Interview with Father Georgy Kochetkov. Priest of the Russian Orthodox Church since 1989, founder of The Transfiguration Brotherhood.
Interview by Vera Pozzi, post-doctoral researcher in the Postsecular Conflicts Project of the Department of Sociology of the University of Innsbruck
Is there a plurality of orientations within the Russian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century? What is meant by the “third way” or “secret church”? We talked about it with Georgy Kochetkov, priest of the Russian Orthodox Church and founder of the Transfiguration Brotherhood, a context that incorporates several brotherhoods around the world. Among its activities, the Brotherhood promotes and finances the St Philaret’s Institute of higher education.
Georgy Kochetkov (Moscow 1950), priest of the Russian Orthodox Church since 1989, is the founder of the Transfiguration Brotherhood – Fellowship of Minor Orthodox Brotherhoods, officially born in August 1990 in a small parish in the Moscow province. The Brotherhood now has more than thirty communities in Russia, and is present in almost sixty cities in Belarus, Germany, Moldova, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, it promotes and finances the St Philaret’s Institute of higher education, founded clandestinely in 1988, and registered as an independent academic institution in 1992. The Institute, which welcomes the participation of about 500 students every year, offers programmes in Theology, Religious Studies and Social History of Russia.
Georgy Kochetkov—first as a layman and, starting from 1989, as a priest—has translated the texts of the Scriptures and the Liturgy from Greek and Church Slavonic into modern Russian, in order to make them understandable for all those who were no longer familiar with religious practice. In the seventies and, to an even greater extent after 1991, many people began to look again with interest or with simple curiosity at the Christian faith, but the non-religious education they had received did not offer them a way to access even the elementary contents of a faith. Kochetkov also initiated catechetical courses aimed at ensuring that grown adults, interested in receiving baptism and becoming part of the Christian community, could make this choice by understanding its spiritual and cultural foundations. Finally, a further element that has characterized Kochetkov’s activity starting from the 1970s has been the rediscovery of the “community” tradition in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. According to this perspective, small communities—understood as elementary forms of “ecclesia”—can enter into synergy with the parishes and, thus, contribute from the grassroots level to reform the life of the Church.
These elements, together with openness to other Christian communities and experiences (both reformed and Catholic), quickly earned Kochetkov the accusation of being a “renovationism” by the conservative and nationalist component of the Russian Orthodox clergy, and in 1997 the Patriarch Alexy II intervened with a decree that prohibited him from “exercising the ministry.” In 2000, however, the decree was revoked and since then his activity has continued, although not without difficulty, until today.
The text published below contains part of a long interview that took place on 29 July 2018 in Moscow. In particular, Kochetkov addresses two issues here: a more general one, which concerns the plurality of orientations within the Russian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century, with a focus on the position identified in the text as “third way” or “secret Church,” and a more particular one, which specifically concerns the Transfiguration Brotherhood and the activity it carried out within the Church in the post-Soviet years.
The “third way” mentioned by Georgy Kochetkov refers, on the one hand, to a precise historical phenomenon, which concerns the life of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet years (1917-1991), and, on the other, to a way of understanding the task of the Church, which was born before the Russian Revolution and continues even in the post-Soviet phase. In a strictly historical sense, the “third way” refers to the choice made in 1927 on the part of bishops, monks, priests and laity, who decided to continue to exist as a “secret Church” within the official Church. This choice entailed, among other things, that the Liturgy would be held clandestinely in the homes of the adherents and that during the celebrations the ritual mention of Metropolitan Sergius —locum tenens of the patriarchal see after the death of Patriarch Tikhon and, in this capacity,
signatory of the declaration of loyalty of the Russian Orthodox Church to toward the Soviet government, from which the “secret Church” intended to dissociate itself – was omitted. The “first way,” on the other hand, represents full adherence to the new direction and therefore to the request for loyalty to the Soviet government, while the “second way,” described in the interview as “the catacombs” way, represents the radical decision to break canonical communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, and to establish a hidden and independent Church experience.
