Saturday, June 25, 2022

Review: "Between Heaven and Russia," by Sarah Riccardi-Swartz


Before reading this review, I would recommend anyone who has not already done so, read my essay "Sarah Riccardi-Swartz and Russophobia." That essay was written before the book in question was available to the public, and so was not based on my having read that book, but was based on reading a number of essays on the same subject written by Sarah, after listening to a number of talks and interviews she has done, and also based on my own experience with her, as well as with people in the communities she has focused on, along with my 32 years as a member of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). This book repeats quite a bit of what Sarah had already put out in public, but it does provide some new information and new accusations that I don't recall her having stated in public previously, and so I will primarily be focusing on what is new in this book.

One new fact I learned from this book is that she never considered herself to be a member of ROCOR. This is interesting because when she first began appearing as a speaker at various forums and panels, she was routinely identified as a member of ROCOR, and I don't think she would have failed to notice this, but for whatever reason, she made no attempt to correct this information that I have seen, prior to the publication of this book.

In her book, Sarah Riccardi-Swartz uses pseudonyms for places and people, ostensibly because this is how anthropologists do their thing, but the people and the places she is taking about are easily determined by anyone with the slightest familiarity with the Holy Cross Monastery and Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Wayne, West Virginia. In this review, I will replace these pseudonyms with the real names, because under these circumstances, using pseudonyms is just silliness. I will note this by the use of brackets, where applicable.

Those "Crazy Converts"

One of the notable aspects of this book is how frequently Sarah Riccardi-Swartz chooses to use the label of "convert" -- which is odd, given that she is ostensibly a convert to Orthodoxy herself. For example, as she sets the stage for the rest of her book, she attributes the existence of the parish and monastery in Wayne, West Virginia to converts:

"Both [Holy Cross Monastery] and [Christ the Savior Orthodox Church] came to be in [Wayne, WV] in the early 2000s when two converts -- a local university professor, who donated land for the monastery, and a local politician, who built the parish building -- began to missionize the region" (p. 4).

This is an example of telling half-truths, in the interest of building the desired narrative. The university professor that she is referring to is Maurice Sill, who is a man I got to know fairly well. He was indeed a convert. But Maurice was a man who had long been married to Nadya Danilchik Sill, who was a Russian American who was not a convert, and in fact was the daughter of a very well known, old school, ROCOR priest, Fr. Michael Danilchik (who was the first assigned priest for the Seattle ROCOR Cathedral) -- and so it would be difficult to find a person with deeper roots in ROCOR than Nadya Sill had. And given that the property that Maurice and Nadya Sill owned was joint property, and also given that Maurice would not have done anything of that magnitude without the agreement of his wife in any case, the whole truth would be that that this property was donated by a "cradle" member of ROCOR and her convert husband, who had been a convert of many decades by that time -- but this didn't fit the narrative that Sarah wanted to build, and so this fact was simply excluded from being mentioned here.

Another example of Sarah being selective with the facts that she will mention is that she always mentions that the people she is criticizing are white, except that when she talks about other converts who are not white, she will simply omit any mention of their race. For example, she often mentions a person on Twitter who is known as Patriarch Primus, and who is a convert to Orthodoxy, but she almost never mentions that he is black, though she will mention that he lives in the South (leaving people to assume he is a white southern "cracker"), and this is clearly because the whole truth doesn't fit her narrative.

Those "Crazy People in ROCOR"

Sarah also took pains to try to portray the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia as some sort of fringe entity. And so, when laying out the landscape of Orthodox Christianity in America, she says:

"Historically, other forms of Orthodoxy in the United States, particularly the Greek Archdiocese, the Antiochian Church, and the Orthodox Church of America, focused on assimilation, social care and justice movements, and, in many ways, the mainstreaming of Orthodoxy. ROCOR, however, perhaps because of its noncanonical status until 2007, created an insular social group that would preserve not only their understanding of Orthodox theology, but also particular cultural expressions of faith in order to re-missionize Russia after the end of the Soviet Union. Despite this containment of sorts, ROCOR did attract converts, and within the past thirty-plus years the number of coverts have begun to rise, even prior to the religious reunification between ROCOR and the ROC in 2007, when ROCOR was still considered non-canonical in the Eastern Orthodox world" (p. 24).

