Memory Eternal – Fr. Gleb Yakunin (3/4/34 – 12/25/14)

Soviet Dissidents: martyrs and confessors of freedom, truth, and human dignity

Gleb-YakuninI chose to major in political science back in the 80’s in large part so that I could study the Soviet Union, the “evil empire” that held a huge swath of the world’s population under the wicked yoke of anti-theistic, totalitarian, communist rule and continually sought to subjugate even more throughout the world.  While my romantic notions of a Manichean struggle between America and Moscow were dispelled during my time in the post-9/11 intelligence community, my opinion of Soviet rule and the machinations of Moscow remain.  The real heroes of that struggle were not politicians like Presidents Reagan or Gorbachev, but the men and women living in the Soviet Union who found ways to maintain their faith and humanity despite the constant indignities and threat of terror.  Some of the resulting “hidden transcript” has been preserved in compilations of the samizdat (self-published) literature, even more wait to be shared by our emigre brothers and sisters every Sunday at coffee hour throughout America. 

A few of those heroes had the courage and ability to do even more than just maintain their own dignity and faith; they stood up – and out – in opposition to Soviet totalitarianism.  These included brave men and women like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Viacheslav Chornovil, Vasyl Stus, Oleksa TykhyLevko Lukyanenko, Alexander OgorodnikovAndrei SakharovYelena Bonner, and priests like Aleksandr Men, Dmitri Dudko, Nikolai Eshliman, and Gleb Yakunin.  None of these dissidents are perfect; for example, after Ukraine resumed its independence, Levko Kukyanenko showed himself to be a terrible anti-semite and Fr. Dmitri Dudko did a 180 to become a mouthpiece for Russian authoritarianism after he was turned by the KGB in 1980.  But none of this detracts from what they and all the Soviet dissidents did.  They were martyrs and confessors of freedom, democracy, and truth when their entire society – to include the Church – was saturated with lies and oppressed by tyranny.  They sacrificed their families, their professions, their health, even their lives to expose and oppose the Soviet system. Fr. Gleb Yakunin’s life is a case in point.   

Gleb Yakunin; priest and dissident

Like all the other dissidents, Fr. Gleb (born in 1934, ordained in 1962) saw the evil perpetrated by the Soviet government and the many ways the Russian (i.e. Soviet) Orthodox Church supported it and was forced by his conscience to work against that evil.  But whereas his former mentor, Fr. Aleksandr Men, took the apolitical route of evangelization, Fr. Gleb reacted more directly.  In 1965: along with Fr. Nikolai Eshliman, he published two open letters, one to high-level Soviet officials and the other to the Moscow Patriarch describing in great detail the Soviet campaign against religion and the Russian Orthodox Church’s complicity in that campaign.  In retaliation, the Soviet government had Patriarch Aleksei I, a highly valued agent of influence with the KGB (see The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, p 486; in fact, read the entire 28th chapter “The Penetration and Persecution of the Soviet Churches”!), impose a penalty of ten years of silence and cessation of priestly activities.  In 1976, emboldened by the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights, Fr. Gleb resumed his dissident activities in defense of religious freedom.  In retaliation, in 1979 the government convicted him of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and sentenced him to ten years of prison and exile. He spent the next seven years in prison, a labor camp, and exile in Yakutia (4,800km NE of Moscow).  His sentence was cut short by Gorbachev in 1987 and he was soon restored to the active priesthood.  The conviction itself was overturned in 1991.

It is hard for us to imagine the hardships that the Soviet government and his own bishops had imposed on Fr. Gleb and his family.  More to the point, it is hard to imagine the atrocities that the Soviet government, with both the acquiescence and active support of the Moscow Patriarchate, committed against all its subjects.  In the late 1980’s things really began to change.  Not only had President Gorbachev initiated his “perestroika” reforms, but the human rights violations the Soviets had perpetrated for decades were beginning to receive the attention they deserved.  Freedom was on the rise.  The intellectuals of the dissident human rights community, to include Fr. Gleb, were becoming celebrities both abroad and at home.  This sense of optimism grew in 1991 when Eastern Europe gained its freedom and in 1991 when the Soviet Union and its atheist government collapsed.  It was in this heady time that Fr. Gleb made a transition into his most controversial career yet: politician.  

