The Russian Orthodox Church in the West

Andrew Louth explains the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe

Until a little more than a century ago, members of the Eastern Orthodox family of Churches were virtually all to be found in countries that had at one time or another adopted Orthodox Christianity. These were the new nations emerging from the decaying Ottoman Empire—Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, as well as Romania—and many of the constituent parts of the Russian Empire.

In the West, Orthodox churches were mostly embassy churches, together with a few churches built for holidaying Russian aristocrats (e.g., Nice) and merchant communities (e.g., Budapest).Converts to Orthodoxy in Western Europe were rare, though not unknown (in 1792 Frederick North, later fifth earl of Guilford, received Greek Orthodox baptism).

The situation has now changed dramatically: there are probably about half-a-million Orthodox in Britain, there are Orthodox communities of varying sizes throughout the rest of Europe, and much larger communities in North America and Australia.The reasons are primarily historical.

In the wake of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, and especially with the exchange of populations after the Greco-Turkish war of 1922-3, many Greeks left their homelands and settled abroad. There was a similar influx of Cypriots to Britain after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. The Communist Revolution in Russia produced a large emigration, not least the hundreds of intellectuals and their families exiled by Lenin in 1922-3.

The Russians, who had been expelled from their own country, mostly never expected to return. In the West they received a warm welcome, especially in Paris, and in England. Their Russian heritage—their culture and their faith—was something many of the exiles wanted to share with those who welcomed them, and there were many in the West eager to listen.

The emigration came to be seen as something providential: as the means by which the spiritual treasures of Holy Russia could be made known more widely. As the twentieth century progressed, and Christianity in the West seemed to many to lose a grip on its own spiritual traditions, some in the West turned to this Orthodox presence now in their midst. They shared in the worship of the Orthodox, and found there something lacking in their own experience. Some Western Christians came to embrace Orthodoxy, others discovered in Orthodoxy a Christian way of life they had never otherwise known.

What have these Westerners (amongst whom I include myself) found in the Orthodox tradition?

First of all, I would say, an experience of worship that is unselfconsciously focused on God. One is allowed—encouraged—to ‘lay aside all earthly care’ and ‘sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity’, as the Cherubic hymn puts it: acknowledgment of God in his awe and wonder is something worth doing for its own sake.

Secondly, there is a powerful sense of belonging—all Orthodox converts I know speak of it as a ‘home-coming’—a sense of belonging that is palpable in the prayers that seem to surround one and bear one up, as one stands before God.

Thirdly, there is a sense of entering into a tradition that has been passed on from the Incarnate Lord, through the apostles and Christians down the ages; our Orthodox faith—in God the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God—is not that different from that professed by other Christians, but with us there is a much stronger sense that this is not a faith made up, not a spirituality that I have put together to satisfy my own needs, but something received, a precious inheritance tested by the prayers and lives of the Saints.

Andrew Louth was ordained a priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Diocese of Sourozh four years ago and serves a parish in Durham. He is also Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in Durham University.
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Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

There are moral and practical reasons why using force to stop a far-right march is justified.

It says a great deal about Donald Trump that for the second time under his Presidency we are having to ask the question: is it OK to punch a Nazi?

More specifically, after the events in Charlottesville last weekend, we must ask: is it OK to turn up to a legal march, by permit-possessing white supremacists, and physically stop that march from taking place through the use of force if necessary?

The US president has been widely criticised for indicating that he thought the assortment of anti-semites, KKK members and self-professed Nazis were no worse than the anti-fascist counter demonstrators. So for him, the answer is presumably no, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi in this situation.

For others such as Melanie Phillips in the Times, or Telegraph writer Martin Daubney, the left have seemingly become the real fascists.

The argument goes that both sides are extremists and thus both must be condemned equally for violence (skipping over the fact that one of the counter-protesters was killed by a member of the far right, who drove his car into a crowd).

This argument – by focusing on the ideologies of the two groups – distracts from the more relevant issue of why both sides were in Charlottesville in the first place.

The Nazis and white supremacists were marching there because they hate minorities and want them to be oppressed, deported or worse. That is not just a democratic expression of opinion. Its intent is to suppress the ability of others to live their lives and express themselves, and to encourage violence and intimidation.

The counter-protesters were there to oppose and disrupt that march in defence of those minorities. Yes, some may have held extreme left-wing views, but they were in Charlottesville to stop the far-right trying to impose its ideology on others, not impose their own.

So far, the two sides are not equally culpable.

Beyond the ethical debate, there is also the fundamental question of whether it is simply counterproductive to use physical force against a far-right march.

The protesters could, of course, have all just held their banners and chanted back. They could also have laid down in front of the march and dared the “Unite the Right” march to walk over or around them.

Instead the anti-fascists kicked, maced and punched back. That was what allowed Trump to even think of making his attempt to blame both sides at Charlottesville.

On a pragmatic level, there is plenty of evidence from history to suggest that non-violent protest has had a greater impact. From Gandhi in to the fall of the Berlin Wall, non-violence has often been the most effective tool of political movements fighting oppression, achieving political goals and forcing change.

But the success of those protests was largely built on their ability to embarrass the governments they were arrayed against. For democratic states in particular, non-violent protest can be effective because the government risks its legitimacy if it is seen violently attacking people peacefully expressing a democratic opinion.

Unfortunately, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to embarrass a Nazi. They don't have legitimacy to lose. In fact they gain legitimacy by marching unopposed, as if their swastikas and burning crosses were just another example of political free expression.

By contrast, the far right do find being physically attacked embarrassing. Their movement is based on the glorification of victory, of white supremacy, of masculine and racial superiority, and scenes of white supremacists looking anything but superior undermines their claims.

And when it comes to Nazis marching on the streets, the lessons from history show that physically opposing them has worked. The most famous example is the Battle of Cable Street in London, in which a march by thousands of Hitler-era Nazis was stopped parading through East End by a coalition of its Jewish Community, dockworkers, other assorted locals, trade unionists and Communists.

There was also the Battle of Lewisham in the late 70s when anti-fascist protesters took on the National Front. Both these battles, and that’s what they were, helped neuter burgeoning movements of fascist, racist far right thugs who hated minorities.

None of this is to say that punching a Nazi is always either right, or indeed a good idea. The last time this debate came up was during Trump’s inauguration when "Alt Right" leader Richard Spencer was punched while giving a TV interview. Despite the many, many entertaining memes made from the footage, what casual viewers saw was a reasonable-looking man being hit unawares. He could claim to be a victim.

Charlottesville was different. When 1,000 Nazis come marching through a town trying to impose their vision of the world on it and everywhere else, they don't have any claim to be victims.