Priest Andre Papkov

"The Russian Orthodox Church During the Soviet Era"

From 1990 to 2002, I visited Russia over twenty times, and the entire time I spent there totals around a year and a half. Based on everything I have seen and heard, and also what I have read, I will touch upon matters which are being discussed with such anxiety here.

Events in the life of the Church in the 1920's and 1930's occurred long ago and far away. In complete safety here and now, we cannot comprehend the enormity of that terror, it is difficult for us to grasp its reality. In order to understand it more fully, let us transport ourselves through time and space to the office of an NKVD prosecutor, where a priest is being interrogated, pressured to sign a rejection of the Orthodox Church and join the Living Church. Neither coaxing nor threats persuade this loyal servant of Christ. And then, the truly demonic torture begins. The small son of the priest runs into the room, joyfully throwing himself into the arms of his father, who is given one more opportunity to sign the renunciation. He refuses, and his son is taken to the next room, where his gut-wrenching cry is heard: "Oh, Papa, Papa, it hurts... Papa, they are breaking my hands!" And the poor father cannot bear it and signs the document. This story was tearfully told to me many times by Vladyka Nektarii (Kontzevich) of blessed memory, adding that those who did not experience this have no moral right to judge those who broke under torture. We have only to thank God that this cup has passed us by... so far.

As we know, the wounds inflicted upon the body of the Russian Church during the Soviet era, which even now are an obstacle to our reconciliation, are Sergianism and Ecumenism. Let us briefly visit each.

And so, Sergianism. What is it? Our Supreme Church Authorities have not yet defined this clearly for us, but it seems that no one would argue if we were to describe it as weak-willed cooperation of the clergy with the atheist state in the face of danger. Yesterday, the word "servility" was tossed about. Today the term "accommodation" comes to mind. And despite the fact that some unfortunate writers, following Metropolitan Vitaly's example, write about the "heresy of Sergianism," this does not exist in nature, for Sergianism lacks a dogma or teaching. Sergianism is not a teaching, but a mode of behavior, as Vladyka Peter said yesterday. We believe, together with Metropolitan Anastassy (as was mentioned yesterday), that the personal sin of the weakness of Metropolitan Sergius does not extend to the clergymen who, as a matter of ecclesiastical discipline, commemorated him; many of these very same clerics, who displayed no weakness in spirit, who did not depart into the Living Church and did not reject Christ, accepted the crown of martyrdom. Bold is the accusation made in polemical fervor that the murdered clergymen who commemorated Metropolitan Sergius are deprived of the crown of martyrdom. At the same time, the words of St. Apostle Paul are recalled: "And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully" (2 Tim 2:5). Such a cruel and distorted interpretation of the Apostle's words sounds monstrous, yet such judgments have been heard.

Now a few words on the Russian Church and ecumenism. A tree is known by its fruits. The fruits of ecumenism as they are seen in the West, in so-called Orthodox "jurisdictions" are: the weakening of the personal Christian labors of prayer and fasting, enfeeblement in the discipline of divine service, departure into modernist theology (besides individual personal opinions): these I have not seen in the Russian Church. On the contrary, in the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate I have seen a much greater adherence to church rule than in our church life here.

I wish to recall an incident which occurred within the walls of the Moscow Theological Academy some five years ago. I am certain that Protopriest Maksim Kozlov knows this better than I, and if I miss something, I ask to be corrected. A meeting was held of the Academy's students with the President of the World Council of Churches, Pastor Konrad Reiser, and the Parisian theology professor Nikolai Lossky (there is an audio recording of this meeting). After speeches by the two, there was a question-and-answer period, during which the students, in a firm and abrupt manner, declared that the lecturers' presentations have nothing in common with Christian teaching, and that the participation of the Russian Church in the WCC was unjustifiable. It was also stated that the priests who attend the assemblies of the World Council of Churches represent not the Russian Church but only themselves personally. I recall that Nezavisimaya Gazeta [�Independent Newspaper�] reacted to this statement by saying that "the Russian Church once again showed its beastly face." Still, we are far more interested in the declaration of the Rector of the Academy, Archbishop Evgenii, which resounded at the end of this meeting. Vladyka stated that the voice of the future pastors of the Russian Orthodox Chuch were heard at this meeting, that they are the future of our Church, and that one could draw the appropriate conclusions from these declarations. In other words, "Who hath ears to hear, let him hear."

In the matter of our relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate, the position of Bishop Afanasii (Sakharov) is of interest. For those who do not know his biography, I will refer to some numbers from the notes he left not long before his death:

Of his 33 years as a bishop, he spent:

  • 2 years, 9 months on his cathedra
  • 2 years and 8 months free, but not occupying his position
  • 6 years and 7 months in exile
  • 22 years in prison and hard labor

Despite his sufferings, this giant of the spirit always abided in spiritual joy and constantly displayed God's love for his neighbor. Moreover, the strength of his spirit was expressed in the fact that even under the worst circumstances he did not cease to labor over liturgical work, including the constant editing of the service for All Russian Saints, feeling that this obedience, laid upon him by the Moscow Sobor [Council] of 1917-18 was not lifted even in prison and concentration camp. Vladyka Afanasii condemned the actions of Metropolitan Sergius, distanced himself from him and never returned, considering him a usurper of Metropolitan Peter's authority. When Patriarch Alexii I was elected in 1945, Bishop Afanasii recognized him as the lawful head of the Russian Church and began to commemorate him. This recognition, however, was not a condition of his release. Vladyka Afanasii was in fact released from camp 10 years later, in 1955. In recognizing the patriarch, he wrote: �There is no other First Hierarch in the Russian Church besides Patriarch Alexii. He was recognized by all the Eastern Patriarchs... I dare not reject him.�

This statement is almost identical to the Ukase No. 650 of 1945 by Saint John of Shanghai, in which he uses the same expressions. Bishop Afanasii gave a spiritual evaluation inconsistent with the zealous detractors of the Moscow hierarchy:

"The crude accusations against the so-called Sergianist churches and the divine services performed in them, I feel, are blasphemies against the Holy Spirit... True zealousness for the faith cannot unite with malice. Where there is malice, Christ is absent... this is a great sin, an unforgivable sin, this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Blessedness."

In conclusion, I wish to recall one little-known matter which binds the themes of Sergianism and ecumenism, something I learned at St. Tikhon Theological Institute in Moscow. The pressure exerted by the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union upon the Russian Church in the matter of its joining the World Council of Churches began in 1955. And only in 1961, after the death of Metropolitan Nikolai, the Moscow Patriarchate joined this organization. What of the 6 years in between? It turns out that a silent but desperate battle was being fought between the powerful godless state apparatus and two elderly archpastors on the other; Patriarch Alexii I and Metropolitan Nikolai. I cannot bring myself to call this anything other than a podvig [spiritual struggle].

Thank you.

Priest Andre Papkov


Official website of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia
Copyright © 2019
Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
Republication or retransmission of materials must include the reference:
"The Official Website of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia."
75 East 93rd Street
New York NY 10128 U.S.A.
Tel: (212) 534-1601
E-mail for content information: englishinfo@synod.com
E-mail for technical information: webmaster@synod.com