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The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchy publishes interview with DECR secretary for interreligious relations

The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchy publishes interview with DECR secretary for interreligious relations
Version for print
4 February 2022 year 17:13

The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchy has published an interview with the secretary for interreligious relations of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate Father Dimitry Safonov, author of the monograph Saint Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and His Time. The book reveals who it was who declared Patriarch Tikhon to be the prime enemy of the Soviets, why the veneration of this saint is so much less compared to his importance to history and how the ‘Church NEP’ helped the faithful (no.2, 2022).

At the head of the Council of the New Martyrs

- Father Dimitry, on the icon of the Synaxis of the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church in the very centre we very often may see Saint Tikhon of Moscow. Would it be correct to say that this saint of God stands at the head of the Synaxis of the New Martyrs and Confessors?

- Yes, that would be quite correct. He is the head of the Synaxis of the New Martyrs not only on iconographic representations, but also in our ecclesiastical consciousness, and in scholarly research devoted to the Soviet period in the history of our Church. The Patriarch is the father of fathers, including of the bishops, and this also applies completely to those clergymen tortured by the godless regime. It is true that he himself was not executed, but his earthly demise was undoubtedly hastened by the efforts of the OGPU (the Joint State Political Directorate. The secret police of the Soviet Union fr om 1923 to 1925. – trans.). Whether the Chekists poisoned him is debatable as there is no direct evidence for this. Yet the secret police agents did shorten the length of his life in this world.

- What do you think: Patriarch Tikhon at the beginning of his patriarchal reign in 1917 and the following years of his life – is this the same Primate or two different Primates in the way they viewed the world?

- First of all, both periods of his imprisonment – both the lengthy house arrest and his forty-day confinement under guard in the OGPU prison on Lubyanka Square in the Spring of 1923 – severely undermined his physical health. This is evident even when we look at his handwriting. My book examines in detail the entire period of his imprisonment. He emerged fr om prison suffering fr om nephritis and angina in a severe form, even though previously he had never complained about either his kidneys or his heart. We can only guess at the type and degree of pressure that was exerted upon him; after his release, however, he started to have fits, one of which was even thought to have killed him.

As regards his views as the Primate on the path of the Church’s development in the Bolshevik state, then they underwent a forced evolution. This concerns in the first instance the correlation between collegiality and autonomous authority within ecclesiastical administration. At first, Patriarch Tikhon consistently implemented the decisions of the Local Council of 1917-1918 on the collegial bodies, that is to say, the Synod and the Supreme Church Council. Patriarch Tikhon’s role in administration was in essence reduced to presiding over the sessions of the Holy Synod and affirming its decisions. But later, when in 1921 the period of the Synod’s power to make these decisions came to an end, he would then begin to appoint its members. The authorities attempted to force the Patriarch to return to the Synod those bishops whom he knew to be agents the Cheka or OGPU. He would of course decline their candidacy and was thus compelled by circumstances to adopt the approach of autonomous decision-making (in particular, he would make decisions on clerical suspensions and episcopal consecrations and so on unilaterally). In parallel to this, the Patriarch did though try all the time to revive collegial ecclesiastical administration in a working format that was necessary for him. But he was unwilling to pay the price that the regime tried to exact fr om him.

- Occasionally discussions are revived on the possible cooperation between Saint Tikhon and the Bolsheviks. Do you dismiss this topic definitively and at its root?

- You know, we may and should speak of cooperation when someone signs a document obliging him to undertake certain steps in exchange for certain concessions. In that case, yes, that would be cooperation. There is not a single occasion in Saint Tikhon’s life, however, wh ere he would have signed any such document on cooperation with the Soviet authorities, even though there are a number of bishops, known to both secular and church historians, who at that time did do such a thing. It would also be wrong, however to speak of him as someone who adhered to strong monarchist views. Along with the other members of the Holy Synod on 9th March 1917, he signed a public declaration blessing the Provisional Government, apparently being fully aware that the monarchist page of Russian history had been turned over. And when the Civil War broke out, he did not bless the White Movement. And one more brushstroke to the portrait: after the visit of Tsar Nicholas II during the celebrations of the three-hundredth anniversary of the celebration of the House of Romanov in Yaroslavl in 1913, wh ere archbishop Tikhon was the ruling hierarch, he was then transferred to Vilnius. Many historians believe that the reason for this was that he did not display sufficient loyalty with regard to the monarch.

