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Cablegate: Russians Debate Role of the Church

DE RUEHMO #3971/01 2261228
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E.O. 12958: N/A

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1. (SBU) The dog days of August have seen a protracted debate
here about the proper role of the Russian Orthodox Church
(ROC) in a country in which church and state are officially
separated. The debate was triggered by the near simultaneous
expressions of unease by a member of the Public Chamber and a
group of eminent scientists that included two Nobel
laureates. Both parties worried publicly about what they
termed the "clericalization" of Russia by a resurgent church.
Their public expressions of concern provoked a response from
church representatives, and Patriarch Aleksey II himself.
Underlying this ongoing debate are efforts to fill an
ideological void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union,
issues of class, and the search for a balance between the
secular and the spiritual as a church long repressed begins
to flex its muscles, in some instances with active support
from some quarters in the government. End summary.

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Intelligentsia Voices Concern

2. (U) On July 23, Moscow newspapers published an open letter
to President Putin from ten members of the Academy of
Sciences, led by Nobel laureates Zhores Alferov and Vitaliy
Ginzburg that protested the "clericalization" of Russia and
the continued need for a separation of church and state.
Among the sources of concern for the ten was a controversial
course on the fundamentals of Orthodox Christianity being
taught in schools in some regions of the country and the
alleged "infiltration" of government institutions, including
the army, by the ROC. The academicians also objected to an
effort by the ROC to include theology in the list of subjects
accredited by the Ministry of Education's Higher
Qualifications Board.

3. (U) Just prior to the academicians' letter, prominent
professor of architecture and Public Chamber member
Vyacheslav Glazychev voiced similar concerns in the media
about the "creeping clericalization" of Russia. Prompting
his comments, Glazychev subsequently told us, was a decision
by a St. Petersburg court to accept for consideration a case
contesting the teaching of Darwinism in schools and
subsequent comments by Patriarch Aleksey that the teaching of
Darwin was "unacceptable."

The ROC Reacts

4. (U) The ROC's reaction to the academicians' sallies was
swift. In their responses, which have filled the airwaves
and the pages of all of the central newspapers over the last
several weeks, some church representatives have attempted to
couch the argument as one between atheists and believers.
The ROC's upper echelons have more diplomatically and
indirectly agreed with the scientists that church and state
should be separate, but that there can be no separation from
society, and since the church is an intrinsic part of
society, it is in practice impossible to separate the ROC
from the GOR in an overwhelmingly Russian Orthodox society.

5. (U) Still other factions that link themselves with the ROC
have been less restrained in their reaction to the
intelligentsia's expressions of concern, with the very
conservative "Peoples' Collective" requesting that the Moscow
Prosecutor bring criminal charges against the scientists.
Approximately 25 members of the "United Orthodox Youth
Movement for Reviving Spirituality" briefly picketed the
Public Chamber, and called on President Putin not to
re-appoint Glazychev as one of its members.

Themes in the Debate

6. (SBU) Although not well elucidated by its participants,
observers have noted many threads to the debate launched by
the academicians:

-- The collapse of the Soviet Union left behind it an
ideological void that for the time being the church alone
seems equipped to fill. The Putin government's insistence
that living better tomorrow than yesterday is the chief
domestic attribute of the resurgent Russia state has left

MOSCOW 00003971 002.2 OF 002

many citizens cold, and the ROC has stepped in to provide a
framework within which problems like interethnic conflict,
alcoholism, and demographic decline can be grappled with.
While critics like Glazychev have told us that they agree
that there is a role for the church in addressing such
problems, they object when the ROC ventures into what they
see as bastions of secularism, like education.

-- Even religious figures worry about the pride of place
claimed by the ROC in today's Russia. Pentecostal Bishop and
Public Chamber member Sergey Ryakhovskiy was not surprised
that concerns had been publicly voiced. Frustration with the
ROC had been accumulating for some time, he told us, and with
recent events a tipping point had been reached. Ryakhovskiy
agreed with Glazychev that the ROC had a role in developing a
moral framework, but Russia was multi-confessional, and
Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other Christian denominations
could not be forgotten in the process.

-- Some in the ROC have attempted to style the divide on this
issue as one of class. Moscow Patriarchy Department of
External Relations Archpriest Chaplin has on two occasions in
the media accused the scientists of "elitism" in their call
for a secular society. The "people" of Russia, Chaplin has
said, "want something else."

-- Still others have seen the debate as potentially key to
restoring the correct balance between church and state.
While Chaplin has elsewhere implicitly suggested that the ROC
has overreached in its rush to recover after the Soviet
period, he has described the aggressive resurgence as
"understandable," and has pointed out that, even in the
sensitive area of education, the ROC is a shadow of its
pre-revolutionary self. Before 1917, the ROC sponsored some
35,000 Sunday schools compared to the handful operating
today, he has noted. Ryakhovskiy has termed the debate a
"punch in the eye" for the ROC which, he hopes, will cause it
to tread more cautiously in the future.


7. (SBU) Four years ago, President Putin called for dialogue
on the role of the church in Russia's constitutionally
secular society, and the President's call was echoed again
this month by Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, who
suggested that ROC representatives and the academicians meet
in order to air their concerns. Lukin's proposal was
implemented after a fashion when the two sides debated the
issue at an extended press conference in Moscow August 8.
The media-studded forum, however, did little to encourage
genuine discussion and it is likely that some time will have
to pass before all points of view can be more dispassionately

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