Russia's Political Orthodoxy

Alicja Curanović on how the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church became political bedmates.
By: /
October 30, 2013
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Every year a banquet is organized at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to celebrate the Easter Holiday. A delegation from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), led by the Patriarch himself, attend the feast together with diplomats and representatives of other religions. In his welcome address, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov usually talks about the crucial role played by religious values as the foundation of the Russian Federation’s foreign policy, and also praises the ROC for collaborating with the government in the international arena. The Patriarch greets the diplomats with the phrase Christos voskres (Christ is Risen), and all the diplomats answer with one voice: Voistinu voskres (Truly, He has Risen).

Feelings of unity are palpable at this event: there is a sense of common values, common goals, and common initiatives. While watching such a scene, it's easy to forget that many of Russia’s top diplomats – including Sergey Lavrov - were once members of the Communist Party in a Soviet Union that propagated atheism and eschewed religion. State-church relations in Russia have undoubtedly changed a great deal since 1991.

State-Church Rapprochement in Russia

The Russian Orthodox Church is becoming a strong force in the Russian public sphere. It would be misleading, however, to assume that the ROC is the one dictating the terms while the Kremlin is making concessions. The growing activity and influence of the ROC is only possible with the Kremlin’s approval and support. The church-state ‘rapprochement’ that has evolved in Russia is traceable to several factors: the dependence of religious organizations on state authorities, common interests between the state and the ROC, and a set of mechanisms for cooperation.

A strictly separate church-state model was abandoned when the Communist Party of the USSR set religion aside altogether. Beginning in 1986 however there was a noticeable thaw in church-state relations and a new religious policy linked to the reinforcement of national feelings was launched. The fall of the Soviet Union followed soon after and resulted in the democratization of state’s approach to religion and religious institutions, which increased the activity of various religious organizations.

In the newly competitive religious market of the 1990s, the ROC felt threatened by the proselytism of the so-called non-traditional religious movements (e.g. Pentecostals, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Catholics) and so the Moscow Patriarchate, together with other “traditional” religions (Islam, Buddhism and Judaism), sought the help of the Kremlin. State authorities began to cooperate with “traditional” religions by lending them support, notably Orthodox Christianity, while at the same time controlling the activity of “foreign” denominations. A new, stricter law on religious freedom issued in 1997 came to anchor this cooperation. Since then, the relations between the Kremlin and “traditional” religions have gradually been solidifying. The ROC has without a doubt played a central role in these developments and continues to do so today.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, good relations with the Moscow Patriarchate – the institution most respected and considered most trustworthy by Russians – are useful for legitimising and strengthening its mandate

Both sides have something to gain from a closer relationship. The ROC considers good relations with the Kremlin necessary for achieving its goals: reviving Orthodox Christianity in Russian society; limiting activity of foreign clergy and sects; regaining property lost after 1917; strengthening its status on the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); etc. From the Kremlin’s perspective, good relations with the Moscow Patriarchate – the institution most respected and considered most trustworthy by Russians – are useful for legitimising and strengthening its mandate. Furthermore, in a country facing an acute crisis of national identity and a growing threat of social anomie, the ROC’s authority and Russian Orthodox tradition is perceived as something which could unite Russians by fostering a spiritual revival that encourages reverence for national symbols. The ROC’s assets, which include significant social trust, a capacity for renaissance, ties to tradition, national identity, and ‘Russianness’ have become very attractive to the Kremlin and are likely only to become more so.

On top of the ROC’s canonical territory, which extends across the post-Soviet area (except Armenia and Georgia), the ROC has transnational reach via the infrastructure it maintains around the globe, which via maintaining good relations with the Church the Kremlin can use to extend its own influence.

The New Model of Church-State Relations in Russia

In order to foster the process of forming national identity and to reinforce the sense of unity among citizens, Russian authorities have decided to approve, under certain conditions, the re-emergence of religion in the public sphere. They are allowing the reintroduction of religious symbols, watchwords, and rituals with the intention of adding an emotional and spiritual dimension to Russian nationalism and to activities related to the state apparatus, including public service. Evidence of this trend can be seen in the presence of clergy at public holidays, or the revival of the custom of blessing foundations of new public buildings, roads, bridges, rail tracks, etc. A few religious feasts have become national holidays (not only Christmas or Eastern Orthodox holidays but also Kurban-Bayram, the Day of Baptism of Kievan Russians). Last but not least, since Yeltsin, the inauguration of the head of the state is followed by a blessing given by the Patriarch and a solemn mass.

If we look back at the last 20 years, we can see that the new model of church-state relations in Russia has evolved with three main features. The first is the legally binding principal of a secular state and the legal equality of all religious organizations guaranteed by the Russian constitution. This first characteristic has been shaped by the second, the 1997 Law on Religious Freedom, which distinguishes “traditional” religions due to their significant role in Russia’s history, culture, and identity, creating a privileged category that includes  Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. The third characteristic is the dominance of the state, which, in return for all the privileges and financial support it provides, expects religious organisations to be loyal, to legitimate the Kremlin’s decisions and, when necessary, act to soothe social tensions. Organisations that fail to meet these expectations risk losing the faith of the Kremlin and the benefits it provides, and subsequent marginalization in the public sphere. The Kremlin has effectively granted a “license to preach” to certain privileged institutions, although not an irrevocable one. It is worth noting that in most former Soviet republics, these same three features have come to underpin church-state relations and thus could be characterized as the pillars of the post-Soviet church-state model.

This model has led to two important outcomes: social collaboration (called social partnership) and religious diplomacy. The Kremlin’s conviction that the “traditional” religions can be induced to serve Russia’s national interest is allowing for increased church-state collaboration in the provision of social services. The presence of religious institutions in hospitals, prisons, schools, orphanages, and other state-run institutions is growing. And as the "traditional religions" have been given more space to operate, they have made soothing inter-ethnic tensions a priority. This is how “social partnership” is created within Russia.

The other outcome is found in the foreign policy sphere. Here, church-state collaboration has translated into close cooperation between the Russian Foreign Ministry and “traditional” religious institutions beyond Russia’s borders. “Religious diplomacy” has become a tool for the Russian state to exert influence abroad. This type of diplomacy can be defined as the state cooperating with religious associations in pursuit of a pragmatically defined national interest abroad as well as leveraging the international activity of religious institutions, ideas, and religious symbols (appropriately interpreted for realization of current political aims) and so on.

The most visible example of this cooperation can be found in territories formerly part of the Soviet Union, where the Kremlin and the ROC work together to strengthen ties with the Russian diaspora. On a number of occasions, Sergey Lavrov has expressed his gratitude to the church for its involvement in efforts to engage with ethnic Russians, especially in the 90s, where in many regions the ROC was often the only Russian institution taking care of the Russian minority. Another indicator of collaboration is the Moscow Patriarchate’s participation in the state’s efforts to promote Russian language and culture abroad, the flagship institution of which is the Fund Russki Mir (Russian World) established in 2007.

The Kremlin profits from the support the church lends to integration initiatives aimed at the former Soviet republics, especially those aimed at bringing the Slavic republics closer. A good example of this is the ROC’s effort to tighten the relationship between Moscow and Minsk. In 1996, Patriarch Aleksey personally blessed the signing of the memorandum calling for the uniting of Russia and Belarus in a single state (although that state would ultimately fail to materialize). In Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate has been backing the "blue" camp since the Orange Revolution in 2004.  The church uses the symbol of the undividable Holy Rus' and the myth of a brotherhood of Orthodox Slavs to reach out to the Ukrainian population. These arguments still resonate in Ukrainian society and it should therefore not come as a surprise that the Kremlin uses them to shore up its policy towards Kiev. The 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus', celebrated in 2013, provided an opportunity for Moscow to play on this sentiment.

Outside the post-Soviet area, the Russian state cooperates with Islamic institutions to extend its diplomatic reach. One of the best examples is the role Russian muftis played in talks with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which resulted in Russia being granted observer status in 2005. This status allowed Moscow to establish new contacts with Muslims countries, including the creation of the Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group, which now meets annually.

Finally, in the case of Syria, both the ROC and the muftiates support the Kremlin’s opposition to military intervention and argue that Russia's policy towards the country is the only one that is rooted in genuine concern for the Syrian people.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s Special Role

The ROC has become the state’s main partner in the practice of religious diplomacy. This partnership rests on their social partnership at the domestic level, which has been cemented by a number of recent decisions by the state that have benefited the ROC.

During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential term, the position of the ROC in the public sphere has gotten noticeably stronger. From the ROC’s perspective, the past few years have seen many beneficial decisions by the state. One of the most important ones has unquestionably been the 2010 law demanding the “Return of property of religious character held by the state or the municipalities to religious organizations”. With this law, the long awaited process of returning property to the ROC was initiated.

