On Wednesday, May 25, 2011, the Russian Orthodox Church caused a sensation when it invited one of its long-time critics, a “liberal, secular humanist”, to speak at the World Russian People’s Council’s annual session in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Describing himself as an atheist of Jewish ancestry, the politician Leonid Gozman came out sounding very evangelical. Addressing Patriarch Kirill at the outset of his speech, he stated: The mere fact that you have asked someone such as I to speak, “is convincing evidence of your desire to unify our nation irregardless of ethnicity or one’s relationship to religion”.
Citing ethnic conflicts and the mutilation of army recruits, Gozman launched into an appeal for Orthodoxy to side with the oppressed in their struggle against the “cruelty and injustice of the government machine”. Those struggling to survive should know for certain “that the entire church, from the local priest all the way up to the Patriarch, is for them – and not against them.” He asked the Patriarch point-blank: “How does the church view the innumerable palaces and yachts of top-level officials?”
The politician lofted the dream of a selfless church fighting not for itself, but for the freedom of all. Instead of struggling to defend its own historical, canonical territory, the church should be defending freedom of conscience. He desires that the church “stop distinguishing between traditional and non-traditional religions, but rather support all persons en route to God irrespective of the temple door at which that search will end”.
Orthodoxy enjoys major authority among Russians and Gozman believes it can afford to remain far removed from all appearances of self-serving servility to the government. If the church authorities “really believed in God instead of just representing the faith, then they would not thank government officials for all the restored churches returned to them”. They would instead “denounce corruption and luxury, hypocrisy and untruth”.
Only if Orthodoxy is free from the state, can an individual’s choice for or against a belief be truly voluntary and meaningful. He stressed his abhorrence of government religion and government-sponsored ideology. He nevertheless stressed “evangelical principles” – a highly unusual term in Russian society – as a longtime “moral foundation for both believers and unbelievers”.
Rev. Vitaly Vlasenko, Director of External Church Relations for the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” was present at this top-level event. He was delighted by Gozman’s speech, saying: “It was by far the most impressive speech given”. Though this opposition politician’s expectations may be utopian, it is nevertheless “an encouraging sign of pluralism that the ROC allows such a person to speak at one of its major events”.
Leonid Gozman (born 1950) may himself be endangered by the lure of power and wealth. His middle-class, pro-capitalist party, the 2009-founded “Right Cause”, may soon be joined by the billionaire industrialist Mikhail Prokhorov.
Though not mentioned by name, Russian Protestants play a part in the government scenario as portrayed by Gozman. The politician lashed out against government measures being taken against green environmentalists protesting the destruction of Khimki Forest just to the north of Moscow. As we reported last August, that forest is being leveled for the construction of a toll road by the firm of the Evangelical-Christian and ex-Baptist Alexander Semchenko. Semchenko’s own security personnel have along with government forces been engaged in low-scale warfare with the environmentalists.
The World Russian People’s Council was founded in 1993 and regards itself as a platform for top-level exchange regarding the state and future of Russian society. Gozman’s speech is featured on its Russian-language website: www.vrns.ru.
Dr. William Yoder is a US-born American from Germany who lives in Belarus and works in Moscow, Russia. He grew up in the Mennonite church in Sarasota, Florida, but has spent most of his time since 1971 in Germany, largely in Berlin. He graduated from Eastern Mennonite College in 1973 and received a Ph.D. in political science from the Free University of Berlin (West) in 1991. His dissertation was on the role of the Evangelical Church in East Germany between 1945 and 1961. After a stint with the Lutherans in Russia’s Kaliningrad/Königsberg enclave, Yoder has been active since late 2006 as media spokesperson for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and the Russian Evangelical Alliance in Moscow. One of his primary activities involves the composition of press releases in English and German. He is married to Galina, who hails from Barnaul in Siberia. He can be contacted by e-mail at: kant50@web.