September 5, 2018

How God Came to Vote for Putin: The Power of Russian Orthodoxy

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The gradual intrusion of the Orthodox Church into Russian secular life and the state is something that went largely unnoticed by the Russian public.

By Dr. Sergei Lukashevsky / 08.27.2012
Historian, Director
Sakharov Museum and Public Centre

Communism is Dead; Long Live Orthodoxy!

Newly free of the shackles of Soviet dictatorship, the activity of the Russian Church during the 1990s was largely focussed on recovering its lost, pre-revolutionary position. At first, this meant simply the return of those churches that had not been destroyed by the Bolsheviks. At this time, an Abbot’s main responsibility was managing construction and restoration work, alongside, of course, the organisation of worship according to standard procedures. It was only in recent years that church authorities began to encourage the clergy to pursue more active social and missionary work.

The restoration of churches and the organisation of worship demanded huge resources. There was little point looking to raise it from the parish: although the number of parishioners increased during the 1990s, the period was largely a time of excruciating poverty for the average Russian. Not unsurprisingly, the church looked, in the first instance, to government, and in the second instance — to business. Relations with government were absolutely paramount. At the same time, however, the acceptance of church bells as a gift ‘from the Solntsevskaya gang’ serves as a vivid demonstration of the kind of enterprises the Church was prepared to engage with.

Naturally enough, the price for financial and other assistance was political support. And given the position of the Church in society at the time, this was an especially useful resource. Since the early 1990s, the Church was consistently rated among the country’s most most trusted public institutions. This trust wasn’t earned by means of any concrete action on the part of the Church. Another institute enjoying similar levels of support was the army, which was actually the subject of much criticism at the time. What Russians seemed to be placing their faith in was not institutions per se, but national symbols. The Russian Orthodox Church played, and continues to play a role as a symbol of spirituality and national identity. It is no coincidence that today’s polls show that the number of Orthodox Christians in Russians outnumbers the number who believe in god.

Pussy Riot’s main crime was that their stunt was directed precisely against authority – of the Church and of the Kremlin.

Initially, the Church exchanged political support for material assistance. After a short while, however, it also began to demand access to political and administrative levers of influence. Missionary outreach and catechesis were, you understand, never among the Russian Orthodox Church’s strongest suits. As the writer Nikolai Leskov noted more than a hundred years ago, ‘Russia was christened, though not enlightened’. All the while that the Russian Orthodox Church had busied itself with the restoration of Churches and searching for parish resources, an enormous number of other confessions had begun to develop their own missionary work and establish rival positions within Russia.

The start of the 1990s was the one and only period that the principle of freedom of religion and conscience was fully respected in Russia. It was a time when representatives from religions of every variety had the opportunity to build churches, register regional offices, to freely enter schools hospitals and prisons.

The Church Applies for Special Status 

In the mid 1990s, the Russian Orthodox Church began to lobby for a new law on freedom of conscience. This law proposed to ‘put a barrier’  in the way of ‘destructive sects’, though the definition of this was wide enough to include religious dominations with large worldwide followings (for example, the Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses and neo-Pentecostalists). President Yeltsin initially refused to ratify the new law, which had been passed by the then-hostile parliament, but was eventually forced to give way. The law remains in force today.

In formal terms, the law changed little, complicating the process of registering new religious organisations, and introducing a rather abstract formula of the ‘special role’ of traditional faiths (Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism). In practice, however, the blossoming relationship between local/regional governments and the Church meant that registering a new religious organisation was near-impossible, permission to build non-Orthodox places of worship was only granted in exceptional circumstances, and churches, hospitals and prisons were closed to all ‘non-traditional’ religious organisations.

The leadership of the other traditional religions supported the Russian Orthodox Church, since they had many of the same issues and requests. Other players simply made do with their role as ‘juniors’, negotiating their own relations with government, or they carried out their work without establishing legal entities or building places of worship. Wider society, including liberal public opinion, paid no attention to this particular development. Those human rights activists who began to defend these ‘weird’ believers — for arguments sake, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who came complete with their rather obtrusive and annoying missionary style — were themselves considered rather strange, comical even.

Vladimir Putin began his presidency with a promise to help traditional religions. For a few days, this was news, but it did not take long to be forgotten. There were so many other more important events to absorb — the war in Chechnya, the raid on NTV, the Yukos Affair. Moreover, the changes themselves did not seem too significant. In fact, the new position had entirely real expression in government policy. The National Security Concept of 2000 contains the following passage: ‘policy in the area of spiritual and moral education… shall include counteracting the negative influence of foreign organisations and missionaries’. Soon after the Concept was published, a number of foreign pastors and Catholic priests were expelled from Russia. Unapproved religions were forced to tune down their activities even more.

Again, it should be stressed that the consolidation of the Russian Orthodox Church’s position within Russia’s religious space went largely unnoticed by the public. Indeed, Russians on the whole related to religion with positive indifference. Churches existed in a parallel reality and were perceived simply as beautiful pieces of architecture or as the bearer of beautiful traditions, inserting an essential essence of spirituality into Russia’s ugly consumer society.

‘Caution, Religion!’

Chronologically speaking, the next significant event was the ‘Caution, religion’ trial of 2004-5, brought about in relation to an arts exhibition held at the Andrei Sakharov Centre. At the time, it seemed to be a battle between anti-clerically minded liberals and conservative believers, in which the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church and the government had taken the side of the latter. Today, it is obvious that this process, just like the process that followed four years later in relation to a second exhibition at the Sakharov Centre (‘Forbidden art’), were direct precursors to the Pussy Riot affair. Both trials were workshops for an inquisitorial logic, which equates criticism of the church with ‘insulting faith’, and demands that ‘insult to faith’ be punished as ‘incitement to religious hatred’. Anyone who studies the court transcripts will see this without any difficulty.

