861.404/2–345: Telegram

The Chargé in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Secretary of State

320. Following interpretive comment may be of interest to Department in connection with election of new Russian Patriarch, reported in my immediately preceding telegram.

It will be recalled that the institution of the Patriarchate was revived just before the revolution, after a 200–year interruption, during which time the church had been administered by a state synod.64 The Patriarch elected at that time died in 1925,65 and the anti-religious [Page 1115] policy of the regime made the election of a successor impossible until a year ago when another election was permitted.66 This election, about a year ago, took place quietly, without fanfares and without prominent foreign visitors. The new Patriarch, Sergei, died after only some 4 months in office; and the immediate purpose of the present ceremonies is the election of a successor.
The revival of the Patriarchate is the result not of any spontaneous movement on the part of the church but [of] a deliberate policy on the part of the Soviet Regime. This policy, in the Embassy’s views, has little or nothing to do with state of religion in the Soviet Union. It is founded in the determination of the regime to make available for its own use every possible channel of influence in foreign affairs. The all-Slav policy alone would dictate an effort to appeal to religious sentiments of the other Slav populations. But the aims of Soviet church policy go beyond the Slavic world alone. Through the apparatus of the church the Soviet Government wishes to have (1) a direct channel of influence to all believers of the Eastern Church wherever they may reside, (2) an iron in the fire of Near Eastern politics through Russian Church property and traditional privileges, and (3) a means of disarming criticism and gaining sympathy in western religious circles. In order to achieve these objectives it is necessary that the Russian Church, however [over] the foreign activities of which the influence of the regime is complete, should make the most of its possibilities as numerically the most powerful of the branches of the Eastern Church. The revival of the Patriarchate, which enables the Russian Church to deal [on] substantially equal terms with the other Eastern Patriarchs, is the first and most elementary step in this direction.
The circumstances of the present ceremonies reveal clearly the extent to which they are beamed on the outside world. Except for one or two brief and inconspicuous notices concerning the arrival of high visiting dignitaries and a brief factual report in the government Izvestiya (not in the party Pravda) of the election of Alexis, together with his photograph biography, no news of the event has been noted in the Soviet press, and the Soviet public is no better informed on the election of the Patriarch of Moscow and all the Russias than on the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. The ceremonies, on the other hand, were exhaustively photographed and it is noted that the horde of government newsreel photographers were the same as those who usually prepare photographs for distribution outside the Soviet Union. Access to the [Page 1116] various ceremonies, while free to foreigners, appears to have been severely restricted in the case of Russians. The church was filled and surrounded on all occasions by numerous contingents of secret police. The assembled spectators were subjected to careful scrutiny; and an old lady who had the temerity to offer for sale an Icon “from Riga” was unceremoniously hustled off to an unknown destination.
An interesting factor was the North American angle. The only non-Russian to participate in the election was the Metropolitan [Benjamin “of North America and the Aleutians”. He is the only foreign member of the Synod. In his rank of Metropolitan]67 he is also fourth ranking official in the entire Russian Orthodox Hierarchy.68 In casting his vote, Benjamin stated that he had not had the opportunity to consult his parishioners or his priests on his choice, as should have been done in accordance with church law, but that he had decided to vote for Alexei in the conviction that his choice would receive the unanimous consent of the North American branch of the church. It is also interesting to note that his speech received more attention not only from the congregation but also from the cameramen than any other made. As for Thepphilus, head of the Schismatic branch of the Russian Orthodox Church in America, one of the priests in the church told an officer of the Embassy that he had decided at the last minute not to come. In order for him to be received formally back into the church it will be necessary for him to come to Moscow in order to admit the error of his ways, to enter a monastery, to be stripped of his rank and to be returned to that rank through gradual stages. The priest added, however, that he believed Theophilus would be coming to Moscow before long in order to rehabilitate himself. It is hardly necessary to say that this is a step greatly desired by the Moscow Patriarchate since Theophilus controls most of the Orthodox property and communicants in the United States.69 Plainly, if Benjamin, by virtue of a recantation on the part of Theophilus, were to come into control of this property and these communicants, it would give him a material prestige more commensurate with his hierarchical standing. It should be remembered that as a dependancy of the Moscow Church the North American Metropolitanate is subject to the administrative jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The North American Metropolitanate is unique in this respect and represents the only area outside of the Soviet Union in which the Moscow Patriarch has direct administrative jurisdiction.
The immediate effect which this ceremonious patriarchal election may have on the Russian Church itself should not be exaggerated. It is true that it has made possible the most imposing gathering of churchmen since the revolution, and that one of them, at least, has now acquired a prominence and international connections which will give him a certain independent dignity even in the eyes of the regime.70 It is also true that knowledge of the event will spread throughout the entire Russian religious community and will give encouragement and hope to many believers at a moment when the calamities of war have done much to stir religious feeling. But the realities surrounding the teaching and practice of religion in Russia can be scarcely affected by these events. The situation cannot be compared with that prevailing before the revolution, when the Russian rulers officially shared the ideology of the church. Today the church, in its relations with the state, is dealing with what purports to be in effect a rival religion, no less Byzantine in conception and no less Russian in method. There has been, and can be, no accepted dogmatic relationship between the Holy Sepulcher and Lenin’s tomb. In the Communist Party, dignitaries of the Russian Church will encounter other churchmen no less astute, no less experienced, and considerably more disciplined than themselves, armed in addition with all the attributes of physical power. In this case, there can be no question whose interests will be served first. As long as no young person in Russia can hope for normal advantages of recreation and association unless he belongs to the Pioneers, as long as the Young Communist League71 and the party remain the stepping stones to almost every respectable career, and as long as no Pioneer, Young Communist or party member can admit to the holding of religious beliefs, so long the Russian church must remain at the bottom largely a withering church of old priests and old women [and] at the top one of a number of fronts for the policies of the Kremlin in the outside world.

