Moscow’s reporting on the Ukraine church crisis

How Moscow newspapers reported on the meeting between Cyril and Bartholomew demonstrates how the Russian press works

(COMMENTARY) In his first broadcast on the BBC after returning to office as First Sea Lord in September 1939, Winston Churchill coined what would become one of the most repeated lines about Russia.

It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma …

This has become a shorthand way of saying Russia is unknowable or unexplainable to Western eyes. However, Churchill’s words did not stop with “enigma.” He adds:

but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. 

Nothing much has changed since 1939. A recent meeting between the Patriarchs Cyril of Moscow and Bartholomew of Constantinople over an autocephalous or independent orthodox church in Ukraine is yet another example of the fog that surrounds Russian reporting.

This time, however, the fog comes from reactions to the mixed media coverage in Moscow. State news outlets, pro-government and opposition newspapers have followed no single view on the Ukrainian Orthodox question.  

However, reading between the lines (a necessary skill in interpreting Russian newspapers) does reveal a pattern, found in other quasi-governmental or political issues. One may attack the courtiers but never the king — the Moscow Patriarchate, the secret police, and political leaders may be criticized so long as the criticisms do not touch the leader — Vladimir Putin. National interest remains the key.

The reporting from Moscow on the patriarchal meeting in pro-government and state outlets offers oblique criticisms of the Russian Orthodox Church, but attempts to reassure readers that all is not lost. The opposition press criticizes the security services and, in the best outing so far, Novaya Gazeta paints Cyril as an incompetent leader who has let down Russia.

Walk with me through the fog and tell me if you see what I see? The Associated Press story of August 31, 2018 entitled “Cleric: ‘No going back’ on Ukraine split from Russia Church” presents this story from a classical journalism perspective.

A senior official in the Orthodox Church says “there’s no going backwards” in granting Ukrainian clerics full ecclesiastic independence from the Russian Orthodox Church to which they have been tied to for hundreds of years. However, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, who is part of a committee dealing with the Ukrainian question, told The Associated Press that the final step of the procedure has yet to be reached. His comments came as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I welcomed Patriarch Kirill [Cyril] of Moscow in Istanbul on Friday.  

The article offers quotes from various sources and links the meeting to an AP report on alleged Russian government-backed hacking attempts on the internet accounts of Bartholomew’s entourage. As a wire service report, the story is short and does not put this into a wider context. It leaves the issue as another example of the murkiness of Russian affairs. However, against this base we can still set the Moscow-based stories.

The story printed by the Moscow Patriarchate sets the fact base for most stories. Its reporting was subdued and confined itself to an account of the press conference given after the Istanbul meeting by the chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Oxford-educated Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk. Hilarion’s comments were measured … but uninformative.

“The talk lasted in total about two and a half hours. It was very frank, very cordial; it really was a talk from heart to heart” … “We left Constantinople with very bright feelings and in a very good mood.”

Clarity was not Hilarion’s priority.

“This meeting was important first of all for the strengthening of personal relationships between the two patriarchs and, of course, for strengthening bilateral relations between our two Churches” …  “the interlocutors touched upon a wide range of issues including those on the agenda of the bilateral relations, as well as problems of pan-Orthodox unity. The talk, which began in a very sincere atmosphere, ended on a very friendly note, and the patriarchs exchanged gifts” …  

Hilarion declined to speak to the discussions about the Ukraine when questioned by reporters. “I do not think I should and have a right to disclose now the content of the talk of the two patriarchs,” he said, before moving on to a general statement not to believe anything said about the meeting unless it was said by the patriarchs.

Asked if there was any truth in the statement made by Metropolitan Emmanuel, one of the members of the Constantinople team, that independence for the Ukrainian church was a done deal, Hilarion responded diplomatically.

“The Patriarchate of Constantinople would not seek to heal the existing schism by creating another schism.”  

He went on to say the nothing official had been decided at the meeting. 

“The two patriarchs could not just meet and make some decisions for their Churches…”

The secular press reports from Moscow followed no universal line. The government owned daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta followed the line set forth in the Patriarchate press release. The Sept 2, 2018, article entitled “Разговор двух братьев” [A conversation between two brothers] offered criticism of the Ukrainians in its lede, but kept close to the line given by Hilarion.

The lede states:

Обостренное ожидание решения “украинского вопроса” – президент Украины обратился к Патриарху Константинопольскому Варфоломею с просьбой признать каноничными украинских раскольников и выдать им томос (указ) о независимости – стало главным контекстом их диалога.

In anticipation of a solution to the “Ukrainian question” the President of Ukraine has appealed to the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew to recognize as canonical the Ukrainian schismatics, giving them a tomatos (ukase) of independence. This was main topic of their discussion.

“Schismatics” is a pejorative word in the above quote — connoting illegitimacy or rebellion against lawful authority.