The history of the Russian Church after the Bolshevik Revolution is complicated, but to make a long story short, the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church by the Soviets resulted in divisions within the Russian Church both inside of Russia and outside of Russia. Between the time of the death of St. Tikhon, who was elected Patriarch of Moscow in 1918, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was of course the Moscow Patriarchate, but at various times there was also the renovationist Living Church, as well as various catacomb groups, though after World War II, both the Living Church and the catacomb groups ceased to exist in any significant forms. Outside of Russia, there were two times when most of the Russian bishops were united together within ROCOR, and then there were times when the Paris Exarchate, American Metropolia, ROCOR, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Living Church had all gone separate ways. For those who want to read about this history in detail, I would recommend reading the book "A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy," by Nathaniel Davis, the Orthodoxwiki article "ROCOR and OCA," and also Metropolitan Kallistos (formerly Timothy Ware)'s "The Orthodox Church (it should be noted, however, that the older edition goes into much greater detail on this subject). But to be concise, with the exception of the Living Church, which was heretical and schismatic, the rest of the Orthodox Church generally viewed these divisions as unfortunate, temporary, and matters for the Russian Church to settle for itself, when it was free to do so -- which is ultimately what happened. 

Prior to the 1970's, ROCOR regularly concelebrated with the various local Orthodox Churches. For example, Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko) was one of the consecrators of Metropolitan Anthony (Bashir) of the Antiochian Archdiocese -- and that obviously would not have happened if the Antiochians considered ROCOR to be noncanonical.

Under Metropolitan Philaret, there was the beginnings of a self-isolation on the part of ROCOR as a whole, that was a reaction to the lifting of the Anathemas against Papism by Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, but this was something that varied quite a bit depending on the various bishops of ROCOR, and especially on which local Churches were in question. And the key thing is that this isolation was self-imposed. It was not at all something imposed upon it by any other local Church. ROCOR always maintained close relations with the Serbian Patriarchate (because of the decades prior to World War II when it was headquartered in Serbia with the permission of the Serbian Patriarchate), and also with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem (because ROCOR has always maintained a presence in the Holy Land which continues to the present day, and this was always with the blessings of the Patriarch of Jerusalem). The low point of ROCOR relations with other local Churches was probably in the mid to late 90's under Metropolitan Vitaly, but even then, no local Church condemned ROCOR as "noncanonical." And I myself frequently concelebrated with the local Serbian clergy the entire time I was a clergyman (beginning in 1995). My spiritual father, who baptized me and my wife was ordained by Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) of the Antiochian Archdiocese, and he was given a canonical release by him to ROCOR in the 80's -- which again, would not have happened if they considered ROCOR to be noncanonical.

It is also hardly accurate to suggest that the Greek Archdiocese and the OCA were promoting assimilation in America, while ROCOR was not. The oldest continually published Orthodox Journal in English is "Orthodox Life," which has been published by Holy Trinity Monastery since 1950. ROCOR sponsored the translation of the first complete set of service books into the English language. The Greek Archdiocese, on the other hand, while it is by far the largest Orthodox jurisdiction in the United States, and certainly has far greater resources, has still not published even half of the service books in English translations, and many of their parishes continue to primarily use Greek, and generally if you talk to Americans who have had the experience of looking into Orthodoxy, Greek parish remain some of the least welcoming parishes to outsiders of any jurisdiction. The OCA has certainly had many parishes that have used English going back before the Bolshevik Revolution, but it has also not published an extensive set of English Language service books of their own, and many of their parishes continued to use mostly Slavonic well into the 80's. You can still find ROCOR parishes that serve mostly in Slavonic, to be sure, and some would be less welcoming to outsiders than others, but on the whole, ROCOR has been very welcoming to non-Russian converts, and this goes back to the 1950's. Speaking from my own experience in ROCOR -- having been in mostly Russian parishes, mostly convert parishes, and parishes with a good mix -- I have never been made to feel unwelcome because I was not a Russian.

