A story, perhaps apocryphal, made the rounds in Sweden decades ago. A Soviet apparatchik came to political leaders in Stockholm in the 1970s with one desperate question. “How have you managed to do it?” he asked. That is, How have you managed to eradicate religion? Though the Swedes hadn’t exactly eradicated religious faith, no question that Sweden has not been, nor still is, a particularly religious country—a goal that the Bolsheviks had been unable to achieve in the Soviet Union, even with a half century of arrests, executions, and prison terms in the Gulag.
Of course, that was then, this is now, and things are vastly different in the Kremlin now than in the days of the Bolsheviks. Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Putin’s Russia, religion—more specifically, the Russian Orthodox Church—has experienced a resurgence of influence and power, especially as a potent political ally of President Vladimir Putin—supporting him, for instance, in his bombing campaign in Syria, and even giving its endorsement for what church leaders have called a “holy battle.”
What are the implications of this rebirth of the Russian Orthodox Church, and how might its newly restored power upset the delicate balance of religious freedom in a nation that has not, historically, been friendly to minority faiths?
The Great Schism
Most people in the Western world know the presence of the Roman, or Latin Church, and see the resurgence of the Papacy. Most people are aware, too, of various Orthodox churches: Greek, Serbian, Russian, and others. What many don’t realize, however, is that these different churches go back almost a thousand years, the result of what has been called the Great Schism.
Though differences—theological, political, and ecclesiastical—had been simmering in the first millennium of the church, in the eleventh century, after a series of reforms that broadened the authority of the Papacy, the Roman Church became more dictatorial and autocratic. Pope Leo IX, making the claim of direct succession from the apostle Peter, asserted direct jurisdiction over the entire church, East and West. Though the Schism is normally dated to 1054, when Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael I excommunicated each other, the primary cause was this dispute over papal authority.
Theology, though, was involved as well: such as over the insertion of the “filioque clause” into a sentence of the Nicene Creed. The sentence in had originally read: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. Who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” The sentence was later modified in the sixth century to this: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” (The word “filioque” is translated as “of the Son,” hence the name, the “filioque controversy”.) The Eastern churches objected over what they saw not only as an unauthorized change but a theologically suspect one as well. The sack of Constantinople by Western Crusaders also sharpened the East-West divide. The division between the Eastern and Western thus ensued, existing even to this day, despite attempts at reconciliation, mostly from the Roman side of the divide.
The Russian Orthodox Church
According to tradition, Christianity was first introduced to the Russians by the apostle Andrew in the first century A.D. though the fact that Russia was in geographical proximity of the powerful Byzantine Empire no doubt played the major role in Christianizing the Rus’, and by the tenth century Eastern Christianity got a firm foothold in Russia. In the wake of this Christianization, Prince Vladimir I of Kiev officially adopted Byzantine Christianity in 988 C.E.—the religion of the Eastern Roman Empire—as the state religion. Though the church had its ups and downs through the centuries (including the Mongol invasion), with the ascension of Peter the Great to the throne of Russia (1682-1725) the Russian Orthodox Church greatly expanded geographically, reaching Alaska and even California!
In the twentieth century, as the Western cultural, political, and social influences were pervading Czarist Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church became a powerful force for maintaining Russian culture and values against what had been seen as the decadence of the West—a theme at times echoed in the writings of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a fervent nationalist, an adherent to the Russian Orthodox Church, and a vociferous opponent of Roman Catholicism.
As the largest single religious body in Russia, and the most politically and culturally influential, the Russian Orthodox Church had been deemed a great threat to the Bolsheviks. Thus it faced severe persecution during the seven decades of Communist rule. Thousands of clergy were killed, driven into exile, or imprisoned in the Gulags; most churches were closed, and religious education was forbidden. During the World War II, Stalin—looking to use the church to boost morale—allowed a limited revival of church activity, but it was all strictly controlled by the state. However, as the opening illustration of this article reveals, the Soviet regime was never able to repress religious faith fully, despite its best efforts.
Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church
Again, that was then, this is now, and now—under Putin—things have changed. Though a former KBG agent who once called the fall of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” President Putin has apparently had a religious awakening and is now a self-professed Christian and adherent to the Russian Orthodox Church. According to some accounts, the former militant atheist faced some personal crises that caused him to become a Christian. Others argue that it is political expediency—a way for him to help garner the support of the church for his political agenda (à la Saddam Hussein, who in the last day of his regime suddenly put on the trappings of religion in hopes of garnering support). Whatever the motives, Putin appears quite zealous for the faith, seeking to establish some sort of pre-Soviet combination of church and state.
“First and foremost,” Putin has said, “we should be governed by common sense. But common sense should be based on moral principles first. And it is not possible today to have morality separated from religious values.”
