Interviews Moscow Patriarchate Papkova, Irina Politics

We Should Focus on Strengthening ROCOR Internally

Irina Papkova

Dr. Irina Papkova is interviewed on the topics of Russian Church-State relations, the potential role of the Church in the Russian political and social spheres, and the process and implications of the reunification of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR).

Irina Papkova is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Central European University. She received an MA in Russian and East European Studies from Georgetown University in 2002; and completed her Ph.D. in Comparative Politics from Georgetown University in 2006. She has taught at Georgetown, George Washington University, and the Russian State Pedagogical University of A. I. Gerzen. Her research interests include religion and politics, nationalism and ethnic conflict, the politics of development and democratization, and the cultural impact of globalization; and the political implications of historical memory. Her regional focus is Eurasia and Eastern Europe. Papkova’s publications include, among others, “The Russian Orthodox Church and Political Party Platforms” in Journal of Church & State and “Notes on Recent Scholarship on Orthodoxy and Politics in Russia” in the spring 2008 issue of Kritika : “Explorations in Russian History and Culture.” Her manuscript Russian Politics and the Orthodox Church is currently under contract to Oxford University Press/Woodrow Wilson Center Press. Prior to coming to CEU, Papkova held the position of Title VIII Research Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. From March to August 2008 she held the Junior Robert Bosch Fellowship at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, where she worked on a study of grass-roots fundamentalism in the Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe.

Please tell us about your background and explain how you happened to do what you are doing.

My family, as you know, is second emigre Russian, very much involved in the religious life of the Russian community in the US. On my father’s side, we count almost four generations of priests – my father is one, as were both my great and great-great grandfather. The missing link, my grandfather, was also involved in the church, as an iconographer. Also on the side of my father, the family is related, tangentially, to St. Nicholas of Japan. My great-grandfather, father Aleksandr Papkov, can fairly be considered a confessor for the faith, as he spent half a year in prison in 1937 just for being a priest, and died very soon after his release, his health having been destroyed. On my mother’s side, my grand father was a well-known priest in Boston, Massachusetts – he played a fairly important role in the process of reconciliation between the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and the Moscow Patriarchate. So the tradition of not only belonging to the Church but also of being involved in its “administrative” life is a strong one in my family. I suppose if I were male, I might have chosen the path of priesthood. In any case, when it came time for me to decide what I was going to write about as my doctoral dissertation, I hesitated for a long time before choosing to write about the Russian Orthodox Church, since this seemed to me to be a topic that was too “intimate,” if you will. So I initially thought to write about judicial reform in Russia. But then I thought that I should write about something that I am truly passionate about, and to tell you the truth, much of my energy in the late 1990s and early 2000s was occupied by this question of relations between ROCOR and the MP (as was the energy of many people at the time in the Church). I was particularly interested in the place of the state within this debate. So I thought, I am tired of this topic, perhaps I should write something about it and then that will cure me of this overwhelming interest in it, in other words, perhaps I will get it out of my system. And I was very lucky, in finding an excellent academic advisor at Georgetown, who helped me along this path, together with a very supportive doctoral committee. So I defended, finally, the dissertation in 2006, and then spent a few years sporadically working on turning it into a book, which is now accepted for publication and should see the light of day sometime this fall. Since then I have, without meaning to, become seen as someone who knows something about this topic, which means being invited to conferences and saying wise words about “Orthodoxy and politics,” “Orthodoxy and capitalism,” “Orthodoxy and modernity,” etc., all things I can say something about but about which, to be honest, I find myself caring less and less these days – I have a feeling that I have said what I want to say about the topic in the book, and once it is officially published I will be free to write about other things that interest me, and that are not directly related to Orthodoxy in Russia. Although, of course, I still care deeply about what happens in the Church itself, and about the impact of political developments in Russia and elsewhere on the Church’s temporal future. (Since of course God, not the state, is ultimately responsible for the Church’s path through eternity, but that is another level of discussion).

You say that for the past fifteen years or so you have been very concerned about relations between the Church in the homeland and in the diaspora. Now we are united. What opportunities and challenges does this union present, from the point of view of the ROCOR?