The Blue Noses’s photo-installation “A candle of our life/Burn my candle”, displayed as part of the 2007 ‘Forbidden Art’ exhibition at the Sakharov Centre. The trial of the exhibition’s curators, Andrei Yerofeyev and Yuri Samodurov, served as the precursor to the Pussy Riot prosecution.

It is now obvious why the Church and Kremlin kept a relative distance in both cases. The trials concerning art exhibitions in the Sakharov Centre in no way infringed the basic question of authority. Pussy Riot, on the other hand, was directed precisely at authority — governmental and church. And from its target came a most asymmetrical response.

Public Space Invaders

It was during the 2000s that the Russian Orthodox Church began to intrude on the public space in a perceptible way. Everything that could have been acquired uncontroversially— abandoned churches used as warehouses, cinemas and cultural centres — had already been handed over. The only churches that were left were those that housed museums, educational and social institutions.

The Russian Orthodox Church not only began to lay claim not to these buildings, but it also demanded the return of  all buildings that were formerly part of monastery complexes. It asked for the return of any icons or church effects, even those that had become museum exhibits. Though the premise itself was entirely reasonable, the methods and language adopted by the Church were more akin to the practices of wild Russian business (including violent takeovers), than they were to notions of Christian humility.

The teaching of religion in schools became an additional area of confrontation between the Church and society. The way the Russian Orthodox Church behaved left little doubt about the way it viewed its relations with society: it proposed to use the government machine to found a new, compulsory school subject called ‘The basics of Russian Orthodox culture’, and to use the public purse to pay for teachers’ salaries. Directed not even at catechesis (already strange in a secular school), but on the propaganda of religious exclusivity and nationalism, the first curriculum left no doubt about the aims of the project.

In both of its battles, the Church failed to score a complete victory. Rublev’s ‘Trinity’, for example, remains on public access in Moscow’s State Tretyakovskaya Gallery.  The tone of the religious curriculum has been softened significantly.  And parents are now given the choice to opt-out of the Russian Orthodox classes in favour of secular ‘moral education’ classes. That said, with these actions the Church had unambiguously staked its claim to a special status, now not only to Russia’s religious, but also to its social space.

As before, the conflict barely registered among the public at large. Society consistently chose not to take any interest in such issues, just as it chose not to take an interest in issues of free speech and honest elections.

The Church as Gazprom?

By December 2011, the Russian Orthodox Church was exquisitely positioned for the authorities. Not only did the Church recognise the exclusive interests of one actor, government, and were dependent on it entirely, but the Church could also offer some very useful services in return. As the protest movement broke out, and the legitimacy of government was directly threatened, the Kremlin’s need for the support of the Church grew.

The terms of the social contract that stood behind the first two Putin terms was, broadly speaking, stability and prosperity in exchange for the political dependence of society. The presidential term of Medvedev was marked by promises of reform and democratisation. Putin annulled these promises, hence the surge of popular discontent.

Lacking any other strategy, the authorities have returned to play the same old card of ‘stability’ as before, and have dreamt up all kinds of imaginary threats and enemies to help them. The Kremlin’s ideological position will continue to be broadly protective. In turn, the Russian Orthodox Church is ready and interested in becoming a  protector of traditional values, should the situation demand it. In their proposed offering of ‘traditional christian values’, obedience and submission to authority (ecclesiastical and secular) only accentuate the Gospel truth. The Kremlin’s ideologues have themselves been busy embedding an Orthodox component into their own political work (as the long-established Russian Orthodox wing of the Nashi pro-Kremlin youth movement would demonstrate).

As they did with the Pussy Riot affair, the Church will continue to insist that it is the victim. Their ideologeme of religious life ‘coming out of the ghetto’ has already been well-formed and tested. Essentially,  what this translates to is further attempts to erode the principle of secularism, turning the Russian Orthodox Church into a semi-governmental institution similar to so-called ‘state corporations’ the likes of Gazprom and Sberbank.

A different role awaits representatives of the other Christian denominations and ‘non-traditional’ religions. In the best case scenario, theirs will be a role similar to that which is played out now by the ‘Just Russia’ party, i.e. outside of the main arena. In a worst case scenario, they will be subjected to constant harassment. Traditional religions will be allowed to occupy the same position as the Russian Orthodox Church, but only within specific regions (in the case of Islam and Buddhism) or ethnic groups (Islam or Judaism).

Russian society, or, more exactly, its liberal and protest components, overlooked or chose not to notice the evolution of the Russian Orthodox Church in exactly the same way as it overlooked or chose not to notice the establishment of an authoritarian regime within the country. Awareness of a conflict between the religious and public spaces began only with the Pussy Riot affair.

It is highly likely that Putin’s third term will come to be characterised by the increasing ideological and political intrusion of the state and official religious organisations into public life. The aims will be to preserve (for the Kremlin) or increase (the Church) control and influence. Against such a backdrop,  it seems reasonable to warn Russians against confusing the manipulation of ‘traditional values’ to keep a government in power with the real growth of religious fundamentalism.

In defending itself against authoritarian onslaught — whether from government or the Russian Orthodox Church — society has started from a relatively weak position. Its ability to withstand the pressure will depend only in its capacity for mobilisation, solidarity and resistance. Russian society is today only at the beginning of a journey towards acquiring those characteristics.

Originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.