Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Russia Becoming a Theocracy?

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This weekend the Russian Orthodox Church held its Bishops Council at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

In his speech to the assembly, president Putin said that, of course, Russia is not a theocracy but:

“We are a secular state of course, and cannot allow state life and church life to merge” he continued, “but at the same time, we must avoid too, a vulgar and primitive interpretation of what being secular means.

“Traditional values, believers’ religious feelings, and people’s rights, freedoms, and dignity must all be protected by both the power of public opinion and the power of the law,” Putin said.

He also said that the Russian Orthodox Church and other traditional religions of Russia must be involved in “important areas such as supporting families and mothers, raising and educating children, youth policy, resolving the many social problems we still face, and strengthening patriotic spirit in the Armed Forces.”

The social conservatism inherent in having the Church play a greater role in family life (with “fathers” notably absent from the equation), schooling and, somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, the war machine, is nothing new. But, while the Russian state has actively promoted the Church since the early Yeltsin years, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the statement was the legal element.

Putin’s statement confirmed that some of the most bizarre parts of the prosecution’s case against members of Pussy Riot — namely that their actions contravened medieval church law — may not have been the surreal aberration they seemed at the time.

In fact, the following day, Patriarch Kirill also spoke in favor of giving legal weight to religious doctrines.

Russian news sources reported that Kirill “backed the idea of criminal prosecution for blasphemy similar the Pussy Riot’s punk performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral”; he was quoted as saying that

“The law must protect not only symbols of secular importance, but also objects with sacred meaning for the believers and guard their religious feelings from insults.”

The Russian Orthodox Church has been in the news these days. Last weekend, the Financial Times published a long profile of Father Tikhon Shevkunov, who is said to be Putin’s personal confessor; while the latest issue of the Economist reviews a new history of religion after the fall of communism.

The FT noted the paradox that, while “only a small minority of Russians attend church regularly” the ROC has become one of  the country’s most trusted institutions. Geraldine Fegan, author of the book reviewed in the Economist, was quoted as saying that “Putin wants to capitalise on Orthodoxy’s image of permanence, even as his own legitimacy crumbles.”

Certainly, there is an intimate relationship between the church, the Kremlin and big money. After all, Yeltsin financed the church, in part by granting it the right to import and sell tax free cigarettes) while the most avid sponsors of new houses of worship over the past 20 years have been oligarchs. And many senior members of the church hierarchy have themselves become quasi-oligarchs, driving expensive supercars, wearing Swiss watches and living in multimillion dollar apartments. Today, it has become very fashionable among the megarich to have their own personal confessors — the latest badge of elite status.

However, while we know that the church, state and the army have refashioned the old tsarist three-legged stool, it is much harder to see which of them wields the most power in the equation.

In short, is Putin using the church, or is the church using Putin?

As the embrace between them becomes ever closer, the key power struggle to come may no longer be between the Kremlin and the liberals, but rather Putin and his Patriarchate.



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs