Nick Cohen vs Patriarch Kirill of Moscow

Also: Bishop of London is “silly and faintly disgraceful”

In the wake of the Pussy Riot sentencing, yesterday’s Observer saw Nick Cohen draw attention to the book Freedom and Responsibility: A Search for Harmony, by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow:

If its Amazon ranking is a guide, hardly any English reader has glanced at it, which is a pity because although the cleric’s arguments are drear when they are not repellent, they provide as a good an illustration as any of how opposition to human rights can be covered with smells and bells.

“The most fundamental conflict of our present era is the clash between the liberal mode of civilisation on the one hand and national culture and religious identity on the other,” Kirill begins…. I must emphasise that by liberalism the patriarch does not mean rampant individualism but any human society that tolerates “sin” providing sinners “remain within the law of land and do not harm others”. No charge is too wild to throw at such hell holes. “The human rights concept is used to cover up lies, falsehood and insults against religion and national values,” Kirill fumes. Secularism is diseased – “infected with the bacillus of self-destruction”. Secular countries allow women to control their fertility and tolerate homosexuality. They are nominally free “but defenceless against evil”.

The cleric barely makes an effort to disguise how Russia’s dark traditions of occidentalism and antisemistim have influenced his thought. Universal values are the product of a malign, alien ideology that comes from the western “protestant” theologians and – but, of course – “Jewish philosophers”.

…The English translation of Kirill’s fulminations carries a foreword by Richard Chartres, the silly and faintly disgraceful Anglican Bishop of London. He offers no criticism of the patriarch. Instead, he praises his “acute intelligence”.

Freedom and Responsibility is published in the UK by the respected mainstream religious publishing house of Darton, Longman and Todd. The Russian Orthodox Church website carries a notice about the book’s launch:

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk and Bishop Richard Chartres of London joined forces at the London Book Fair today to launch the first-ever book in English of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. Entitled ‘Freedom and Responsibility, a Search for Harmony – Human Rights and Personal Dignity’, it is also a first joint venture between the English religious publishing house Darton, Longman and Todd and the Publishing House of the Moscow Patriarchate. 

…Welcoming guests to the event, Metropolitan Hilarion, who heads the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Affairs expressed the Patriarch’s and his own delight at this publication, which clearly articulates the mind of the Russian church on the key issues of the place of religion in organized social life, and of the religious and moral values which are essential to the maintaining of civilized society. The current global debate on these issues is one which the Russian Orthodox Church feels compelled and entitled to join. Having had first-hand experience of the disastrous consequences of the curtailment of religious expression in society, the Patriarch is fearful of is fearful of this situation being repeated in Western Europe.

…Dr Richard Chartres, who as Anglican Bishop of London is the third most senior bishop in the Church of England, with a close relationship to the British Parliament and the monarchy, expressed his admiration for Metropolitan Kirill, as a man of courage and clear-sightedness, who has played a key role in bringing the Russian church into its front-line position in Russian society and into the wider debate on the Christian role in contemporary society. He recommended the book as one of the best introductions to the contemporary Russian religious mind, and hoped that there would be more such publications in English to follow.

In the case of Pussy Riot, the observation that “Patriarch Kirill appeared annoyed by calls for leniency” should be balanced against church statements urging clemency; however, church figures do have a tendency to cry “hatred” when faced with satire or criticism. Back in June, church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin suggested “that people who kindle hatred should feel the tough power of law rather than pay fines”; this was prompted by a stage show that made fun of the incident in which an expensive wrist-watch was photoshopped out of an image of the patriarch on the church’s website.

Kirill has also come under criticism for referring to Putin’s rule as a “miracle of God”:

Kirill called opposition demands to “ear-piercing shrieks” and said the protesters represented a minority of Russians. He said Western consumer culture was admired by many of Putin’s opponents and was a major threat to Russia.

This partisanship could perhaps be indulged as the view of an older man who remembers the grim days of Communist terror and post-Communist chaos, and who is thankful for a bit of apparent stability; but what excuse can there be for his gushing enthusiasm for Alexander Lukashenko, the brutal dictator of Belarus?

As regards the Patriarch’s book, there is no Amazon or Google Books preview, and I’ve learned to be wary of polemical reviews that reduce a book to a few unhappy quotations. In particular, I’d like to see rather more context for the reference to “Jewish philosophers” – I’ve seen no evidence that Kirill is anti-Jewish, and I find it difficult to believe that DLT would allow material of that sort.

However, the general authoritarian strand that Cohen detects is certainly very present in current Russian Orthodox thinking; I’ve noted it myself in the person of Vladimir Yakunin, a layman who is close to Putin and who runs Russia’s railways. Reports describe him variously as an “Orthodox Christian Chekist” and as “the Kremlin’s model Orthodox businessman”. Yakunin’s authoritarianism was in evidence back in January, when he denounced anti-Putin protestors as having “no connection with democracy”. Last year, as co-chair of the World Public Forum (alongside – oddly – a Greek-American businessman with close links to Gen William “Jerry” Boykin and other figures in the US Christian Right), he opined on the “incompatibility between the neo-liberal interpretation of the system of human rights and the system of human values”, noting that “the universal urge to have the ‘freedom’ to say ‘anything and in any form’ has a temporary character and is beginning to fade away”.