Modern fundamentalist Orthodox movements in Russia

  • Fundamentalism
  • 13.Jun ‘20
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The term fundamentalism appeared in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century in reference to some distinctive Protestant groups. In the second half of the century, it became strongly collocated with the adjective Islamic and got to mean terroristic Islamic factions. Nowadays, one can increasingly hear of “(Christian) Orthodox fundamentalism”: the term that is applied to the ideology and/or groups that posit the primate of the religious over the secular; often subscribe to extreme political views, ranging from monarchism to Nazism; and practice the principle of being cruel to be kind. As with Islam, it is quite inaccurate to use the term in its original sense, yet the expressions themselves have already taken on a life of their own. In our review, we use the word fundamentalism not as slander but rather as a general term to describe similar social phenomena.  

The first golden age of the fundamentalist movement in Russia happened at the turn of 1990s when after seventy years of atheism, multiple groups with Orthodox (or Orthodox-adjunct) agenda were let into the social and political arenas. One could name Pamyat’ (“Memory”), Russkoye natsional’noye yedinstvo (“Russian national unity), Soyuz pravoslavnykh bratstv (“The union of Orthodox brotherhoods”), and Soyuz pravoslavnykh khorugvenostsev (“The union of Orthodox gonfaloniers”), among others. Pamyat’ and its affiliate Russkoye natsional’noye yedinstvo (RNU) were primarily occupied with national and political agenda. The Gonfaloniers became the ones most active at the religious front: they made quite an impression with their multiple Actionist ‘performances’. Despite the resistance put forward by some Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) representatives, monarchist groups pushed forward the canonization of Emperor Nicholas II and his family. On the one hand, it satisfied the ambition of Orthodox monarchists, while on the other, helped the Church authorities gain their loyalty.  

Orthodox fundamentalism was also present in some of the smaller groupings of believers, as well as print and web sources like Rus’ Derzhavnaya (“Rus’ the Sovereign”) and Blagodatny Ogon’ (“The Holy Flame”). Some social clubs were of fundamentalist nature as well: they united supporters of The White Russians, monarchists, and Cossacks, and were not unlike history re-enactor clubs.

At present, fundamentalist Orthodox movements can be divided into four groups: nominally church-adjacent; monarchist; nationalist; and conspiratorial.

Nominally church-adjacent: groups that are mostly occupied with church-related matters; their activities are coordinated or unofficially overseen by the ROC.  

The movement Bozhya volya (“God’s Will”) led by Dmitry Tsorionov, better known as Enteo, gained prominence in the mid-2010s. Yet, despite media frenzy and disruptive behavior of group members, Bozhya volya failed to garner wide social support and remained a project led by Enteo and a narrow circle of his supporters. It was claimed that the group’s actions were overseen by the state security and, on the part of the ROC, by archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin. Enteo stayed protected for a while by his connection to the state security, yet, after the group’s actions at the exhibition titled “Sculptures we cannot see”, their curators saw that Bozhya volya was getting out of control and withdrew their support. At the same time, Vsevolod Chaplin lost his administrative position with the Patriarchate. Enteo himself was increasingly gravitating towards oppositional political activism. The movement split, and in 2017 Tsorionov was expelled from Bozhya volya. Nowadays the group is solely active online.

It is worth mentioning that Bozhya volya claimed a connection to the ideas of priest Daniil Sysoev who was a fundamentalist in the original meaning of the word: he supported the literal interpretation of the Bible, denied evolution, opposed science, and so on.  

Almost at the same time with Bozhya volya there emerged the movement Sorok sorokov (“A multitude”, or, literally, “Forty times forty”). Guided by composer Andrey Kormukhin and boxer Vladimir Nosov, the movement was more tightly connected to the Patriarchate than Bozhya volya. Activities of the group were negotiated with the ROC authorities, and Kormukhin himself addressed his followers as “the Guards of patriarch Kyrill”. More often than not, the movement was used as a fighting unit in disputes over church construction projects in Moscow and other regions. However, the ROC lately recognized that applying force and escalating to open confrontation brings too much negative press and stopped utilizing the group so much. Nowadays the movement leaders started to show political ambition: Andrey Kormukhin frequently appears in the press, and the group started and is actively utilizing its own Telegram channel.  With its multiple affiliates around the country, the movement may be a strong political force. However, it would need ample financial resources that it does not have at the time.

