Rise of the Russian Orthodox Church

Russian Orthodox Church members during a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside Moscow's Kremlin wall, in this June 22, 2011, photo.  

Moscow taxi-drivers claim that only three persons in the Russian capital would take no more than 15 minutes to ride from their country residences to the city centre, despite horrendous traffic jams: President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Christian Orthodox Church.

It is only for these VIPs that traffic is stopped so that their stretch armoured limousines, escorted by SUVs with armed bodyguards, can speed through the emptied streets at 150 kmph. The Patriarch's bodyguards are from the Kremlin security services, provided free of charge, which is another thing that puts him in the company of the President and the Prime Minister. The church is separate from the state in Russia, the Constitution says. It also says there can be no state religion. But in reality, the Orthodox Church in post-Communist Russia is as much a pillar of the state as are the army, the police and the courts.

After the collapse of the atheist Soviet Union, state persecution of religion came to an end in Russia. The new law on religious freedom adopted in 1997 identified four religions as “constituting an inalienable part of the historical heritage of the Russian people” — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. This in itself was a violation of the Constitution, which enshrines equality of all religious organisations. Moreover, the law set the Orthodox Church apart from other religions, noting its “special role” in Russian history. It was probably in line with this special status that Russia's Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar and Supreme Mufti Ravil Gainutdin lost the right to flash car lights several years ago.

The Orthodox clergy claim that religious belief in Russia has been rapidly growing stronger. Indeed, according to pollsters, two-thirds of ethnic Russians now identify themselves as Russian Orthodox believers, up from less than half in the mid-1990s. However, only 10-15 per cent of Russians go to church regularly, and just five per cent seek communion, which is a key act of faith for a true believer. Sociologists say the vast majority confuse their ethnic identity with religious belief.

Notwithstanding the indifferent mood of most Russians, the Orthodox Church, with active state support, has effectively established itself as state religion. Its privileged status is illustrated by the new Kremlin tradition of a newly elected President receiving the blessings of the Patriarch. Both Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev went through the ritual after they were sworn in. Accepting the gift of an icon from the Patriarch in May 2008, Mr. Medvedev crossed himself and said that it was through “joint efforts of the state and the Orthodox Church” that Russia had scaled new heights in its development. The ceremony looks like enthronement, not least because it takes place in the Kremlin's oldest church, former family chapel of the Russian Tsars. It is meant to lend greater legitimacy to the President, as the election process in Russia can hardly be called truly democratic or competitive.

The Church-state nexus has proved mutually beneficial. The Kremlin promotes the Church in order to fill an ideological and spiritual vacuum that the collapse of Communism left in its wake, while the Church uses state support to raise its profile and influence. The Kremlin finds useful the traditional orthodox values extolled by the Church — submission and deference to authority. It hopes that the Church can help control public protests against the massive impoverishment and glaring inequalities that market reforms have created in Russian society. The Church is also a valuable instrument for projecting Russian interests abroad, as the Orthodox Churches of Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus are all parts of the Russian Patriarchate. In 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church reunited with its overseas sister Church ending an eight decades-long split and giving the Moscow Patriarchate a global reach.

The government has helped build new and restore thousands of churches that were used as offices and warehouses during the Soviet era. The huge 19th century Cathedral of Christ the Savior near the Kremlin, which was razed to the ground in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s, stands as a symbol of the Orthodoxy replacing Marxism-Leninism. The lavishly decorated 103-metre high cathedral, the size of a football field, is the largest Orthodox Church in the world. It cost a whopping $500 million to build the cathedral and critics said it was largely financed with public money.

Four years ago, a group of eminent scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners, addressed an open letter to President Putin voicing concern at the “growing clericalisation of the Russian society and aggressive penetration by the Church in all spheres of public life.” The tendency has only gathered momentum under Patriarch Kirill, who replaced the deceased Patriarch Alexei II in January 2009.

Russia's most charismatic cleric, whose oratorical talent is known to millions of Russians through his long-running television show “Words of a Pastor,” Kirill, 65, has worked to dramatically enhance the power of the Church and strengthen its ties with the state. It was largely thanks to his influence that President Medvedev emerged as an even more ardent supporter of the Church than Mr. Putin. When he was still head of Mr. Putin's Kremlin administration and chaired a presidential commission for religious affairs, Mr. Medvedev was instrumental in giving Orthodox theological schools the same status as secular universities. Last year, Mr. Medvedev signed a decree establishing a federal holiday, the “Day of the Baptism of Rus” when Kyiv Prince Volodymyr converted his people to Christianity in the 10th century.

There are now two officially recognised Orthodox holidays in Russia and there is none representing any other religion. Following the approval in December of a controversial law to restore to religious organisations property and assets seized by the state in Soviet times, the Orthodox Church looks set to become the biggest real estate owner in the country, which is what it was before the 1917 revolution. Critics say this is the price the Kremlin is ready to pay the Church for its political support and ideological cover. The law has appalled museums and archives as many will have to vacate their premises in former church buildings and surrender religious artefacts. Art experts point out that Russia may lose priceless icons by Andrei Rublev and other medieval painters because churches lack proper conditions and specialised personnel to preserve ancient items.

Mr. Medvedev has also backed the Church in its long-standing demand to have “Orthodox culture” classes opened in schools. In some regions, the classes are optional but at least in five provinces they are mandatory. This has invited protests from parents belonging to other religious groups.

The Defence Ministry announced earlier this week that “on the instructions of the President,” it will establish a military chaplain corps by the end of the year and will train chaplains at one of its military schools.

The current position of the Church is often compared with pre-1917 revolution time, when Orthodoxy was the official religion of the Russian state. The one big difference though is that in imperial Russia, the Church was subservient to the state with the Tsar being the formal head of both, whereas today the Church is the most powerful non-state actor.

Addressing the Council of Russian Orthodox Bishops in February, Patriarch Kirill called for the active involvement of the Church in all spheres of public life. The Council went as far as to authorise priests to participate in elections to local and federal legislatures, even if only in exceptional cases, “to oppose forces … that attempt to use the vote to fight the Orthodox Church.”

In contrast to his predecessor Alexei II who was mainly concerned with religious affairs, Patriarch Kirill has established himself as a political figure who passes his verdict on everything from a multipolar world to new regulations for technical inspection of motor vehicles. He has consistently entered the list of top 10 most influential Russian politicians compiled by the Russian expert community and is the only non-government official. Some experts have even suggested that the Medvedev-Putin duumvirate is gradually transforming into a triumvirate with Patriarch Kirill.

“Patriarch Kirill is an absolutely independent political figure who is worthy and capable of leading the country,” says political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky. “The only question is when he may be called upon to do this duty.”

Flashing lights on his car and Kremlin bodyguards may be an acknowledgement of Patriarch Kirill's new role.

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