The Russian Orthodox Church & The State: Schism in the Holy Tandem?

In the Beginning…. There was Pussy Riot

Cast your mind back to February 2012, the 21st to be exact, when five women in neon balaclavas made Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour their stage, took out their electric guitars, and sang a ‘punk prayer’ asking the Virgin Mary to ‘drive Putin away’. Cue outrage from the Russian Orthodox community, with Patriarch Kirill calling for “divine retribution” upon the offenders. He led a day of prayer against the “persecutors” of the Church which attracted around 40,000 attendees. One year later, Putin signed a law criminalising “public actions” aimed at “insulting believers’ religious feelings”.

This should all sound very familiar.

It was in the aftermath of Pussy Riot’s punk prayer that the alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian State entered the Western public consciousness (who could forget Patriarch Kirill calling Putin’s re-election on March 4th 2012 a “miracle of God”?). In August of that year, approximately 50% of Russians believed that the ROC influenced domestic politics.

Since the law came into effect, the number of convictions in its name have not been numerous – Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty lists 8 between 2013 and 2017 – but they have all been relatively high profile, aimed at bolstering support among conservatives (the liberals being a lost cause after Bolotnaya). The case of Ruslan Sokolovsky, convicted for playing Pokemon Go in a church and denying the existence of God, certainly made headlines in the West. This period witnessed a mutually beneficial symbiosis between Church and State, with each deriving influence from the other. Putin, for example, justified the annexation of Crimea by deeming the peninsula to have the same significance to Russia as Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to Christians and Jews.

Fast Forward to September 2019

Bearing all this in mind, it may have seemed jarring that – just three days ago – over 40 Orthodox Priests (from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) signed an open letter calling on the authorities to stop persecuting the defendants charged over the recent Moscow City Duma protests. The jail sentences “look increasingly like the intimidation of Russian citizens rather than a fair ruling against the defendants,” the letter says. During the protests themselves, a Russian priest of Italian origin (known as Hieromonk John) gave sanctuary to protesters fleeing police brutality and repression. ” People come to church and they have the right to be accepted with love — regardless of their political views”, he told independent Russian news outlet Meduza, “it’s good when people know what they want, and are ready to defend what matters to them.”

Even before the summer protests, ROC figures such as Father Roman Ogryzkov (director of the bell centre at Moscow’s Danilov Monastery) and Sergei Chapnin (the former editor of the Moscow Patriarchate’s) openly voiced doubts – and in Chapnin’s case outright opposition – on the Defence Ministry’s plans for a huge cathedral dedicated to the armed forces to be built in Patriot Park.

If There Is a Schism, What’s Behind it? And What Might Its Consequences Be?

We are clearly far from a situation à la Ukraine in which the church openly supports revolutionaries, literally standing in the line of fire to protect them (to find out more about the role of the Church during the Euromaidan, read this Reuters piece or watch the Netflix documentary Winter on Fire). After all, a ROC spokesman deemed the open letter “useless” and that it was “never the mission [of the ROC] to oppose the authorities”.

Nonetheless, these instances of open defiance from the ROC ranks (if not its leadership) are unprecedented, and indicate something of a sea change.

The Relationship Is No Longer Mutually Beneficial

Much has been made this year of the decline in Putin’s much vaunted approval ratings. In January this year, state pollster VTsIOM found that just 33% of Russians had trust in the president, a 13 year low. Since then, the percentage has fallen yet further. Nonetheless, Putin’s overall approval rating remains at 60%. This is undeniably still high in comparison to the ratings of western leaders, but it still represents a decline of 30% from the 2015 post-Crimea peak.

This begs the question: If the ROC originally benefited from allying itself with a popular president, is it now witnessing its own popularity decline along with Putin’s? On September 19th, the Kennan Institute hosted a discussion of the Russian regional elections with Russian political and sociological experts Valeriy Solovey, Ella Paneyakh, and Mikhail Vinogradov. During the panel, Paneyakh made a salient point. The ROC is torn between appealing to two disparate demographics: The approximately 90% of Russians who identify as Orthodox and the small 10% who actually practice the faith. If the ROC continues to ally itself unequivocally with the authorities, it risks alienating the 90% and, with it, its own dominant cultural position. As stated above, the ROC leadership so far remains faithful to the State, but wavering among lower level members highlights this internal struggle.

Perhaps Even…. Genuine Spiritual Qualms?

Beyond the politically pragmatic considerations, it is also – of course – possible that the ROC rank and file may find alliance with the State increasingly at odds with their spiritual beliefs. Patriarch Kirill may claim that pacifists “misinterpret the bible”, but the State’s increasingly militarised ideology (read: Patriot Park cathedral), and police violence against protesters – many of them young – is likely to trouble by the consciences of more than a few ROC priests.

The Ukraine Factor

As always when it comes to any Russian issue, Ukraine is never far away. In the wake of the Euromaidan, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church gained autocephaly, i.e. independence from the ROC in January this year. Through their actions during the Euromaidan, Ukrainian churches undoubtedly increased their standing in public esteem. It would not be far fetched to imagine that members of the ROC are looking across the border, anxious that lay Russians are doing the same and therefore comparing them unfavorably to their Ukrainian counterparts. Might some ROC members want to nip that possibility in the bud by tentatively siding with the protesters? I think it’s possible.

A Weakened State, a Divided Church

So where does this nascent schism between the Russian Church and State leave us? In the case of the former, the tension between those who want to appeal to the largely non-practising 90% and those who want only to appeal to the conservative hardliners (highlighted by Paneyakh) becomes ever more exacerbated. In the case of the latter, the ROC’s faltering support – even if this faltering only effects a minority – can only put a dent in the moral and spiritual legitimacy (and superiority) that it has claimed since 2012. As yet, it is far too early to make any definitive judgement as to the future of Church/State relations. However, with increasing media attention paid to the tensions in their alliance, and the general oppositional mood showing no signs of abating, it is certain that the future path of the holy tandem will be far from smooth.