Let me begin with the opportunities. First, I believe that the union with the Moscow Patriarchate has already vastly widened the opportunities for ROCOR parishioners to engage with the broader Orthodox world. From the 1970s onward, the Church Abroad was on a quite insular path, and our young people in particular grew up for the most part without realizing that they have Orthodox peers, in the Greek and Serbian communities, for example. So there was a sense of isolation, on the one hand, and on the other, a sense that we’re better than everyone else (mostly because we did not KNOW anyone else). The restoration of communion with Moscow has opened the doors to communion and interaction with other Churches, in a very healthy way, I think. Second, I believe that the union has stopped the tendency within ROCOR parishes towards disintegration and I would even say, degradation, that was quite evident from already the early 1990s; if you look around the “map” of ROCOR parishes you will, I think, clearly see that those parishes that were already strong before the union have only become stronger as a result, and that those parishes that were in a weaker position (materially, for example, or in terms of the number of people) have begun to grow. In other words, the union has acted as a sort of energy booster, if you forgive the term – after years of stagnation, you feel a real energy in the ROCOR parishes, particularly among young people. Also, in terms of opportunities, there is the obvious benefit for our clergy, who are able to now not just interact with their peers in Russia but also to take an active part in shaping the Church’s future, for example, by participating now in various Synodal commisions (and of course our bishops participate in the Bishops’ Councils) which was never possible before. Moving on now to challenges, I think that the main challenge is in the cognitive realm – we still don’t know each other very well; if prior to 2007 there were many negative stereotypes on both sides, now there are too many positive ones, I would say. I think we need to be very realistic, and understand that yes, we have joined in a spiritual union with the Moscow Patriarchate, which is wonderful and very important. But the Patriarchate is also a human organization run by people who may not, at times, understand ROCOR’s situation very well, and who have their own interests which may sometimes conflict with ROCOR’s interests as they are understood by our own leadership. And there are some traditions of ours that would be nice to hold on to, even if there is pressure from Russia to conform to the dominant fashions there – for example, in the realm of church singing, there are some things that I think we do better; also, in the realm of literal fashion, there is a tendency to emulate Russia, for instance, suddenly there is an insistence on all women wearing head coverings all the time, which was never the case before. Or such things as fasting, where the rules in the Patriarchate seem to be a bit more strict than within ROCOR – I am not sure this is something we should necessarily emulate (not because I think we should not strive to be ascetics, but because I think that one of the best things about ROCOR is the understanding of the value of moderation in all things, which is something that the Moscow Patriarchate could learn from us). Finally, I know that there is still some concern about the Patriarchate “taking over,” administratively, but at this point I don’t believe that this is a serious concern, the Patriarchate is I think sincere in not intending to impose direct rule from Moscow – it is too much of a hassle, it would require a lot of personnel and funds that they do not have to spare at the moment. But I do think that we should focus on strengthening ROCOR internally, for example by raising the level of education of our priests, by doing something about the often sad financial situation of the parishes, in order to be able to maintain the degree of autonomy that we currently have.

You recently wrote a review, “Saving the Third Rome,” on Fr. Tikhon Shevkunov’s documentary, The Fall of the Empire: the Lesson of Byzantium. In that article you cited Aleksandr Musin’s judgment that “Father Tikhon had clearly not learned the negative lesson from Byzantium regarding the destructive consequences of a too-close relationship between church and state.” Do you see any trends within the Russian Church Abroad to start to analyze Russian historical past without idealizing either pre-revolutionary or post-Soviet Russia, especially regarding relations between the Church and the Russian State?

