Interview with Archpriest Alexey Uminsky
Archpriest Alexey Uminsky is dean of a Moscow parish, Holy Trinity Church in Khokhly. He is also a television presenter, a member of the editorial board of the magazine Alpha & Omega, and an author of various publications on Christian education. Formerly he served as director of the St. Vladimir Gymnasium and is now the school’s chaplain and confessor. Since October 2003 he has been the chief of the television program “Orthodox Encyclopedia.” In 2010 he was awarded the St. Seraphim of Sarov medal by the Moscow Patriarchate. A controversial figure at times, he was recently accused by a fellow priest of “confusing pacifism with Christianity.” The interview that follows was made by Mila Dubrovina, reporter for the Russian journal Arguments and Facts, and was originally published August 29, 2012.
Q: Let me start by asking about the Pussy Riot case. What was your first reaction to this event?
I hadn’t known about Pussy Riot’s performance until it stirred up a storm in the media. What do you think my reaction would be? How would you behave if strangers with such intentions burst into your house? What would be your first reaction? Shock, horror, pain. If it had happened in my church, I would try to stop them immediately, to kick them out, only to do so peacefully.
Q: Have you since changed your mind about this case? What do you think would be a proper punishment for these young women?
When the situation changes, your opinion changes too. When the shock is over, you begin to reflect. People start wondering: Will they get off without any punishment?
Q: That was the reaction of Fr. Andrey Kuraev [a popular figure in Russian cultural life well known through the mass media]. At first he called for leniency, but then he changed his mind.
Fr. Andrey Kuraev is a very intelligent person. And he hasn’t changed his attitude toward the situation. At first perhaps he responded too kindly, but the main idea of his statements is that the Church should be merciful, not a punitive body.
Q: What do such actions show? What social problems do they reveal?
They do not reveal any particular problem. Their actions however, provoked the same reaction as exploding bombs.
Q: Maybe that the society is somehow out of order…
The society is certainly out of order. There’s no need saying again that it is seriously ill. And it is obvious that the punishment inflicted on the members of the punk-group is unnecessarily severe. But we do not understand the heart of the matter. The events became an excuse for people to hate each other. Hatred lashes out on both sides! On one side, there are ultra-conservative “banner carriers,” on the other people wearing colorful balaclavas with eye slots. You cannot discern human faces. On both sides, we see enmity. This is the most awful aspect.
Q: You’ve mentioned destructive actions. Recently it has been reported that the FEMEN group [from which the Pussy Riot group emerged] is planning to chop down wooden crosses around the country. Should we protect ourselves, recruit vigilante groups, and quickly change the laws?
Journalists take advantage of the situation with FEMEN without giving any moral assessment of it. For them it is just headlines. I was shocked when I saw a picture of an almost naked young woman chopping down a wooden cross [in Kiev]. That cross had been erected in memory of victims of the KGB, people who had been tortured and killed in the Soviet period. The journalists just stood shooting photos! Not one tried to stop the destruction. So on the one hand you have journalists taking pictures of the cross being chopped down and, on the other, Church leaders turning a blind eye toward “Orthodox activists” who are beating up women whom they regard as enemies of the Church. Both situations are similar.
The issue of chopping down the crosses concerns not only FEMEN. The media too is guilty when it portrays such actions as if they were spectacles or even “glamorous” events. They should be seen as acts of unmitigated savagery. I experience the same feeling when I see caricatures of Mohammed.
Now we see certain Russian Orthodox activists forming vigilante groups that are looking forward to incidents when malefactors chop down crosses or behave in an outrageous way. It will simply give them a chance to show off.
Q: When the Patriarch commented on the December events [prior to the Russian general election], he said that an Orthodox Christian would be better off staying at home and praying instead of attending a demonstration. People thought he was in effect opposing protests.
Well, the Patriarch did not specify which meeting the believers should not attend. There were different meetings in Moscow. Some were pro-Putin and others were against him. The Patriarch opposed all the meetings.
Q: Did the Patriarch demand a harsh punishment for the members of Pussy Riot?
Not at all. He did not comment on this case at all out of principle. Do you remember when and what he said? The only statement was made by the Superior Church Council after the sentencing.…The Church is not guilty of private statements [made by individuals] that are constantly ascribed to it.
Q: Like those made by Fr. Chaplin, for instance? [Archpriest Chaplin is Chairman of the office of Interaction of Church and Society of the Moscow Patriarchate.]
Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin is a notorious figure. I don’t know with whom to compare him. His only counterpart in politics is Zhirinovsky [the Russian politician who often speaks in a confrontational style bordering on farce]. How could Chaplin make statements that justify those who hit women in the face? He said, “I don’t approve of everything they do, but they are good guys.” How could a Church officer approve of such behavior? Instead he should have sharply criticized them, these so-called nationalists, many of whom are anti-Semites. How can a Christian be an anti-Semite if Jesus was a Jew?
Q: People often forget that.
To go back to you earlier question, the general public is disturbed about the harsh sentence given to the girls, and rightly so. But not many people seem worried about the consequences of the stunt on the young women who did it. How will it affect their lives? If hooligans come into my Church and desecrate it, I shall simply clean it up and continue to celebrate Liturgies there. The Church remains a holy place. But what will happen to their lives?
Q: And if they had come to you and repented, would you have accepted them?
Certainly I would take them in! I pray for it. I pray that we would help them, speak to them. We should speak a lot with them. They do not understand, it seems hardly anyone understands, what a huge gift they have given to Vladimir Putin, what a winning card they have presented to the authorities. At the same time they make themselves a target — people whom we should be united against. People are always willing to unite in hatred against a common enemy. The most horrible thing is now there is so much hatred on both sides. That’s much worse than leaving the Church.
Q: Don’t you think that intellectuals are moving away from the Church?
The main problem is not that anyone is leaving the Church* but rather that those who could have come, don’t. This is much more important. No one can leave the Church completely. The Church changes a person forever. Even if you leave it for a while, you return later. The real problem is that those who were almost ready, who need to come, do not.
As for conservatives, the so-called “banner carriers,” they don’t need the Church. They need a get-together, a kind of narrow circle. They pretend to be Christians, but
their belief has nothing to do with Christianity. If they had really come into the Church, it would have changed them, and they would be cured from nationalism. They would become Christians with a Russophile [a 19th century movement critical of westernization] bias, like Khomyakov and Aksakov, who outlined a particular path for Russia. And if modern oppositionists had come into the Church, they would have become Westernizers, like Chaadaev or Solovyev. Don’t forget that there have been similar disputes within Russian society in the past, but the climate of argument was quite different. It never degraded itself to the level we see today.
Q: What is the main lesson that we should take from these events?
As the proverb goes: “The devil is laughing at us.” People are happy when they can hate each other and this hatred increases every day. The antagonism is telling. We should struggle only to overcome enmity and nothing else. We should never ever lose our human dignity. We should refuse to wear masks and also refuse to merge with the hatred-infected crowd. Most of all, we should always remember Christ who suffered for every human being. The Church, first and foremost, recognizes not the crowd, but the person. IC
*On the web site of Fr. Uminsky’s parish is this brief message: A word to those thinking about leaving the Church: We should be with the Church not only in the time of its glory.
In Communion thanks Anna Kurt for her translation of the interview with Fr. Uminsky.
Quotes Related to Fr. Uminsky’s Interview:
If I were the keeper of the church’s key, I would treat them to pancakes and a cup of mead and would invite them to come again on the Sunday of Forgive-ness…. What the young women did was an outrage, but a “legal” outrage…after all, it’s Shrovetide, a season of clowning, buffoonery, and hoaxes. —Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev (Shrovetide is a Bacchanalian festival season dating back centuries in Russian culture during which time all manner of foolery was overlooked by the Church and civil authorities).
The tragedy of the church is that it has always grown too close to the state, and then it pays for it. Now the church is trying to prove to the Kremlin it is a serious and useful player…. We are at a crossroads: either the church starts to stand up for conscience or it will get blamed for all the Kremlin’s faults. But for that we need to abandon our old illusions: the “Third Rome” dreams of an Orthodox superpower. —Archpriest Alexei Uminsky
The enemies of Holy Russia are everywhere….We must protect holy places from liberals and their satanic ideology. —Ivan Ostrakovsky, leader of a group of Russian Orthodox vigilantes who patrol the streets of nighttime Moscow, dressed in all-black clothing emblazoned with skulls and crosses and the slogan “Orthodoxy or Death.” (A collective of such groups from across Russia is organized under the name the “Banner Bearers.”)
That’s the ironic thing. If they had made a sincere prayer—there’s a long history of Christians praying sincerely for the Lord to deliver them from rulers that they believed to be unjust—instead of a mocking prayer, they might have gotten people on their side. Sincerity is always better than mockery; mockery only has the aim of wounding and hurting people. —Frederica Mathewes-Green
❖ Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012