The Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Politics: Editors’ Introduction

Authors: Irina Papkova and Dmitry Gorenburg

On 5 December 2008, Aleksii II, who had been the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow and All Rus for the entire post-Soviet period, passed away. The formal enthronement of his successor, Kirill I, took place two months later.   In contrast to the secular realm, where the differences between the Putin and Medvedev presidencies are merely stylistic, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has so far experienced the tenure of the dynamic Kirill I as a veritable revolution. Furthermore, the shakeup within the ROC has already clearly affected the relationship between the Russian state and the majority national church.  Radically different from his predecessor in both the style and content of his administration of the ROC, the new patriarch has managed to move the church-state relationship in the Russian Federation in directions that were only imagined under Aleksii II.

The ROC’s post-Soviet relationship with the state has centered on several key concerns: the admissibility of religious instruction in public schools (through the framework of “Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture” courses); the introduction of chaplaincy in the armed forces; the restitution of property; and the limitation of competition by other faiths on Russian soil.   Prior to 2008, the ROC had made progress only in terms of converts; the church did not, on balance, manage to convince the state to accede to its demands.  The notorious Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations (1997), which limited proselytism in Russia, was the only success the ROC could point to; on all other counts, the state held a distinctly secular position.  With the accession of Kirill I, however, the situation began to change dramatically in favor of the church’s rising political influence.  This issue of Russian Politics and Law examines this new dynamic.  We also explore two broader problems currently debated in Russia’s overlapping social, political and ecclesiastical circles: how big a role should the Orthodox Church play in society, and to what extent should it be granted the privilege of representing that society’s interests vis à vis the state?

The first two articles–by Aleksei Makarkin and Sergei Filatov respectively–are analytical pieces that provide deep background both on the situation within the ROC since Kirill I’s enthronement and on the ways in which his patriarchate has affected church-state relations.  In “The Russian Orthodox Church: Competing Choices,” Makarkin begins by summarizing the results of the previous patriarch’s reign, concluding that Aleksii II bequeathed his successor with a consolidated institution able to play a visible role in Russian politics and society. Both Makarkin and Filatov focus on the energetic personality of the new patriarch, most visible in his support for the revitalization of the ROC’s missionary activity across the country, often in innovative form such as preaching at rock concerts. Makarkin points out that the new patriarch is a master politician, who used these abilities to defeat his main rivals for the position of Patriarch. Now that he is in charge of the ROC, he can use these abilities to tackle some of the more controversial issues facing the church, including its relationship with the Roman Catholic Church and with competing Orthodox churches in Ukraine.

Filatov, in “Socio-Religious Life in Russia in the Autumn of 2009” describes Kirill’s goal as bringing Orthodoxy “out of the ghetto” and into every possible aspect of social life.  Filatov is concerned, however, that the message of the new ROC leadership is not so much religious as nationalist in content, because the missionary rhetoric focuses mainly on “Holy Rus,” on the values of “Russian civilization,” rather than on the message of Christ. Focusing on church-state relations, Filatov describes the progress that the ROC has made since 2008 in getting the state to accede to its political preferences: the Medvedev government has granted federal approval for the teaching of “Orthodox values” in public schools; both Putin and Medvedev have moved towards authorizing full restitution of pre-Revolutionary ecclesiastical property; and the Duma has been considering further legislative restrictions on foreign proselytism. At the same time, both Makarkin and Filatov point to potential weaknesses in the ROC’s position. First, they underscore the unstable nature of the patriarch’s authority within the ROC itself, as Kirill’s authoritarian personality and somewhat liberal theological views have combined to alienate a large segment of the clergy and active laity.  Second, Filatov, in particular, points out that Russian society is by no means entirely Orthodox in its orientation, and that the persistence of a strong secularist mood among some members of the political class may potentially create friction between the state and the ROC in the future.

