St Nicholas Orthodox Church, Dallas Home Page
St Nicholas the Wonderworker Nicholas
Go to the bottom of the page

A letter from Keston Institute's Director. Wed, 1 Nov 2000

Dear Friends of Keston,

Most Protestants and Catholics would be surprised to learn that one of the 20th century's greatest manifestos of religious freedom was written by Russian Orthodox bishops. Unfortunately, many of today's Russian Orthodox laymen would be equally surprised. The 1927 'Solovki memorandum' by 17 bishops imprisoned by the Bolshevik regime in a remote northern monastery ought to be available on every parish bookstore in Russia. Someday the Moscow Patriarchate will finally acknowledge that these confessor and martyr bishops - not the KGB agents who rose to the top of the hierarchy - were the true conscience of the Church under Soviet oppression.

The good news is that the Patriarchate is slowly moving in that direction. Its recent council of bishops made headlines by canonising Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Far less attention was paid to a step which was more difficult morally and psychologically - and ultimately more significant. The Patriarchate has begun to canonise Solovki bishops such as Ilarion Troitsky, who some say was the chief author of the 1927 memorandum protesting against the Soviet regime's systematic religious persecution.

As I write, some key points are still in doubt. Of the 23 bishops imprisoned in Solovki, why did the recent council canonise only six? Did it go out of its way to canonise bishops who did not sign the declaration, and not to canonise those who did? Is the Moscow Patriarchate willing to take another step toward reconciliation by canonising Orthodox Russians who explicitly rejected the collaborationist tactics chosen by the Patriarchate itself in 1927 and afterward? Keston's Moscow staff are now investigating these questions and will have more to report in the near future.


In the canonisations of 'new martyrs' the Moscow Patriarchate is finally honouring Orthodox Christians who resisted Stalin's tyranny more than half a century ago. What remains to be seen is whether the Patriarchate is willing to speak out against tyrants who are in power right now--or at least to avoid being their servile tool. The latest news from Turkmenistan is not encouraging.

In October, acting on the instructions of Patriarch Aleksi, the Russian Orthodox Church formally conferred the Order of St Prince Daniil on Turkmenistan's president Saparmurat Niyazov. This is the highest award that the Church gives to secular heads of state, the award that the sainted Prince Vladimir of Kiev would presumably receive if he were alive today. Archbishop Vladimir of Tashkent visited Turkmenistan to grant the award in person. It is hard to see how the Patriarchate could have done more to buttress Niyazov's moral and political authority.

Of the heads of all 15 former Soviet republics, Niyazov is the one whose regime most reminds one of Stalin's. He has even created a Stalin-like cult of personality, complete with a golden statue of himself standing hundreds of feet above the capital city's main square. This bizarre idol - one cannot help but think of it as an idol - is mounted on an elaborate rotating mechanism so that it always faces the sun. Only Niyazov's inner circle know how much it cost to build this and other monuments to their supreme leader's ego, such as the enormous new presidential palace which looks like a Soviet version of a Las Vegas casino.

When my Moscow friends learned that I would be visiting Turkmenistan in July, they told me that it would be like a trip in a time machine back to the old Soviet Union. They were right. In Turkmenistan I heard eyewitness accounts of things that have not happened in the Russian Federation since the early 1980s: police raids on worship services, arrests of believers, mass confiscations of Bibles and other religious literature. I stood in the ruins of a Protestant church which the authorities had razed to the ground in late 1999. I experienced an attempted entrapment by the KNB, successor to the Turkmen branch of the old KGB secret police. (For more details, see Keston News Service, 13, 14 & 17 July 2000.)

I especially remember the fountains. President Niyazov loves fountains, and the area around his presidential palace is full of them. So are the government ministry complexes, which have been remodelled as lavishly (and tastelessly) as any I have seen in Moscow. The splashing waters at first seemed like a welcome contrast to the 100 F (38 C) plus heat - until my first walk through a residential neighbourhood, where I saw Turkmens patiently queuing to fill their buckets from an outdoor pump. Water is a rare commodity in this desert country, and for ordinary citizens it is rationed.