Important decisions have also come in relation to education. The ROC didn’t hide its satisfaction with the 2012 decision to introduce the subject of “Religious-Moral Foundations of Cultures of Nations of Russia” in all schools, nor the 2011 decision to accredit all academic titles and degrees awarded by religious faculties and seminars. Another decision that benefited the Church came in 2009, when priests were allowed to work as army and prison chaplains. As a result, 240 new positions have reportedly been established in 2011 alone. Decisions to establish joint working bodies between the ROC and the Federal Treasure Office, Federal Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministry of Health, Internal Affairs Ministry, and the Customs Office have been similarly beneficial.

Acknowledging the growing influence of the Moscow Patriarchate, various political parties are engaging in consultations with church representatives on new laws and regulations and emphasizing their support for the ROC. To give just one example, members of United Russia stated during one of these meetings that the “secular state should not be isolated from the ideological influence of the Church”, and expressed the opinion that Russia had to rely on its traditional values in order to preserve its identity of a unique civilization. Even the communists have begun boasting about their contacts with Orthodox clergy.

In 2010, the ROC decided to reconsider its official stance on the political involvement of priests. While clergy are still barred from endorsing any political party, the ban issued by the ROC in 1994 on clergy participation in any elections has been amended. Clergy are now allowed to run, although only under circumstances of “the highest church necessity” – that is, to prevent schismatic or non-orthodox groups from seizing control of the Duma and using their political power to undermine the ROC. In such cases, it is now accepted that the Synod should delegate priests to take part in elections, but even then clergy are forbidden from joining a political party. In reaction to this new approach from the ROC, Mufti Abdullah Ishmuhametov from the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Asian Russia stated that in a time when society is losing its moral grounding, the clergy is indeed needed in politics, and so muftis should also consider running in elections. Vsevolod Chaplin, the head of the Synodal Department for Church-Society Relations, said that the time had come to consider establishing an orthodox party.

The Moscow Patriarchate’s most powerful assets are the social trust it elicits from the public alongside and the sympathy it engenders among political elites

An important factor in the rise of the Russian Orthodox Church is Patriarch Kirill’s personal determination – his clear vision, managerial skills, and sense for politics. It is no coincidence that Kirill is regularly ranked among Russia’s top ten “most influential political figures” in an survey conducted by a Russian polling agency. In 2012, he placed 6th ahead of Sergey Ivanov, Sergey Lavrov, and Vladislav Surkov.

The Moscow Patriarchate’s most powerful assets are the social trust it elicits from the public alongside and the sympathy it engenders among political elites. The highest Russian decision-makers express their support for the ROC openly. When Dmitry Medvedev was still president, declared himself an “Orthodox man” and talked publicly about his religious beliefs. He said that Russian Orthodoxy was the treasury of the nation’s fundamental values and the key to understanding what it means to be Russian. In Medvedev’s opinion, the history of Russia is inseparably connected with that of Christian Orthodoxy, and national traditional values have always provided favourable ground for interethnic and interreligious peace. He especially praised the harmony that characterises church-state relations in Russia today. At a 2011 meeting with participants of Archbishop sobor, Medvedev said: “the ROC is the most respected social institution in modern Russia [...] we are solving together the most pressing problems and tasks in the life of our people, one of them being interethnic and interreligious dialogue. The ROC during all the history has been protecting our fundamental values, such as love for others, tolerance, peace, justice, which was especially respected in Russia.”

The Weakness of Muftiates

During his presidency, Medvedev tried not to neglect members of the Muslim clergy. During a June 2009 meeting with Muslim leaders in Moscow, he stated: “Our country is multi-ethnical and multi-religious, and Muslims are respected and influential. Muslim religious organizations participate in strengthening civil peace, moral-spiritual upbringing, as well as fighting against extremism and xenophobia”. At another important meeting a month later, he met with three of the most influential muftiates, the Council of Muftis of Russia, the Spiritual Board for Muslims of Russia, and the Coordination Centre for Muslims of the Northern Caucasus, as well as two “newcomers”, the Spiritual Board of Tatarstan, led by Ildus Faizov, and The Russian Association of Islamic Concord, represented by Mufti Mohamoud Hadji Rahimov.

