Your average Russian is becoming more religious, and it matters. The Russian Orthodox Church is not only touting an increasingly devoted following, but is also reclaiming its role in Russian society and politics. The gay propaganda law and the general Russian scorn over the Pussy Riot debacle are both snapshots of an overarching truth: the separation between church and state in Russia is getting blurrier by the day. Though the Russian Constitution stipulates the separation of state and church in the document’s Article 14, the church is increasingly becoming an “instrument of state policy.” The Russian Orthodox Church has become so important that it is necessary to keep it in mind, even when discussing Russia’s international affairs. This new spirituality, coupled with the clergy’s more hands-on approach to politics, should be part of the framework in which we understand Putin’s dream of righting the wrongs of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Today, the Russian Orthodox Church counts 165 million people in its flock. Going through a post-perestroika renaissance, it has managed to attract a far wider segment of the population. Whereas church going was an activity reserved for the elderly few before (the stereotype is a hunching and head-scarfed babushka), the middle-aged middle class is now crowding to the Russian churches. The socioeconomic insecurity and danger of the 1990s drew crowds of Russians toward the dwindling institution, reestablishing the central role of the Orthodox Church in Russian society and politics. Ever since, the Church has enjoyed a growing influence and relevance in Russian culture that hark back to the Russian imperial era. The Church’s political influence has been on the rise since Boris Yeltsin signed a bill that gave the Russian Orthodox Church priority over other Russian religious institutions in 1997. In 1996, the then-incumbent patriarch in Moscow (the head of the Orthodox Church) weighed in on the upcoming elections, stating that “in this fateful time for Russia, President Boris Yeltsin has played a great role in uniting the people,” and that “If the old regime comes back to power, the country will suffer new tremors.” Considering that Yeltsin’s main opponent at the time was a communist, the Church was already then stretching the limits of a law signed in the spring of 1996, which prohibited clergy from weighing in on political matters. The Orthodox Church made no secret of their commitment to Yeltsin (which was perhaps more understandable given the generally negative attitude of communists toward the Church). After the Church gave Yeltsin its approval, he elevated its relationship with the Russian state. In a sense, Putin’s relationship with the Church has fit into a pattern already established by Yeltsin. Kirill and Putin’s relationship can also be understood in these reciprocal terms; one cannot function fully without the other.
The role of the Russian church is increasingly dependent on the personal ties between its leader, Patriarch Kirill, and the leader of the Russian state, Vladimir Putin. The Patriarch has called Putin a “miracle from God,” who rectified the “crooked path of history.” Some connect this sort of statement to the traditional imperial Russian tradition of power, where “power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.” Putin’s role at the head of the Russian government is thus validated by his close relationship to the patriarch and to God. The patriarch, on the other hand, needs Putin in order to continue to exercise his power. The collaboration works because both sides have something to gain from the partnership – legitimacy and political clout. The Russian Church is fully aware of the political game at play. Far from scorning partisan ties, its establishment has embraced the Kremlin as a way to prod Russians back into church. In fact, Patriarch Kirill was granted residence in the Kremlin in 2011, after he supported Vladimir Putin’s bid for a third term in office. This restores the church to the offices it occupied before the 1917 revolution.The socioeconomic insecurity and danger of the 1990s drew crowds of Russians toward the dwindling institution, reestablishing the central role of the Orthodox Church in Russian society and politics. Ever since, the Church has enjoyed a growing influence and relevance in Russian culture that hark back to the Russian imperial era.
The Church has also helped Putin consolidate a conservative voice as a counterweight to the liberals that spurred the 2011 and 2012 protests. The laws introduced, condemning everything from gay propaganda to largely unspecified “blasphemy”, have Putin reveling in conservative support. The infamous performance by Pussy Riot was meant to create awareness of this excessively cozy Church-State relationship, though the foreign public focused more on how the story reflected Russia’s legal system and human rights abuses. The group issued a statement in which they criticized the church as a “weapon in a dirty election campaign.” In an increasingly pious Russia, though, such a view was largely labeled as elitist and Western-leaning. The fact that the group failed to garner the same support within Russia as abroad needs to be seen in the context of a growing conservative attitude; recent polls show that 74% of Russians consider themselves part of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Church also has a growing presence internationally, especially in the countries that border Russia. As Crimea was being annexed, for example, the patriarch said that an “internal political crisis” in Ukraine was threatening its territorial integrity. The patriarch echoed Putin’s assertion that the acts in Crimea were essentially acts of self-defense by marginalized Russian-speaking communities. On February 26, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Patriarch released statements condemning attacks on monasteries in Kiev and Pochayiv, reaffirming Moscow’s religious clout in Ukrainian communities. Because state and church are so tight-knit in Russia, a consolidation of religious power across borders is strengthening Russia’s grasp of its neighbors. Patriarch Kirill’s formal title is the “Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus,” which refers to the early Russian empire that had its capital in Kiev. In essence, Putin has found that religious ties are the most obvious way to recreate a Russian sphere of influence.
Kirill’s resonance with Putin’s policies goes far beyond the Orthodox Russian cultural sphere. The church and the Kremlin were also aligned on Syria, with the patriarch meeting with Bashar al-Assad in 2012, “praising Syria’s treatment of Christians and making no mention of the mounting death toll.” The Church now strongly opposes intervention in Syria, following the lead of the Putin administration. The Orthodox Church echoing Kremlin doctrine is far from uncommon, and underlines the oft-overlooked geopolitical importance of the Russian Orthodox Church. The patriarch has had talks with many heads of religion in neighboring countries, among them the Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II. Andrei Zolotov Jr., the chief editor of Russia Profile, justly told the New York Times that “Someone once said George Soros was the only American citizen who has his own foreign policy, well, the Moscow patriarchate is the only Russian entity with its own foreign policy.”
Ultimately, the consolidation of the Russian Orthodox Church could be a precursor to Putin’s attempts to consolidate the former Soviet space. As a political tool, religion is unique in that it transcends borders with far less international scrutiny. The church and Kirill may therefore be an underestimated and underappreciated tool for Putin’s more expansionary dreams. It could also serve as a way to advocate for interference, as it has increasingly done in Ukraine. What is left to be seen is whether Russians Orthodox congregants will continue to listen.