Like Russia, Turkmenistan has a state agency to control religious life. Unlike today's Russia - but like the old Soviet Union - the state systematically dictates the internal affairs of even the country's dominant confessions, the Sunni Muslims and the Orthodox Christians. From a middle-echelon bureaucrat at the Council for Religious Affairs I learned that he and his colleagues control the personnel decisions of both religions, deciding which imams and priests to promote - or dismiss - and where to assign them. This of course is a direct violation of traditional Orthodox canon law. The Moscow Patriarchate has not only failed to protest against this violation, but has now bestowed its highest award on the head of the state that practises it.

On learning of this award, Keston News Service editor Felix Corley rang Fr Andrei Sapunov, dean of the Moscow Patriarchate's clergy in Turkmenistan. He asked why the Patriarchate considers Niyazov to be worthy of such an honour when religious believers of many denominations in Turkmenistan are suffering persecution. Fr Andrei's response was identical to that of his predecessors of the Stalin years. He told my Keston colleague, `You are mistaken. There is no persecution. No-one is persecuted.' (For further details, see Keston News Service, 20 October 2000.)

When Stalin was alive, the Moscow Patriarchate obediently echoed Soviet slogans to delegations of naïve western churchmen and politicians. Nearly four decades after his death, it finally began to admit the truth. How long must we wait for the Patriarchate to tell the truth about Turkmenistan's Niyazov?


For most of the last decade, the Kremlin has been cautious about infringing the religious freedom of Jews. Unlike, say, Baptists or Pentecostals, Jews have until recently experienced strikingly little interference from the post-Soviet state in exercising their right to worship. Unfortunately this is not because Russia has outgrown anti-Semitism; all too often vicious anti-Jewish slurs continue to be an acceptable part of public discourse. More important is the fact that the Moscow Patriarchate does not see Jews as a competitive threat as it does Protestants or Roman Catholics. The Jews who have chosen to remain in Russia rather than emigrate form one of the most secularised demographic groups anywhere in the world; only a tiny minority of them are religiously observant. Also, in Russia as elsewhere Judaism does not function as a missionary faith actively seeking to convert people from other ethnic groups.

Over the last several months, however, this tiny minority have experienced a bizarre attack on their religious freedom. Unlike the Christian minorities the Jews have not experienced direct, frontal assaults from the state such as denial of the right to rent public halls for worship services. Instead the Putin government has taken sides on what any truly free society would regard as a purely internal Jewish question: who should be the chief rabbi of Russia? Awkwardly for those who attribute all the ills of today's Russia to ultra- nationalism, Putin has thrown his weight against the native-born Russian incumbent and in favour of a U.S. citizen born in Italy who does not even speak Russian well. In this case Putin's motives are not nationalistic or anti- Semitic: he simply wants to strike down a religious leader allied with his arch- enemy, the media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky.

Regardless of his motives, Putin's role in the Jewish faction fight should be alarming to believers of all faiths. If secular politicians can manipulate the succession of Jewish religious leaders today, they will be able to do the same to Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist leaders - or to Jewish secular leaders - tomorrow. Putin's interference suggests that he is at best indifferent, at worst actively hostile, to the very concept of civic institutions independent of state control.


Anyone who has lived in Russia long enough to befriend families with sons of military age has heard about the practice of 'dedovshchina' or hazing. In today's Russian army this is not just a matter of initiation rituals or occasional horseplay, but the uncontrolled, brutal bullying of younger recruits by older ones. Independent human-rights monitors estimate that it leads to hundreds or even thousands of deaths every year, through both suicide and murder. (For one of the best accounts in English, see the front-page article by David Filipov in the 26 October Boston Globe. ) Hazing is one of the main reasons why many families are willing to pay bribes of up to US$ 5,000 (GB£ 3,440 or DM 11.600) - the equivalent of several years' income for the average Russian - to evade conscription for their sons.

