(The Economist) - Contrary to some impressions, Russian Orthodoxy is not, or not yet, a political monolith. Nor is it an army marching in perfect obedience to President Vladimir Putin. In some ways, its ranks include more openly expressed diversity than the country's legislature or academic establishment. For example, a leading hierarch has given an all-too-rare reminder of Stalin's "monstrous" crimes, though the church (like Russian society in general) includes plenty of people who are nostalgic for the tyrant. But in the view of one of the faith's most articulate public voices, Sergei Chapnin, things are moving in an ominously monolithic direction. This is how he put it in an interview with the magazine Slon:
The parishioners of the Russian Orthodox church are people of different political views, members of different parties and social movements. They are united in Christ, but to say that they should therefore have a single [political] ideology...that is not part of church tradition. In my opinion, even attempting to create such a [single] ideology is extremely dangerous.
Mr Chapnin knows those dangers. Last week, he was fired from a senior job in the publishing arm of the church, which involved editing the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. The immediate cause of his dismissal was a report he wrote for the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank, which warned of the increasing influence within the church of militaristic movements which glorified the use of force. As Mr Chapnin explained to Slon, he felt obliged to speak out in part because another prominent figure in the Patriarchate had portrayed Russia's intervention in Syria as a "holy war"; the journalist feared that "we are only half a step away" from describing the conflict in Ukraine in similar terms.
Mr Chapnin, who was born in 1968 and joined the church in 1989, gives a longer-term view of the trends at work in the Russian church in an article for First Things, an American journal. In the time-honoured manner of Russian intellectuals, he offers a dazzingly pessimistic analysis. As he recalls, for the first decade or so after the fall of Soviet Union, a reviving church was struggling honestly to become a counter-cultural force. It was part of an effort to overcome the conformist, herd mentality of the communist era and "de-Sovietise" society. It was trying to draw on the rich spiritual resources of Tsarist Russia, whose final years had seen a powerful renaissance of religious thought. At that time, he writes, "most people were attracted by what the church had preserved: a culture that was Russian and traditional, but non-Soviet."
If this effort had been successful, he suggests, the church could have become a powerful factor in exorcising the Soviet ghost. But almost the opposite happened. Instead of the church de-Sovietising society, the church itself became re-Sovietised, and it began to focus its energies on cultivating relations with an increasingly imperialistic state. He writes: "After 2000, the Russian state abandoned the democratic model for an imperial one. It did so out of a desire to play a larger role in international politics and to overcome, in the eyes of Russians, the humiliation it had suffered with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the state became more imperial, so did the church."
Is there any reason to qualify his pessimism? In Tsarist times, the church was both authoritarian and diverse. As pastor to a Christian emperor and his army, it was "imperial" in a much more literal sense than the current church is. But the pre-revolutionary church also encompassed many shades of cultural and political opinion, from ultra-traditionalist to progressive. Its ranks ranged from sophisticated urban intellectuals to ascetic monks living in remote places to people who straddled both those worlds. Most of that variety was crushed under the Soviet steamroller, or else exported to Russia's quarrelsome diaspora. The very existence of maverick voices like that of Mr Chapnin is a reminder that today's diversity has not yet been crushed. But if he is right, the steamroller is moving.