Competition of Conspiracies: Conflicting Narratives of COVID-19 within the Grassroots Russian Orthodox Milieu


Post by Elizaveta Gaufman, Assistant Professor of Russian Discourse and Politics at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and Dmytro Vovk, Director for the Center of Rule of Law and Religion Studies at Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University, Ukraine

While many Western Christian churches suspended religious ceremonies and turned to online worship in response to COVID-19, Orthodox churches have reacted to the COVID-19 threat ambiguously. Some of them encourage their flocks to take the pandemic seriously and follow anti-pandemic measures imposed by governments. But others see it as a punishment or a challenge from God, and some see it as a conspiracy of the “global financial elite.”

To illustrate, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew encourages believers to stay home and follow their governments’ restrictions on mass events. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was granted autocephaly (independence) by Bartholomew last year, has changed its rules of worship in order to ensure social distancing between believers and to decrease the risk of becoming infected through items used for the Eucharist. Although its properties are open to patrons, the Church obeys the Ukrainian government’s order not to gather in groups of more than 10. The Holy Synod of the Church also permits online worship, where a priest conducts a service in the church building while his parishioners watch in real time via the internet.

In contrast, the Georgian Orthodox Church refuses to change its rules of worship, particularly the rules of Holy Communion service (for example, to use plastic spoons instead of a shared spoon). The Holy Synod of the Church states:

The Eucharist is the ultimate purpose of a Christian life. It unites us with Jesus Christ and with each other. Holy Communion is a cure for the soul and flesh for those who obey church rules. That is why it is unacceptable for members of the Church to question the substance of Holy Communion and to reject a shared spoon as a source of infection, for instance.

A similar attitude is shared by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece. It stresses that the Eucharist, during which believers receive sacramental bread from the same spoon and drink sacramental wine from the same cup, creates no risk for COVID-19. The Holy Synod insists,

Faithful of all ages know that coming to receive the holy communion, even in the midst of a pandemic, is both a practical affirmation of self-surrender to the Living God and a potent manifestation of love.

When the Greek government banned all religious ceremonies in the country, the Holy Synod decided to keep conducting Sunday liturgies for one hour from 7 to 8 in the morning. At least one cleric was arrested for his refusal to obey imposed restrictions.

The biggest Orthodox Church—the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)—issued mid-March directives that are supposed to upend the hygiene rules for most rites. Patriarch Kirill approved instructions where, among other things, priests are supposed to use disposable dishes and gloves during the Eucharist, sterilize holy objects and furniture, and avoid giving their hands for patrons to kiss. The instructions likely were triggered by photos of huge lines of churchgoers in St. Petersburg who came to touch John the Baptist’s hallows. In some ROC eparchies in Russia and Ukraine there were several mass prayers for protection from the coronavirus. However, though some church leaders early on insisted that church buildings would remain open despite the extent of COVID-19, now they are more moderate and emphasize the need to follow the government’s anti-epidemic restrictions. On March 29, 2019, ROC Patriarch Kirill called on his flock to refrain from visiting churches during the period of epidemy.

Conservatives within Russian Orthodoxy are more critical of anti-coronavirus measures, citing theological and historical arguments. They insist that the possibility that someone could be infected during the Eucharist is blasphemous per se or that COVID-19 is God’s challenge or a punishment that can be cured with prayer and good behavior. They also stress that during pandemics of the past, churches did not close and even played a vital role in combating the disease.

Meanwhile, monks of the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius, the biggest ROC male monastery, refused to alter any religious rituals, including sanitizing the shared spoon for the Holy Communion service or pausing the practice of kissing the cross. Metropolitan Dimitry (Yelisiyev) said that he would not ban or restrict any religious services in his metropolis and would stop them only if he were stood up against a wall and shot.

Some other clerics and grassroots-level members of the Church on social media interpret the spread of COVID-19 from a financial or geopolitical perspective, drawing on the collective memory of Russia’s spiritual superiority over other (Western) countries that can be traced back to the Middle Ages. The perception of the dangerous “Latin”—Western—influence on Russia’s mores has now been transformed on the grassroots level into the conspiracy theory that the Western financial elite are again attacking Russian traditions under the guise of a pandemic. Archbishop Feodosy (Snigiryov) in an interview for voiced numerous concerns about hygiene rules:

[T]he prince of this world [i.e. Satan] in the guise of the secular world confronts us of the Church of Christ, constantly testing us for strength, looking for weak places where you can make a gap in the life of the Church. Now, with this coronavirus, he is also trying us out. . . . Without going into arguments about what coronavirus is, a technology of influence or a real pandemic, we only say that the doctrine that the Church will develop today in connection with this situation will become in the future either immunity and protection against more powerful and sophisticated attacks on the Church, or will become a breach in the church ship. [emphasis added]

Pravblog, a channel on Telegram (an instant messenger app popular in the Post-Soviet area, similar to WhatsApp), associated with the Russian part of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, and the Union of Orthodox journalists, a conservative Russian Orthodox website, have peddled a completely conspiratorial view that the pandemic has been caused by some “transnational circles” who are trying to obscure a global financial crisis through a global health crisis. Saint Basil the Great Analytical Center’s Telegram channel argues that the pandemic was a completely planned crisis meant to foster a transition into the digital world.

Thus you have an eclectic picture where COVID-19 is both God’s punishment and a project funded or managed either by Bill Gates or the Rockefeller family, “promoting artificial population decline on the planet,” or the U.S. Government, where the Federal Reserve System will emit trillions of dollars for buying property at rock-bottom rates due to the pandemic all over the world. It is accompanied by the claim that COVID-19 is a huge attack against individual freedom carried out by states that will dramatically strengthen their control over their citizens and interfere with their private lives, including religion. Although there is nothing strange or unexpected about concerns that states disproportionately restricting human rights, including religious freedom, when motivated by public health or any other public interest, in this situation such rhetoric in favor of individual freedom is produced by the conservative part of the Russian Orthodox milieu, where communitarian values, such as public morals, patriotism, or collective identity, always outweigh individual values, such as human rights or personal autonomy.

As a result, we can see how narratives around COVID-19 are being intertwined into the more general and radical anti-Western and anti-global discourse that is popular among ultraconservative Russian (Orthodox) circles. Despite the ROC’s leadership efforts, there is no unified position on the pandemic, and it has been a great excuse for the more conservative wing (or society in general and the political elite) to engage in tried and tested anti-Western rhetoric. In this same way, any phenomenon can be reinterpreted as an existential threat to the “Russian soul” from the torment of the West. It seems like COVID-19 is no exception.