This is a tricky question. You’re right that members of ROCOR have historically tended to romanticize pre-Revolutionary Russia. This was obvious in the details – as a child, I attended “Russian School” in Nyack, NY, at the time one of the best schools of its kind. We learned all about Russian history – from pre-revolutionary textbooks for children, that had been reprinted in the emigration. Naturally, as it was a textbook sponsored by the imperial state, you can imagine the tendentious contents (not to say that we were taught lies – clearly not, only facts presented in a certain light). So I know that my generation of ROCOR grew up with this view of pre-Revolutionary Russia as a sort of utopia, and that this view was fairly widespread in the older generations, naturally enough. In my case, it took reading the entire works of Anton Chekhov to make me question this viewpoint – I remember thinking to myself, that if he was really accurately portraying social reality in early 20th century Russia, then it was no surprise at all that the Revolution happened when it did. In any case, do I think that this tendency to idealize pre-Revolutionary Russia is changing? I am not sure – my impression is that people no longer care about it quite as much as they used to. Part of it may be that the older generations of emigres has died out, and there is less of an immediate connection with that past – especially important is the death of prominent members of the Romanov family. Let me explain a little what I mean – when I was growing up around Jordanville, we had relatively frequent visits to the monastery by HRH Vera Konstantinovna, and by the grand-son of Alexander III, Tikhon Nikolaevich Kulikovski. So the link to the pre-Revolutionary past was immediate – you saw these personalities and through them were able to imagine the “Russia that we lost.” But then they – and more importantly, Grand Prince Vladimir Kirillovich – passed away and the next generation of royalty has not been nearly as prominent, it seems to me, in the social life of ROCOR. So there is, I think, a diminution of interest in pre-Revolutionary Russia and hence less idealization – it’s not a subject that many people care about any more. In terms of the second half of your question (do people idealize post-Soviet Russia) – there are contradictory trends. On the one hand, there is a strong tendency, I think, particularly among the relatively younger clergy and parishioners, to idealize the situation over there, especially the Putin/Medvedev years. I think this has to do in part, at least, with the fact that many people of this category have been able to live in Russia and sometimes to work there (usually in wealthy Moscow-based firms) and that the Russian circles they’ve been in contact with have generally been well-to-do, well-connected with the government and also with the powers-that-be within the Moscow Patriarchate. So there is some blindness induced by being too close to the sources of power and influence over in Russia. Also, especially after the reunion with the Patriarchate, you can see some clergy members frankly losing some of their objectivity and blindly accepting as truth any information they are given by their Moscow counterparts, especially in terms of church-state relations over there. (None of this is to say that church-state relations in Russia are not objectively good at the moment, but this is perhaps the subject of another question). At the same time, as I understand it, some clergy and (fewer) parishioners are starting to take a much more realistic view of the Russian situation, perhaps even one that could be characterized as disillusioned and at times too pessimistic. But my feeling is that so far they are in a minority. So that is the general answer to your question, about interpretations of Russian history. A brief word about the more specific question regarding understandings of the church-state relationship. Here, I think that in general the understanding of pre-Soviet history is, in ROCOR, not one that necessarily idealizes the past, at least not the Synodal period. Obviously it’s felt to have been much better than the subsequent communist period, but it is broadly recognized that there were problems in the system that at least partially contributed to the unfortunate outcome of the 1917 Revolution. But I do think that the present-day relationship does tend to be idealized, certainly, and since 2007, markedly more so.

High representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church seem to have actively supported Russian foreign policy, while taking a generally passive stance regarding Russia’s own social problems. Does this judgment seem fair, and if so, what impact does it have on Russians in diaspora?

I have to disagree with this assessment, actually. It is true that the foreign-oriented aspect of the activities of the Moscow Patriarchate is highly prominent, in both the secular and (official) religious Russian media. Among other things, this has created three impressions, one correct and two incorrect. The first is that the Patriarchate, generally speaking, seeks to expand its overseas positions with the help (or at least the moral support) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This impression is correct, in most cases. The second impression is that this makes the Patriarchate into something like a tool of the Foreign Ministry, an assessment that is not, I think, fair. There is not enough space here to fully develop my argument about this, but one example will suffice to make the point: despite quite intense pressure from the Russian government, the Patriarchate has not accepted the parishes of the South Ossetian Orthodox diocese under its omophorion, preferring to take the position that those parishes belong to the canonical territory of the Georgian Church and that the Patriarchate has no right to them, even if Russia has for all intents and purposes annexed that part of Georgia. As to the third impression, it is that, precisely, the Patriarchate takes a more passive stance at home than it does domestically. This, however, ignores the countless statements emanating from official patriarchal offices on an almost daily basis – without exaggeration, if one watches Russian news with any regularity, one will frequently see the following scene: the announcer reports on a major domestic issue, then the camera goes to a clergyman (often but not always either Father Andrei Kuraev or Father Vsevolod Chaplin) who comment on that event from the Church’s point of view. In fact, I think it is ironic that on the one hand there are voices calling for the Church to be more involved in critiquing (or at least reacting to) the ills of current Russian society, but when the Church does so, very often its answer is not one that the liberal intelligentsia (for example) wants to hear, and suddenly the Patriarchate is charged with wanting to clericalize Russian society. (I think there is a danger of clericalism, but not because the Church is speaking out more and more on social issues – but this may be a topic for another question). Finally, I want to end this discussion with an observation – when people call on the Russian Orthodox Church to take an active stance regarding Russia’s social problems, what does this mean exactly? It is funny, I heard this exact criticism yesterday, during an academic exchange at my university, from a non-Orthodox Russian colleague. And it occurred to me, that okay, if people want the Church to say more about Russia’s social problems, perhaps there is a problem of communication, maybe the Patriarchate should spend more resources bringing its message to the population – not everyone, after all, reads the website of the Patriarchate, or, or watches TV, for that matter. So somehow the Patriarchate maybe needs to make its positions more accessible, so to speak. But there is another way in which one can interpret “active stance,” and that is simply not wasting time on speeches, but going into the fray, battling poverty, disease, alcoholism, etc., through the daily action of priests and parishioners, as they visit the sick, set up Orthodox hospitals and drug clinics, gather food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, visit the prisons. And in this respect, I firmly believe that the Church, if it’s understood to encompass more than just its official spokesmen, is taking an active stance regarding Russia’s social problems, not perhaps criticizing them in polemical tracts but rather identifying problems on the local level and doing the best it can, with limited resources, to alleviate them.