The Antiochians were probably the earliest champions of using English extensively in the United States, and that goes back to the influence of St. Raphael (Hawaweeny), who had the foresight to see that this was necessary if his flock was to keep future generations within the fold, and so they were ahead of the curve on this point.

"Because ROCOR was not in communion with most of the Orthodox world for almost eight decades, it has seemingly become an echo chamber or perhaps an incubator of prerevolutionary Russian Orthodox thought. Its emphasis on tradition, adherence to the Old Calendar (Julian), submission to spiritual father confessors, and highly structured gender roles have all become concentrated over the years. These distilled ideological distinctions often put them in opposition to their spiritual cousin, the Orthodox Church in America, which embraced among other things, the New Calendar (Revised Julian), pews, and shorter service rubrics" (p. 28).

For Sarah to assert that ROCOR was not in communion with most of the Orthodox world for "nearly eight decades" is an assertion that even the harshest critics of ROCOR would not support -- at least not the ones with the slightest familiarity with the actual history of the period of time in question. 

We live in times that are extremely ideological, and no doubt this is why Sarah cannot imagine embracing Orthodox Tradition and piety without that being an ideology. Ideological thinking is a relatively modern mode of thinking, which is pretty much the opposite of traditional thinking. For more on that, see "What is Wrong with Ideology?" by Donald Livingston.

Speaking for myself, when I discovered the Orthodox Faith, it happened to be in ROCOR. There was nothing political about it, and having brought more than a few people into the Church since then, I have only rarely seen where political thinking even played a significant role in the motivation behind someone becoming interested in the Church, much less was it a big factor in moving them to actually convert. 

Sarah also seems unaware of the fact that the OCA was on the Old Calendar until the 1980's, and big parts of it remains on the Old Calendar to this day (the Dioceses of Alaska and Canada, along with scattered parishes throughout the lower 48 states).

Sarah also fails to explain why being in America requires wearing Roman Catholic clergy suits, being on the New Calendar, shortening the services, or the use of pews. As far back as 1972, it was observed in the book "Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion," by Dean Kelley, that liberal churches tend to shrink, and conservative churches tend to grow. So there is no scientific basis for such an assertion -- there is just the bare assertion of Sarah's opinions without any basis.

For one thing, Roman Catholic clergy suits are of fairly recent vintage. Traditionally, Roman Catholic Priests wore cassocks that were not all that different from the kind of cassocks that Orthodox clergy wear. 

In the classic Bing Crosby movie, Going My Way (1944), Barry Fitzgerald played the old Irish priest Father Fitzgibbon, and he is seen wearing an old fashioned Roman Catholic cassock as well as a clerical biretta which looks no less odd than an Orthodox skufia. Bing Crosby played a young hipster priest, who wears a modern Roman Clergy suit. In the 1940's, you could see why people might have thought that this was an improvement, but looking at the decline in Roman Catholic piety ever since then, I am not so sure it has worked out very well for them, and so why should we emulate failure?

"...many of the older Orthodox folks in [Wayne, WV] converted to ROCOR prior to the reunification [of the Russian Church in 2007]. Those who did so, opted to select an Orthodox body without canonical authority. It seems as if these converts were not looking for an unbroken line of apostolic succession, but rather a religious world built for the purposes of preserving and defending what they saw as traditional Orthodoxy and orthopraxy" (p. 29).  

This statement is a gross distortions of the actual history of ROCOR. It also reflect a rather shallow view of Orthodox Tradition and ecclesiology. Sarah would have her readers believe that St. John (Maximovitch) was a fake bishop, "without canonical authority." But no local Church believed that during his life, and none have believed that since then either. He is one of the most highly venerated saints throughout the Orthodox world today.

Pluralizing Singular Instances

In speaking of the rise of a "new wave of conservatism" since the 1990s. Sarah spoke of "Shootings in historic Black churches throughout the American South..." (p. 45). I am only aware of one shooting since 1990 in an historic Black Church, and that was the shooting in Charleston in 2015 -- which was of course horrendous enough by itself, but it is a gross exaggeration to suggest that this happened many times throughout the American South, when we are actually talking about the actions of a lone crazed young man.

