Wall Street Journal, August 2004

August 12, 2004 
Wall Street Journal 

An Unorthodox Rift, Exiled Church Splits On Rejoining Russia 
Putin's Push for Reunification Meets Resistance in U.S.; 
Longing for Days of Czars 

August 12, 2004; Page A1 

Two banners wrapped in brown burlap sit tucked away amid golden icons and dripping candles in a mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The pole to which the banners are attached bears a plaque that encapsulates the divide in the Russian Orthodox Church: "To be kept by the Church Abroad until such a time that they may be returned to a free Russia." 

Some 13 years after the Soviet Union disintegrated, members of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, more commonly known as the Church Abroad, cannot agree on whether Russia is "free" -- that is, free enough to return the banners to the motherland and reunite the emigre church with the one that remained behind when the czars fell. 

Two camps have emerged within the Church Abroad. 

Leading one faction is Archbishop Mark of Berlin, Germany and Great Britain, a small wiry man with a long beard. He grew up as a Protestant in what was then East Germany, fell in love with Russian culture and converted to Orthodoxy. Impressed by the physical resurrection of churches in Russia, the spiritual yearning of its people and the religious stirrings of President Vladimir Putin, Archbishop Mark, who is based in Munich, is pushing for a merger of the Church Abroad with the church that stayed behind and cut a deal with the Communists. 

"The first paragraph of our statutes says we are a temporarily self-governing body until the moment of the fall of the Communist regime," he says. "It's a clear-cut statement ... that we are overdue on living up to." 

Heading the other camp is Bishop Gabriel of Manhattan, whose great-grandfather was starved to death by the Communists in the 1930s because he refused to bow to them. A stout man whose parents fled Russia in 1926 and eventually settled in Australia, Bishop Gabriel says Mr. Putin's Russia still resembles the totalitarian country his forebears fled. The leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate, as the Moscow church is known, are the same ones who led the church to kneel before Soviet atheism, he contends. "The church in Russia needs to recognize that its path was wrong," he says. 

It all goes back to 1054, when Orthodoxy and Catholicism split, creating separate power centers in Constantinople and Rome. The sacking of Constantinople, from which Greek Orthodoxy eventually sprang, in 1453 led Moscow to assert itself as the "Third Rome." Over time, the Russian church and state grew closer, especially after the Romanovs, the royal family, consolidated their power in the 1600s. 

When the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia in 1917, they stripped the Moscow Patriarchate of its property, dynamited its churches and slaughtered the royal family. The leader of the Moscow Patriarchate died in jail. His successor, Metropolitan Sergius, won his freedom in 1927 by pledging allegiance to the Soviets. 

Surviving Russian aristocrats and clergy formed the Church Abroad in what was then Yugoslavia to preserve the religion of the czars until Russians were free to worship at home again. A southern regiment in the czar's army entrusted to the exiled church the banners, which feature a two-headed imperial eagle, the likeness of Saint George the dragon-slayer and an "N" for Czar Nicholas I. The Church Abroad, which claims about 100,000 members world-wide and has parishes in many parts of the U.S., moved its headquarters to New York in 1950. (A separate offshoot of Russian Orthodoxy, known as the Orthodox Church in America, cut its ties with Moscow in the 1970s. Its 750,000 members conduct services in English and stress their American identity. Reunification isn't an issue for them, having long ago made peace with the Moscow Patriarchate.) 

For generations, adherents of the Church Abroad tried to recreate the glorious days of the Romanovs. They used their royal titles, raised their children to read Pushkin in the original Russian and threw formal balls at ritzy New York hotels. Their church holds services mostly in Old Church Slavonic, an older form of Russian. Feast-day ceremonies last upward of five hours. Only a few members of the church ever talked about reuniting with Moscow. 

Last year, Mr. Putin intervened, hoping to bring back together the two branches of Russian Orthodoxy in an effort to restore a national identity to a country ripped apart by the Soviet Union's collapse. 

"In the ideological vacuum that is post-Soviet Russia, the most potent collection of symbols that attract automatic loyalty are those of Russian Orthodoxy," says Lawrence Uzzell, director of International Religious Freedom Watch. "For Putin, church and state are like mom and apple pie." 

On Sept. 25, 2003, taking a break from a three-day visit to the United Nations, Mr. Putin met with bishops of the Church Abroad at the Russian Consulate in New York. The robed bishops and the former KGB-operative-turned-president lunched on cabbage soup, salmon and blini with caviar. Mr. Putin talked about the church's central role in the 
reconciliation of Russia, Bishop Gabriel recalls. The bishop asked him about creating a day of remembrance for those killed by Soviet communism; Mr. Putin said he'd think about it. 

The Russian president passed along an invitation to visit Moscow from the head of the Moscow Patriarchate, Alexy II, who has been trying to reunite the churches for the past decade. After much deliberation, the Church Abroad in May sent its leader, Metropolitan Laurus, who is based at the church's monastery in Jordanville, N.Y., and Archbishop Mark and others to Russia. They prayed at the remains of their martyred former leader, at the site where the royal family was slaughtered and at the mineshaft where some of the royal remains were thrown. After meeting with Mr. Putin in his private residence outside Moscow, leaders of the two churches pledged to try to mend their differences. 

Back in the U.S., this flirtation with reunification sparked an outcry. "Putin is using the church for his own goals," seethes Peter Koltypin, 70, who favors a return to the monarchy in Russia. He and 500 others presented a petition to a conference of Church Abroad bishops in July, asking that the leadership confer with the laity before proceeding further. 

Opponents of unification now rally the faithful on a Yahoo group [?which one?] , at their Upper East Side and suburban New York homes, and at lunches after Sunday service. The Church Abroad's headquarters, at the corner of 93rd Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan, doubles as a chapel. 

Over borscht and bologna at the mansion, Marina Ledkovsky, 80, a distant cousin of writer Vladimir Nabokov, decries the move toward reconciliation. Mr. Putin is "the same as Lenin and Stalin," she says. 

Most of the descendents of Russians who backed the Romanov dynasty in the 1920s want to keep the Church Abroad separate from Moscow. But some are defecting, realizing that their children and grandchildren don't much care who did what to whom in 1927. Says Prince Nicholas Romanov, a Swiss resident who leads one branch of the royal family: "If we Romanovs can forgive and forget, then it is time to move on." 

Committees of the two churches met in June in Moscow and have planned another meeting in Germany in September. The thorniest issue remains Metropolitan Sergius's 1927 pledge of allegiance to the Soviets. Some in the Church Abroad want an official apology. Others say the Moscow Patriarchate has already tacitly renounced Sergius's actions. The final decision on reunification is up to each church's council of bishops. 

In the meantime, the two churches are inching closer. Earlier this summer, an artifact known as the Miracle-working Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God, which had been spirited out of the Soviet Union after World War II and held by a priest in Chicago, was returned to Russia. During its June visit to Moscow, the Church Abroad's delegation worshipped [sic] the icon in an all-night vigil with Russian orthodox faithful at the Church of Christ the Savior, a massive white structure erected in 2000 on the spot where the Soviets razed the original church and replaced it with a swimming pool. 

Write to Avery Johnson at avery.johnson@WSJ.com