By Stanisław Obirek
The close relations between Russian politicians and the Russian Orthodox Church, and the support from the Church for current political policies, is evident to everyone who observes the Russian media. It is hard to understand this connection, after so many years during which the Orthodox Church was cut off from the public sphere. A possible explanation of this union could be that there is a desire to enhance the religious image of Russia as a Holy Land of Orthodoxy, while sustaining the old vision of Russia as a political empire—the third Rome.
The relationship between the state and the Orthodox Church might seem even odder when one considers that it was the KGB (and we shouldn’t forget that Vladimir Putin was a part of that organization) which led the persecution of the Church in Soviet times, when priests were regularly jailed, tortured, and executed. Neither this nor the accusation that Putin is restoring many of the attributes of the old Soviet regime seems to bother the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II, nor does it seem to bother the nation’s citizens: the number of Russians who identify themselves as Orthodox has doubled in the past decade, with two-thirds of the 140 million population proclaiming faith—quite an achievement after seven decades of official atheism.
It seems to me that many Russians follow Orthodoxy for national rather than religious reasons, a kind of returning of the old, nineteenth-century messianic movement of the Russian Orthodox Church. Maria Bobrownicka, a Polish scholar from Kraków, indicates that “soviet messianism is not so different from the religious messianism of the Orthodox Slavophile from the previous century. It is more a continuation, although of a different cloth. Mission, imperial expansion, anti-Europeanism—all this already existed.”1
Using the terminology of the political scientist Bassam Tibi, we now see in Russia a case of classical politicization of religion and religionization of politics. This concept, elaborated in the context of politicized Islam, can also be used in cases of politicized Christianity. Tibi’s definition of Islamism is that “[i]ts strength lies in its ability to draw on an ideology rooted not only in a real religious faith but also that has assumed an intensely politicised expression. This process is referred to here with the term the ‘religionisation of politics’, a neologism that, though hardly mellifluous, is needed to distinguish political religions that emanate from the politicisation of religion from those which are sacralised forms of secular politics, such as fascism or communism. The religionisation of politics by jihadists, their extensive use of religious formulae and terms to articulate a political agenda, and their presentation of this strategy as a divine mission, result from the politicisation of Islam into Islamism.”2
One example of the politicization of religion could be observed when Kosovo was born as a new state. The Serbian Orthodox Church was the main supporter of the Serbian protest against the separation of Kosovo from Serbia for religious reasons, and it found support from Russian politicians and the Russian Orthodox Church. For example, President Dmitri Medvedev said that Kosovo’s self-styled independence “absolutely” violates international rules. The ties between the Orthodox Churches of Serbia and Russia remain strong—a point Medvedev highlighted when he joined the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, for a visit to St. Sava Temple, the biggest Orthodox Christian church in the Balkans.
Clifford J. Levy describes the situation in Russia: “Over the past eight years, in the name of reviving Russia after the tumult of the 1990s, Mr. Putin has waged an unforgiving campaign to clamp down on democracy and extend control over the government and large swaths of the economy. He has suppressed the independent news media, nationalized important industries, smothered the political opposition and readily deployed the security services to carry out the Kremlin’s wishes.”3
Putin clearly intends to control Russian policymaking. Even after the presidential election on March 2, 2008, he said: “The president is the guarantor of the Constitution. He sets the main directions for internal and external policies. But the highest executive power in the country is the Russian government, led by the premier.”4
In spite of this antidemocratic attitude, Putin is one of the most popular politicians in Russia. Sergei Kovalev, Russian human rights activist and politician—and one of the harshest critics of Putin’s Russia—believes Putin is “the most sinister figure in contemporary Russian history,” who “has in effect created a myth of the imperial state—a myth derived from elements of pre-revolutionary Russian history and the Soviet past—that serves as a substitute for historical memory. There was a demand for such a surrogate myth and he met it, thus connecting his own regime with longstanding Russian traditions of authoritarian rule. His popularity owes a good deal to it.”5
This myth draws on the Byzantine model of succession, in which the retiring ruler decides who will be his successor, and elections are only a façade. Putin did not invent an authoritarian way of ruling; the ideological ingredients of Putinism existed in the consciousness of part of the population long before Putin’s rule. His “team” simply transformed them into usable modern propaganda and aggressively rebroadcast them to the whole country. It appears that this propaganda campaign has been successful—particularly among young people.6 Members of the political elite are profoundly attached to the idea of their immutable dominance. But infusing the values of the imperial state into the public mind is only an intermediate goal for the Russian political establishment. The main goal is to entirely eliminate European mechanisms of power transfer—a real democratic election—in Russia and to consolidate the Byzantine model of succession.