The expanding number of Muslim religious organizations being consulted by the Kremlin however reflects the institutional disintegration of Russian ummah. The most influential muftis have proven unable to establish one central muftiate, which would represent all Russian Muslims, and even the strongest spiritual boards are facing a threat of internal divisions. The muftiates are in conflict with one another, which is leading to an erosion of their popularity in wider Russian Muslim society, especially among young people, who don’t find ex-Soviet Islamic religious bureaucrats credible in roles of fervent preachers. This is making the situation quite difficult for the Kremlin because it does not have an alternative strategy for smoothing relations with Muslims other than promoting interfaith dialogue led from the top by “traditional” muftiates with the “licence to preach”.

Looking Back in Order to Modernize

Since the failure to fully modernize Russia’s economy in the 1990s, many political elites, including the ruling party, claim that Russia must not copy Western approaches to politics and economics but instead adapt them to fit Russia’s national character and traditions. They highlight the role of religion in this context, expressing their conviction that the Russian Orthodox Church is an authentic repository of Russian heritage and thus a possible source of effective social, legal, and even political solutions to internal tensions. In the eyes of the majority of Russia’s political elites today, efficient modernisation of Russia is contingent upon the revival of Russia’s traditions, which are found in Russian Orthodoxy.

Unsurprisingly, the Moscow Patriarchate also shares and promotes this view. One initiative of the ROC that is fraught with potential problems is the document “Basic Values - the Fundamentals of National Unity” issued by the XV All Russian National Sobor in 2011. Previously, “traditional values” were used in general terms. In order to specify them, a catalogue of 17 values was created, including faith, justice (meaning “the right place of a nation in international relations”), peace, freedom (limited by moral obligations), unity (of different ethnic groups, social classes, political groups pro bono publico), morality, dignity, honesty, patriotism (defined as love for the Homeland, nation, culture, respect for history, and readiness for self-sacrifice), solidarity, mercy, family, cultural and national tradition (characterized as respect for one own culture and tradition of others), prosperity (material and spiritual), diligence, self-limitation, and devotion (to the Motherland and nation). This catalogue reveals the tendency in Russia’s current public debate to consider religious faith the foundation of traditional values, and the silent conviction that true Russian traditional values are inseparable from religion. This trend is cementing the dominance of the ROC and raises concerns about the “orthodoxization” of the Russian state.

Orthodoxiztation vs. A Multi-Ethnic, Multi-Confessional State

Taking a long-term perspective, it will be difficult if not impossible for the Kremlin not to lose its credibility as “religion blind”. While the country’s political elites keep underlining the multi-confessional and multi-ethnic character of Russia, much effort is being put into reviving Orthodox values as “national” ones. The Kremlin is trying to strengthen the Slavic population’s connection to Orthodoxy, which will only enhance the existing tendency within Russian society to associate ethnic identity with a particular religion.

Moreover, contrary to official rhetoric, the ROC does not have a clear conception of how to conduct interfaith dialogue and maintain a balance between and within religious groups and institutions in a way that satisfies other traditional religions, especially Muslims. In a 2010 lecture, Hegumen Filip (Riabykh), a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, stated that the ROC acknowledged the fact that Russia was a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country, however, in the ROC’s opinion, “Russian model of interfaith dialogue comes from the principal of ‘good proportions’, which means that the presence in the public sphere of particular ‘traditional religions’ should be proportional to the number of its adherents”.

contrary to official rhetoric, the ROC does not have a clear conception of how to conduct interfaith dialogue and maintain a balance between and within religious groups and institutions in a way that satisfies other traditional religions, especially Muslims

The principle of “good proportions” does not satisfy non-Orthodox “traditional” religions that would rather have formal equality. If the Day of Baptism of Rus’ is declared a national holiday, Muslims will want to celebrate the Day of Converting to Islam and Buddhists will want the same for Buddha’s birthday. These are but trivial examples of the challenges that government will face as interethnic and interreligious tensions in the Russian Federation grow.

Few other events in Russia have managed to spark as fiery a discussion on nationalism and Caucasus-phobia as the 2010 riots in Manezh Square in Moscow did. After a fan of the Moscow Spartak soccer club was killed by a young man from northern Caucasus, thousands Russian football hooligans and members of nationalistic groups started to riot, beating people who did not look like ethnic Russians. As a result, 1.300 people were detained and 30 were seriously injured.

