The Politics of Ambivalence in the Russian Church – guest post

Small community church in Kaluga Region.

This is the first of a series of short posts about a new book (Varieties of Russian Activism) I have had the honour to co-edit with Andrei Semenov and Regina Smyth. Details at the end of the post.

John P. Burgess writes on grassroots church matters in Russia and has a chapter in the book. Material for this post was presented at a series Regina Smyth organized at Indiana University entitled “Russia at War”

Western media regularly report on Patriarch Kirill’s support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the media misjudge Kirill’s authority. They treat him as though he were a pope, whose word is law for the entire Russian Orthodox Church. To be sure, Kirill often seems to have this opinion of himself, and he has taken measures to centralize church power in his office. Nevertheless, these efforts have faced resistance. Bishops of dioceses and prominent priests in Moscow and elsewhere have learned how to carve out and protect a free space for themselves. None will speak out directly against Kirill or the war, but not all simply parrot his line. The range of opinion within the Church is even greater at the grassroots among ordinary priests and believers.

We might think of three categories: dissidents, true believers, and those who check the box, “difficulty in answering,” on public opinion surveys. The number of open dissidents is very small in a society in which public opposition to the war is strongly repressed. Soon after the invasion, about two hundred (out of 15,000) Russian Orthodox clergy signed an open letter calling on the government to cease hostilities. One signatory, Fr. Ioann Burdin, was arrested after a parishioner complained to the civil authorities about a sermon that Fr. Burden had preached against the war. A local court fined Burdin, and his bishop removed him from his post and instructed him to find another diocese in which to serve. Several other signatories have also been fined, and at least two have gone to the West, although others have faced no punitive measures, so long as they have refrained from further dissent in sermons or on social media.

At the other pole are those priests who gladly advertise themselves as true believers. They have actively supported the war effort, arguing, like the Patriarch, that the very existence of the nation is at stake. Some are prominent internet and media presences, such as Fr. Andrei Tkachev. They call on believers to donate money for projects in the Russian-occupied territories, to encourage enlistment in the armed forces, and to support new initiatives for patriotic education in schools, universities, and parishes.

Many ordinary priests and believers (the majority?), however, fall into a hard to define category. They privately express ambivalence about the war but refrain from public criticism. Their dominant reaction to the conflict is more like resignation than enthusiasm. Typical are comments such as, “the confrontation was probably inevitable,” or “the situation in the Donbass perhaps made a military intervention necessary,” allusions to the growing tensions between the two countries, especially since the Maidan Revolution of 2014. These church people want to be proud and supportive of their nation (and of the men going into war), but they are anxious that things may not turn out well, that Russia may again be humiliated, as it was when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Others, not knowing quite what to think or say—perhaps out of fear of repercussions, perhaps out of genuine confusion—nod their heads to the “special military operation” but refrain from taking an active pro-war position. Instead, they recommit themselves to doing what good they can in their small corners of the world: social ministries to recovering drug addicts, religious educational programs for children and adults, or restoration of church buildings that fell into disrepair in the communist days. These priests and believers will often say something like, “The Church should be above politics.”

Still others are too pressed by local concerns to worry much about church or state politics. The average priest in a rural village barely makes ends meet financially, and he serves people whose daily lives are often grindingly hard. Many lack access to good medical care (the average life expectancy of a Russian male is barely 65 years), are used to economic deprivation and personal setbacks, and fear that the world is passing them by, as young people move away and adopt new social values.

Jeremy Morris’ term “defensive consolidation” captures something of this mood. I call it “the politics of ambivalence.” Let me describe how it plays itself out in one diocese. The bishop still has warm memories of the hospitality that he received on a visit to the United States twenty years ago. He has many professional and personal connections to Ukraine and in recent years has expressed dismay at the growing political tensions. He once said, “What has happened is like a bad divorce. I think that Russians and Ukrainians will find a way to live together again, but it will take several generations.”

While faithfully posting Patriarch Kirill’s pro-war pronouncements, the diocesan website emphasizes local church events, not the war. The bishop’s own statements, reported by local media but not posted on the site, have been circumspect. He has noted that Russian attacks on Ukraine have come back to “hit us here at home,” referring to Ukrainian missile and drone strikes within Russia, sometimes damaging churches in border areas. He emphasizes the diocese’s humanitarian work, especially in providing food and medicine to refugees (primarily women and children) from eastern Ukraine and helping them relocate. He recently reported that dozens of Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) priests have fled to Russia from areas that the Ukrainian army has reoccupied. They were afraid that they would be accused of collaboration, because they had helped Russian military authorities distribute food and clothing to the local populace.

What emerges from this particular diocese is a picture of the many different sides of the war as the bishop’s flock experiences it. The bishop would not think of challenging the Patriarch or the President, but neither does he talk like a “true believer.” Indeed, it is hard to know exactly where he stands. Even if he were opposed to the war (and I do not know that he is), he would regard public protest as counterproductive. What he does emphasize is his pastoral concern for the little people affected by the conflict. He wants his priests and parishes to continue their constructive, everyday work of worship and service.

Western critics of Russia and its church would like to see more dissidents—and perhaps Russia cannot change until there are. But it seems to me that many Russians, even those born after 1991, have learned the Soviet art of going with the flow publicly, while personally remaining ambivalent about the official state or church line. In the worst case, this ambivalence results in paralysis. People hunker down and quit thinking about others and their needs. I am convinced, however, that in some cases ambivalence impels creativity: the creation of spaces in which people commit themselves to acting humanely and therefore in quiet contrast to the hatred that rages around them.

The politics of ambivalence does not change the course of the war, but to many Russians it seems the only viable alternative to active, public support.

Book details:

Download/Print Leaflet

Varieties of Russian Activism

State-Society Contestation in Everyday Life

Edited by Jeremy MorrisAndrei Semenov and Regina Smyth

Contributions by Katie L. StewartMadeline McCannCarola NeugebauerIrina ShevtsovaDaniela ZupanIrina Meyer-OlimpievaKatherine HitchcockJohn P. BurgessAnna ZhelninaAnna A. DekalchukIvan S. GrigorievEleonora MinaevaJan Matti DollbaumGuzel YusupovaElena SirotkinaJeremy MorrisAndrei Semenov and Regina Smyth

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Ambivalence in the Russian Church – guest post

  1. Bohdan Khmelnytsky

    “The range of opinion within the Church is even greater at the grassroots among ordinary priests and believers.”

    “Many ordinary priests and believers (the majority?), however, fall into a hard to define category. ”

    How do you know this is the view of “many”, let alone the majority (of both priests and believers!)?

    Let’s assume one believes that “mainstream” views on sociological polling of Russians’ opinion on colonialism and genocide (in Ukraine, but not only) is fundamentally flawed. Typical arguments for this include allegedly weak methodology, alleged inability of polling to handle such complex issues and lack of broad “bottom up” mobilization.

    If the first two points are true, how do you know an alleged majority “fall into a hard to define category”? It goes both ways, no?

    With the third point, I don’t see a conflict between supporting the invasion of Ukraine and the destruction of its culture while not wanting to actually risk your life doing so. On the contrary, this seems like a very rational take.

    I also don’t understand what is so “hard to define” about this category.

    The article itself clearly states that the members of this grouping support the Russian army. Do the members of this group think that the Russian army is going on a picnic to Ukraine? Or perhaps they want to buy some watermelons in Kherson and go on a trip to the Oleshky Sands National Park? What is so ambiguous about their views?

    For any Ukrainian (more so if you have relatives who had to leave Donbas in 2014 to avoid the Russian invasion) statements such “the situation in the Donbas perhaps made a military intervention necessary,” tells you everything you need to know about their views.

    And what of this “politics of ambivalence”? What’s the message here? This a damning take on Russian society. What it implies is that even if you believe that the genocidal-chauvinist core is a mere plurality at best (I personally disagree, but I digress), the overwhelming majority of the rest of the Russian society will always go through with actions of this genocidal-chauvinist core, no matter what.

    Even in the age of universal sub ~10 second smartphone access to fully uncensored Telegram and YouTube (I am not even bringing in VPNs or Tor into the picture), the allegedly “hard to define” majority is still more than happy to support and justify Russia’s invasion of Donbas and the whole of Ukraine.

    Very hard to define, indeed!


    1. Jeremy Morris Post author

      Dear ‘Bohdan’, this is a guest post, so I can’t answer for the author. However, if you read my blog you will know that most of these topics you raise are covered by me elsewhere. ‘Trust’ in the Russian Armed forces was high before the war, as an institution and so ‘support for the army’ can certainly be simultaneously true at the same time as people not supporting the invasion and aggression. I have written repeatedly that while chauvinistic sentiment exists, it is nowhere near a plurality. This does not absolve anyone, nor does it deny any reality of Ukrainians’ suffering or victimhood. The blog tries to present a realistic and objective picture of Russian society. There are very few people willing to do this work. While it would be easier (I’m not going to say ‘comforting’) to believe in the ‘genocidal’ core of Russian society, the reality is much more banal. Just as in many wars.



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