Quoting Patriarch Cyril, Rossiyskaya Gazeta also followed Hilarion’s lead. It was a “conversation between brothers” … “Cyril would not divulge the details of the conversation “without the consent of his holiness” … “I hope that we will continue to work together to make the world better.” 

The ITAR-TASS wire service, Russia’s largest news agency (and government owned), ran a story on Sept 1, 2018, that was no different. In a story entitled “Patriarch Cyril reveals the details of his meeting with Bartholomew,” the lede stated:

Патриарх Московский Кирилл заявил, что итоги его переговоров с патриархом Константинопольским Варфоломеем не несут ничего такого, что произвело бы “взрыв в сознании”, разговор получился очень правильный.

Moscow Patriarch Cyril stated the results of his talks with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople did not produce anything that would have led to an “explosion in consciousness” as their conversation had been very correct.

The article downplayed comments made by Metropolitan Emmanuel, arguing that no decisions had been taken and that all parties were seeking a mutually acceptable solution. 

The opposition online newspaper,, skipped the story. While the bulk of its reporting covers politics, it does report on religion news. On August 27, 2108, it ran the story from the AP on the hacking of Bartholomew’s aides by a group backed by the GRU, Russian army intelligence. In March 2014, Russia’s attorney general ordered federal censors to block Grani, accusing it of publishing “incitements to illegal action.” The frame of the Grani hacking story is that the security services were out of control and hurting Russia., an independent news website with over a million visitors daily that has backed Putin in the past, saw the dispute in political terms. In an article entitled: “Московскийи Константинопольский патриархи обсудили автокефалию УПЦ” [Moscow and Constantinople Patriarchs discussed autocephaly of the UOC] the website captioned its video report stating:

В Стамбуле 31 августа прошла встреча патриарха Московского Кирилла и патриарха Константинопольского Варфоломея. После нее митрополит Эммануил, ответственный за процесс представления томоса Украине, заявил, что вопрос об автокефалии решен. Тем не менее эксперты отмечают, что манипуляции украинских политиков не дают оснований для независимости украинской церкви.

In Istanbul, on August 31, a meeting was held between Cyril, Patriarch of Moscow, and Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople. After the meeting Metropolitan Emmanuel, who is responsible for preparing the ukaze [on independence] to Ukraine, said that the issue of autocephaly had been settled. Nevertheless, experts note that manipulation of Ukrainian politicians does not give grounds for the independence of the Ukrainian church.

For Gazeta, the issue is Ukrainian state interference in an internal Orthodox dispute. 

The independent opposition website Novaya Gazeta also described the meeting in political terms, but characterized it as a failure for Russian policy that should lead to the ouster of Cyril as Cyril patriarch.

In its article entitled «Решение принято: Украинская Церковь будет автокефальной!» [“The decision is made: the Ukrainian Church will be autocephalous!”] the lede states:

Два с половиной часа продолжались сегодня переговоры за закрытыми дверями между двумя самыми влиятельными лидерами православного мира: патриархом Московским Кириллом (Гундяевым) и патриархом Константинопольским (Вселенским) Варфоломеем (Архондонисом). Они пытались договориться о судьбе Украинской Православной Церкви, на которую претендуют оба патриархата. Но если Константинополь намерен предоставить ей автокефалию, то Москва собирается крепко держать Украину в своих объятиях, сокращая даже те элементы автономии своей структуры в этой стране, которые были предоставлены ей в 1990 году.

The two most influential leaders of the Orthodox world: Patriarch Cyril of Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople met today for two and a half hours in closed door meetings. They tried to agree on the fate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which both patriarchs claim. But if Constantinople intends to give her autocephaly, then Moscow is going to firmly hold Ukraine in its arms, reducing even those elements of the autonomy of its structure in this country that were granted to it in 1990.

Novaya Gazeta reported the same facts as the other outlets but dug deeper, placing the facts into political and religious context — and sharply criticized the Moscow Patriarchate for its handling of the affair. The article reported the platitudes of Cyril and Hilarion but framed them with disdain.

Московский патриарх отделался общими фразами: «Братская беседа… Разговор очень правильный… Разговор между двумя братьями… Хорошая встреча». И ни слова о ее содержании или итогах – со ссылкой на конфиденциальность. Красноречивая деталь: москвичи даже не остались на обед, а трапеза играет важную роль в церковной жизни. 

The Moscow patriarch got off with general phrases: “Fraternal conversation … The conversation is very correct … A conversation between two brothers … A good meeting.” And not a word about its content or results – referring only to confidentiality. A telling detail: the Muscovites did not even stay for dinner, and the meals play an important role in the church life. 

Novaya Gazeta labeled Cyril and the security services incompetent. 

Ощущение доминирования в зале переговоров гостей создавали десятки сотрудников ФСО, сопровождавшие Кирилла, — меры безопасности были беспрецедентными.

The feeling of domination in the negotiation room was created by dozens of FSO [secret police] officers accompanying Cyril – the security measures were unprecedented.