He sounds like the late Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson, not a one-time KBG operative. Yet in a society that has been struggling to fill the void left after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the Russian Orthodox Church offers some moral stability to a nation seeking to find its own identity in the brave new post-Soviet world. The Russian Orthodox Church views itself as the spiritual voice and ideological bulwark of the Russian nation, and poll after poll show that the church is one of the most respected institutions in the country.
In 2011 Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, was allowed to move into the Kremlin itself, a powerfully symbolic act that revealed the growing clout of the church (imagine Billy Graham years ago being given official residence at the White House!). Putin has encouraged the church to build a relationship with the armed forces, and it’s now common for orthodox priests to sprinkle Russian space rockets with holy water just before liftoff. The Orthodox Church has even held a religious service in honor of the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons!
“Many people think the church is only clergy, and it should not speak about secular matters, but we have overcome this Soviet legacy,” says Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin. “The church is millions of people, and they have every right to speak about the concerns of society, especially ethical ones like family values, corruption, education policy, abortion, and relations with power. Many priests do speak out about such things these days, and I think that’s a good thing.”
And when they do, it seems the government is listening too. A recent example of its growing power came over the female punk rock band Pussy Riot, which held an irreverent and illicit performance in Moscow’s main cathedral. Outraged at this act of “blasphemy,” the church insisted that the charges be increased from the relatively minor offense of “hooliganism,” to include the sentence-multiplying addition of “with intent to foment religious hatred.” The church prevailed, resulting in three young women doing two years in labor camps.
Another example of the closer ties came with attitude of the Orthodox Church in regard to Russian intervention in Syria. Vsevolod Chaplin, formerly head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s public affairs department, was quoted as saying that “the fight with terrorism is a holy battle, and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it.”
Said an article in Foreign Policy:” With some 70 percent of Russians identifying as Orthodox Christians, the Kremlin has relied on the church — and Chaplin, one of its public faces — to bolster public support for the Syrian war effort. The Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill, a loyal Kremlin ally, also pitched in, praising what he described as Russia’s decision to ‘protect the Syrian people from the woes brought on by the tyranny of terrorists.’ ” Among the arguments is that by fighting against ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups in Syria, the Russians are working to save Christians from persecution. This has to be one of the most ironic of all historical twists that Vladimir Putin, formerly of the Soviet Union, is now being deemed the great defender of the Christian faith.
Religious Freedom in Russia Today
No question: after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all religions, including the Russian Orthodox Church, were allowed freedoms not seen in decades. But that hardly means religious freedom is flourishing in Russia, which, even before the rise of Communism, was hardly friendly to any religious viewpoint other than Russian Orthodoxy. On the contrary, many religions, with the exception of the Russian Orthodox Church, face difficult times in Russia, even today. Hence, a 2015 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom stated: “Amid a sharp increase in human rights abuses, serious violations of freedom of religion or belief continue in Russia.” Among many other issues, the report expressed concern about a 1997 religious law that “sets onerous registration procedures and empowers state officials to impede registration or obstruct the construction or rental of worship buildings.”
Not helping matters is a concept called “canonical territory.” It teaches that the ecclesiastical and authoritative boundaries of the various Orthodox churches coincided with the political divisions: hence, the Serbian, the Croatian, the Armenian, the Russian, and other Orthodox churches, each with domain in their respective countries. The Russian Orthodox Church, both pre- and now post-Soviet, views itself as the only and one true church for Russia itself (though the boundaries remain even now in dispute), and it has never viewed fondly any other faith, including other Orthodox communities, intruding on its territory.
In the past Russians have often been quite xenophobic, and this is a trait being nourished by Putin, especially in dealings with the West. Many see the Russian Orthodox Church as the moral and spiritual bulwark against Western influence, including Western religions (i.e., Roman Catholicism and Protestantism). Historically, the Russian Orthodox Church has not been open to other faiths on Russian soil, and by all indications it’s working aggressively today to maintain hegemony in its “canonical territory.” Though the church itself can’t do anything directly, its ever-growing clout allows it to do what its archnemesis, the Roman Catholic Church, did for centuries in its domains: use the secular power of the state to oppress or even persecute rivals or those deemed “heretics.” Thus, many groups—evangelicals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other “nontraditional faiths” (that is, anything other than Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Russian Orthodox Christians)—face a continuing struggle, as legislation makes it much more difficult for faiths other than the Russian Orthodox Church to live and work in Russia.
What the future holds for religious freedom in Russia remains unknown, especially for any religious body other than the Russian Orthodox Church. For the Russian Orthodox, as long as Putin finds the church useful, the future looks good, or at least better than it does for those not of its fold.
Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.