Relationship Drama: Russia’s Church-State Affairs

President Putin meets with delegates to the Bishops’ Council, February 1, 2013.Photo: the Presidential Press and Information Office, The Kremlin.

President Putin meets with delegates to the Bishops’ Council, February 1, 2013.Photo: the Presidential Press and Information Office, The Kremlin.

By Irina Papkova

2012 was full of dramatic moments in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), moments that brought to the fore important questions about the relationship between the church and the broader society in which it is embedded. In early February, the head of the ROC patriarch Kirill openly declared his support for Vladimir Putin’s candidacy in the 2012 presidential elections, prompting complaints about the “inappropriate” closeness between Russia’s Orthodox church and the state. It also provoked a creative response from the anti-Putin opposition.

On February 21, 2012, the Russian feminist punk group “Pussy Riot” attempted to stage a performance in Russia’s most important church, the Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Several members of the group began to dance around in front of the altar, shouting out lyrics critical of patriarch Kirill and asking the Mother of God to ban Putin from Russia.  While some interpreted this post factum as merely an unusual, but still heartfelt, prayer, the Russian government didn’t quite see it that way.  Three of the performers were arrested and charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. The subsequent trial violated Russia’s own established legal procedures, and resulted in convictions for all three women.

The trial threw unflattering light on the relationship between the Russian state and the Orthodox Church in the 21st century. From the outside, it appeared as though a powerful church subverted the secular justice system to punish those whom the Orthodox faith considers blasphemers. Even worse was the suspicion that the band members were punished for singing anti-Putin lyrics and NOT for allegedly offending believers. In other words, the ROC was suspected of hypocrisy, allowing itself to be used in order to punish enemies of the regime.

The Pussy Riot story coincided with a series of seemingly unrelated public scandals involving patriarch Kirill. In April 2012, a story broke regarding a property lawsuit, in which a woman living in a luxury apartment owned by Kirill sued the upstairs neighbors for allegedly ruining the patriarch’s expensive book collection in the course of routine renovations. Around the same time, vigilant bloggers caught staff members of the Moscow Patriarchate’s press service photo-shopping pictures of the patriarch, editing out an expensive Breguet watch that Kirill claimed he had never worn (in reaction to earlier criticism regarding the ROC’s ostentatious wealth). State-dominated media reported on both scandals, as well as the Pussy Riot affair, leading the patriarch and other Orthodox leaders to frame the situation as one of persecution against Orthodoxy in Russia.

Pussy Riot at Lobnoye Mesto on Red Square in Moscow, January 20, 2012. Photo by Denis Bochkarev via Wikicommons.

Pussy Riot at Lobnoye Mesto on Red Square in Moscow, January 20, 2012. Photo by Denis Bochkarev via Wikicommons.

This reading of events raises two questions. First, is the ROC leadership correct in identifying a campaign against the Orthodox church? Second, if the ROC is in fact under attack, then the question is, by whom and why? In the Russian popular imagination, the words “persecution against the church” evoke images of the Soviet era, during which the state attempted to eradicate religion altogether, often through violent means.  In sharp contrast, today’s ROC is a privileged institution very much at the forefront of Russian life, with a well-developed infrastructure and considerable wealth.

At the same time, Putin’s return to the presidency brought with it questions about the government’s attitude towards the Orthodox church.  During his first two terms (1999-2007), Putin pursued a policy towards the ROC that included manifestations of public respect for its role in Russian society but excluded overtly institutionalizing the ROC’s position as the country’s dominant confession.  Throughout those years, the ROC had lobbied the government for legal concessions that included the federal authorization of some form of religious instruction in schools, restitution of property taken from the church by the Soviet regime, and the institutionalization of the chaplaincy in Russia’s armed forces.  Putin, though publicly deferential to Orthodox leaders, vetoed every one of these initiatives.  Medvedev (2008-2012), in contrast, clearly favored Orthodoxy, influenced perhaps by his own religious faith or by that of his wife Svetlana.  In March 2010, the Russian government approved the institutionalization of chaplains in the army. A few months later, the Ministry of Education authorized the introduction of a form of religious education in public schools.  The same year, the state began the process of returning church property confiscated during the Soviet era.  Unsurprisingly, Putin’s return to the presidency has been accompanied by quiet efforts to backpedal on Medvedev’s pro-Orthodox policies.  The fact that state-dominated media ran numerous scandalous stories about the patriarch and in general ratcheted up public discussions of the church’s internal problems subtly demonstrates the regime’s attitude shift.

Dmitry and Svetlana Medvedev with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia at the Naval Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Kronstadt, April 9, 2012. Photo: the Presidential Press and Information Office, the Kremlin.

Dmitry and Svetlana Medvedev with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia at the Naval Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Kronstadt, April 9, 2012. Photo: the Presidential Press and Information Office, the Kremlin.

Perhaps more importantly, there has been an attitude shift within the broader Russian society. For the first two decades after the collapse of the USSR, the Church enjoyed wide-spread popularity and trust, even if the majority of the population preferred to stay home on Sunday mornings instead of going to Orthodox services.  But throughout 2012, an epidemic of anti-religious vandalism spread across the country, in which unidentified persons destroyed dozens of crosses and spray-painted churches with anti-religious graffiti.  Russian social networks and blogs abounded with polemics against the ROC.  In private conversations, priests and active parishioners acknowledged that the level of trust in the church has been sliding, and that grass-roots anti-clericalism is on the rise.

Here again, the personality of patriarch Kirill appears as a lightning rod. His popular predecessor, Alexii II, concentrated the energies of the church on rebuilding the infrastructure that the communists had destroyed.  As a moderate and calm personality, Alexii built up the ROC’s symbolic capital, amassing its reputation as the second-most trusted institution in the country (after the presidency). After Alexii’s death, Kirill I came on the scene with a much more dynamic program, proclaiming that his patriarchate would be one of active mission, of the church going to the masses and transforming society into a truly Orthodox collectivity. This new activism involved frequent media appearances by the patriarch, populist missionary actions by well-known clergy, further lobbying for the institutionalization of the ROC’s privileged position, and the building of new churches across the country with government support.

In Moscow alone, the ROC plans to build 400 new churches in order to ensure that all Muscovites have access to a church within walking distance of their homes. The fate of this initiative so far is symbolic of the ROC’s present vulnerability.   For it turns out that many Muscovites do not want new churches in their neighborhood.  Throughout 2012, and continuing into 2013, neighborhood associations in Moscow brought numerous lawsuits against the new constructions. The situation was repeated across the country; in city after city efforts to construct new churches faced a public backlash. Perfectly content to watch the ROC rebuild old churches in the 1990s and early 2000s, many Russians reacted negatively to this renewed Orthodox mission. Since 2008, the church has tried to permeate every element of Russian life; or so it seems to the Russian public.

On the surface, at least, the level of anti-clericalism across the Russian Federation is rising in proportion to the rise in the ROC’s activism – a wave that had been building up slowly since 2008. Unsurprisingly, the Pussy Riot trial, in which the ROC appeared to be imposing itself as the law of the land, elicited a negative reaction from portions of a public already inclined towards rejecting heavy-handed Orthodox mission. It is not clear yet how the tendencies described here will develop as 2013 marches forward, but the situation is indeed worth watching.

Irina Papkova is a Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs. She received her Ph.D. from 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.Irina’s current research includes religion and politics in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Lebanon. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

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

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