Monarchist groups

This branch unites a multitude of monarchist organizations: one can name the Russian Imperial Movement (added by the US Department of State to the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list); the Russian Imperial Union-Order; diverse commemoration societies and many other groups with the word “Imperial” in the title. For monarchists, Orthodoxy is inseparable from authoritarian politics and the desire of a hard-fisted tsar. The main area of activity for such societies is organizing endless commemorations and conferences; fights for monument preservation and street renaming. The most powerful contender here is Dvuglavy Oryol (“Double-headed eagle”), strongly connected to the Tsargrad TV and its CEO Konstantin Malofeev. Its power comes from two things: Leonid Reshetnikov, the group’s member and a (former) spy, as well as financial resources that other monarchist organizations cannot boast.

Nationalist groups

The main difference between these groups and monarchist ones is in ideological underpinnings. While monarchists found their ideology on       greatpowerness and an esoteric cult of a monarch – or even open deification of Nicholas II, nationalists, while using the imperial rhetoric, are closer to neo-Nazi groups. They put a lot of emphasis on the rule of the tribe; blood relations; and intolerance towards the LGBT community, Islamization, and mass migration. Such groups can be religious to a different extent. At times, though rarely, they follow Slavic Native Faith instead of Orthodoxy.   Such groups do not maintain official contacts with the ROC establishment; yet some eccentric priests and monks (not rarely coming from schismatic organizations) sometimes affiliate with them. To give a few examples, nationalist groups include the recently split Russkaya narodnaya liniya (“Russian national line”), Imperskiy legion (“Imperial legion”), openly fascist National’no-Konservativnoye Dvizheniye (“National conservative movement”), Russkiy Korpus (“Russian corps”), as well as many other Nazi-adjacent and paramilitary organizations, at times manned with Donbass veterans.  

Conspiratorial groups

This is the biggest and most active fundamentalist movement where Orthodoxy is mixed up with anti-vax, conspiracy, and anti-ecumenist theories, as well as criticisms against Patriarch Kirill, digitalization, passports and any personal identification numbers; LGBT opposition, antisemitism, anti-Westernism, and much more. Such groups are defined by their deeply seated, constant mistrust of everything that is going on in the world; a search for a grand conspiracy; and a tendency to believe any far-fetched tinfoil theory. Due to the sheer variety and unapologetically schizophrenic nature of the groups in the movement, it is both very active and very fragmented. Their main activities include distribution of video-, text-, and photo materials with conspiracy theories, as well as rare street demonstrations and seminars on topics such as “How should we restructure Russia” or “How to resist global conspiracies.” The most popular organization of this kind, which is also the only one supported by the government, is Natsional’no-osvoboditel’noye dvizheniye (“National liberation movement”), or NOD. NOD events were attended by some clergy, including Vsevolod Chaplin, Artemiy Vladimirov, Kirill Sakharov, and others. So sum it up, modern Orthodox fundamentalism is quite diverse and resembles a disjointed subculture more than an earnest social movement. With the exception of Sorok sorokov, NOD, and Dvuglavy Oryol, they have neither adequate financial means, nor support from the government and the ROC. Yet, though most ideas promoted by Orthodox fundamentalists are utterly unrealistic, they resonate with a part of the Russian society, dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Thus, since there is no visible will to support new grassroots political movements in Russia, people are going to subscribe to Orthodox fundamentalists groups, hoping to achieve their ambitions there or at least to find like-minded others.

Our report in pdf format (in Russian) is attached for download below.
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