This propensity for taking an isolated case and extrapolating it into something that is ubiquitous perhaps explains how she could take a single layman who allegedly said that he hoped to take up arms on behalf of Russia when it invades the United States (p. 124), and extrapolating this to be a common view among converts in ROCOR. I have been in ROCOR for 32 years, and have never heard anyone say any such thing.

Gender and Sexuality

She is particularly bothered by the fact that people in ROCOR tend to have "ultra-conservative understandings of gender, sexuality, and the roles of women and men should have in the Church, the domestic sphere, and society more broadly" (p.127). The question an Orthodox Christian should be asking, however, is whether or not these views are consistent with the teachings of the Church. Sarah, on the other hand supports homosexuality, transgenderism, and the whole ever expanding alphabet soup of sexual deviancy that the left is promoting. These things are completely contrary to the teachings of the Church, and so she should either humbly submit to the teachings of the Church, or find a religion that better suits her predetermined beliefs. The Orthodox Church is not a religious Burger King, where you can "have it your way." The Orthodox Church is what it is, and you can either take it, or you can leave it. See: The Pro LGBTQP "Orthodox," for more information.

"Within ROCOR, it is the job of spiritual fathers to monitor how and in what ways men and especially women participate in the church, just as it should be the job of a monarch to guide a country" (p.130).

 I don't think Sarah knows what she is talking about here. In my parish, I have a Greek American woman choir director who has a Masters of Divinity degree from St. Vladimir Seminary. I have had her teach classes before in the parish in the past, and would do so more frequently if she didn't already have her hands full with the choir. I don't micromanage the choir, because I know that she knows what she is doing. And as a matter of fact, if I have a question about how something ought to be handled liturgically, I often ask for her opinion, because she has been in the Church all of her life, she knows both Greek, Antiochian, and Russian practices fairly well, and so she has a good feel for what is normal or what is odd. I have a Sisterhood Vice-President who is an engineer, and as I often tell my parish, she is the handiest man or woman in the parish. If something needs to be fixed, built, or if I need an opinion on what we ought to do with regard to anything mechanical, I call her. And since I am usually busy serving or hearing confessions, I have little time to pay attention to what happens in the Nave of the Church during the services. I leave that to lay leaders in the parish, both men and women. I certainly am not monitoring the women in my parish during the services, or outside of it. I do hear confessions, and so give advice when it is warranted, and direction when it is called for, but I have told my people where the boundaries are when it comes to pastoral guidance from a priest, and that they should flee any spiritual father that would try to impose monastic style obedience on a layman. For more articles on Women in the Church, Click Here.

Monarchism and American Politics

Sarah seems to think that ROCOR is full of monarchist revolutionaries who want to overthrow the United States government and install a Tsar (p. 126f). You will certainly find a higher than average percentage of people in ROCOR who admire the idea of Christian Monarchy, I don't believe I have ever heard anyone seriously suggest that it could be imposed in the United States. There are many prophecies of a new Tsar returning to power in Russia, and so you do find interest in that. But I don't think anyone envisions that happening even in Russia by a violent revolution.

There are certainly people in ROCOR who are "right-wing," but what that means, even among those who could fairly be labelled as such, varies quite a bit. You have those who are American Nationalists, in the Hamiltonian sense, and then there are those who have more of a small government Jeffersonian view, and then you have just about everything in between. But there are people who are in ROCOR who politically are on the left, but who theologically nevertheless embrace the Traditions and teachings of the Church. I have some in my parish, and I am sure if I had a parish in a heavily Democrat region, I would have a lot more of those folks. I don't tell people how to vote, and I don't get upset if they don't share my opinions on political matters, because I believe in being tolerant of other people, and I can imagine people coming to conclusions that are different from my own without them having to be evil people. If someone denies the teachings of the Church, however, that is obviously another matter altogether.