And his handling of the dialogue inept.

Экспресс-визит Кирилла в Стамбул стал отчаянной, но запоздалой попыткой приостановить процесс отрыва православной Церкви Украины от Москвы. О том, что этот процесс вышел на финишную прямую, Киев и Константинополь заявили еще в апреле. Причем вполне официально. Поначалу Кремль и Данилов монастырь с присущим им постимперским снобизмом не восприняли это заявление всерьез. В мае-июне предпринимались поездки московских церковных дипломатов по греческим и славянским Церквам, чтобы как-то настроить их против Константинополя.

Приглашенные в Москву предстоятели поместных Церквей в основном проигнорировали приглашения (приехал лишь Александрийский патриарх), а высокая делегация Константинопольского патриархата в Киеве почти не контактировала с представителями Московского патриархата, которые утверждают, что под их духовной опекой все еще остается большинство православных Украины.

The snap visit by Cyril to Istanbul was desperate, but belated attempt to stop the separation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from Moscow. However, this process had already reached the finish line, Kiev and Constantinople said back in April. And this was an official statement. Initially, the Kremlin and the Danilov Monastery [the Moscow Patriarchate HQ], with their inherent post-imperial snobbery, did not take this statement seriously. In May and June, Moscow church diplomats visited the Greek and Slavic Churches to somehow set them against Constantinople.

The priests of the local Churches invited to Moscow largely ignored the invitations (only the Patriarch of Alexandria came), and the high delegation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Kiev had almost no contact with the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, who maintained the majority of Orthodox Ukrainians remained under their spiritual care.

Cyril’s on again/off again approach to dialogue with the Ukrainian church had now been shown to be a failure. After engaging in dialogue then snubbing the Ukrainians, it was too late to influence events,

но ему дали понять, что поезд уже ушел — церковная судьба Украины будет решаться без Москвы.

[B]ut it was made clear to [Cyril] that that train had already left – the fate of Ukraine would be decided without Moscow.  

The loss of Ukraine, a third of the Moscow Patriarchate’s parishes, was a calamity for the Russian Church and a defeat for Russian foreign policy, Novaya Gazeta argued and would likely lead to Cyril’s ouster as Patriarch.

Потеря Украины как эксклюзивной «канонической территории» РПЦ – большой удар по положению Московского патриарха не только в мировой церковной политике, но и внутри России. Секретарь Синода Киевского патриархата архиепископ Евстратий (Зоря) даже предполагает, что поражение Кирилла в Стамбуле приведет к его отставке с патриаршего престола. 

The loss of Ukraine as the exclusive “canonical territory” of the ROC is a big blow to the position of the Moscow Patriarch not only in world church politics, but also within Russia. The secretary of the Synod of the Kiev Patriarchate, Archbishop Evstratii (Zorya), even suggested that the defeat of Cyril in Istanbul will lead to his resignation from the patriarchal throne.

Novaya Gazeta concludes its article with speculation on the future. Cyril’s failure will permit the appointment of a new patriarch more amenable to Kremlin policies. Tikhon, the Metropolitan of Pskov, it alleges, 

Он гораздо более последовательно проповедует и даже формирует идеологию «русского мира» и московского мессианства, чем Кирилл со всеми его экуменическим прошлым и симпатиями к «западным еретикам». 

[I]s much more consistent in preaching and even forming the ideology of the “Russian world” and Moscow’s messianism than Cyril, with all his ecumenical past and sympathies for “Western heretics.” 

Russian journalism is not like, nor has it ever been like, Anglo-American journalism. In an address to the first Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1932 Joseph Stalin said: “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks…. And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.” 

This view of the goal of writing (and journalism) became known as Socialist realism — facts were not independent of ideology. Facts served to further ideology. While the Soviet era is no more, the worldview of Socialist realism lives on.

Classical liberal journalism as practiced in the US and UK holds to a view summarized by the editor of the Manchester Guardian C.P. Scott in 1921. “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” While on the editorial page he said: “It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair”.

Scott’s dictum was the prevailing worldview in editorial offices for much of the 20th Century. Yet this view is not universal. It is disappearing within the American newspaper guild and is all but gone in Europe. It is being replaced by advocacy journalism. 

Advocacy journalism is all that Russia has ever known. In this story we see soft and strong criticisms of the Orthodox Church and the security services (FSB and GRU) for letting down the side. The rigid power structures of Russia do not forbid all criticism of the state and its allies — in this case we see harsh criticism from the independent Novaya Gazeta and soft criticism from the pro-government and state outlets. However, when we take Churchill’s dictum of national interest in mind, we can see clearly through the fog.

The king has not been served well by his courtiers and it is the courtiers (Patriarch Cyril most of all) who will be penalized for failing in their duty to the national interest. Though the degree and volume changes through time, the direction of the reporting has remained constant from the Tsar to Stalin to Putin.

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