The rest of the articles in this issue move away from impersonal analysis and express the positions of various actors concerned with the Russian church-state relationship, including state actors, the patriarch himself, and voices from within society. Both Russian and Western experts have often underestimated the extent to which both the state and the Orthodox Church are multi-vocal, presenting the relationship as one in which a unitary church has been lobbying an increasingly responsive unitary government to further ecclesiastical interests. Yet, as mentioned above, prior to 2008 the state was more often than not unresponsive to the Church’s demands. One reason for this may be found in the actively secular orientation of some government officials. While the ROC has achieved certain goals since 2008, the path has not been simple, as the officials in question still hold influential offices and have been quite open in opposing what they view as encroaching clericalism.  In “Religion in the System of State Power,” Andrei Sebentsov (executive secretary of the Government Commission for Religious Associations) criticizes the ROC for frequently overstepping the boundaries separating church and state. Moreover, Sebentsov complains that state officials are often complicit in granting the ROC privileges that contradict Russia’s secular constitution. Complicating matters, however, even this quite vocal critic of the ROC admits that there are areas on which church and state not only can, but should work together, such as strengthening the position of Russia abroad.

In fact, the past two years have seen an increasing coordination in the policies of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the ROC’s outreach to its parishes outside Russian borders. In his “Address at the Grand Opening of the Third Assembly of the Russian World,” Patriarch Kirill stresses the important role played by the church in ensuring at least a spiritual unity between Orthodox Christians of Slavic background, reminding Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians of their common heritage.  In the context of the competition between the West and Russia for hegemony over large areas of the former Russian/Soviet Empire, the patriarch’s language in this article is striking for its ethno-linguistic, cultural understanding of the proposed “Russian world,” and for the decidedly underemphasized role he accords to Orthodoxy. In his trenchant critique of the patriarch’s address (“Geopolitics from the Patriarch: The Heavenly Kingdom Versus the ‘Russian World’”), Gennadii Druzenko writes that “the most remarkable thing about this speech is that the head of the largest national Orthodox Church spoke for twenty-five minutes and mentioned God only three times…while repeating thirty-eight times the phrase ‘Russian world’ – a term [that] sounds like a geopolitical concept bearing little connection to church doctrine.”

The impression that Patriarch Kirill understands the interests of church and state to be inseparable is strengthened in his “Address at the Opening of the Eighteenth International Christmas Readings.”  The purpose of the Christmas Readings has been to heighten the visibility of the ROC’s role in education; over the years, the event has evolved into the ROC’s largest annual gathering, involving clergy, laity and political actors.   In his address to the participants, Kirill I underscores the importance of the Orthodox Church in ensuring a patriotic education infused with reverential memory for Russia’s past glories. Though he refers in passing to individual salvation, the emphasis here is clearly on the role that the ROC can play in strengthening the post-Soviet Russian state.  Here, Patriarch Kirill functions almost explicitly as a political, rather than religious, authority figure.

In his address to the Christmas Readings, Patriarch Kirill harkens back to the assumption that, in lobbying for the introduction of an Orthodox component into public school education, the ROC speaks for Russian society.  At the same time, the “Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture” project had, prior to 2008, floundered in part because the society supposedly interested in it in fact offered up a surprising resistance to its realization.  Despite President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent authorization of federal support for the “Orthodox Culture” course, opposition within certain segments of Russian society remains strong. In “Orthodox Bolshevism,” Mikhail Sitnikov warns that the legalization of the course across the Russian Federation may lead to a new totalitarianism where politicized Orthodoxy replaces Communism as the compulsory state ideology.  Sitnikov’s article is polemical and does not claim to represent the voice of the Russian population in general.  In “They Did not Take it On Faith” Irina Ivoilova and Sergei Kuskin simply bring forward statistics showing that, given the option of choosing courses on religion and on secular ethics for their children, the majority of Russian parents have, as of 2010, voted in favor of the secular option.

The articles in this issue show that the ROC is increasingly becoming an effective force in Russian political life, despite the low levels of religiosity among nominal church adherents. Patriarch Kirill has already used his political skills to achieve the introduction of courses on Orthodoxy in Russian schools and the establishment of a chaplain system in the Russian military, policy achievements that eluded his predecessor despite years of sustained lobbying. The ROCs is likely to continue to use his skills to advance its political agenda for the foreseeable future.

2 thoughts on “The Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Politics: Editors’ Introduction

  1. Pingback: Russian Politics and Law, January 2011 Table of Contents « Russian Military Reform

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