(Page 2 of 3)
In the wake of the Pussy Riot debacle, a number of commentators noted that religion has become the Russian state’s new ideological prop, a “national idea” to fill the post-communist void. Not surprisingly, this religion-as-ideology often seems more political than spiritual—an aggressively statist creed perfectly aligned with Putin’s worldview.
Thus the 2008 formal statement of “Russian Orthodox Church Doctrine on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights” amounted to a Christian-flavored manifesto for Putin-style “sovereign democracy.” Individual rights, the doctrine made clear, must never take priority over the interests of “Fatherland” (Otechestvo); human rights activism must not advance the agenda of “particular countries” seeking to export their way of life (a thinly veiled jab at supposedly U.S.-sponsored dissidents); and citizens’ exercise of their political rights should never undermine social unity or the traditional Orthodox model of harmony between government and society.
Practical examples of such church-state harmony apparently include Putin dodging the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency by using loyal protégé Dmitry Medvedev as a placeholder. In September 2011, after Medvedev announced that he would not seek a second term but instead step aside for his benefactor, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of Public Relations, hailed the development as a “peaceful, dignified, honorable, friendly transfer of power” that other nations should envy. (That Russian voters had yet to ratify the “transfer of power” was clearly a minor detail.)
Ideological Orthodoxy fits snugly with the anti-Western animus that pervades Putinism. Take a look at the much-ballyhooed “Name of Russia” TV project held in 2008 to choose history’s greatest Russian. The winner (almost certainly government-approved, with Internet vote-rigging to avert a first-place finish for Stalin) was the legendary 13th-century prince and Orthodox saint Alexander Nevsky, famous for routing small bands of Northern European crusaders. Future Patriarch Kirill, then an archbishop, championed Alexander in television studio debates as the warrior who saved Russia from the Western menace. Kirill even praised Alexander’s choice to collaborate with the conquering Mongol Horde—whose rule is generally viewed as disastrous for Russia—while spurning an alliance with the Pope. The Horde “only wanted our purses,” Kirill said, while the West threatened Russia’s very identity.
In a modern context, this attitude translates into a full endorsement of the Kremlin’s Putin-era foreign policy, with its peculiar mix of ego-driven global posturing, imperial nostalgia, and paranoid pique. Kirill, who was elected Patriarch by the senior church hierarchy in 2009 and thus became spiritual and organizational head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has echoed Putin in deploring the Soviet Union’s collapse. Chaplin, the Patriarchate’s P.R. man, raised eyebrows last January when he suggested that Russia should step up its military involvement “in all areas where people are concerned about the danger of orange experiments” (Kremlin-speak for alleged U.S.-manipulated subversion, named after Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, which ousted a pro-Moscow president by challenging election fraud).
Last February, at a meeting with religious leaders hosted by the Patriarch, Putin mused that “the primitive understanding of the separation of church and state” should be jettisoned in favor of “cooperation.” And indeed, the church was cooperating at that very moment by serving as the state’s cheerleader in the face of rising popular discontent. Putin’s planned Kremlin comeback, compounded by fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary vote, had finally roused many Russians from apathy and sent tens of thousands into the streets. The response from church leadership—aside from a few squeaks about the need for government to hear citizens’ legitimate concerns—was to caution against rocking the boat and to praise Putin as (almost literally) God’s gift to Russia.
In early January, as protests grew, Chaplin wrote in a column for the Interfax website that while “the popular will to political activity should not be suppressed,” it was “shameful” for Russian activists to stand next to liberal opposition leaders such as chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov. In televised sermons, Patriarch Kirill warned of the potential bloodshed, chaos, and destruction from people fighting for “their own small, human, insignificant truths” and averred that “Orthodox believers don’t know how to go out to demonstrations.” While hosting Putin’s meeting with clergy in February, the Patriarch described Russia’s revival since 2000 as “a miracle of God”—one for which he bestowed much of the credit on Putin himself. (These comments inspired the Pussy Riot lyrics, “Patriarch Gundyayev [Kirill’s secular name] believes in Putin; try believing in God instead, scumbag!”)
The Abbot Kisses the Ring
In return for its loyalty, the church—or at least its senior hierarchy—has been amply rewarded with wealth, status, and perks. But that doesn’t mean the more faith-specific parts of its agenda get translated into government policy (aside from local bans on gay pride events and on “propaganda of homosexuality to minors,” an area where church dogma dovetails with majority biases). Abortion, which is as unacceptable in Orthodoxy as it is in Catholicism, remains not only legal but free at public clinics. In 2011 the Patriarch’s plea to end government funding for abortions was briskly dismissed by the ruling United Russia party, and legislation introducing some restrictions, such as spousal consent for married women, died in the Duma (the Russian parliament); the only actual policy change was tighter regulation after the first trimester. Church advocacy on this issue has been fairly low-key and deferential; when Kirill raised it in his meeting with Putin, it was to concede the pro-choice tilt of popular opinion and beg for better incentives for women to make other choices.
The effort to bring Orthodoxy into public education has yielded mixed results at best. A few years ago, proposals to make “the basics of Orthodox culture” a required subject for middle school students met with a strong backlash, including an open letter from a group of concerned scientists whom the church assailed as relics of militant Soviet atheism. Then Putin’s docile Duma nixed a resolution condemning the critics, and Putin himself warned that religious indoctrination in state schools would be illegal. As if on cue, church spokesman Chaplin made a conciliatory statement calling for a pluralistic approach to religious studies. The solution was a class in “secular ethics and world religions” (which recently became mandatory nationwide after a two-year pilot program), with several options from which parents can choose. So far less than a third of students have enrolled in the Orthodox track, compared to more than 40 percent for secular ethics and 20 percent for world religions. The Patriarch blamed the church’s comparative failure on “the liberal press.”
All this is a far cry from theocracy, even if disturbing examples of religious coercion are common. (Last spring, REN-TV did a report on kids being pressured into baptism at a summer camp for the children of railway employees.) It is, rather, an unequal tandem of a cynically pious state and a cynically servile church.
Of course, subservience to state power is an old tradition for the Russian Orthodox Church; it started under the czars—particularly after the 1700s, when Peter the Great effectively reduced the church to a subordinate branch of government—and continued under the Soviets, when the church was brought back from near-obliteration as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Soviet regime and the KGB.
That dark legacy lives on in the present-day church. In 1992 a parliamentary investigative commission co-chaired by Father Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and Soviet-era dissident, released KGB files exposing a vast network of collaborators among clerics, particularly at the highest levels. (Shortly afterward, Yakunin was defrocked, supposedly for violating church discipline through his political activity.) One of those collaborators, code-named Mikhailov, was almost certainly Kirill himself. In the 1970s, the future Patriarch, then an up-and-coming church official, traveled regularly abroad for conferences where he participated in the Soviet “struggle for peace” and pooh-poohed claims about religious persecution in the USSR.
Compared to Soviet times, the church today enjoys a far more exalted status. Yet there is no doubt as to which side dominates in the church-state “partnership.” A few days before the Pussy Riot verdict, a clip from a Russian newscast made a splash on the Internet: On a visit to a historic monastery, a startled Putin shrank back when the abbot bowed and moved to kiss his hand. Russian media outlets treated the abbot’s abasement as a comical gaffe, and he later apologized for his inappropriate zeal; but many Russians saw the gesture as a fitting bit of symbolism.
‘War of the Whores’