The Story of a Forgery

- You write in detail on the great authority Patriarch Tikhon enjoyed among the faithful at the beginning of the 1920s…

- The simple people looked upon this figure as the personification of an ethnarch, the spiritual leader of the nation. The tsar had been removed and shot, so now they had the Patriarch. The faithful saw in his person not only the Primate of the Church, but also the head of the nation. When he anointed the faithful during the All-Night Vigil service in the Moscow Sretensky monastery in July 1923, the people stood for five hours waiting their turn, upon which, having collapsed from exhaustion, he was literally carried out to his carriage.

- Why did the Soviet newspapers in 1923 label him an enemy?

- These publications were a reflection of the struggle taking place within the higher echelons of the party and political elite of the time. As we know, it was Trotsky who louder than all the others called for the destruction of the Church and her priests, for them to be literally wiped from the face of the earth. But in 1922, after the end of the Civil War and the so-called Red Terror, the head of the OGPU Felix Dzerzhinsky thought it only right to determine very carefully, literally on a daily basis, what the faithful were thinking and saying, to which end agents were placed within the Patriarch’s circle as well.

Of course, the accusations against Patriarch Tikhon of anti-Soviet activities were artificial and groundless. The regime simply wanted him to follow their orders, while the Patriarch responded by choosing the tactic of prayerful anticipation: he would drag out his replies, beseeching the Lord to reveal his will to him. This is what saved him. For example, in February 1924 the OGPU issued an ultimatum demanding that the Patriarch include in the bodies of higher ecclesiastical administration a number of Renovationists. Archbishop Tryphon (Turkestanov) advised him to wait awhile, saying that God’s will would intervene. And indeed, this is what happened. In March the investigation into the Patriarch was unexpectedly closed. The direct lever of exerting pressure upon him had now gone, and the plans of the OGPU came to nothing.

- Why? Where had this gift emerged from?

- Almost a year earlier, in April of 1923, the Politbureau of the Russian Bolshevik Communist Party had almost unanimously (with the exception of Rykov) voted for the death penalty for Patriarch Tikhon. But there then appeared a note by Dzerzhinsky1 that indicated that the outcome of this would be such an uprising that even the Red Army would not be able to put it down, and so the sentence was put to one side. The point of view of the adherents of the New Economic Policy (headed by Stalin) prevailed, which with regard to the relationship between the state and the Church was incarnated in the form of the so-called “Church NEP” which proposed the renunciation of direct repression in favour of the Anti-religious Commission under the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Communist Party2 exerting pressure on the Patriarch with the aim of getting him to recognize the legitimacy of the Soviet regime.

- You mean a document similar to the document signed in 1927 by the Patriarch locum tenens metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky)?

- In general terms, yes, although at the beginning of the “Church NEP” the Bolsheviks did not advance such strict demands. They were interested in and needed not so much a document which would state that the Church recognizes the Soviet regime as legitimate across the entire territory of the former Russian empire as a document which would be a serious blow to the prestige and authority of the Patriarch. The discrediting of the Patriarch in the eyes of the faithful is what they wanted to achieve. In the beginning of 1925, they tried to persuade him to sign a more serious document on loyalty. The mediator in this complex game of positioning oneself was metropolitan Peter (Polyansky) who brought to the Patriarch under duress one version of the document after another from the head of the 6th department of the secret section of the OGPU Yevgeny Tuchkov. Yet they failed in obtaining the Patriarch’s signature. Very ‘conveniently’ for the Soviet authorities Saint Tikhon departed this life. And metropolitan Peter, later canonized as a holy martyr, was forced to hand over for publication in the newspapers an edited version of the so-called Testimonial letter, which was approved by the Anti-religious Commission. As a number of scholarly articles have already proven3,Patriarch Tikhon did not sign this document. One of the important arguments in favour of the Patriarch not signing this Testimonial letter is the fact that metropolitan Peter (Polyansky) hinted indirectly at its inauthenticity. We may without hesitation assert that this Testimonial letter was a forgery. In Russian church historiography this opinion has been definitely been confirmed.   

