(AP/Dmitry Astakhov)

At 12 rue Daru in Paris’ 8th arrondissement stands the Cathédrale Saint-Alexandre-Nevsky. There on the right bank of the Seine, within walking distance of the Arc de Triomphe and Élysée Palace, Saint-Alexandre-Nevsky’s onion-shaped domes and vaulted stone arches seem both utterly foreign and entirely native pressed against the Parisian skyline. Built in the middle of the nineteenth century with a donation from Tsar Alexander II and consecrated in 1861, it is the oldest existent Russian Orthodox house of worship in France. And since the Russian Revolution in 1917, the cathedral has served as the headquarters of one of the most vibrant, fascinating, and unique factions of the complex Orthodox Christian world: the Patriarchal Exarchate for Orthodox Parishes of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe, an ecclesiastical jurisdiction under the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) that exists apart from the other churches he oversees in Western Europe so that they might maintain their Russian cultural and liturgical traditions.

Today the Cathédrale Saint-Alexandre-Nevsky also stands at the center of a community in crisis—a community threatened with complete erasure. It is, without a doubt, a small community. The entire jurisdiction consists of only 100 parishes, two monasteries, seven sketes (a uniquely Eastern Christian monastic community that is essentially a collection of hermits), and one prominent theological school, St. Sergius Theological Institute. But it has found itself caught in the middle of a growing dispute between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and Patriarchate of Moscow, the two most powerful episcopal figures in Orthodox Christianity’s literally Byzantine governance structure—a structure that makes their relationship to one another difficult to understand for many outsiders.

The Eastern and Western churches split in the Middle Ages in a dispute largely about the primacy of the pope (who is, among other things, Bishop of Rome). The Eastern Christian churches rejected the notion that a single, high-ranking bishop should have absolute authority over all others. The result is that today Orthodoxy is held together through mutually agreed upon relationships between autonomous or semi-autonomous churches, each led by their own archbishop or patriarch. Among these, the Patriarch of Constantinople is traditionally considered a primus inter pars—a first among equals. But this status is far from absolute and a long history makes Moscow the most credible threat to Constantinople’s position of leadership.

The conflict between the two religious leaders could be (and has been at different points in history) merely a parochial skirmish between two hierarchs from some of the most embattled, albeit ancient, corners of the Christian world. But this is far from the case today. The Russian Orthodox Church has resumed its position at the heart of Russian political life under the presidency of Vladimir Putin. And the Moscow-based church increasingly serves as an instrument of Russian soft power, including in places like Ukraine where the oversight of Orthodox parishes in the country has become a proxy battle in the country’s issues with Russian intervention.

It is in Ukraine that what might appear as a parochial conflict between two figures on the relative periphery of the Christian world takes on more sinister and globally significant contours. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and continued Russian interference in Ukrainian secular politics on behalf of pro-Russian, anti-Western forces has been reflected in the country’s ecclesiastical politics. The Russian Orthodox Church actually began in Kiev in the tenth century, when Greek Byzantine missionaries from Constantinople baptized the Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir, and his mother Olga. For centuries, the Russian and Ukrainian churches remained bureaucratically unified. Until now.

There is little doubt that Russian state officials were using (and arguably continue to use) the Orthodox Church in Ukraine as a conduit for Russian influence. So, when the Patriarch of Constantinople granted Ukrainian Orthodox Christians their ecclesiastical freedom last year, Moscow objected and even threatened to break entirely with the Greek Patriarch. While there exist some canonical arguments related to the whole matter, the truth is that the episode is part of Russian’s intervention in the internal domestic affairs of its neighbors, friends, and foes. Americans and Western Europeans cannot be free to see Russian interference in Crimea, and subsequently the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as a matter entirely separate from their own troubles with Russian election meddling.  

In the midst of this global conflict, the eyes of many Eastern Christians turned West to that band of Russian exiles living in France. Since the collapse of communism in Russia, the Moscow Patriarch has had his eye on his lost children in Western Europe. As the conflict in Ukraine heated up, the Patriarch of Constantinople played one of his most underrated cards. In late 2018, he dissolved the Patriarchal Exarchate for Orthodox Parishes of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe, ordering that the parishes, monasteries, and theological school all to come under the authority of a Greek bishop. In essence, he erased the Russian-ness of a community that had existed largely to preserve this identity. Within a month, Moscow announced it was creating its own Exarchate, a Russian exarchate, with no Greek bishops to meddle in their traditions.

To understand why this turn of events is so distressing, it is important to understand the unique history and character of the Exarchate. As Viktor Alexandrov wrote at the blog for The Wheel (an independent Orthodox lay journal),  “The fact is that for its clergy and faithful the Archdiocese was an island of freedom, where there was a relationship of mutual respect and collegiality between the archbishop and the clergy, as well as between the archbishop and the parishes that was not typical for most Orthodox jurisdictions.” The Exarchate is unique and its history is why. There had been a small Russian expatriate community in France since the early modern period, but it was not until the Russian Revolution in 1917 that large numbers of Russians began to stream into France. Of the nearly 1.5 million refugees who fled in the wake of the revolution and subsequent civil war, approximately 400,000 found their way to France. These exiles faced a serious battle in preserving their religious traditions in the diaspora. While Orthodox immigrant communities in the West had ordinarily “sent home” for priests, thus maintaining the cultural and jurisdictional ties that bound them to their traditional apostolic sees, the Russians newly arrived in France had little reason to nurture such a relationship with the Patriarchate of Moscow, which had at that point largely been co-opted by the new communist government.

