RUSSIA

Q&A with Russia’s Renegade Deacon

RUSSIA
Jan 16, 2014 at 1:02 PM ET

It seems unlikely that many members of the Russian Orthodox Church clergy are familiar enough with the plot of Star Wars (the superior 1970s trilogy, naturally) to drop casual references to the Death Star and Luke Skywalker into conversation. But Andrei Kurayev—deacon, theologian and popular blogger—is no ordinary clergyman.

Frequently at odds with the church’s hierarchy, Kurayev, 50, has in the past faced censure over his defense of anti-Putin punks Pussy Riot, barbed criticism of authorities, and attacks on the “Jewish oligarchs” he says have bled Russia dry.

All that paled in comparison, however, to when Kurayev alleged on his blog earlier this month that a powerful “gay lobby” exists and actively covers up the widespread sexual abuse of altar boys and seminarians by Russian Orthodox Church bishops and priests. (That’s right, the same church whose championing of “traditional values” led to Russia’s notorious law banning “gay propaganda.”)

Days after his explosive first post on the topic, Kurayev was fired from his faculty position at the Moscow Theological Academy, the church’s most prestigious center of learning. His dismissal prompted Kurayev to escalate his attack on the “gay lobby” by posting testimonies from its alleged victims.

I spoke to Kurayev as he was being driven to the offices of an opposition-friendly magazine in central Moscow. As we crawled through Moscow’s rush-hour traffic, Kurayev—complex, controversial and absolutely non-PC—expounded on his crusade to “clean up” the Russian Orthodox Church, called for a new revolution in the country, and explained why he didn’t have the heart to tell Pussy Riot they were Kremlin pawns.

You say you’ve known of the existence of the “gay lobby” and sexual abuse within the Russian Orthodox Church for years. Why are you speaking out about it only now?

I felt the time was right. It’s like in Star Wars, when the rebel fighters are trying to blow up the Death Star. They need to wait for exactly the right moment. It’s the same thing here. I believed the patriarch was serious about cleaning up the church. I believed I was helping. Perhaps I miscalculated, but we are just at the start of our journey.

Did you realize that your claims would be particularly embarrassing for the church, in light of its enthusiastic support for the Kremlin’s “gay propaganda” law, which forbids the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors?

Complaints from children should be considered irrespective of any political considerations. But those members of the gay lobby who publicly back the anti-gay law are obviously hypocrites. I should, however, note that I support the law, which bans the promotion of homosexuality to children. It helps to make society more tolerant by clearly defining the line between what is a crime—pedophilia—and the right of adults to make free choices.

Are you likely to face any consequences over your claims of sexual abuse within the church?

It’s possible I could be defrocked. I’ve also received threats from ultra-Orthodox activists. We’ll see what happens.

Is the row over your allegations comparable in scale to the scandal that broke out in 1991, when dissident priest Gleb Yakunin, after gaining unprecedented access to the KGB archives, accused high-ranking members of the church of being former KGB agents?

I’d say it is much more serious. Back then, there was no clear consensus among the public that having KGB links was a bad thing. We were all still Soviet people. It was accepted that such a thing was often a necessary means of survival in the Soviet system. After all, the KGB of the [Yuri] Andropov or [Leonid] Brezhnev eras was a very different thing from the Stalin-era KGB. But here, there is a public consensus that it is a bad thing when elderly bishops make homosexual advances toward young boys.

In a recent interview with the opposition-friendly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, you called for “revolution.” What exactly did you mean by this? A peaceful exchange of power? Storming of the Kremlin?

However it comes about. It makes me sad that people in Russia have no real means of standing up for their rights. We have no genuine trade unions, for example. I confess, however, that I do not go on protest marches and that I am unlikely to be on the barricades throwing stones if a revolution does break out. That said, while I am on the whole against Vladimir Putin, I see no viable alternative to him right now. This is very strange, of course, for such a large country. It’s also a situation that Putin does his very best to maintain.

Opposition figures have spoken of their desire to see the church play a mediating role between the Kremlin and protesters.

I’d like this very much indeed. There was even a chance that this could happen, when the first anti-government protests broke out in December 2011. Back then, Patriarch Kirill said on state-run television that “our people are there and there,” meaning at the anti-government demonstrations and at the pro-Putin rallies. Of course, he then later openly came out in support of Putin.

You criticized the imprisonment of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot and met with them after their recent release. But you have also suggested that they were a Kremlin project designed to turn Orthodox believers away from the protest movement.

I don’t exclude this. Pussy Riot’s actions had exactly the opposite effect from the one they were seeking. They forced Patriarch Kirill into the arms of the Kremlin by allowing the authorities to portray the opposition as anti-religion. I didn’t discuss this with them, however, as it’s clear that even if they were used, they were completely in the dark about how and why this was done.

What was your impression of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina?

Any person is interesting in his or her own way. I believe they are sincere when they say they are not anti-religion. As for a future in politics, I’m not sure this is something they want for themselves.

Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin has spoken of his belief that the separation of church and state is a “monstrous” thing. Do you share his views?

I have no desire to see Russia officially declared an Orthodox state. In such a country, with so many serious problems, this would not be to the church’s advantage. State corruption would simply become Orthodox corruption, and so on. I do not want to see religious icons on every corner.

How did you become a Christian in the officially atheist Soviet Union?

I became a Christian after reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels.