Friends with Benefits: Orthodoxy and the Russian Government

While banned for decades under Communist rule, Russian Orthodoxy has been making a remarkable resurgence in Russia, becoming the largest religion in the country with over 30% of the population identified as practicing. This new growth has not happened entirely by accident, but rather through a close relationship with the state, with which it has become increasingly engaged. While Russia constitutionally has no official state religion, it has gifted millions of rubles of tax money to the church. Similarly, the church has favoured the government (specifically President Vladimir Putin) in much of its teachings. This increased connection between the largest religion in Russia and the state begs the question: is there any separation between church and state in Russia?

Image courtesy of I. Maksim, © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of I. Maksim, © 2008, some rights reserved.

During the Communist Era, religion was all but outlawed. While people were not banned from practicing in their own homes, religious schools and churches were shut down and their land was confiscated by the state, believers were ridiculed and harassed in public forums, and atheism was forced on students in schools as opposed to religious-based philosophies or mentalities. This drove many religious communities either out of Russia, or else underground, afraid to show themselves lest they be perceived as enemies of the regime. Consequently, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a concerted effort by then President Mikhail Gorbachev to allow a religious resurgence, opening the new Republic of Russia to religious tolerance and freedom with laws passed during his presidency.

However, since then, Russia has been taking huge steps back. The addendum to Gorbachev’s reforms, dubbed the “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” passed in 1997, was forced onto President Yeltsin with the intention of pushing many of the new religious organizations (most of them with ties to the West) out of Russia. The law codified a very stringent definition of religion, pushing less hierarchical religious groups or religiously funded organizations out of the country and clearing the way for more traditional religious organizations, most notably the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian government also passed laws claiming Russian Orthodoxy to be an essential part of Russian cultural identity, gifting back most of the land confiscated during the Soviet era and donating billions of rubles to the reconstruction of churches, as well as a massive building program in the city of Moscow dubbed the “200 Churches project,” which funnels billions of rubles into the construction of 200 churches on land provided to the Orthodox church for free.

With this increased generosity by the Russian government has come greater endorsement, both publically and spiritually, from the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. Publically, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church, Kirill I, has endorsed the political elites of Russia, going so far as to claim Putin’s government a “gift from God.” The church has also endorsed much of the government’s activities, rallying support from its constituents around government programs and projects.

This relationship between the Church and the state is not just beneficial to the state. In recent years, a new brand of conservatism has been seen in both municipal and national governments stemming in part from the close ties between the state and Russian Orthodox teachings, which are some of the most conservative and dogmatic of all Christian traditions. Protesting the church is considered by the state to be “hooliganism,” and is prosecuted as a criminal offense, such as the case of the members of  “Pussy Riot,” a female punk rock collective that was arrested in February 2012 for staging a demonstration in the central Russian Orthodox cathedral with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.” Three of the group were arrested and imprisoned amidst huge protest that their actions “ threatened the moral foundations of Russia,” and that they “got what they deserved[1]

The church has also influenced Russian policy on gender equality. While there have been multiple anti-gender discrimination acts passed by the national government, a single federal law preventing it has yet to be seen. Recently, the Minister of Health and Social Development, Tatiana Golikova, proposed a bill that would finally codify gender-equality into law, and was met with scepticism and resistance by the legislative body.

However, the most recent example of the close ties between church and state is the domestically uncontroversial “gay propaganda” bill currently on the floor of the Duma. The law charges with up to a 500,000 ruble fine on any expression of what has come to be termed as ‘gay propaganda.’ The law defines “gay propaganda” as “the targeted and uncontrolled dissemination of generally accessible information capable of harming the health and moral and spiritual development of minors,” particularly that which could create “a distorted impression” of “marital relations.” The law implies that homosexuals are a danger to children, and should be kept far away from young populations, implicitly banning the right of homosexual couples to adopt. The Duma, Russia’s legislative body, voted 338 to 1 for the bill, which requires two more readings, with one member of the ruling United Russia party justifying his “yes” vote by saying: “We live in Russia, not Sodom and Gomorrah.”

What is truly terrifying is that, much like Russia’s president, the Orthodox Church has a massive amount of support in Russia.  Polls conducted by the Levada Center in the aftermath of the Pussy Riot arrests and trial showed that only 6% of Russian citizens sympathized with the band’s plight, whilst 51% felt antipathy towards them. Similarly, a 2010 poll found that 74% of Russians deemed gays and lesbians “morally dissolute or deficient.” The lack of a gender equality law can be seen in the statistics that over 36,000 women are abused in Russia every day by a husband or boyfriend, with 12,000 dying every year.[2]

There is nothing wrong with religion influencing policy – it occurs on a daily basis around the world. Religion in any form helps to structure personal ideology and perspective and helps politicos make decisions. However, when religion is co-opted by the state or vice versa as a means of political and personal control, then it becomes not an avenue for spiritual salvation, but another tool of control and dominance. It cheapens an organization rich in cultural and spiritual history, and turns it into just another tool of a regime thought by many to be a harkening back to communist days.

[1] Statement made by Vladimir Putin to the Associated Press

[2] Figures according to Amnesty International’s 2011 research

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