Once the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church was recomposed, at least outwardly, with the end of the USSR (1991), the conditions on the basis of which the prospect of a “secret Church” had changed and the “third way” has continued to exist – in Kochetkov’s words – as a spiritual and cultural expression of that part of the Church which takes on the task not of finding a compromise with the political forces, but of responding to the urgencies of its time, together with all the other Christian churches.
I would like to ask you a question about the Russian Orthodox Church of the Soviet era. Do you think it is correct to speak of the existence of a “third way” which, while not belonging to the reality of the so-called “Church of the catacombs,” remained on a particular path, freer than that of the official Church?
Yes, of course. The fundamental line of the life of the Church lays right in that space. It is really very important, despite being the most difficult to study because there are hardly any documents and hardly any text. This “third space” was absolutely relevant, and it must be added that it did not arose in the second half of the twentieth century, but in the first half, immediately after the Revolution – and perhaps even before. There were philosophical-religious societies, in Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev. […] There was a research carried out by the intelligentsia, but a research “on the side of the Church.” The Church also wanted to understand something of contemporary life, and this led to the Council of 1917-18 [the local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church].
How did this Church experience unfold?
It was the so-called “secret Church.” There was the Church of the catacombs, and there was another thing, namely the secret Church. The latter did not develop official relations with the Church of Metropolitan Sergius [locum tenens of the patriarchal throne, elected Patriarch in 1943 with the consent of Stalin] but organized its own ecclesial life in a completely autonomous way, in an unofficial way. The Liturgy was celebrated in the houses, where the starcy [plural of starec, monk and spiritual guide] confessed. I personally remember these people, the last ones died one or two years ago, having at least ninety years of age. This tradition continued, inevitably. It seems to me that it is important to see this unitary line—the whole twentieth century is under this sign. But for the people who took this third path, life was never easy. Because they were not welcome in the Church, and they were on the fringes of the state. I cannot speak of civil society—and how, on the other hand, could we speak of civil society? In Soviet times there was no civil society, only the state. The totalitarian state and nothing more.
What is the task of the Church, according to this perspective?
The Church must be the Church, and not simply a representative organization that navigates different political forces – inside the country and abroad. And we are witnessing something similar today: there is the official Church that has to maneuver, and there are those who try to do what needs to be done, without leaving the official Church – and namely responding to the urgencies of their time, but without compromising, or at least avoiding substantial compromises.
Can it be said that not “leaving” the official Church represented a precise choice, that is, the attempt to reform the Church from within?
Sure. The Church must always renew itself, ecclesia semper reformanda. But saying it out loud is difficult. Although it is a classic formula, it is not loved: fundamentalist, conservative circles reign. They reigned supreme in Soviet times, and even now, even more so than before. For us, for our Church, fundamentalism is the greatest danger; in the West there is talk of secularism and it is said that this is the main problem: it exists here as well, but fundamentalism is more serious in Russia. The Church must be the salt of the earth itself, the light of the world, and we cannot lose this aspect. We need to find a way to do this work from the inside. From the outside there is not much you can do, only, so to speak, fix it up. But from the inside, a lot can be done.
Do you think that the ecclesial experience you are describing has relevance for the Russian Church today?
The path proposed in this “third space,” that is, that of spiritual renewal, of spiritual advancement, of an attempt to face contemporary problems, is today, under every aspect, absolutely relevant for the Church. Otherwise the people do not recognize the Church, they go away. They don’t know the Church of God, the Church of Christ.
How does your Brotherhood fit into the Russian Orthodox Church?
We take care of our works – the Brotherhood and the St. Philaret’s Institute – and fully preserve our organizational and financial independence. We do ecclesiastical work, and among those who observe us, some argue with us, others build discussions: unfortunately this happens more rarely. I would be very happy if more people would like to discuss with us. Indeed, it is right to speak openly and directly. But it is difficult for most people, for the hierarchy and for the believers. But still others welcome what we have been doing for almost half a century now. People have seen something all these years. Now we see that something has taken effect. It is important for us that the Church has a light. One cannot carry the burden of old troubles and old sins on oneself forever. Everyone knows this. Because all the traditional communities, the ancient ones, accumulate these problems over time. Catholics, Protestants: even their communities are not young, just as the Orthodox are not … and neither are the neo-Orthodox. To change something, people have to be prepared. And this is very difficult. Why? Because there are too many opposing forces. Unfortunately not only in the Church, but also in society, and even in the state.
