Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk has served as chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations since 2009. He is an outspoken critic of the independence granted to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which—in his frequently bombastic and belligerent statements—he associates with the alleged corruption of the West and the perceived geopolitical dominance of the United States. His reactionary and parochial worldview centers on a denunciation of modern culture and a return to an imagined golden age of Russian Orthodoxy. But has the Russian Patriarchate effectively become a department of Sergey Lavrov’s Foreign Ministry? Are the Department for External Church Relations and the Russian Foreign Ministry acting on behalf of global Orthodoxy or of Russian state interests?
Some years ago, a neoconservative theologian and cultural critic observed that “Metropolitan Hilarion does not always speak the truth.” Since I have on several occasions witnessed the Russian prelate’s unabashed dishonesty before his peers and seniors, it is becoming increasingly difficult to attribute his persistent misbehavior to a mere lapse in judgment. There must be some other reason for the abject shamelessness of a powerful clergyman and prolific scholar. Surely his words have a purpose.
Yet, given Alfeyev’s strained relationship with the truth, how can we discern, with any confidence, the difference between what beats in his heart and what flows from his lips? When the metropolitan repeatedly peddles conspiracy theories about Ukraine, the United States, and even COVID-19, one really wonders whether fact and fiction are so scrambled in his mind that he no longer knows the difference. When his demagoguery includes lazy sophistry—ironically echoed by many Evangelicals in America—about the West as decadent and the East as righteous, or the West as schismatic and the East as synergistic, his religious vision not only reeks of nostalgia for a bygone imperial grandeur that never really existed, but also resembles the hegemonic ambitions, rooted in the fifteenth century, of a “third Rome.” But which defunct and discredited tyranny really determines his worldview: The Czarist or the Soviet? Is it the former’s incestuous relationship between Church and state or the latter’s subjugation of the Church to the state? Either way, it is difficult to tell where one institution ends and the other begins.
Just days ago, the foreign minister (of the Russian Federation, not the Russian Patriarchate) declared that he “works closely with the Russian Orthodox Church, primarily with the Department of External Church Relations…especially when not only the Russian Orthodox Church, but also Orthodoxy as a whole is undergoing a real attack.” In Ukraine, he insisted, the United States “uses the Patriarch of Constantinople, an absolutely dependent instrument.” He continued:
It is already clear that they want to undermine the position of Orthodoxy. They are destroying the Serbian Orthodox Church, its canonical territory, and trying to extract Lebanon from under the Antiochian Patriarchate. In Russia, the state does not interfere in the affairs of the church. But when other countries interfere in the affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church and its sisters in the Orthodox world, the state is already obliged to protect the interests of its fellow believers and like-minded people.