Gleb Yakunin; liberal (i.e. anti-authoritarian) reformer and politician

The dissident and pro-democracy communities overlapped in Moscow, and Fr. Gleb was an active member of both.  In 1990 he was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, where he championed laws in defense of religious freedom.  As a member of the committee to investigate the attempted anti-Gorbachev coup in August 1991, Fr. Gleb had access to the KGB archives (FWIW, the committee was chaired by fellow dissident Lev Ponomaryov).  During his research, Fr. Gleb found information describing some of the institutionalized collaboration between top-level clerics of the Moscow Patriarchate and the KGB.  In 1992, he published some of his findings through the Keston Institute in Oxford.  In 1993, the Russian Orthodox Church defrocked Fr. Gleb for refusing to desist his political activity (priests are canonically banned from holding political office; the Russian Orthodox Church had just reinstated this ban for their clergy).  He continued his work in national politics as an elected member of the “Russia’s Choice” and “Democratic Russia” political parties.  Throughout his political career, and his life, Fr. Gleb remained a steadfast champion of religious freedom for members of all faiths, a stand that often put him at odds with both the Putin government and the increasing politicization of the Russian Orthodox Church.  

Fr. Gleb Yakunin: dissident, liberal reformer, politician… and arch-heretic?!

Fr. Gleb was not just part of the elite of the dissident and pro-democratic intelligentsia; he had always been an active leader within a Muscovite sub-culture that was continually leavened and strengthened by its love of Christ and Holy Orthodoxy.  Surrounded by converts and reverts who were buoyed by the sure hope of the Resurrection and the commission to live the Gospel here on earth, Fr. Gleb would not have seen any separation between his political and priestly duties.  When he was defrocked by the ecclesial authorities that had continually refused to repent of their proven complicity in Soviet oppression (and had already begun collaborating with and illicitly benefitting from the new regime), he ignored the ecclesial order and continued to serve his flock and community as a priest.  This led to one of the great ironies of Fr. Gleb’s life: he left the omifor of the Russian Orthodox Church for the “Ukrainian Orthodox – Kyivan Patriarchate” (UOC-KP), a church led by the formerly defrocked Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church, Filaret.  The irony is not that Fr. Gleb would find a home with the anti-Moscovite UOC-KP (although its claims to canonicity were disputed), it is that he would be willing to serve under Patriarch Filaret, a man who Fr. Gleb’s own research showed to have been an active KGB agent and corrupt.  

In 1996, Patriarch Alexei II (another top Soviet clergyman that Fr. Gleb and others had exposed as being an active collaborator with the KGB) and the Russian Orthodox Synod anathematized/excommunicated both Patriarch Filaret and Father Gleb Yakunin.  

At about that same time, Fr. Gleb left the UOC-KP to join the Catacomb Church (aka the “Russian True Orthodox Church”, a group that had a role similar to that of the ROCOR before its reunion with Moscow, but within Russia; his splinter of this group became increasingly liberal over time).  He continued to serve the spiritual and sacramental needs of his people until his illness incapacitated him.       

Fr. Gleb Yakunin and the Coming Troubles

It is regrettable that a man who had been a confessor and martyr of both freedom and Orthodoxy was rejected by the Church and government he loved enough to suffer and sacrifice for.  It is easy to consign him to a sort of quixotic status, a man whose time had passed him by and whose battles were no longer relevant.  But is this the case?   The days to come promise to be difficult for liberal (i.e. pro-liberty; anti-authoritarian; anti-colussion), western-minded Orthodox Christians in Russia.  In fact, if the internal voices that challenge the dominant ideological hegemonies within both Russian and American Orthodoxy are not heard, tolerated, and some-how legitimized, the “new Cold War” between Moscow and the West will threaten to undo the healing and steps towards Orthodox fraternity that the last few decades have brought.  I pray that the Russian Orthodox Church is gifted with many more men of Fr. Gleb’s calling and calibre, and that the West is similar gifted with clergy that will help keep us from falling prey to our own worst inclinations.

Lord grant forgiveness of sins and a blessed repose to your servant Gleb, and make his memory to be eternal!

For further reading

The best accounts of Fr. Gleb’s life that I have found are here, here, here, and here (scroll down a couple of pages for the dissident-era biography, to include an account of his early ecclesial “education” and service).