On Dec. 25, the world lost one of the bravest Orthodox critics of the church’s rightward trend, Fr. Gleb Yakunin, to a long illness at the age of 80. Born on March 4, 1934, Yakunin was an Orthodox priest, human rights defender and overall a “liberal voice of conscience”; it’s, as Cathy Young noted in The Daily Beast, the “story of the complicated relationship between religion and power in 20th and 21st-century Russia, with all its ironic twists.”
Yakunin came to Christianity in the 1950s through Fr. Alexander Men, an outspoken Orthodox pastor and theologian. Men, like Yakunin, was a student at the Institute of Fur, which had been relocated by the Soviet government to the Siberia city of Irkutsk in 1955. “Under his influence,” noted Yakunin, “as well as the guidance of several very intelligent friends from Moscow, I converted to Christianity.”
Throughout Yakunin’s life, the relationship between church and state underwent a number of substantial changes. Shortly after his birth, Stalin’s loosening of restrictions on religious worship following Nazi Germany’s attack on the USSR gave way to a period of moderate leniency — seminaries and churches were reopened and remained active. Early adulthood was marked by Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign, which was carried out from 1958 to 1964 and resulted in, the thousands of church closures, requirements for record keeping on those who receive church weddings, baptisms, etc., a ban on the distribution of the Eucharist to children under four, among others. (Unlike some Western churches, no age restrictions exist in Orthodox tradition.) The crackdown took place around this time that Yakunin attended seminary and later received ordination. A few years later, Yakunin received his first defrocking, after he co-authored an appeal to then-Patriarch Alexy I regarding ecclesial leadership’s “collaboration, servility and complicity in the persecution of the church” in 1965.
In 1976, Yakunin formed the Christian Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Believers in the USSR, a move that led to his subsequent arrest in 1979. Following his release in 1987, he was re-instated as a priest and resumed activism. Church leadership was far from thrilled, and he was defrocked a second time in 1993, this time for holding political office. There was a strange irony to it — Yakunin had been elected as a representative in the State Duma, but the patriarch in Moscow at the time, Alexy II, had run for and been elected to public office just a few years prior. In the end, Yakunin was excommunicated in 1997, ostensibly for continuing to wear vestments while defrocked.
In both the Soviet and early post-Soviet years, the church’s perceived tenuous status as an institution lent cause for quashing internal dissent. Throughout the Soviet years, if the church wasn’t being actively oppressed, it was at least subordinate to and restricted by the state. The “opening up” of religious practice under Yeltsin, while a godsend (pun intended), came with its own sets of struggles. The weakened church found itself struggling n a nominally pluralistic playing field for the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians alongside other Christian denominations. Although the post-Soviet Russia had no state religion, the Orthodox Church in the 1990s sought to make itself the “unofficial” or honorary national religion. During this period, laws protecting the freedom of religious practice for so-called traditional confessions arose, cooperation with the state resumed on projects involving anything from feeding the sick to combating drug and alcohol addiction, restoration of the military chaplaincy began, and the overall “spiritual renewal” (a phrase used in the 2000 National Security Concept) of the country. As one author pointed out, “the remarkably swift refashioning of the Church’s ties to the state, to government at all levels, and to political parties has been a full time undertaking.” Dissent, then, from within the church’s ranks would’ve been perceived as a threat not just to the political order, but the body of the church itself.
Today, with an increasingly close-knit relationship between church and state, the Moscow Patriarchate has little to fear. The church has grown significantly since 1991 — at least 72 percent of the population identifies as Orthodox, and one of the main schisms between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which marked the Soviet era, was healed in 2007. Instead of opening up to the world, it’s continued to go down a more and more “conservative” path, parroting the same anti-Western, anti-democratic attitude of the Putin administration. Recently, it’s backed Putin’s illegal incursion into Ukraine, played a role in the introduction of outrageously strict anti-homosexuality laws, and defended the state’s charges against Pussy Riot, a punk band that performed an anti-Putin, anti-corruption song entitled “Punk Prayer” live in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012.
Both Yakunin and Men foresaw this trajectory. “Apparently Peter the Great also suffered from a psychological disorder — the fear of open spaces. He built himself tiny little rooms and so on,” noted Men in an interview just a few days before his death in 1990. “There is an illness like that — the fear of open spaces. In the history of religion, there is also this fear of open spaces.” That fear is undoubtedly shared by both Patriarch Kirill and President Putin.
“If every priest in Russia had just half the qualities of Gleb Yakunin, Russia’s church would be a very different institution,” noted Oliver Bullough, a journalist and author of The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, in a tweet the day of Yakunin’s death. Those priests may not be here today. But for the sake of Russia’s reformers, one can only hope the church will change its ways one day.