The ROC’s Pro-Vaccination Conspiracy Theories

In American conservative media, there has been a recent push encouraging vaccine adoption. Notable examples of figures making public statements advocating for vaccines over the past week include Mitch McConnell, Steve Scalise, and Sean Hannity. Such gestures have been welcomed by semi-puzzled liberals, who have come to associate conservative politics during much of the pandemic with skepticism of vaccines and an embrace of conspiracy theories [1].

In the past month, a similar push for the acceptance of vaccines has been furthered in Russia. This seems to have been kicked off on June 30 with Vladimir Putin’s annual call-in show where he said he had received the Sputnik V vaccine. This added additional detail to quieter earlier disclosures that the Russian president had received a second shot in March. While promoting the safety of domestic Russian vaccines, Putin continued to stoke fears in Western vaccines, saying: “thank God we haven’t had tragic situations after vaccinations like after the use of AstraZeneca or Pfizer.”  [2]

Putin’s patriotic vaccine statements seemed to form a cue for senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to come out publicly in favor of vaccination with domestic vaccines, using many of the tropes of conservative conspiracy theory. This vaccine promotion is interesting because these figures have themselves often been associated with national ideology, conspiracy theories, and disinformation – and even rumors of involvement with the FSB.  Their approach may offer some constructive lessons in how conspiratorial language can be repurposed to promote vaccine adoption. But it also raises more questions about the state of disinformation in Russia and its effects abroad.

Holy men Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), Vladimir Putin, and Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov)

Metropolitan Hilarion

On July 5, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), who is Head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s DECR (Department for External Church Relations) said on his Russia-24 TV channel show that: “I now constantly face such situations when people come to the priest in order to repent that they did not vaccinate themselves or their loved ones and that they became an unwitting cause of the death of people. They come and say: “How am I now to live with it?” And it’s even hard for me to say how to live with it now. All my life I have to pray for the perfect sin. And the sin is that I thought about myself, but did not think about another person.” [3]

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Despite Hilarion’s ostensibly simple Christian appeal to vaccinate; digging a bit deeper finds a wealth of conspiratorial narratives still at play.

It was reported two days after that interview that Hilarion was blocked from Instagram after numerous warnings for violations of its policies [4]. In the months preceding the recent statement and Instagram ban, Hilarion has been repeatedly quoted saying that he believes COVID-19 is a biological weapon which was used against Russia [5].

Stressing these were his personal views and not those of the Church, Hilarion said on May 29: “I think that this virus is of artificial origin, and that the same forces that launched it are also interested in the development of an anti-vaccination campaign.” [6]

 

Metropolitan Tikhon 

It was a much greater surprise to me that also on July 5, Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov) – whose rise as a populist ideologist in the Church and Putin’s rumored “confessor” seems inextricably linked to conspiracy theory – was reported as strongly supporting vaccination as well. I would have expected Tikhon to be a promoter of vaccine hesitancy, but he seems to have been consistently for the vaccine (at least those developed by the Gamaleya Institute).

In a video address which he said the pandemic “looks like a third world war”, Tikhon beseeched the faithful to “heed all the recommendations of the state sanitary service of Russia and to make preventive vaccinations against this deadly disease, covid.” [7]

What was most unexpected for me was that Tikhon condemned conspiracism about microchips in the vaccines, which I’ve previously connected to figures  who have roles in information which are connected to Russia’s secret services  [8].

Mocking beliefs in vaccine-based microchips, and of the social pathology of misinformation, Tikhon said: “I know for sure that spiritual nano-chips exist. They fundamentally affect a person and those around him. People generate this spiritual nano-chip by themselves, receiving information from the outside. And they pass it on from themselves to other people as an infection, as an instrument of mass-psychosis. They affect both the soul and the body, making them like a zombie… such a person begins to aggressively spread this information around him … He has some kind of scabies, he needs to share this information with his neighbor. Infect him with this Spiritual Nano Chip. They are simply spiritual demons that are passed on to one another. And then it turns out that the information has not been verified, that all this is nonsense… themselves become agents of influence… not for the good of the Russian people, but for the enemy.” [7]

 

Compare and Contrast 

While current ROC Patriarch (and former rumored KGB informant) Kirill has been vaccinated, he has not taken a very public stance on the vaccine issue due to what are assumed sensitive feelings about vaccines in the Russian Orthodox community.

