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Between the Kremlin and the Protesters: A Church Mediator?

  • James Brooke

Russian protesters are calling for democracy, while Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, is determined to stay in power. James Brooke reports from Moscow that Russia’s Orthodox Church might play a role as mediator.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has a residence inside the Kremlin. The church depends heavily on government funding. When mass protests broke out this winter, few people expected sympathy from the church.

So Patriarch Kirill's January message came as a shock. He warned Prime Minister Vladimir Putin not to be deaf to the protesters.

The patriarch warned that if the government remains insensitive to protests, it would be “a very bad sign.”

With the Orthodox Church claiming 80 million members in Russia, the patriarch wants to keep the national church above partisan politics. Roman Lukin, a religion analyst in Moscow, says Kirill's January message is key.

He says that the patriarch wants to place the church above political fights, to position itself as a mediator.

After a big rally in December, opposition leader Alexei Navalny asked the church to mediate between the opposition and Mr. Putin. Last week, Navalny met with a church leader to start a dialogue.

Meanwhile, the patriarch wants to avoid the kind of radicalization that led to the communist revolution, almost one century ago.

He says the authorities should listen to the people, correct the government’s policies and avoid the kinds of divisions that crippled Russia in the last century.

Before becoming patriarch, Kirill served for a decade as church spokesman. Now, he asks all parishes to create Internet homepages to better communicate with believers.

Pravmir, the main Orthodox website, now bubbles with blogs and sermons, some critical of Russia’s rampant corruption.

Reverend Dmitri Sverdlov won a wide audience for blogging about last month’s parliamentary elections, the vote that sparked the protest movement.

The orthodox priest said the key is to improve Russia, without destroying it.

Presidential elections are set for March 4. Protests may continue. And if the Russian Winter becomes a "Russian Spring," a key mediating role may be in store for the nation’s 1,000-year-old church.