In 2012 Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, famously described Putin’s rule as a ‘miracle of God’ bringing together Church and State in Russia in a way not seen for nearly 100 years.
Fast forward just 7 years and 2019 saw hundreds of Russian Orthodox priests sign a letter, condemning the trial of dozens of protesters under Putin as ‘repressive.’ It was an act of clerical defiance, not sanctioned by the church authorities but not unilaterally condemned by them either. It is the first such act since the days of Father Gleb Yakunin whose letters to the Soviet government and to Patriarch Alexy I, exposing the enormity of religious persecution in Russia drew widespread notice in 1965.
A complex history of intertwinings and separations
Church and State have always been intertwined in Russia: under Tsarism God was inextricably linked to the Tsar. The church’s spiritual position bolstered the Tsar, and in exchange they received position, power and land. However in 1917 when Nichlas II was overthrown, and revolution came, the Bolsheviks, under Lenin, declared that there was to be a separation of church and state within Russia. Lenin and others felt that a Communist regime could not remain neutral on the subject of religion, they had to eradicate it.
The church was caught in the crossfire during the ensuing civil war, and during the first 5 years of Bolshevik rule over 1200 priests plus many more church officials were executed.
This vehement separation of church and state continued, almost uninterrupted until the post war period, after which the Russian Orthodox Church has experienced something of a renaissance and its presence has steadily grown in Russian society.
There are more than 90 million estimated members of the church worldwide, and 3 years ago 71% of the Russian population called themselves Russian Orthodox. This increased presence has led to calls for further definition of the Political Role of the Russian Orthodox Church. Many still believe that the church has a special, historically defined, role to play in both Russia and abroad. Over the past 20 years the church has grown in both stature and power.
The relationship was exemplified last year when Patriarch Krill thanked god and ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich for this (increased) dialogue between church and state’ before going on to say that he believes that the church and state have not had such relations in all the history of Russia. He went so far as to call Church and State ‘equal partners in the face of the government’ – a relationship not seen since the Tsarism, under which the church was considered one of the three pillars of tsarism.
Does this mean that the church should now be viewed in Russia as equal to the government?
In light of this, the statement of Patriarch Kirill led many to believe that the line between church and state was once again becoming blurred, a fact that pleased many. Under Putin the Russian Orthodox church has come to symbolise Moscow’s influence around the world. Indeed Putin himself claims to have deeply orthodox views and set himself up as a ultra-conservative defender of traditional Christian values.
Tensions between believers and religious hierarchy
However recently all this has begun to change. Although the Russian Orthodox church remains in general terms loyal, its relationship with many grass-root believers has become increasingly tense both at home and abroad.
Russia accounts for a third of the world’s Orthodox followers, and has long been regarded as the most powerful group within the faith’s 14 jurisdictions. This preeminence before the fall of Tsarism that made Moscow a pillar of the empire and it is this history that Putin has drawn heavily on as he has sought to build his own Russian state.
He widely publicly and regularly has been seen to seek the advice of church elders, and some would argue most crucially has used religion to highlight divisions between Russia and the ‘immoral’ west, thus bringing together the Russian speaking former soviet states, uniting them under a umbrella of spiritual dominion.
This was an alliance that largely held until 2014 whe Russia moved to annex Crimea, turning Ukranian public opinion decidedly against Putin. His close relationship with the church meant that many felt betrayed by their spiritual leaders.
In 2018 a group of Russian monks, when attempting to enter St Panteleimon, a much beloved Orthodox monastery and site of pilgrimage for Russian pilgrims in Greece, found the gates barred. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople had granted the Ukranian church independence from the Russian Orthodox for the first time in response to, amongst other things, Ukranian growing discontent with Russian foreign policy. Far from being a simple quarrel over out of date church doctrine, this fall out has had serious geopolitical significance. It was a blow that Putin felt so deeply that he convened an emergency council, a testament to just how important Putin deems the church’s influence to be in Russian society.