Why were some of the churches that were entrusted to your Brotherhood in the 1990s closed?
They were closed because absolutely fundamentalist forces who collaborated with the structures of power, with the KGB and then with the FSB [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the heir of the KGB in the post-Soviet era] did not like all this. And we hadn’t acted as if we were supposed to please someone.
What was the focus of your activity, first in the late Soviet space, and later in the post-Soviet years?
I started translating passages from the Divine Liturgy [from the Church Slavonic language into modern Russian] in order to do catechesis. I have now been translating for thirty-five years, and we are about to publish seven volumes of translations. Many people came to us who wanted to enter the Church, to be truly Christian. Some were baptized, some were not, it was not important, it had little meaning. But they all came to us for catechesis, which lasted a long time – a year, a year and a half. In any case, this whole system had already been articulated in the mid-80s: at first it lasted less but then […] the fact is that the people who came to us had already moved very far from those roots, and reviving this contact was difficult, all the more with the intelligentsia. We have also tried to “translate” the classic concepts of Christian faith and doctrine. Of course, it is still a very large task ahead. It must be done with the efforts of all Christians, all confessions. It can’t be done with just one head. We must look less at the “anthological” language, in favor of the “existential” language and anthropological questions, of Christian anthropology.
Why has this activity of catechesis and translation been often opposed?
For Lenin, “educated” faith was the worst of all. And the Communists have always understood this. For example, they forbade celebrating in Russian: it wasn’t just because of the influence of ecclesiastical fundamentalists. It had already begun to celebrate in Russian—[i.e. to use modern Russian instead of the Church Slavonic] even before the Revolution, at the beginning of the century. And the Soviet power could not stand this at all. It could not be talked about, it could not be done. Anyone who tried was turned away. The state was categorically against it. I remember this personally. In the late seventies I began translating the Liturgy, then in the early eighties I attended the Ecclesiastical Academy in Leningrad and there was Archbishop Kirill Gundiaev [the current Patriarch Kirill]. Kirill used my translations, in Russian, in the Church of the Ecclesiastical Academy! For who? For the catechumens, the adults – good, modern, often unbaptized students who had begun to arrive a little at a time, and it was necessary to prepare them for baptism. Really, they didn’t know anything. There were no statutes, there was no bibliography, no one taught anything anywhere, you could not “access” the Bible. I conducted the catechesis, gave him the translated texts and we had good relations with each other. After that, very strong pressure was put on Kirill, and even he could no longer use those texts, even if an article was published in the Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarchii [“Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate”, founded in 1931], where everything was explained, how it was done catechesis and so on. With great difficulty because … they did not want the article to be published. The Soviet power was therefore completely opposed to an educated faith but at the same time it needed a “stupid,” unhealthy Orthodox faith.
What is the greatest difficulty you see in post-Soviet society?
Post-Soviet society has not yet completely emerged from Soviet reality. The Soviet power here, in our land, has killed ties: here there are no live contacts between people, people do not trust each other and are still afraid of each other. It has all been atomized, individualized, oppressed and repressed, people still feel threatened, and this is the legacy of the Soviet past – or almost the past.
How is this difficulty faced by the Brotherhood?
We welcome people as they are, but we hope for something better for them. Like God: He takes us as we are, and we are often evil, and He wants something better for us, but He takes us as we are. We try to do the same. It seems to me that this is the foundation of a new Christian humanism. Welcoming the person, loving her/him, giving her/him love and trust in advance. In the context of Brotherhood I often say: “Brothers and sisters, I urge you to give love and trust in advance to everyone, even to those who do not love you, even to those who do not want to do you good, who do not and will not do it. It does not matter. Get used to giving love and trust to each person, to each neighbor who participates in the community. For the simple fact that he/she is a person.”
Ph. Church of the savior on spilt blood, griboyedov channel embankment, Saint Petersburg, Russia © Rod Long via Unsplash