Between the devil and the deep blue sea – nationalism and Orthodoxy

Relations between church and state can sometimes be fraught, but sometimes they can also be unhealthily close. I was reminded of this when I read this article on the site of Proekt.media entitled The Kremlin’s Elder – how the Russian government fell in love with mysticism. Proekt.media is an initiative of independent investigative journalists in Russian that has been publishing some remarkable stories about corruption and cronyism, particularly involving the circle around Putin. This month the Russian government has declared it a banned organisation, confiscated all its financial assets and declared all its journalists to be foreign agents.

I was drawn into reading the article because I recognised the photograph of the Elder referred to in the article’s title: I had seen him during my visit to the Orthodox monastery of Optina Pustyn back in 2002.

His name is Starets Iliy (Elder Elijah) and he struck me then as being a remarkable man. According to my friend Dima who took me to the monastery on pilgrimage, Elder Iliy, like many Elders at Optina and at other monasteries in Russia, has the spiritual gifts of insight and foresight. I have written about my visit to Optina Pustyna at length in the following older posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

The article depicts him as a spiritual adviser to government officials who consult him for spiritual healing and advice about their futures. Since 2009 he has also been the spiritual adviser to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is very anti-Communist and brands non-believers as Satanists.

I recall from my visit to Optina Pustyn that the monastery shop sold leaflets about the dangers of non-belief, including one called Meditation – the route to hell. However possibly a more serious reason for this is the terrible event at Easter 1993 when three monks were killed by a “satanist” who broke into the grounds. He attacked and killed one monk outright with a large knife and then attacked a second who managed to give the alarm by ringing the bells. A third monk, alerted by the bells, came out to see what was happening and was also attacked and killed. All three monks are now buried next to each other in the monastery’s grounds and celebrated as ‘new martyrs of the faith’. So, you can see that for the monks who experienced this attack, unbelief can literally be a matter of life or death.

The article points out that Putin has met the Elder on several occasions and that the Elder is a big supporter, attacking opponents of the regime and asking people who visit him whether they pray for the President. It points out that this closeness to Putin is probably why other government officials frequent the Elder, as it provides another means of accessing ultimate power.

The original Russian article gives some interesting biographical information about Elder Iliy that is not translated into the English version. Born Aleksey Nozdrin, on his mother’s side of the family they were not poor, but under Stalin they were branded as kulaks and driven out of their home. His grandfather later died of hunger.

In 1941, at the start of the Second World War in Russia, his family was living in a tent. He came to Christianity through hearing a Tatar praying. There are various ‘miracles associated with his younger years. For example, in 1943 returning home from staying with his godmother, he was passed by a German vehicle that went over a bump causing a door to open and a map case to fall out. The occupants of the vehicle were so drunk they didn’t notice. The future Elder took the map case home and showed them to a Russian prisoner who looked after the Germans’ horses. This prisoner somehow passed the maps to the Russian army where they ended up in the hands of the Russian Commander, General Rokossovsky, and helped him take out Germain fortified areas during the Battle of Kursk.

Another miracle dates back to the late 1940s when he and his brother worked as hired workers and were paid in bread. At the station on the way back home the bread was stolen from them, so they returned home empty-handed. Aleksey cried and prayed for a long time in front of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God. He then went out into the street and saw on a white cloth a piping hot loaf of white bread.

After leaving school he served in the army before going to a technical college and then on to the seminary at the Church Academy in Leningrad. It was here that he got to know the future Patriarch Kirill. In the picture below, taken with fellow students at his technical college, the future Elder Iliy is standing in the back row on the right hand side:

Алексей (Илий) Ноздрин в техникуме (первый справа в верхнем ряду).

On becoming a monk he took the name Iliyan and claimed to see devils flying through the air. In the mid 1970s he was sent to the monastery of St Pantaleimon (then a run down monastery with a few Russian monks) on Mt Athos, where he served as a confessor until the late 1980s. On his return to Russian he ‘took the great schema’, in other words he took a vow to observe the most extreme ascetic practices (the highest level of monkhood), assumed the name Iliy and became a confessor at Optina Pustyn. Many ordinary people started going to him then to ask for help and also a lot of politicians and people from the underworld. I remember seeing him at Optina Pustyn in 2002 being asailed by people seeking advice wherever he went. I thought he looked ill and very tired.

In 2009 he moved to Peredelkino to become Patriarch Kirill’s confessor / spiritual advisor. That’s when he started to attract visits from government officials. The Elder can apparently take a lighter view of his reputation as a miracle worker. One evening, popping into the church he saw several people standing around and announced in a loud voice ‘Let there be light!” To the astonishment of those standing around suddenly there was light. The Elder was standing next to the light switch.

What is it that brings together church and state in these rather unhealthy relationships? I think this is particularly the case in Orthodox countries where often religion and nationalism go hand in hand. I am sure there are many reasons for this, but two stand out for me. The first goes back to Byzantine times when the Emperor was identified as God’s representative on earth and worked in close cooperation with the head of the church, the Patriarch. The interests of church and state largely coincided. That relationship was also transmitted to Russia and lasted really up to the eve of the Revolution, though probably during the last 20 years or so of that period the Church was showing signs of wanting to reform and modernise.

In the Soviet period, the Church survived on the ground partly ‘thanks to the babushkas’ as Solzhenitsyn said, but as an institution largely through endless tortuous accommodations, and at great cost to lives and faith. In the post Soviet area, there was a thaw: churches opened up, it was no longer a stigma to go to church. The state became a great patron to the Church, giving it back some of its old privileges, building new churches, increasing the number of seminaries and monasteries. In gratitude, the Church reverted to type and supported the state, encouraging people to vote for the government.

In Greece and other Balkan countries the church is associated with national identity. All through the long years of the Ottoman occupation, it was the church in Greece that kept alive the language and culture, becoming a focus for the development of a national identity when the new Greek state emerged after the 1821 Revolution.

Although we have a Church of England, established as a deliberate act of separation by a sulking monarch, it has never become the standard bearer for English identity. Perhaps because the monarch made themselves Supreme Governor (a heavily qualified form of Head of the Church), the national identification is with the monarchy, not with the established church. Not better, just different.

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