Putin’s successor, Medvedev, has presented himself as a sensitive politician aware of the social and economic problems facing the Russian people, and has offered a program that has a social-democratic character in the “good old” Western style. He is not afraid to speak of the tragic aspects of the present situation in Russia, suggesting that part of the population is still living in a social coma, and that this is one of the causes of alcoholism and a suicide rate that still remains very high. Medvedev has repeatedly underlined that the focus of social policy should not be on particular sectors within the social sphere but on each citizen and each family, and it is around these families and individuals that health care, education, and social support systems must be built. How his proposed program is implemented deserves careful observation.
Perhaps Russia is in danger of remaining a paternalistic society unable to function according to civic standards. This would explain why “the strong man Putin” is so popular. Alla Glinchikova, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, notes: “paternalistic consciousness rejects the civic state at a very deep level and can follow its instructions only under the threat of punishment. Furthermore, the less state behavior is civic, the more legitimate it is for paternalistic society.”7 When asked about the role of the Orthodox Church in post-communist Russia, Glinchikova explains, “The political ‘games’ with the Church are not occasional and not just ‘facade.’ The regimes, which were developed after socialism, are not civil still and, therefore, they need some ‘ideology’ to get legitimacy in the face of society. Communism is dead, that is why they come back to religion. But religion as an ideology is not religion anymore.”
Glinchikova also draws attention to the negative influence of the free market and the way it was introduced into Russia, particularly to the ambiguity of the presence of Western business. “The West’s businessmen who rushed to our countries preferred to use and develop the criminal habits of our post-communist bureaucracy, and enjoy the paternalistic climate of our post-communist permissiveness, rather than introduce their ‘Western’ democratic tradition of ‘rights and freedoms.’ It is really difficult to determine which elite was the motor of post-communist corruption.”8
It is clear that the ambiguous situation with regard to religion and politics in Russia has many “fathers.” It seems to me that similar tendencies can be observed in other countries, not only in Russia, as aspects of economic globalization, where religion serves as a shelter in an unstable and uncertain time of transition and tends to correlate with national identity. At the same time, this kind of religion can become a prison, making people unable to find a way to live in a pluralistic society.
- Maria Bobrownicka, Patologie tożsamości narodowej w postkomunistycznych krajach słowiańskich [Pathologies of national identities in post-communist slavonic countries] (Krakow 2006), 121; my translation.
- Bassam Tibi, “The Totalitarianism of Jihadist Islamism and Its Challenge to Europe and to Islam,” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religion 8, no. 1 (March 2007): 35.
- “Kremlin Rules. Putin’s Iron Grip on Russia Suffocates His Opponents,” The New York Times, February 24, 2008.
- C.J. Chivers, “President Putin Talks of the Future as Premier,” The New York Times, February 14, 2008.
- Sergei Kovalev, “Why Putin Wins,” The New York Review of Books 54, no. 18 (November 22, 2007).
- Steven Lee Myers, “Youth Groups Created by Kremlin Serve Putin’s Cause,” The New York Times, July 8, 2007.
- Alla G. Glinchikova, “The Challenges for Global Civil Society in a ‘Post-Communist’ World,” Development Dialogue 49 (November 2007): 119-128, 123.
- Ibid., 120.
Stanisław Obirek, a former Jesuit priest, is currently a professor at Łódź University in the Department of American Studies and Mass Media, and is part of the faculty of International and Political Studies. His most recent book is Religion: A Shelter or a Prison?.