Notably, both Hilarion and Tikhon have been profiled as candidates to succeed Kirill. They’ve also been contrasted as ‘liberal’ and ‘populist’ respectively [9]. Watching their cues may give good information about the political future of Russia and her Church. In this sense, their mutual positions on vaccines and rumored involvement with state security, despite contrasts in other areas (such as views on Stalin, etc.) may be important.

(Despite an association of Hilarion with a ‘liberal’ dimension in the ROC here, it is notable that he has been a strong rhetorical opponent of autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [10].  On these matters, Hilarion was likened by a prominent Georgian bishop to the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and it was suggested he acted at the direction of the GRU or FSB [11].)

There are some very clear contrasts however on the surface between Hilarion and Tikhon. For example, Hilarion and the DECR are noted for their ecumenical outreach to groups like the Catholic Church [12], whereas Tikhon has been quoted as saying in recent years that “Catholics are not even a church and as a result not even Christian”. [13]

(Anti-ecumenism especially with Catholics seems to be a major component of the hardline Orthodox nationalist faction which Tikhon’s typical ideological messages  apparently appeal to.)

Note that Hilarion’s perceived ecumenicism has sometimes been compared by Russian Orthodox nationalists to that of Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) and such ecumenicists are accused of promoting Catholicism in Russia [14]. (Nikodim was an alleged KGB agent (according to Mitrokhin Archive) notable for his untimely death while in Rome for the installation of Pope John Paul I in 1978.)

Shevkunov, for his part has strong rumored ties to the KGB successor FSB, as his rise to power happened at the Sretensky Monastery, which operates the largest publishing arm of the Russian Orthodox Church and is located on the Lubyanka. Some of the most powerful figures in the security services seem to be his parishioners [15].

 

Using Conspiracy to Promote Vaccine Acceptance?

It is notable that the narratives of Metropolitans Hilarion and Tikhon about vaccines embody conspiratorial elements, despite discouraging vaccine hesitancy. The ideas of being sent to hell for not being vaccinated – or of the virus being a biological weapon – or the inclusion of topics of nanotechnology and microchips in vaccines – are apparently ways to phrase the call to vaccination within the language of conservative conspiracy theory and values.

Specifically in this case, by subverting the vaccine conspiracy with the claim that the entity who created the virus as a biological weapon is also responsible for the anti-vaccination campaign, the ROC seems to promote vaccine adoption among the hesitant.

Will it stick? Will Russia’s role as patron of the “Alt-Right International” and the support of prominent voices in the ROC even lead to increasing global acceptance of vaccines? It seems hard to say, but at this point I might expect some trickle-down effect in the community of disinformation consumers. Is that what we could already be seeing with the GOP? The timing is interesting.

It will be interesting to observe how global conservative stances on vaccines continue to evolve and if any uptake in vaccines can be linked objectively to a “lead” set by Russia.

Perhaps the ROC’s language here offers a template for forming pro-vaccine messaging that resonates with the values of many conservatives who have been disinformed.

I wonder if it would get vaccine-hesitant conservatives in America to vaccinate if Donald Trump came out very publicly and said unequivocally that it was a Chinese bioweapon, and the CCP was behind the anti-vaccination propaganda’? I bet it would make a difference. Nonetheless, I can’t help but see using conspiracy theory to patch up disinformed beliefs as a devil’s bargain.