The Russian Orthodox church protests that the split was illegal, and continues to steadfastly claim that the Patriarch of Moscow still holds jurisdiction in Ukraine, but this is widely viewed as just an example of a growing rift between Orthodoxy as a whole and Putin.
Since then, all has not been well between Putin and his church.
Orthodoxy and Democracy
Last year many Orthodox supporters took part in the pro democracy protests in Moscow, Putin’s harsh crackdown on these protesters, many of whom claimed their faith was the reason for their protest, alienated many within the church. Protestors such as financial advisor Elena Morgunara state that they ‘joined the protests (explicitly) due to my religious beliefs.’ Orthodox protests such as Elena, who feel that their faith gives them a moral obligation to act, are finding themselves increasingly drawn into Putin’s recent crackdown on political opposition.
Unable to tolerate this attack on religious values, last year many religious leaders spoke up in support of these protestors and signed a letter condemning Putin’s oppressive and undemocratic actions.
Many such as the publication Vedomosti and the #RussiaIsATerroristState twitter campaign, welcomed such an act, arguing that it lends credence to their political position amongst believers, given how rare it is for priests to speak out without sanction. It also drew international religious attention with publications such as Catholic Herald, carrying interviews with priests who felt that ‘the church could no longer stay silent on this matter.’
In turn some in Putin’s government then condemned the church for interfering in political matters. It harked, they claimed, back to Tsarism.
This protest though is too little too late for a government that has built its position, in part on its bedrock of Russian Orthodox support. Putin has always focused on the church as a means of unity with his people, to justify expansion and to discredit the influence of the west, consolidating his own position.
It has made Putin popular, but has it made him dependent?
Religious resistance to Putin
Despite this Christian rhetoric, Russian Orthodox resistance to Putin is growing symbolised most powerfully by the conversion of Dmitry Tsorionov. Tsorionov is a man who once led God’s Will, a radically orthodox group who vandalised and attacked blasphemous exhibits or liberal activists. He worked closely with church leaders including Father Vsevlod Chaplin, a former spokesman for Krill himself. He boldly declared in an interview in Moscow that ‘Grotesque propaganda and xenophobia since the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea has made many Russian Orthodox believers realise that our society is heading in the wrong direction, and it is not possible (for the faithful) to identify with such evil’. He has gone further accusing the Kremlin of using religion to manipulate the people and stir up racial hatred. Christ, he claims, wants no part in Putin’s politics, though he does not condemn Putin’s faith, rather he says he is misguided in his view if Putin believes that God sanctions his execution of political opponents and the unfair persecution of his people. Religious opposition to Putin is growing, there can be no doubt of that, but what this means for a government that is so intimately intertwined with the Russian Orthodox church is unclear. Religious protests against Putin were not sanctioned by the church.
Priests who signed the letter have found themselves cast into the wilderness. A Russian Orthodox church court in the Yaroslavl eparchy has issued a 5 year suspension for Father Aleksandr Parfyonov, a signatory on last year’s letter. It is not, the eparchy states, because of this protest that he has been sanctioned, though no other reason was offered.
At the very top, many in the church hope to install Putin as a ‘Tsar’ in all but name. Konstantin Maofeev, a Russian oligarch, who heads a pro-Putin society and has close ties to the Russian Orthodox church, has spoken openly about his support for a new law that would bypass term limits and allow Putin to extend his 20 year rule to at least 2036. Many feel the same way, cherishing the symbiotic relationship that has allowed both the senior church and Putin’s rule to flourish.
For how much longer though will this be the case? Coronovirus has hit both Putin and the church hard, with previously loyal leaders speaking out against the state’s sanctions on worship. Religious persecution under the Soviet Union is still a living memory for some, and the last years events have begun to corrode its trust in the Russian state, with many fearing coronavirus will be used as an excuse to keep the churches shut down, effectively silencing the priests.
Last year saw many prepared to take to the streets, or to the pen to speak out against the rule of Vladimir Putin. How long he can depend on the church’s support, when the pandemic has passed, or what price he will have to pay to keep it, is anybody’s guess.
Cover Photo: Alexey Nikolsky / Sputnik / AFP
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