Sent to Department, repeated to Rome as 8, to Ankara as 5, and to Cairo as 14.

  1. Peter the Great had caused the office of Patriarch to remain vacant after the death of Adrian in 1700. He abolished the Patriarchate and issued an ordinance in 1721 by which the church was to be governed by a Holy Synod over which he placed a layman called the Ober-Procuror, whose duty it was to see that the Synod did nothing which would displease the Tsar. This began the secularization of the church authority. Under the Provisional Government following the February/March 1917 revolution, the office of the Ober-Procuror was abolished, a church assembly (sobor) met in August to consider changes in the government of the church, and on November 21 decided to restore the Patriarchate.
  2. The Patriarch Tikhon had been elected at the end of November 1917. After many vicissitudes, and persecution by the Bolshevik regime, he died on April 7, 1925, in the Donskoy monastery in Moscow. Concerning an appeal to President Harding on behalf of Tikhon, on trial before a Soviet tribunal, see Foreign Relations, 1922, vol. ii, pp. 835840.
  3. On the election of the Patriarch Sergey on September 8, 1943, see Foreign Relations, 1943, vol. iii, p. 850; and concerning his death on May 15, 1944. see ibid., 1944, vol. iv, pp. 12121213.
  4. Corrected on basis of text in Moscow Embassy files.
  5. The Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenko) had come to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1983 (see footnote 45, p. 1111). He was not a member of the Holy Synod, but was in attendance at the Local Council held to elect the new Patriarch.
  6. The number of parishes which recognized the jurisdiction of Benjamin was 13, whereas 358 parishes recognized the jurisdiction of Theophilus.
  7. At the session of the Local Council on January 31, the Statute on the Administration of the Russian Orthodox Church was adopted unanimously. By its provisions all the aspects of church life are determined. This Statute declared that in the Russian Orthodox Church supreme authority in matters: of doctrine, administration and church justice—legislative, administrative and judicial—belongs to the Local Council periodically convened and consisting of bishops, clerics and laity. The Patriarch presides over the Local Council.
  8. The Young Communist League (the Ail Union Leninist Communist League of Youth; the Komsomol) was founded in 1918, with membership of youths, between 15 and 28 years of age, and it also directed the activities of the Young Pioneers, founded in 1924 for children between 10 and 15 years of age.