The alternate choice became the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), a sort of church-in-exile that had been set up in the wake of the Russian Revolution and subsequent Russian Civil War in 1917 and 1918. Metropolitan Eulogius, then the spiritual head of the Russian Orthodox in France, had been one of ROCOR’s founding members after all. However, by the early 1930s, tensions within ROCOR, as well as questions about its legitimacy, compelled Metropolitan Eulogius to seek the “canonical protection” of Patriarch Photius II of Constantinople. In 1931, the Greek patriarch received the embattled Russian bishop and one of the most peculiar outposts of the Orthodox Christian world was born: a small collection of parishes and monasteries exiled primarily in France while observing Russian cultural and religious customs under the protection of the Greek patriarch, himself a kind of internal exile in Turkey. The Exarchate was born.

This strange little band of castaways has provided a great source of intellectual light in modern Orthodoxy. Just eight years after the Russian Revolution that had sent them into the wilderness, in 1925, the emigres founded St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute. The list of the school’s former teachers and students reads like a “Who’s Who of Modern Orthodox Theology”: Nicolas Afanassieff, Élisabeth Behr-Sigel, Olivier Clément, Georges Florovsky, Nicolas Lossky, John Meyendorff, and Alexandre Schmemann. While largely unknown to those uninterested in theology or Eastern Christianity, the simple fact is that it is not at all a stretch to argue that every truly great Orthodox Christian thinker of the twentieth century has passed through St. Sergius’s doors. The intellectual vibrancy of the school created what is perhaps the only modern progressive threads in Orthodox Christian theology. While certainly much of this (including, for example, treatises arguing for the restoration of women to the diaconate) would hardly pass as liberal or progressive among most Western mainline Protestants or even Roman Catholics, for the Orthodox world much of what has been produced there is nothing short of revolutionary. This kind of cutting-edge scholarship could only exist in part because of the unique nature of the Exarchate—that is, a band of exiles, largely left to their own devices, living and working in Western Europe throughout the changes of the twentieth century. It was a reality that made the Exarchate valuable and dangerous, especially to the Russian church authorities back home.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Patriarch of Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church began their comeback almost immediately, though this progress was sluggish at first and it was uncertain what role the Russian Orthodox Church would have in Russia, let alone the rest of the world. However, there is no doubt that things have changed. In 2009, the St. Petersburg-born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev was enthroned as Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow and All the Rus. Kirill has nurtured a close relationship with Vladimir Putin as well as leaders of the American right, such as Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham. Under Kirill’s leadership, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a voice for social conservatism, not just in Russia but around the world, attracting far-right activists in Europe and the U.S. to its sphere of influence. In this capacity, the Patriarch of Moscow has challenged the authority and influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and its current incumbent Bartholomew I, who is generally seen as more progressive. Their growing conflict has played out in the Ukraine and now it has moved to the Exarchate.

“Remain calm and pray that the Holy Spirit might work.” This was the rather understated comment of Archbishop Jean, the leader of the Exarchate when it was dissolved in November 2018 by the Patriarch of Constantinople. At moment, it seems more likely that the Exarchate and its people must wait for the bishops and politicians to act as opposed to the divine because they have been left with a nearly impossible choice between being subsumed into the Greek archdioceses and losing their distinctive Russian identity or joining with Moscow and being made party to its increasingly reactionary role in the world. When the Patriarch of Constantinople dissolved the Exarchate, he erased the means by which Russian tradition could be preserved within the community. To accept the Greek bishops being offered by Constantinople means to accept Greek customs and, frankly, Greek identity. The reality is that whether the Exarchate is absorbed into the Greek dominions of Western Europe without its own bishops or whether it comes under Moscow, the Exarchate as it is will cease to exist. It will lose either its Russian identity to the powerful influence of Greek diaspora cultural preservation (forces with which anyone who has seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding will be familiar) or it will lose its intellectual vibrancy and its culture of free inquiry to the oversight of an increasingly reactionary Russian Orthodox Church. Another option is for the Exarchate to vote to preserve itself as independent of either patriarch, a vote that would include lay and clerical leaders. This would make it “non-canonical,” a technical term for any Orthodox jurisdiction not in communion with other Orthodox churches, but also a status that brings with it a lack of credibility within Orthodoxy that would inevitably undermine the Exarchate’s tradition of influence.

In short, there is no good way out. One of the Orthodox world’s brightest lights, one of its hopes for a modern faith, is being snuffed out for short-term gain. And this should concern everyone, whether or not they have any vested interest in the Eastern Christian tradition. The Russian Orthodox Church, acting in no small part as an agent of the Putin regime, has been increasingly successful in deploying its narrow version of Orthodox Christianity as an important tool on the international stage, positioning itself and by extension Putin’s Russia as the guardians of a “traditional Christian society.” The best Orthodox defenses of this kind of dangerous philosophy have been nurtured in the Exarchate and at St. Sergius. And that safeguard will vanish—or at least be transformed beyond recognition—whatever the outcome. Should the reactionary Russian Orthodox Church become its overseer, any sort of progressive theological or liturgical thought will be put to an end. Arguably the same would happen under a Greek bishop, but for more cultural than political reasons. And if the Exarchate ceases to be canonical, it would lose its legitimacy in Orthodox and wider Christian circles. In any case, the Exarchate and its important voice will be lost in some way. To lose this community now would be a loss of a precious counterbalance. It is a loss all of us can ill afford.

Katherine Kelaidis is the resident scholar at the National Hellenic Museum. She writes about issues related to politics and religion. You can follow her on Twitter @katiekelaidis.