You mentioned the problem of clericalism. How would you define this phenomenon? And what problems do you think it might cause, both in Russia and in the Russian parishes abroad?

As far as I can define clericalism, it is when a religious institution begins to take on the character of being dominant not just socially, but politically. The most obvious example here is Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1979; a more nuanced version might be the dominance of the American Religious Right in the politics of the last decade, at least pre-Obama. In the Russian case, the nearest thing one might think of is the situation as it was under Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, where the church was not just the most important social organization but was, due to the political activism of the Patriarch, the most important political force as well, at least for a while. And we all recall what this led to – the unfortunate schism and the abolition of the patriarchate by Aleksei Mikhailovich’s son Peter I. The dangers, at least for Russia, I think, are that there is a definite tendency within some church quarters to seek a truly political role for the church; this may, of course, come from a sincere desire to use the church’s influence in order to make Russia a better state, if you will – this, of course, is laudable, but the result, I am afraid, is that in this case “Russia” may become the center of church life, and not Christ. There are three possible outcomes here. One, my misgivings are misplaced and the church may actually have a positive influence on the state, without at the same time losing its own central mission of saving souls. I hope that this is what happens, in fact. But there are two other possibilities, neither of which I would wish on us. The first is that the church leadership oversteps the boundaries and, just as with Aleksei Mikhailovich, a state that was previously friendly and willing to take the church seriously, suddenly turns on it once the church goes too far with its demands. The second possibility is that the church becomes all powerful, and people begin to react to it as they would to any all-powerful institution – with envy, suspicion and eventually, hatred. The Russian people have a history of turning on their church – the 20th century is a bloody witness to this. I am afraid that if the church becomes too obviously a political force, and if the church leadership forgets itself and begins to behave like politicians and not pastors, then this might turn many Russian citizens away from it. I hope, sincerely, that I am wrong about this. As far as the dangers for the diaspora part of the church, I don’t see any problems – the question is one of the relationship of the church with the specifically Russian state, and it is impossible to see analogous situations in the United States, for example, or anywhere else, really. The only thing that might be a problem would be if people in ROCOR suddenly decided that the church is too close to the state and decided to split off in schism (since this was, after all, one of the major obstacles to reunification before 2007). But here, ironically, one of the factors we’ve talked about before in this interview might act as a counterweight – as I’ve mentioned, there is a tendency in ROCOR to view the present day Russian situation through rose-colored glasses, and this would, at least today, prevent parishioners and priests from veering into a hyper-critical, and then schismatic, mode.

Thank you, Dr. Papkova, for taking the time for this interview, and we look forward to continuing this conversation.


  • Thank you to Deacon Andrei for posing these questions (that we all think about but don`t discuss enough), and to Dr. Papkova for her insights! I don`t have her email, but would like to wish her God`s help in her work. Xristos Voskrese, Irina! Bog v pomosch!

  • I look forward to the publication of your book this fall. Keep up the good work Irina! XB! o. Alexander

  • I read the interview with Dr Papkova with especially keen interest, having met her in the early 1990`s and knowing her parents personally.

  • Many thanks for the interview with Dr. Papkova. I was very happy to see that she perceives Anton Chekhov as one who was revealing, if only partially, the condition of the Orthodox Church in Russia prior to the revolution. Should you be interested, I have a article on Chekov on our parish website, In it I try to show among other things( without using the more familiar stories such as The Bishop, The Letter, Easter Night and The Murder) his fidelity to Christ and his emphasis on the intercommunion of persons.

  • Russian Orthodox Christians in the diaspora all desire that the people of contemporary Russia have the opportunity to experience the fullness of the saving Grace of Orthodox Christianity and that they, benefiting from it personally, may heighten and enrich the overall standard of spiritual life for all in Russia and in the world. Dr. Irena Papkova has both revealed truths concerning this subject and has challenged us to look deeper into ourselves and, as fellow Orthodox Russophiles, to do all we can to live up to our common heritage, faith, and history.

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