At 51, ultraconservative Russian Orthodox figurehead Vsevolod Chaplin has died. Here’s how his critics will remember him.
On January 26, Vsevolod Chaplin died in Moscow at age 51. He was among the most publicly visible and controversial members of the Russian Orthodox clergy. Initial reports indicate that Chaplin had a heart attack immediately outside the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Fyodor the Studite, where he had been archpriest since 2016. Between 2009 and 2015, Chaplin essentially served as the spokesperson for the entire Russian Orthodox Church. When he was dismissed from that post, the clergymen threw in his lot with the opposition — specifically, with its most extreme right-wing and left-wing members. Alexey Kovalev asked Biblical Studies scholar Andrey Desnitsky and political analyst Alexey Makarkin, who frequently clashed with Chaplin, to illustrate his often self-contradictory character and the way his views shifted from liberalism to extreme conservatism.
Philologist, biblical scholar, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences
I was very upset at the news [about Chaplin’s death] because anyone’s death at an age that is altogether not elderly is a sad thing. I never got to finish arguing with Father Vsevolod. We obviously had very different views on many different things, but as a person, he was much more than the image he had in the media. The image that was created in the ‘liberal’ press, for lack of a better word, was that of a crocodile who jumps out at every opportunity to say something scary, and more articles about Russian Orthodoxy had to do with him than not — had to do with him saying something awful.
As a person, though, he was much broader than that image. Few know that he helped many people, and not only people who shared his worldview. He was the archpriest of a cathedral where all kinds of meetings took place and all kinds of people received help from him. He was a person who talked to people. There are ideologues who don’t see people directly and just keep tooting their own horn. He and I were not friends, but every conversation with him was an interesting one. Our positions were relatively far from one another’s, but I think that in what he said and what he did, there was a lot of acting, a good deal of play and conscious provocation. In a way, his role was like a jester’s — in a good way. Not a buffoon, not a clown, but a jester who says very sharp-edged and often rather evil things that are below the king’s pay grade. Things that are not at all to be interpreted as real calls to action, but that did sound like someone had said what others would not. We know that there’s a particular view out there, a particular mood, but we can’t articulate it. And then he would come in and articulate it, and it would be a deliberately provocative articulation. He said things in such a way that people would talk about them.
I think he got bored at some point. The man worked for many years in the patriarchate, but he got tired of it, and he understood that very little depended on him there anymore. Maybe that jester’s role was his internal way of protesting against his idiosyncratic fall from grace. After all, he was never accused of anything specific. They just quietly pushed him out. It was an internal patriarchate issue. And he, on one hand, proceeded to entertain himself and us as well as he could, but on the other hand, maybe it was just another story of somebody who fell out of demand in the Church. I am very sorry that many of the rather heated arguments we had together, though usually not in person, will no longer be continuing here. I would very much like to say 10 or 20 years from now, “See, Father Vsevolod, you said one thing, and that’s not actually how things turned out.” But that’s not going to happen now.
We were not close friends, so I can’t speak with certainty on what his true views were. I think he was interested in talking to anybody who was willing to listen to him. That audience was pretty diverse, but what did distinguish it was a kind of ostentatious masculinity, a kind of machismo that was close to his heart. And politics was secondary to that, which is also interesting. If you looked at him closely, it became clear that he was picking out an ideology for himself like one would a pick out a suit — based on some internal needs of his own. Whether the suit was a right-wing one or a left-wing one was more a matter of convention for him than anything else. There are light-colored blazers and cassocks, and there are dark-colored ones, and a person can wear whichever one happens to suit their fancy.
Father Vsevolod was somebody who was often talked about and often fought about. He started out as a supporter of liberal views on Orthodoxy and clerical life, and he ended up a very strict conservative. People evolve in various ways and for various reasons, but Father Vsevolod’s evolution was completely genuine. When he shifted toward radical conservatism, he essentially sacrificed his career for it, left the elevated position that he had in the Church as a division leader within the Moscow patriarchate.
There are many possible reactions to his views, to the various things he said that triggered an emotional public response and criticism and so on, but his words were always dictated by his genuine views about Orthodoxy. Of course, he was a deeply religious person. For a long time, he was a diplomat, a kind of politician in the Church, which requires a rather high level of adaptability and a tendency toward dialogue and compromise. But in the final months of his administrative service, one could tell that it weighed him down quite a bit. During the course of his church work, he came to a set of radical, anti-ecumenical, conservative views, though he considered them to be the only route to salvation, and he followed them faithfully in the final years of his life.
Despite all that, there was this sense that he was quite a lonely person in many ways. For a lot of people who were close to him in his liberal period in the church and then in his diplomatic period, his evolution [toward conservatism] was completely unacceptable. At the same time, a lot of ultraconservatives in the Church saw him as a former bureaucrat from the same Moscow Patriarchate that they criticized for its compromises and its ecumenicism.
Right until the end of his life, Father Chaplin remained an archpriest in Moscow’s cathedrals, at first in the Cathedral of Nikolai the Wonder-Worker on Three Hills, and then, when he had already become a kind of right-wing dissident to the Church, he was transferred to another cathedral [the Cathedral of St. Fyodor the Studite at Nikitinskiye Vorota], one that was considered less prestigious in clerical practice. But he consistently performed the liturgy and spoke with his congregation. It’s not uncommon here for people who occupy administrative or teaching posts to walk away from becoming cathedral archpriests, and they rarely go on to serve. But as Father Vsevolod moved forward in his career, he conducted services, including as an archpriest, and he took an interest in his flock.
At the same time, he went to all kinds of protests, which was pretty exotic for a clergyman. Our archpriests for cathedrals in central Moscow don’t go to opposition protests, no matter what kind, though in this case, they were reactionary. As for the way his views evolved, he wasn’t unique in that respect. There are plenty of people who take a complicated path, so Father Chaplin wasn’t exceptional in that regard. For example, when I was in grade school, in the years just before I graduated, I read books by Yury Polyakov, who was then a young writer. Back then, he published several books that really struck a blow to the army, the Soviet school system, the Komsomol, and the Communist Party and its role in politics. People read those books a lot, and they played their own small role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. But now, Polyakov is a Stalinist devotee. He was even forced to resign as the editor-in-chief of Literaturnaya Gazeta (The Literary Times) because he absolutely couldn’t stand the legacy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which isn’t a welcome thing now. There are other examples, too, like Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Times). He gave us huge bursts of freedom that people just gobbled up, too, but now he’s a staunchly pro-government man.
If you try to understand all of these people, they really believed that democracy, liberalism, change, freedom, and so on could change Russia for the better. But at the same time, the Russian state always meant a lot to them — like it did for [the classic nineteenth-century writer Mikhail] Lermontov, who admired its “glory bought with blood.” When the USSR collapsed, a lot of them thought it was a temporary thing, that we would make agreements with the West, with our partners, and restore our sphere of influence before long — just on a new foundation, without communism, without all those Soviet mistakes. Then, it became clear that nobody was about to recognize Russia’s sphere of influence, and that even its attempt to restore that influence by annexing Crimea led to a major conflict with the West. As I understand it, that’s in part where Father Chaplin’s reactionary turn from pro-Western to anti-Western sentiment came from. So it would be a mistake to think that kind of extremely strong frustration was unique to Father Vsevolod.
Translation by Hilah Kohen