The Russian Collusion Hoax Goes to Church

Sarah repeatedly makes assertions about "Russian interference" in the 2016 election (e.g., p. 76), as if it were a fact. I don't think that it is a coincidence that she began looking for Russian boogeymen in West Virginia in 2017 either. There is no doubt that Sarah is on the political left. She promotes the LGBTQP agenda. She capitalizes "President" when she speaks of Barak Obama (e.g., p.168), but not in reference to Donald Trump. She speaks of people who were merely at the rally in Washington D.C. on January 6th, 2021, as "insurrectionists," even if they were nowhere near the Capital building. Clearly, Sarah was one of those on the political left that was traumatized that Donald Trump was elected, and spent four years arguing that the 2016 election was stolen, but who now argues that any suggestion that the 2020 election might have been less than kosher is a Q-Anon conspiracy theorist. It doesn't seem to matter that the claims about Russia and the 2016 election have since been debunked, and originated with the Hillary Clinton Campaign. Not only is it clear that politics drove Sarah's interest in this research, but if it were not for this political element, it is also clear that few would be paying any attention to her work.

West Virginia is one of the most conservative states in the United States. It should come as no surprise that you would find a high concentration of political conservatives in a ROCOR parish in rural West Virginia. Had Sarah gone down the street and spent much time in a local Baptist Church, she probably would have found that those people have lots of guns, voted for Trump, and that they don't support transgenderism either. On the other hand, if Sarah went to a ROCOR parish in a heavily Democrat area, while there would probably also be some people who were politically conservative, she would also find a lot of Democrat voters too.


In June of 2020, my parish had a serious terroristic threat from someone who referred to our parish as "St. Jonah Russian Orthodox Church," despite the fact that we never use "Russian" in the name of our parish, though we make no secret about being part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.* When that happened, I called the FBI, as well as the local Constables office. The local authorities were very responsive, but the FBI never called me back. I mentioned what had happened to a Protestant minister I know who is fairly well connected. He contacted our Lt. Governor, and he called the FBI. Only then did I get a call back, but in the end, they did almost nothing to track down the person who had made these threats, though he had an online profile that should not have been hard to track down, and he was certainly living in this area. This year, on Old Calendar Annunciation, I finally received a visit from an FBI agent (nearly two years later), who began by mentioning what had happened in 2020, and who said that they just wanted to make sure everything was OK, given tensions around the war in Ukraine. He asked if I would agree to talk to him, and I did. His line of questioning had almost nothing to do with the safety and security of my parish. It was all about what contacts I may have had with the Russian Consulate in Houston, whether the Russian government had any influence over my Church, and things of that nature. Recent history has shown that you don't have to actually be guilty of anything for the FBI to put you in jail. So obviously, this attention is unwelcome, though it would have been nice if they had been more interested in my parish in June of 2020. 

When people like Sarah Riccardi-Swartz promote conspiracy theories that try to convince people that ROCOR is somehow connected to Putin stealing the 2016 election, and is full of a bunch of Fifth Columnists, who are anxiously awaiting the Russian invasion of the United States, so that they can join in on their side, this has real world consequences. If Russophobia continues to heat up in this country because of further deteriorations in our relations with Russia, it is not farfetched that the kind of Blue-Anon conspiracy theories spun by people like Sarah will result in innocent people being seriously harmed or killed. This is dangerous, unchristian, and it is irresponsible.

Aside from all of that, this book is not particularly well written. Sarah doesn't know her history. She is politically motivated, and she has taken her own spin on isolated people and two particular communities, and made the logical leap that she can fairly characterize the entirety of ROCOR, despite all of the geographic and cultural differences one can find within ROCOR. We have parishes in Australia and New Zealand. These parishes have very different histories than the typical ROCOR parish in the United States and Canada. We have parishes in Latin America, Asia, Great Britan and Western Europe that are even more distinct. Sarah Riccardi-Swartz has made no effort to study ROCOR more broadly than what she could find in Wayne, West Virginia. Anyone with any sense of logic or even just a sense of fairness would not make extrapolations beyond what she actually has studied. But from what I know of the communities in Wayne, West Virginia, I have little reason to believe she was fair to them either. In a recent presentation, she pointed out in passing that these communities did not tolerate hate speech, but she has made an entire career out of suggesting that they are somehow connected with racism and white supremacy... but how she could think that those two things could coexist in the same universe is beyond me.

*We don't have that on our sign, are website, or anywhere else, because we do not want anyone who is not a Russian to think that this is not a Church for them. Our parish, as a matter of fact, is a fairly diverse parish in comparison with what you would find in the average Orthodox parish in the United States.