According to Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Synodal Department for outreach, the underlying problems were the weak connection between the authorities and society, and the indolence of elites still operating with conceptual frameworks created in the 1980s. He also said that stricter control on illegal immigration should be a priority.

Drawing attention to migration in the face of interfaith tensions is significant. The Moscow Patriarchate links Russian’s growing prejudices towards Caucasian people with the failure of migration policy. In a way, the signal has been sent that the concerns of ethnic Russians are reasonable and should be taken seriously by the state. Such understanding of the ROC’s views can be confirmed by remarks by Chaplin who stated that Russians being chased out of the North Caucasus is an injustice and warned against the de-Christianisation of the region.

The ROC’s own strategy toward immigrants involves a program of ‘spiritual up-bringing’ – in other words, cultural assimilation through teaching Russian language, history, customs, etc. As Patriarch Kirill said, religious organizations should take care of the spiritual upbringing among immigrants in order to help them to adapt to the dominating culture but also to protect their traditional identity. Furthermore, according to the Patriarch, interfaith and interethnic peace in Russia could not be achieved without the ROC’s involvement in immigration and assimilation. That is why these problems are discussed in the meetings of the joint commission of the ROC and the Federal Migration Office. Vsevolod Chaplin has been tasked with increasing cooperation between the ROC and the federal migration offices.

It is worth emphasizing that the Muslim clergy also took up this problem. In 2011, a congress of religious leaders of the North Caucasus in Makhachkala issued an appeal to immigrants from the Caucasus to respect the tradition and culture of the nations they come to live in.

The Future

In the decades that followed the collapse of the USSR, a particular Church-state model formed in Russia. After the crisis-ridden 1990s and following the election of president Vladimir Putin, a period of stabilisation ensued and new mechanisms of cooperation were established. Efforts since have been concentrated on preventing decentralising tendencies, strengthening sovereignty, rebuilding a sense of national unity, instilling in society a spirit of public service and patriotism, and restoring in the Russian people a sense of pride in their country. The “traditional” religions seem to be useful for the Kremlin when it comes to making progress on these fronts.

Avoiding clichés regarding the “return of the imperial alliance of altar and throne”, it is important to make a few points about the future of Russia’s politics.

The present post-Soviet religious model does not seem to be optimal for preventing interethnic and interreligious tensions. A new formula is needed which would enable the disentangling of ethnicity and religion and provide a modern concept of national identity for all citizens of the Russian Federation.

The present model has an obvious flaw: on one hand, the authorities stress the need for the spiritual revival of Russian ethnos, which requires introducing Orthodox tradition, symbols, and rituals into the public sphere; on the other hand, the Kremlin assures us that Russia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious civilisation of interfaith harmony. Preserving balance between religions and boosting the status of Russian Orthodoxy at the same time seems to be an extremely risky, if not impossible task. Thus, several important questions appear: What long-term consequences will result from this kind of policy? Does the Kremlin have a coherent alternative strategy? Is current political behaviour merely the result of hasty considerations or a carefully constructed plan to empower some groups at the expense of others? One thing seems certain – it would be strategic for any alternative model to weaken the tendency of conflating ethnicity and religion.

The protests that started in winter 2011 revealed a conflict between the state and Russian society that neither the government nor the ROC can afford to ignore. Since the presidential elections of 2012, the Kremlin has had to deal with weakened legitimacy. It may find it needs a credible arbiter in the near future. While the Moscow Patriarchate could potentially fill this role, the costs for social stability if it does so may be severe. But the payoffs to the organisation may be difficult to resist: before the February 2012 elections, Vladimir Putin met with religious leaders at the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ residence. He explained that the state had a debt to pay to religious organizations. To that end, he stated that he would personally support a faster restitution of the Church’s real estate assets: 3.5 billion rubbles would be given to renovation projects. The voice of Church would also be more present in the media. Thus, Putin showed the “traditional” religious institutions the benefits they can expect if they stay loyal.

It seems that this particular “carrot” worked – Patriarch Kirill stated during the meeting that “In our country the most noticeable and loudest voices are of those who do not represent the majority...” – an obvious reference discrediting the protestors. Should the Church get stronger and extend its advantage over other “traditional” religions, the consequences for the already fragile interreligious balance in the Russian Federation are likely to be dramatic. Interethnic and interreligious tensions, combined with growing public frustration at continuing economic problems and worsening corruption could spark social unrest capable of destabilizing the entire Russian Federation.

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