What the Holy Patriarch prays for

- Apart from the Synaxis of the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church, Saint Tikhon forms part of the Primates of the see of Moscow. In your view, whom does Patriarch Tikhon most resemble among the saintly predecessors of the see of Moscow? Perhaps the holy martyr Patriarch Hermogenes whose earthly life ended in imprisonment in his native land?

- Saint Tikhon stands out among the host of Primates of the see of Moscow precisely for the reason, as I have pointed out, that before him all of the Russian Patriarchs served under the tsar in much the same way as the metropolitans served under the grand prince. Patriarch Tikhon, though, found himself in a situation when there was no autocrat in Russia and was compelled to carry the burden of Primate alone. So, I believe it would be wrong to compare his saintly deeds with the acts of the other holy Primates.

- How would you sum up in one phrase the meaning of the figure of Saint Tikhon for the history of the Russian Church?

- He united around himself a nucleus of defenders thanks to whom the Church withstood the most ferocious persecution. It was the ‘Tikhonites’ who set the standard for the conscience and honour of the Church in these most turbulent years. They survived, and they bore their faith to a time when a new Patriarch would head the Church.

- What do you think we can above all learn from Saint Tikhon?

- He was able in the most arduous of circumstances to discern the will of God. He could hear signals from the heavens that were drowned out by the unceasing round of daily troubles, privations and afflictions. As he spent nights in intense prayer, he was able, subjected as he was to lies and provocations, to make the only true decisions which would not be a stain on his conscience and which would not subject the Church to additional blows. In order to get even a little closer to such heights, we must pray to Saint Tikhon and study his life. This grace-filled work is my professional obligation, and I would like to remark in passing that one of the goals of my book was to debunk those myths which have grown around the figure of Saint Tikhon over the decades of the dominance of Soviet historiography. Indeed, the press on behalf of the Patriarch published false interviews (for example, condolences on the death of Lenin), statements and articles. Unfortunately, these texts have become such an integral part of the official historiography that even church writers have accepted them uncritically.

- Do you think that the veneration of Saint Tikhon is wh ere it should be today in the Russian Church?

- No, I don’t think so. Unfortunately, an awareness of the importance of his person in the history of Russia has not become widespread among the people. Why this is the case is in general terms quite understandable. In private prayers and prayers in church the faithful in choosing a prayer service to a particular saint are, alas, guided by the principle of practical use. And how Saint Tikhon can help is something our countrymen and our ordinary faithful people do not fully understand. Therefore, it has to be explained clearly and precisely that in praying to Saint Tikhon we are praying for the whole Russian Church in general, for her prosperity and for her protection from the new perfidy of the Patriarchate of Constantinople which has brought upon the Orthodox world a new schism. Today we are becoming witnesses to attempts at isolating us from the rest of the world. But we have already been there: the Patriarch of Constantinople Gregory VII called upon Patriarch Tikhon to retire and transfer power to the Renovationist ‘Synod’, while his successors ignored the Patriarchal Church by recognizing only the Renovationists as legitimate. Saint Tikhon ensured that the Church herself would survive at the cost of his life, and it is to him that we are to pray for the whole Church in the conditions of the war that has been unleashed against us.

Interview by Dmitry Anokhin

1 Arkhivy Kremlya: Politbyuro i Tserkov, 1922-1925 gg., in two books. Book 1, Moscow, 1997, p.273.

2 Party and state organ responsible in the USSR for carrying out the anti-religious policies of the Soviet regime between 1922 and 1929. Its official title was the ‘Commission for implementing the Decree on separation of Church from state under the Central Committee of the Russian Bolshevik Communist Party’.

3 D.V. Safonov, ‘K voprosu o podlinnosti “Zaveshchatelnogo poslaniya sv. Patriarkha Tikhona’ in Bogoslovsky vestnik, 2004, no.4, pp.265-311; ibid., ‘K probleme podlinnosti “Zaveshchatelnogo poslaniya” Patriarcha Tikhona’.

DECR Communication Service/

Version: Russian