Russian orthodox ultra-nationalists protesting against a planned gay-pride parade in Moscow in 2007. They only place gays will be marching in today's Russia is straight to prison. Photographer: Dmitry Beliakov/Bloomberg News
Russian orthodox ultra-nationalists protesting against a planned gay-pride parade in Moscow in 2007. They only place gays will be marching in today's Russia is straight to prison. Photographer: Dmitry Beliakov/Bloomberg News

The official homophobia of President Vladimir Putin's third term in power is threatening to backfire on the Russian Orthodox Church, in whose name the anti-gay campaign began in 2012.

Andrei Kuraev, a widely-known Orthodox theologian and proselytizer, is using social networks to expose a "gay system" within the church, fanning a scandal not unlike the one that occurred in the Roman Catholic church shortly before Pope Benedict XVI's surprise abdication last year.

Deacon Kuraev, 50, a fiery missionary and a protege of the previous Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexis II, is a controversial figure. Known for anti-Semitic statements denouncing the country's oligarchs as a Jewish clique, he penned an apologetic article, explaining, "I don't consider the Jewish people in any way worse than Russians or any other people. I just don't consider Jews better than all the others. Even that, however, seems to be seen as anti-Semitic these days."

The church leadership tolerated Kuraev's idiosyncrasies and frequent disagreements with the official line, including his protests against the imprisonment of punk performance artists Pussy Riot for a crude song-and-dance number in Moscow's main cathedral. Kuraev is popular: His LiveJournal blog is the 37th most read in Russia, and he is one of the church's best public speakers and most erudite scholars.

On Dec. 31, however, the Moscow Theological Academy, the Russian Orthodox Church's top learning institution, removed Kuraev from its faculty, explaining that "Deacon Andrei Kuraev regularly appears in the media and in the blogosphere with shocking statements, and his activity in these areas remains, in a number of cases, scandalous and provocative."

It was not the deacon's stand on Pussy Riot or his recent support for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch turned political prisoner pardoned by Putin late last year, that tipped the scale against him. It was, according to Kuraev himself, a LiveJournal post about a teacher from the Kazan Seminary who was fired for making homosexual advances to students and then transferred to a higher post in another diocese. Kuraev wrote that the case exemplified a broader "gay metastasis" in the church.

The Russian Orthodox Church considers homosexuality a grave sin, and Patriarch Kirill has said that the legalization of gay marriage is a "dangerous apocalyptic sign." This stance encouraged Orthodox Christians in Putin's United Russia party to propose anti-gay legislative initiatives that crystallized into a law banning "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors." Putin, a devout churchgoer, has publicly denounced "so-called tolerance, genderless and without issue."

Kuraev's firing from the theological academy only made things worse. The deacon has used his blog for daily attacks on an alleged "gay system" within the church, including a selection of testimonials by former seminarians, altar boys and clerics, who are quoted recalling their sexual encounters with bishops and ranking priests. One related how a bishop "poured almost a full bottle of vodka into me and started pawing me. That stunned me so -- I couldn't even imagine something like that -- that I even sobered up."

Kuraev claims he wants to clean up the church. "I am not sure the path of publicity is for the good," he wrote in his blog. "But I am sure it at least provides an opportunity. The path toward self-cleansing in the church is firmly clogged."

As a warning to the Russian church hierarchy, the deacon recalled the gay scandals in the Catholic Church, which led Pope Francis to admit the existence of a "gay lobby" in the Vatican. The Catholic church "seems to have realized now that if you keep sweeping garbage under bishops' prayer rugs, the stink in the church will be unbearable," he wrote.

Kuraev is taking a calculated risk: He has plenty of supporters among churchgoers. "The cleansing he wants to carry out using his reputation and public status will hurt many people's reputations and, what's more, their connections, their finances, their long-term alliances with bureaucrats and law enforcers, who knew everything but covered it up or even used it," political commentator Alexander Morozov wrote on Facebook. "God will help him."

The political stakes are high. Once the church and the state agreed it was legitimate to attack gays, they became vulnerable to attempts to prove their hypocrisy. After all, Russia has as many gays in positions of power as any other country, except here they have to nod along with the homophobic official rhetoric.

"The all-around homophobia actively pushed by our bosses in the last two years will now start bearing fruit," editor Alexander Shmelyev wrote on Facebook. "How soon should we expect a fired bureaucrat to start outing a 'gay lobby' within the presidential administration?"

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View.)