KARABANOVO, Russia — His unruly mane of white hair giving him the look of Moses, Father Georgy Edelstein struggled over the grayish snow that is the late-spring landscape of this barren village, heading to his church for Good Friday services.
When he got to its small, darkened main hall, the 79-year-old put a simple silver cross over his robes and began saying prayers on one of the holiest days in the Russian Orthodox Church. His audience: his assistant and one villager.
Two days later, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, exchanged hearty Easter kisses with President-elect Vladimir Putin amid the lavish interiors of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, his jewel-encrusted cross and gold brocade robe shining in the television limelight.
Separated by 220 miles on a map but by a much wider gulf in circumstances, the two scenes provide a vivid portrait of a church that some critics say is undergoing a spiritual crisis.
Kirill’s public support of Putin in the country’s recent presidential election, as well as a scandal over a $30,000 wristwatch that appeared in a photo of the patriarch — and then mysteriously disappeared — have raised concern that the church is out of touch with ordinary Russians, and too cozy with the nation’s leaders.
“We hoped so much that in the new Russia the church leaders would be telling a real and loud word of God’s truth to the society, but our hopes were dashed,” said Alexander Nezhny, a Russian writer and expert on the church.
For centuries the church was an obedient servant of Russia’s rulers, and that deference became more pronounced after Stalin’s ferocious repression. Critics such as Nezhny say that hasn’t changed in the two decades of a democratic Russia.
An appeal for a public show of support for the church Sunday even had some of the trappings of Putin government rhetoric, warning of dark forces intent on bringing down the country’s oldest institution.
During massive anti-Putin protests this year, some Russians gave Kirill credit for his attempts to reconcile the two sides. He cautioned the Kremlin not to ignore the growing discontent, but also warned the protesters that the country had “exhausted the limit of confrontations and … any possibility to carry out a revolutionary transformation of our society.”
Other observers expressed concern that the church was trying to play a political role after centuries of staying on the sidelines.
In the middle of the presidential campaign, Kirill publicly backed Putin, saying, “I must say quite openly, as the patriarch who must tell the truth regardless of political considerations and propaganda accents, that you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, have played a huge role in correcting this crookedness of our history.”
In a document released this month, the patriarch spoke of “the confrontation between the church and the anti-Christian forces,” which becomes “more obvious and acute.”
“The anti-church forces are afraid of the strengthening of the Orthodoxy in the country,” the document says. “These people are not numerous, but some of them have influence and are ready to use their financial, information and administrative resources to discredit the [church leadership] and clerics to create schisms and tear people away from temples.”
The document compares the current “attack” on the church to the tragic events of Soviet times, in which tens of thousands of priests died and thousands of churches were closed or destroyed.
Then, in an unprecedented move, the patriarch called on believers to express their loyalty to the church in a common prayer outside Christ the Savior Cathedral and other cathedrals across Russia.
“The patriarch is a prominent public leader, and there is nothing extraordinary in his call for a mass demonstration in favor of the church,” said Maxim Shevchenko, a popular TV anchor and member of the presidential Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory board. “A resolute response must certainly be given to this outrageous and beastly ongoing campaign against the church and its patriarch.”
Most experts are skeptical about the existence of an orchestrated campaign against the church, but agree that the controversy started in February.
That’s when a group of young women broke into Christ the Savior Cathedral wearing extravagant outfits and sacks with eyeholes over their heads and performed a song and dance largely interpreted as their way of praying against Putin’s imminent presidential victory and the church hierarchy for helping him attain it.
Three of the group were soon arrested and are awaiting trial in prison on charges of hooliganism, which can mean a sentence of up to seven years if convicted. The Moscow Patriarchate accused them of gross blasphemy and publicly demanded an irrevocable punishment.
And then came the case of the disappearing wristwatch. In early April, bloggers and journalists noticed the watch on Kirill’s wrist in one of the protocol photos on the patriarchate’s website. The next day, the watch in the photo had been edited out, but its reflection on the table surface remained, causing an even bigger scandal.
“It was a stupidity that shouldn’t have happened,” church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin said of the edited photo. He said the watch was a gift from a believer.
“People have always brought to priests and bishops the most precious things they had, and I see nothing bad in the fact that the leader of the largest confessional in Russia receives expensive gifts from the people.”
Soon after the watch episode, the patriarch, who is a monk by status and is not supposed to own real estate, was recently found to have a lavish apartment worth millions overlooking the Kremlin and Christ the Savior Cathedral.
The patriarchate defended Kirill’s having an apartment.
“Many monks even living in monasteries keep their housing just in case their situation may change and they may need it again,” Chaplin said. “The patriarch lived for 15 years in Moscow without having his own apartment and then he got it. His relatives live there and there is nothing bad in it.”
Chaplin said these brouhahas, and several recent acts in which churches and icons were defiled and at least one priest was beaten, were part of an ugly campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and the state itself, and may also be sponsored and influenced from abroad.
“I am convinced that this is an orchestrated campaign which is in its turn part of a bigger campaign aimed to destabilize the situation in the country which is also aimed against the people, against the army, the police, against the government and so on,” Chaplin said. “At the core of this campaign is a small group of pro-Western Muscovites, and residents of other big cities, the pro-Western part of Russian financial circles, political establishment and media elite.”
Orthodox priest Edelstein refuses to take part in the Sunday show of support, saying he won’t ask his parish “to come to a rally to protect the church, which needs no protection.”
Edelstein, who lost four fingers and an eye when thugs tried to rob him and pushed him under a passing train in 1948, said he doesn’t believe there is any campaign against the church.
“The church throughout its entire history has never been afraid of any enemies outside it, as the latter have never succeeded in moving even a small stone in the basement of our church,” the priest said in his small wooden hut in the middle of the village, which doesn’t even have a road sign with its name on it. “Our main enemies are inside the church.”
The priest knows something of dissent. Of Jewish heritage, he had to fight to become an Orthodox priest in the 1970s and was suspended for almost two years in the ‘80s for “politically motivated dissent,” until a visiting President Reagan met with him in Moscow and the Kremlin decided it was too scandalous for the priest to stay out of service. “Thus Reagan blessed me for my work,” the old man said with a laugh.
Today, his elder son, Yuly, is a minister of information and diaspora in the Israeli government, but Edelstein still preaches here in the wild forests of central Russia. He said he has learned to distinguish between “the mother church and its Soviet-type leadership.”
As the Friday afternoon was coming to a close and the rain was drumming on the gilded iron cupolas of his church, the priest was still saying his prayers, his face rigid but his only eye burning with the fire of his soul. “We are praying for our father, Patriarch Kirill.”