OBITUARY: Metropolitan Ioann

Felix Corley
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:22

Metropolitan Ioann of St Petersburg and Ladoga was the Orthodox bishop Russia's liberals loved to hate. Reactionary and xenophobic, he became almost a caricature of an elderly, crotchety cleric, fulminating against Catholics, Caucasians, Jews, Protestants, Freemasons, foreigners, the Mafia, pedlars of pornography and anyone else he could find to blame for the ills now afflicting the Russian Church and society. But his simple and blunt views struck a chord with many in Russia.

Ioann was born Ivan Snychev in 1927 into a peasant family in the village of Novo-Mayachka, near Kherson in southern Russia. His parents were not particularly religious, although - before the persecution of the Church - they went to church on feast days. Growing up without God, Ivan suffered at the thought that life had no purpose. In spring 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, some devout old women began gathering regularly in a hut in his village. The young Ivan went along to these meetings, which had a deep influence on him, and later claimed to have come to a realisation of faith in August 1943, on the feast day of St Serafim of Sarov.

He was called up by the Soviet army in November 1944, but after a few months was released on grounds of health, and having decided to enter the Church, became sacristan of a church in Buzuluk, near Orenburg. He became a lay brother under the guidance of Bishop Manuil Lemeshevsky of Orenburg, who ordained him deacon in 1946 and priest in 1948.

In September 1948, as Manuil was sent into a second period of internal exile, Ioann entered the Saratov seminary, from which he graduated First Class. From 1951 to 1955 he studied at the Leningrad Theological Academy. In October 1956 - by now a teacher of homiletics at the Minsk seminary - he took up the monastic profession, later becoming an archimandrite (an abbot). In 1957 Bishop Manuil, freed from exile and appointed to the Cheboksary diocese, summoned Ioann to join him and the two of them worked together on gathering material on the history of the Church's dioceses and hierarchs. In 1959 Ioann returned briefly to teach in the Saratov seminary, before returning to parish work when it was closed in Nikita Khrushchev's anti- religious crusade of 1959-64.

Encouraged by Manuil, Ioann finally completed his thesis at the Zagorsk Theological Academy in 1966, on the politically delicate subject of the schisms in the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1920s and 1930s. The thesis, which was made available to foreign scholars by the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1960s, shed light on the intricate disputes within the Church at that time, especially over Patriarch Sergei's controversial 1927 declaration of loyalty to the Soviet regime.

In 1965 Ioann was consecrated bishop of Syzran and assistant bishop of Kuibyshev, in 1969 was appointed bishop, and was upgraded to archbishop in 1976. From 1972 he also headed the Cheboksary diocese. Ioann did all he could as a bishop to resist the restrictions placed on the Church by the Soviet authorities. In one incident he enraged local officials of the Council for Religious Affairs, the government body that controlled religious groups, by adding a cupola to a church without permission. "He demanded it be taken down or demolished," Ioann later recalled, "I told him it was too sturdy for that. His reply was, 'Well, we'll send a tank to shoot it down.' In the end we were allowed to keep it there."

When the present Patriarch Alexy, then Metropolitan of Leningrad, was elected to head the Orthodox Church in June 1990 in the wake of Patriarch Pimen's death, Ioann was appointed to Russia's second most important diocese in his place. Ioann's reputation as a bishop who had resisted state demands helped his appointment. However, Alexy was soon to regret this promotion of Ioann to such a prominent position, as the Metropolitan increasingly voiced his conservative political and religious views in the press and on television and sponsored a range of extreme nationalist publications.

In February 1993 he wrote an article in Sovetskaya Rossiya, a leading conservative paper, warning of a "dirty war" against Russia. He used extensive quotes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Tsarist-era anti-Semitic fabrication, which alleged that there was a Jewish plot to take over the world. Ioann complained that "alien peoples and creeds were determined to put to death our moral and religious way of life". No sooner had the Russians shaken off a Jewish-Masonic plot in the shape of Marxism-Leninism, Ioann believed, than they were subjected to a new tyranny of criminals, corrupt officials and democrats. In another interview he put forward the argument that the last Tsar, Nicholas II, should be canonised, because he had died as a "ritual victim" of the Jews. He petitioned the mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, to ban foreign missionaries from the city. From his residence on Kamenny Island in St Petersburg, Ioann defended the parliamentary opponents of President Yeltsin in 1993, declaring that they were trying to "save Russia", although he had opposed the 1991 Moscow coup attempt.

While many church figures were privately embarrassed by Ioann's crude views, few stepped forward to criticise him, perhaps mindful that there were many in the country who shared the Metropolitan's disillusion at the poverty, corruption and lawlessness of the new Russia. In January 1993 Patriarch Alexy had quietly issued a directive banning Ioann from publishing his views in the Moscow patriarchate's publications, but feared that if he took further action, Ioann might defect to the Free Orthodox Church, which was closely allied to hard-line nationalists. Others were not so reticent. The rabbi of Moscow, Adolf Shayevich, condemned Ioann's "blatant anti-Semitism", as did the Orthodox priest and parliamentary deputy Gleb Yakunin, who spoke of Ioann's "Fascist ideology".

The post-Soviet era has been difficult for the Russian Orthodox Church, which feels its place at the heart of the Russian nation has been ignored and, at the same time, threatened by well-financed missionaries. But the disagreements between Metropolitan Ioann, an opponent of Communism, later a conservative and anti-Semite, and Patriarch Alexy, who worked closely with the Soviet authorities and the KGB and who is now a liberal, have done little to raise the Church's prestige. Few have savoured the irony.

Felix Corley

Ivan Matveyevich Snychev, priest: born Novo-Mayachka, Russia 9 October 1927; ordained deacon with the religious name Ioann 1946, priest 1948; Bishop of Syzran 1965-69; Bishop of Kuibyshev 1969-76, Archbishop 1976- 90; Archbishop of Leningrad / St Petersburg 1990-95; died St Petersburg 2 November 1995.

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