Small Orthodox church gets big attention in American politics

A historic yet small Russian Orthodox body has recently been taking center stage in debates ranging from Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to the religious leanings of the far right in the U.S. There have been recent media and scholarly reports holding that recent converts to the Russian Orthodox Church in the U.S. have taken a turn to the far right, though the evidence for such a trend is shaky at best, writes Mikel Hill in the Hedgehog Review. For example, last month (May 10) National Public Radio (May 10) reported on how the small Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) has drawn far-right, white supremacist converts who venerate Czarist Russia and are sympathetic to Vladimir Putin. Much of the new interest in this small corner of Eastern Orthodoxy, which was founded by exiles from communist Russia, has been stirred not only by Putin’s use of Russian Orthodoxy but by the research and subsequent controversial new book by Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, Between Heaven and Russia, which looks at a ROCOR community in West Virginia. Riccardi-Swartz finds a growing “Reactive Orthodoxy” with an affinity for “strong patriarchal leaders, and the escape to an idealized Christian society” that is fundamentally anti-democratic and monarchic.

But Hill points out that the flow of converts in general to ROCOR has been minimal, with a demographic study in 2020 finding that the church had actually lost adherents since 2010. Riccardi-Swartz’s claim that Orthodoxy has a high proportion of male members is not backed up with evidence, adding to the lack of quantitative and demographic data in her localized study confined to a small area of Appalachia. The author herself reports that she received several complaints from subjects claiming that they were misrepresented. Hill also criticizes the bias of the study. “For the most damning positions—fascism, transphobia, and white supremacy—supposedly held by many in her study, she supplies no concrete evidence. In fact, statements consistently contradict the study’s conclusions. The parish priest in Wayne [West Virginia] told two persons holding white supremacist sympathies to renounce their views or leave the church as ‘ROCOR does not subscribe to hate beliefs or actions.’”

While politics is purported to be the motivating factor in ROCOR conversions, Riccardi-Swartz relates that “numerous times” people would tell her they “don’t like to talk about politics.” Her case for the radicalization of ROCOR converts was in fact largely based on statements from social media and unaffiliated websites. Meanwhile, in Public Orthodoxy (July 1), the blog of the Orthodox Christian Study Center, theologian Robert Saler defends Riccardi-Swartz’s work, writing that much of the controversy over her book has been based on a confusion of her anthropological method of study with the methods of sociology and journalism. Saler argues that the author’s small sample and “thick descriptions” of the interactions and discourse of the group she observed are all part of the anthropological trade. He adds that Riccardi-Swartz was transparent with readers and her subjects about the non-representative and qualitative nature of her work. Meanwhile, however small and apolitical the ROCOR is, as the main representative of Russian Orthodoxy in the West, the church has taken center stage in the political arguments about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and how Eastern Orthodox churches should respond to the crisis.

So far, the hierarchy of ROCOR has taken no position on cutting ties with the Moscow Patriarchate, although they have criticized the invasion. At a mid-June Women’s Orthodoxy and War Conference that RW attended in Sea Cliff, NY, lawyer and long-time ROCOR member Lena Zezulin said that the church body was about evenly split on whether to retain ties with the Moscow Patriarchate. Zezulin, who is actively trying to help rescind the church’s 2007 decision to enter into an act of canonical communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, said that the church’s ties with Moscow identified it with the position of the Russian government on Ukraine, “bringing ROCOR disrepute throughout the world…[and also] creating dissent within the parishes that include a multi-ethnic flock.” She argued that the 2007 agreement was suspect since the Moscow Patriarchate and Putin (who actually attended the 2007 ceremony) had intentionally used ROCOR to establish a Russian Orthodox social and political presence in Western countries. Zezulin added that Russian Orthodox clergy and seminarians had entered the U.S. and taken positions in ROCOR institutions “without necessarily receiving proper vetting from ROCOR authorities,” and that there were funds sent from Russia for ROCOR activities that were unaccounted for.

(Hedgehog Review,

Source: Eastern American Diocese, ROCOR.