light. By
November of 1990, the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate was publishing polemical
articles in which the term “captivity of Babylon” was used to describe
the preceding seventy years of Soviet historyThe
same month, the new Patriarch published a “Word to my Co-Citizens” on
the occasion of the 73d anniversary of what had, so recently, been officially
referred to by the Moscow Patriarchate as the “Great October;” in
it, Aleksii gave an extremely critical assessment of the past seventy three
years, calling them a “bitter page” in the history of the country; significantly,
while the tone of expressed expectations during the last two years of the previous
patriarch’s life had been increasingly hopeful, Aleksii in this public
letter conveys the following sober thought:

“It will take a long time to fully understand the ills that led to
that disaster (i.e., 1917)…and it will take even longer for us to get overcome

Still, though the path ahead is expected to be difficult, Aleksii II’s Christmas Epistle in 1991 is full of the vision of the newly opening future:

“We are participants in the process of creating a genuinely democratic
country, in which every citizen will have the opportunity for a lifestyle
worthy of man…

Subsequently, in an interview to “Komsomol’skaia Pravda” in April 1991, the Patriarch opined that Soviet citizens must be “honestly forewarned that difficult times are beginning…” At the same time, if the country continues on the path of spiritual renewal, these “times of grief” might be shortenedIn any case, whatever the difficulties, there is no doubt in the Patriarchal Epistle at least that the rapidly approaching future will be better than the preceding 70 years.

During the remaining months of the Soviet Union’s existence, this mixture of belief in a positive end to the story of perestroika and a sobering understanding of the difficulties lying ahead remained characteristic of the “formal” Russian Orthodox rhetoric on the matter of what result to expect from the massive social/political/economic restructuring undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev. It is also strikingly visible in the last significant public statement made by Aleksii II under the ancien regime, that is, in his public epistle on August 23, 1991, in the immediate aftermath of the failed putsch. In this (in retrospect, remarkable) letter, Aleksii writes,

“The communist ideology, we are convinced, will never again be the
state ideology of Russia…the fruitless and bitter works of destruction (i.e.,
of the 70 years of communism, author’s note) must come finally to an
end: the ill man (Russia, author’s note) whose madness, for so many years,
evoked horror in all those surrounding him, has sat down at the feet of Christ
having recovered his mind (Luke 9, 35) and in a state of contrition. Russia
is beginning to heal! We all know that this path will not be short, nor easy,
but by the prayers of holy martyrs (reference to those murdered by the Soviet
regime, author’s note) I believe that it will not be for naught….My
dear ones, I congratulate you [on this day] of deliverance! (In Russian:
s radostiu osvobozhdenia vas).

Some Preliminary Conclusions

This paper has attempted to demonstrate the essential shifts in the formally expressed expectations of the Russian Orthodox Church during the last four years of the Soviet Union’s existence, in the context of perestroika. To briefly summarize, if in 1987, two years after perestroika was launched by the Soviet government, the Church appeared to expect that the regime was there to stay, without any significant changes to the system, as time went on, the ecclesiastical rhetoric became more and more critical of the regime’s recent history. By the same token, the Church began to greet the process of perestroika with enthusiasm and to stake out its own role in the ongoing transformations, as a potential source of moral values from which the country’s renewal might be fostered. Finally, by the time the system collapsed the Patriarchate greeted the event with undisguised joy, expressing cautious optimism about the future. The reasons for these changes in discourse remain outside the scope of this paper, which sought merely to map them; however, one might posit two (non-conflicting) explanations. The first may be that, after 1988 restrictions on freedom of speech were lifted in relation to the Church, the Orthodox hierarchy began to understand that for the first time in seven decades there would be no dangerous consequences involved in speaking truth to power; as a result, the official Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate began to publish texts that would have been impossible a year earlier. The second explanation has to do with the change in personalities, that is, with the death of Patriarch Pimen and the enthronement of Aleksii II, who immediately began to take a much bolder tone in both expressing the Church’s support for perestroika and in criticizing the regime’s past wrongs, as well as being much more straightforward regarding the Orthodox vision of the future. To conclude, then, one might hope that this preliminary study will be followed up by a similar enquiry into the “informal” expectations of ordinary believers during the same time period in Russia, to ascertain the degree to which the hierarchical discourse reflected a dialogue within all levels of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In the English language literature see, for example, Weigel, George The final revolution: the resistance church and the collapse of communism (New York: Oxford University Press), 1992; Diskin, Hana The seeds of triumph : church and state in Gomulka’s Poland ( Budapest; New York: Central European University Press), 2001. For its part, the Polish literature is growing rapidly.

The case of East Germany is somewhat of an exception here: see, for example, Burgess, John P. The East German church and the end of communism (New York: Oxford University Press), 1997.

Davis, Nathaniel A. Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003), xvii. Also, among other sources, Ellis, Jane The Russian Orthodox Church: A Contemporary History ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1986. See also the rapidly growing Russian language literature on the situation of believers under communism in the Soviet Union.

“Prediubileinoe Poslanie Sviateishego Patriarkha Moskovskogo i vseia Rusi Pimena i Sviashchennogo Sinoda arkhipastyriam, pastyriam, chestnomu inochestvu i vsem chadam Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi, vo Otechestve nashem i za ego predelami sushchim, k 1000-letiiu Kreshcheniia Rusi” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (February 1987), p.3.


“Otvety mitropolita Volokolamskogo i Iurievskogo Pitirima na voprosy italianskogo zhurnalista g-na Domeniko Kampany” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (October 1987), p. 4.

“Poslanie Sviateishego Patriarkha moskovskogo i vseia Rusi Pimena i Sviashchennogo Sinoda Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi Presoviashchennym arkhipastyriam, osviashchennomu kliru, chestnomu inochestvu I vsem vernym chadam Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi v sviazi s 70-letiem Velikoi Oktiabr’skoi Sotsialisticheskoi Revoliutsii” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (November 1987), p. 2. For other examples, see “Pozdravleniia Sviateishego Patriarkha Pimena po sluchaiu 70 – letiia Velikogo Otiabria: General’nomu sekretariu TsK KPSS Mikhailu Sergeevichu Gorbachevu” and “Predsedateliu Soveta Ministrov SSSR Nikolaiu Ivanovichu Ryzhkovu” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (December 1987): 4.

Ibid., p. 3

Aleksandr, arkhiepiskop Dmitrovskii “K 70-letiiu Velikogo Oktiabria: Russkaia Pravoslavnaia Tserkov v Novykh Istoricheskikh Usloviakh” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (November 1987): 5.

“Sovmestnoe Poslanie tserkovnykh rukovoditelei Sovetskogo Soiuza i Soedinennykh Shtatov Ameriki Prezidentu SShA Ronal’du Reiganu i General’nomu sekretariu TsK KPSS Mikhailu Gorbachevu po sluchaiu ikh vashingtonskoi vstrechi” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (March 1988): 4-5.

E.g., “Zasedanie Komissii Sviaschennogo Sinoda po podgotovke i provedeniiu prazdnovaniia 1000-letiia Kreshcheniia Rusi, Troitse-Sergieva Lavra, 29 dekabria 1987, Slovo Sviateishego Patriarkha Moskovskogo i vseia Rusi Pimena na otkrytii zasedaniia” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (March 1988): 13

“Arkhiereiskoe Predsobornoe Soveshchanie, sostoiavsheesia v Uspenskom khrame Novodevchiego monastyria 28-31 marta 1988 goda, Slovo Sviateishego Patriarkha Moskovskogo i vseia Rusi Pimena na otkrytii Soveshchaniia” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (June 1988): 3.

“Vstrecha General’nogo sekretaria TsK KPSS M.S. Gorbacheva s Patriarkhom Moskovskim i vseia Rusi Pimenom i chlenami Synoda Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (July 1988): 2-6.

“Poslanie Pomestnogo Sobora bogoliubivym pastyriam, chestnomu inochestvu i vsem vernym chadam Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (August 1988): 6.

“Obraschenie Pomestnogo Sobora K General’nomu Sekretariu TsK KPSS Mikhailu Sergeevichu Gorbachevu” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (August 1988): 9.

“Slovo Mitropolita Uvenalia” (April 1989): 6.

Ibid, p. 6.

“Slovo Sviateishego Patriarkha Pimena,” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (May 1989): 7

“Intervieu Sviateishego Patriarkha Pimena, Literaturnaia Gazeta, 1989, 15 March” (Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii July 1989)

“Vystuplenie narodnogo deputata SSSR mitropolita Aleksiia”. Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (September 1989): 6.

“Vystuplenie narodnogo deputata SSSR mitropolita Pitirima,” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (September 1989): 8.

“ komissii sviaschennogo sinoda” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (October 1989): 10


“Zaiavlenie Arkhiereiskogo Sobora Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi po Obshchestvennym Problemam” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (December 1989): 13

Kiril, Arkhiepiskop Smolenskii i Kaliningradskii “Tserkov’ v otnoshenii k obschestvu v usloviakh perestroiki” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (February 1990): 33

“ Poslanie Pomestnogo Sobora Vozliublennym o Gospode pastyriam, chestnym inokam i inokiniam i vsem vernym chadam Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (September 1990): 2.

“Slovo Patriarkha Moskovskogo i vseia Rusi Aleksiia II na Prieme u Prezidenta SSSR M.S. Gorbacheva, 12 iunia 1990 goda” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (September 1990): 27.

“Govoriat Uchastniki Sobora” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (October 1990): 15-18

Semenenko, Vladimir “Tserkov i Khristianskaia Obschestvennost’” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (November 1990): 35

“ Slovo k Sograzhdannam Sviateishego Patriarkha Moskovskogo i Vseia Rusi Aleksiia II, opublikovannoe v “Izvestiakh” 5 noiabria 1990 goda” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (December 1990): 2.


“Rozhdestvenskoe Poslanie Patriarkha Moskovskogo i vseia Rusi Aleksiia II arkhipastyriam, pastyriam i vsem vernym chadam Russkoi Pravsolavnoi Tserkvi” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (January 1991): 2

“Svet vo T’me: Interview Sviateishego Patirarkha Mostovskogo i vseia Rusi Aleksiia II ot 6 aprelia 1991 goda korrespondentu gazety “Komsomol’skaia Pravda” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (July 1991): 3.

“Poslanie Patriarkha Moskovskogo i vseia Rusi Aleksiia II arkipastyriam, pastyriam, monashestvuiushchim i vsem vernym chadam Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi” 23 august 1991” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii (October 1991): 4

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