It is important to again point out that despite these “positive” efforts in combatting vaccine hesitancy, Russia has been largely responsible for promoting such conspiratorial narratives about vaccines abroad. It does seem objective that conservative disinformation took cues about vaccine conspiracies from Russia.

The refutation or reframing of such narratives by senior figures in the Church in the context of conspiracy theory seems an apparent attempt to “deprogram” such beliefs among the faithful in order to offset pandemic deaths. Considering the Church as an effective arm of the Putin government, that would support the perspective of several experts I spoke with who suggested that all of the disinformation about COVID-19 had ‘come home to roost’ for Russia domestically.

 

Speculation of Strife in the International and Domestic Disinformation Services

It would also be interesting to observe if there will be significant ongoing domestic conflict between typical conservative Orthodox nationalist groups in Russia promoting disinformation about vaccines and these Church leaders who are promoting vaccination.

For example, there have been recent rumors of conflict between FSB and GRU which involves Hilarion as an implied FSB agent who is in conflict with the alleged GRU information operative and apparent anti-ecumenicist Alexander Boryslavsky (aka Alexander Voznesensky, aka Alexander Pasichnik). Boryslavsky is allegedly connected to SVR head Sergei Naryshkin and other GRU agents and publicly attacked Hilarion for his promotion of vaccination [16, 17].

Could there be a power struggle of sorts between those elements of the secret services who are promoting disinformation internationally and domestically? Does the GRU and SVR want to tell the vaccine microchip story and similar narratives, while the FSB is currently doing domestic damage control resulting from belief in such ideas? (Or are they just diverging matters of personal opinion as one very smart person cautioned me they might be? I have a hard time fully accepting such an organic conclusion when everyone involved is a state-connected propagandist of some sort, but my mind is open.)

 

Final Thoughts

Taking a lesson from the ROC, perhaps there is hope you can leverage your crazy conservative uncle’s irrational fears of fire and brimstone, China, and even bioweapons – to get him to line up for his vaccine after all… Beggars can’t be choosers as they say.

Please get vaccinated. Even if your only option is Sputnik V! 

 

References

[1]  Kill Colvin and Brian Slodysko, “GOP’s vaccine push comes with strong words, few actions” ,  Jul/23/2021,
https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-health-government-and-politics-coronavirus-pandemic-03e6b17b205b18067c05e07b77dc2e04 

[2] Anton Troianovski, “As the Virus Rages, Putin Pushes Russians to Get a (Russian) Vaccine“, Jun/30/2021 (updated Jun/15/2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/30/world/europe/coronavirus-putin-russia-vaccine.html

[3] Moscow Times, “Vaccinate or Repent Forever, Russian Orthodox Church Warns“,  Jul/5/2021,
https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/07/05/vaccinate-or-repent-forever-russian-orthodox-church-warns-a74430

[4] RIA Novosti, “Instagram заблокировал аккаунт митрополита Илариона” (Instagram has blocked the account of Metropolitan Hilarion), Jul/7/2021,  https://ria.ru/20210707/mitropolit-1740268566.html

[5] Metropolitan Hilarion (Interview), “Митрополит Волоколамский Иларион: Чтобы победить пандемию, нам нужна всеобщая мобилизация”  (Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk: To defeat the pandemic, we need a general mobilization), Jun/22/2021, www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/5823214.html

[6]Dmitry Zaborin, “Митрополит Иларион заявил об искусственном происхождении коронавируса” (Metropolitan Hilarion announced the artificial origin of the coronavirus),  May/29/2021,  https://www.osnmedia.ru/obshhestvo/mitropolit-ilarion-ob-iskusstvennom-proishozhdenii-koronavirusa/

[7] Igor Pushkarev, «Духовник Путина» Тихон Шевкунов окрестил антипрививочников «духовными бесами» (“Putin’s confessorTikhon Shevkunov christened anti-inoculants “spiritual demons”), Jul/7/2021, https://www.znak.com/2021-07-05/duhovnik_putina_tihon_shevkunov_okrestil_antiprivivochnikov_duhovnymi_besami

[8] Michael Hotchkiss, “Russian Origins of the Vaccine Microchip Conspiracy Theory“, Jun/13/2021, https://n01r.com/russian-origins-of-the-vaccine-microchip-conspiracy-theory/ 

[9] Alexander Soldatov,  “Съедят друг друга с патриархами” (Will eat each other with the patriarchs), Feb/17/2021, https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/02/17/89271-s-edyat-drug-druga-s-patriarhami 

[10] Polygraph.info, “Russian Church Spokesman Falsely Compares Ukrainian Church to Nazis“, Oct/3/2018, https://www.polygraph.info/a/fact-check-russian-compares-ukrainian-church-nazis/29523846.html 

[11] Georgia Online, “Грузинский епископ сравнил митрополита Илариона с Жириновским” (Georgian bishop compared Metropolitan Hilarion with Zhirinovsky), Aug/2/2019,  https://www.apsny.ge/2019/soc/1549663565.php

[12] Vatican Radio, “Pope discusses Ukraine with Russia’s Metropolitan Hilarion“, Sep/26/2017,  http://www.archivioradiovaticana.va/storico/2017/09/26/pope_discusses_ukraine_with_russias_metropolitan_hilarion/en-1339205

[13] Erasmus, “The Vatican’s secretary of state visits Moscow for the first time in 19 years“, Aug/25/2017,  https://www.economist.com/erasmus/2017/08/25/the-vaticans-secretary-of-state-visits-moscow-for-the-first-time-in-19-years 

[14] [Example of Russian Nationalist and anti-ecumenicist comparing Nikodim and Hilarion] – V. Sokolov, “ОКАТОЛИЧЕННЫЕ РАЗРУШИТЕЛИ ПРАВОСЛАВИЯ” (Catholic Destroyers of Orthodoxy), May/26/2017,   https://litrossia.ru/item/10017-okatolichennye-razrushiteli-pravoslaviya/

[15] MBK Media, “«Сечин в рясе». Как Тихон Шевкунов стал главным идеологом российской реакции” (“Sechin in a cassock“. How Tikhon Shevkunov became the main ideologist of Russian reaction), Apr/2/2019,  https://medium.com/@mbkmedia/%D1%81%D0%B5%D1%87%D0%B8%D0%BD-%D0%B2-%D1%80%D1%8F%D1%81%D0%B5-%D0%BA%D0%B0%D0%BA-%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%85%D0%BE%D0%BD-%D1%88%D0%B5%D0%B2%D0%BA%D1%83%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B2-%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B0%D0%BB-%D0%B3%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%BD%D1%8B%D0%BC-%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%BE%D0%BC-%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D0%B9%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%B9-%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B0%D0%BA%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B8-fd30c88467f 

[16] Information Resistance, “Противостояние ФСБ-ГРУ: почему вывели из игры кипрского агента Вознесенского” (Confrontation between FSB-GRU: why Cypriot agent Voznesensky was removed from the game), Jun/25/2021, https://sprotyv.info/news/protivostoyanie-fsb-gru-pochemu-vyveli-iz-igry-kiprskogo-agenta-voznesenskogo

[17] Spiritual Front of Ukraine,  “У РПЦ знову гризня: Агент ГРУ РФ назвав митрополита Іларіона «виродком, який ганьбить Церкву»”, (In the ROC again a quarrel: the Agent of the GRU of the Russian Federation called Metropolitan Hilariona freak who disgraces the Church“), Jun/25/2021,  https://df.news/2021/06/25/u-rpts-znovu-hryznia-ahent-hru-rf-nazvav-mytropolyta-ilariona-vyrodkom-iakyj-hanbyt-tserkvu/?fbclid=IwAR1wfDdSOD4Ggw-ouT7oTO%E2%80%A6 

 

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