I have seen many official and unofficial statements from the Moscow Patriarchate about co-operation with the military - supporting the Kremlin's wars in Chechnya, calling on young men to do their patriotic duty, and so on. Recently, for the first time ever, I read a comment from the Patriarchate on hazing. According to the Moscow daily 'Kommersant', a priest from the Patriarchate's department for relations with the army and law-enforcement agencies appeared jointly with officers of the heavily militarised Ministry of the Interior - which has provided many of the troops fighting in Chechnya. 'What father doesn't whip his children?' said Fr Aleksi. 'There is nothing horrible in hazing.'


The latest official report of the US State Department on threats to religious freedom in Russia cites Keston more often than any other non-government source. This autumn, for the second year in a row, I was invited to be part of the official United States delegation to a Warsaw gathering of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I would have been both an adviser and a representative for the United States government in its expression of Washington's official views on the progress (or lack thereof) of OSCE member states in securing human rights.

Here is an excerpt from my note replying to the State Department's offer:

'I am flattered that you would want to choose me for such an appointment. However, I feel compelled to decline.

'One of the most precious assets that Keston Institute and I personally are able to bring to the cause of religious freedom is our independence. Many times I have sat opposite Russian interlocutors--be they government officials, religious leaders, or journalists--and been grateful that I could look them in the eye and tell them that my organisation and I are totally independent of the US government, that we are not recipients of funding from any US government agency or spokesmen for US government policy. In recent years Keston's impact on Russian public opinion has been growing--paradoxically, even while overall freedom of the press has been shrinking in Russia--precisely because the Russian media correctly see us as a genuinely independent body. It would be a disservice to our own goals for us to give up that independence.

'As always, my Keston colleagues and I remain available to share our information and opinions with you on any area within our expertise.'


During my visits to Washington, I often brief US diplomats on our findings; Keston's Moscow and Oxford staff likewise often brief British, American, German and other diplomats in our region. These diplomats - like so many journalists, scholars and religious leaders - value our judgements in no small part precisely because we provide an independent 'reality check'.

Keeping that reality check alive, healthy - and truly independent - requires continuing help from those who share our commitment to religious freedom for all bona fide believers. For information on how to make your tax-deductible gift to Keston, please see below or visit our website; and please also keep us and persecuted believers in your prayers. On behalf of all the oppressed believers whose rights we defend, please accept our thanks.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence Uzzell


Keston News Service costs per annum GB£ 30, US$50 or DM 90. Details of our bimonthly magazine ‘Frontier’ and quarterly academic journal ‘Religion, State & Society’ our available via or website

HOW YOU CAN DONATE TO SUPPORT RELIGIOUS FREEDOM Via our website US citizens may make tax-deductable donations to: Keston USA, P.O. Box 426, Waldorf, Maryland 20603.

Credit cards accepted (Visa, Mastercard, Eurocard, Gift Aid, CAF) payable to Keston Institute, 4 Park Town, Oxford OX2 6SH, UK. Please include card number, expiry date, and mailing address.

DEUTSCHES SPENDENKONTO Empfänger: Kirchenkreis Koblenz Stichwort "Keston Institute" !!! Bank: Sparkasse Koblenz Kontonummer: 14043 BLZ: 570 501 20

AUTOMATIC BANK TRANSFER (from anywhere in the world): Keston Institute, Account No. 0106411835 National Westminster Bank Plc (Branch code 50-31-88) 11 High Street, Chislehurst KENT BR7 5AL, UK.

Queries should be addressed to Erika Cuneo,

St Nicholas Orthodox Church, Dallas Home Page Icon of St Nicholas Go to the top of the page

All rights reserved. Please use this Orthodox Christian material in any way that is edifying to your soul, and copy it for personal use if you so desire. We ask that you contact St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church if you wish to distribute it in any way.

Russian Orthodox Church
of St Nicholas
Dallas, Texas
Phone: 972 529-2754
Priest Seraphim Holland
Snail Mail: 2102 Summit, McKinney TX 75071, USA