Staunton, March 16 – The interests of Patriarch Kirill who wants a younger and more disciplined generation of churchmen to assume key positions in the Russian Orthodox Church and of Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu who wants a more orderly and less contentious relationship with the Church have led to the departure of Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov as head of the Synod’s Department for Cooperation with the Armed Forces.
And the exit of this always outspoken figure may open the way for a more rapid but less contentious promotion of a chaplaincy corps in the Russian Army, according to three commentaries on this important change near the top of the Russian Orthodox Church that appeared yesterday.
“Izvestiya” reported that Smirnov, head of that department since 2001, had retired at his own request and will be replaced by Archpriest Sergey Privalov who has been his deputy for almost the entire time. Smirnov will now become first deputy chairman of the Patriarchal Commission on Questions of the Family and Defense of Motherhood (izvestia.ru/news/546569).
Privalov’s elevation, the paper suggested, appears likely to affect the style rather than the substance of the Church’s relations with the military. The new chief was himself an officer until August 2001 when his position in the military was eliminated in the course of downsizing, and unlike Smirnov, he is far less outspoken.
“Nezavizimaya gazeta” suggested that Smirnov’s outspokenness was the major reason for the change. “For many years,” it pointed out, “Smirnov was not more for his dramatic declarations” on various subjects than “for his achievements” in building up the chaplaincy corps in the military (ng.ru/politics/2013-03-14/1_smirnov.html).
Among Smirnov’s comments that attracted the most attention, the paper said, was his declaration that “Lenin was worse than Hitler,” that the best presents for a priest were “a dacha or an automobile,” and that the name of the street in front of his church should become “Tsarist.” Indeed, in the last case, he personally changed the signs there.
Most recently, the paper noted, Smirnov attracted attention for saying that no family in Russia could survive unless it kept a gun in it home, to be used, he suggested, if the authorities succeeded in imposing a system of juvenile justice on the country, something many conservative Orthodox nationalists strongly oppose.
Even that statement might have passed without consequence if Smirnov had accomplished more or if he had not been such a clever user of the media. Not only was he prepared to speak to the regular media on almost any question, but he was especially adept at developing and using the Internet to advance his views.
And in a commentary on Grani.ru, Nikolay Mitrokhin, who has written extensively on the Russian Orthodox Church, suggested that Smirnov’s transfer from the military department to the family affairs commission was entirely “reasonable” given Smirnov’s oft-expressed opposition to same-sex marriages and feminism (grani.ru/opinion/m.212582.html).
But Mitrokhin suggested that Smirnov’s departure from military affairs was more significant than his landing in family ones, and he argued that the archpriest’s ouster reflected both his inability to overcome opposition within the armed forces to chaplains and one comment he made about Shoygu last December.
After then-President Dmitry Medvedev said in 2009 that the Russian military should have a chaplaincy corps, Patriarch Kirill has been an enthusiastic supporter of that idea, but so far, Mitrokhin points out, Smirnov has only been able to fill 19 of the more than 200 chaplain slots available. Perhaps a younger and less publicity-seeking churchman will do better.
And, Mitrokhin said, Shoygu likely hasn’t forgotten Smirnov’s public offer in December 2012 to provide the defense minister, who happens to be a Buddhist, with a personal Orthodox priest, an offer that the archpriest quickly and unusually had to rescind after a firestorm of media criticism.
For the time being at least, the church affairs analyst concluded, Archpriest Dmitry is likely to continue to speak about on his favorite themes including support for young mothers and their children and opposition to “liberals and Western agents.” He has to “maintain his image,” Mitrokhin said, especially now that little remains for him “except [that].”