Rolling the Dice: The Orthodox Church’s “Bet” on Putin

Satirical cartoon depicting Patriarch Kirill’s luxury apartment buried in sand (the apartment was the subject of a lawsuit over “excessive dust”). Source: Moscow Times.

by Irina Papkova

The recent Russian elections have highlighted the complicated relationship between the Orthodox Church with both state and society. In December, prominent clergy expressed their dissatisfaction with the evidently fraudulent nature of the parliamentary election, and even patriarch Kirill made statements that could be interpreted as calling upon Putin to reform the system. Yet, by early January the patriarch had clearly declared in support of Putin, as a man who “labored like a galley slave” for the good of the country. By the time the presidential elections came along, it seemed that the Church had finally resolved the vacillations visible in December by unequivocally “betting on Putin.”

Is this really the case? And if so, why did it occur?    The response to the first question is an equivocal “yes” – the Moscow Patriarchate, which is the administrative apparatus of the Russian Orthodox Church, has indeed expressed support for Putin 3.0. Whether or not the rest of the Church – the individual bishops, the lower clergy and the parishioners – have internalized the Patriarchate’s position is not clear, and, in the absence of systematic polling conducted among this subset of the Russian population, will likely remain so.  Based on anecdotal evidence we may surmise that the Church is divided in its attitude towards the new/old Russian president. It remains then to answer the second question – why, instead of following the example of the Islamic establishment in Egypt, has the Patriarchate decided to oppose an incipient “Russian spring?”

One possibility is that the Patriarchate has found Putin a close ally, and that changing partners would be cumbersome and fraught with uncertainties. It is true that, especially in the four years of the Medvedev interregnum, the Orthodox Church has benefitted from its close relationship to the political elites. But this explanation is problematic – the Patriarchate achieved its greatest political gains during Medvedev’s presidency, in large part due to the supposedly symbolic president’s personal piety and reverence for the person of the patriarch. With Putin’s return to the presidential office, Russia will be led by a man who, though respectful of Orthodoxy, spent his previous presidential terms pursuing a resolutely secular policy.

Alternatively, a perusal of the Russian mass media over the past three years shows an increased anti-clerical tone in Russian society. My conversations with Russian contacts and an examination of the blogosphere point in the same direction. Several of my Russian contacts began raising concerns about the negative shift in the public perception of the Orthodox Church as early as the spring of 2009. An examination of the blogosphere over the last couple of years points in the same direction.  The notorious “Pussy Riot” incident exemplified an already simmering conflict between the Church and an anti-clerical segment of Russian society. It was not the only such anti-Orthodox outburst over the past few months. Since January, there has been a spate of vandalism against churches and violence against clergy across the country. In an atmosphere already heavily charged with the language of revolution, it is not surprising that the Orthodox hierarchy would look to Putin for protection against forces apparently intent on contesting the Church’s position of influence.

Russian Orthodox Christians gather outside Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow to pray in support of the Church in the wake of the Pussy Riot controversy, April 22nd, 2012. Source: Ivan Sekretarov, AP.

At the same time, this picture is complicated by the possibility that the anti-clerical mood in Russian society is being cultivated—by circles surrounding Putin himself. Leading up to the most recent round of elections, there was a marked upswing in negative media coverage of the Church, prompting some observers to speculate that there was an order “from the top” to create or at least fan an incipient anti-clerical mood in Russian society. It seems the relationship between Kirill and Putin is notably frostier than that with Medvedev. If Medvedev was willing to share the national stage with a charismatic and politically ambitious patriarch, the modus operandi of the Putin “vertical” does not allow for a co-equal national leader.

Such analysis may seem redolent of Kremlinology. Yet the “Pussy Riot” scandal was quickly followed by two scandals focused on the patriarch himself. The first involved a contentious court case around a luxury apartment owned by Kirill; the second centers around whether or not the patriarch has publicly lied about owning a €30,000 Breguet watch. Both controversies have spotlighted Kirill’s supposed venality, undermining his reputation not just among his own active flock, but most importantly, among the millions of religiously indifferent Russians who gather their news about religion from national television and tabloids. Given the increasingly personal nature of the stream of church scandals hitting the Russian media since the 2011 parliamentary elections, the speculations regarding their Kremlin source seem a bit less irrational, though they are speculations all the same. What this means for the rationality of the Patriarchate’s bet on Putin is another question, and the evolution of church-state relations in Russia remains as hard to predict as ever.

Irina Papkova is Assistant Professor of International Relations and European Studies at Central European University. She received her Ph.D. from the Government Department of Georgetown University and has previously taught at Georgetown and George Washington Universities.  Her book, “The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics,” was published by Oxford University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press in 2011. Read Irina’s previous posts on the Russian Orthodox Church here, and read the Revealer review of her book here.


With support from the Henry R. Luce initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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