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De facto State Church

The Orthodox Church in today's Russia


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 1/2012, P. 43-47
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Russian Orthodox Church benefits from the "Putin system". It will probably remain a decisive factor for Russia also after the parliamentary elections of December 2011. The church regards itself as a national institution which maintains close ties to the state. The state in turn functionalized the Orthodox Church as a moral authority, in order to stabilize the country.


On 4 December 2011, Russia (officially: "Russian Federation") has elected a new parliament (Duma). In accordance with the Decree of 30 December 2008 its term of office will be no longer four but five years. According to surveys, the party of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "United Russia" would probably win about 60 percent of the votes. As is well known, with nearly 50 percent of the votes "United Russia" has despite worst ballot rigging lost almost 15 percent - compared with 2007. The Communists won impressive 19 percent (2007: 11.6 percent), "Fair Russia" 13.2 percent (2007: 7.7 percent), and the right-wing "Liberal Democrats" 11.7 percent (2007: 8.1 percent).

On the evening of election day, the disappointment of Medvedev and Putin was perceptible. "United Russia" can admittedly continue to govern unchallenged. And this party will probably also from 2012 to 2018 again provide the president of the Russian Federation (for the first time he will be elected not for four, but for six years). However, after the Duma elections and after the subsequent persistent demonstrations surprises cannot be entirely excluded.

The West has increasingly major reservations about Putin, and even in Russia his totalitarian behaviour meets with growing opposition. The presidential elections on 4 March 2012 will show whether his aura is still unbroken in wide circles of the population. In any case, many people still see Putin as the savior of the nation. It is unforgotten that he has given jobs to the widely impoverished population and gained worldwide respect again for the humbled land, which at the end of the nineties was almost bankrupt - as a result of the mafia privatization of economy under Boris Yeltsin. Putin gave their pride back to the Russians. That's why many people overlook totalitarian trends: Russia needs exactly a hard hand.

Already four years ago realists feared what now occurs: When the term of office of his successor has expired, Putin will strive again for this office. Putin was president for two terms (2000-2004, 2004-2008), but since the Constitution provides only two consecutive terms for the same person, he was not allowed to compete in the 2008 presidential election. His party colleague and protégée Dmitry Medvedev was elected president, who in turn appointed Putin as prime minister. Medvedev continued to be Putin's puppet, despite all attempts to demonstrate independence.



The fragmented opposition criticizes Putin for his authoritarian style, and speaks of a "horror scenario" (Boris Nemtsov, Vice-Prime Minister 1993-1998) as regards the swap od the two offices. Under Putin's leadership the country would inevitably collapse (Mikhail Kasyanov, Prime Minister 2000-2004). The swap of these offices reminded of darkest communist times, when the politically most important government offices were negotiated within the leadership of the CPSU.

The swap of offices was nevertheless welcomed by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin. He is head of the "Department for Relations between Church and Society" of the Holy Synod and thus an important representative of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). He contradicted the critics and said that it is a genuine example of kindness and integrity in politics. The transfer of office happens thus in a "peaceful, dignified, honest, friendly way." Political competition is indeed important - but not if it concerns a good man like Putin. The Church must not interfere in the architecture of power. It is not the task of the church to advise politicians about who has to be appointed to what position - and in what way this has to be done. The church fundamentally differs from a political opposition party, because its main goal is peace and dignity of the country.


The Church Welcomes the Swap of Offices

With his defense of this dubious swap of offices, Archpriest Chaplin got scorn and derision in opposition circles: Medvedev and Putin had probably not consulted the ROC - does the state no longer need the church?

Chaplin's sharp justification of this switch of roles, which had been arranged by the two powerful men, so to speak, in a quiet chamber, characterizes the position of the ROC in post-Soviet Russia. Its support even for dubious actions of the political leadership raises the question of what attitude towards the state the ROC in Russia's history and present time basically adopts, what status it actually has within the state. The issue at stake is ultimately whether the ROC is a state church.

Representatives of the ROC fight vehemently against the assumption that it was a state church - and this with reference to history: Since 1721 the church has suffered under its status as established church, when Tsar Peter the Great (1682-1725) abolished the patriarchate and equated the new collective governing body, the "Holy Synod" with a State Ministry (its head was a senior civil servant in the status of laity, the "Chief Procurator"). The ROC was trapped in the "golden cage" of an established church; it has enjoyed many privileges but was in all respects dependent on the pious tsar and the government - not least financially. The ROC had gradually diverged from its spiritual base and from society and, vice versa, became as state church estranged from the faithful. This has spiritually damaged the church. The small resistance of the Orthodox masses against the spread of atheism by the Bolsheviks shows that the ROC had no longer widespread support among the population.


The Orthodox Church under Communism

Lenin and the Bolsheviks set out to bring the "blessings" of communism to the Russian people, and to eliminate the Tsardom. The Bolsheviks regarded the Orthodox Church as the most dangerous opponent. It was necessary to destroy the church, in order to liberate the uneducated pious people from the "opium of religion". At the end of the thirties, the Bolsheviks had almost reached this goal - by using most brutal violence. The ROC could admittedly still elect a patriarch before the October Revolution of 1917, but after his death in 1925 the Soviet power has not allowed the election of a successor. During the great terror under Stalin (1936-1938), most bishops and priests were arrested, tortured or murdered in gulags. The institution of the church was virtually destroyed, while the church of believers survived in the underground.

When on 22 June 1941 the German armies invaded the Soviet Union, the still reigning metropolitans supported "Generalissimo Stalin" to the best of their ability. They called upon the faithful to defend the Soviet homeland, glorified Stalin as a "noble leader of the Russian people", arranged huge church collections for the Red Army. In the hour of greatest danger, Stalin made use of the potential of the ROC and recognized it in September 1943 as an institution. Only a remote corner in the Soviet society was conceded to the now "state-licensed church". The Soviet government determined its radius: Patriarchs and bishops were de facto appointed by the "Council for Religious Affairs". It controlled and directed the entire - also inner - life of the ROC with the help of a sophisticated spy network. Here the special type of a Communist state church developed: with its help an antireligious regime tried to strangle religion by systematic oppression of the churches and their ministers, as well as by physical persecution of the faithful.

With the help of "perestroika" Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to create a "socialism with a human face". He loosened state control over the church and allowed the restitution of churches and monasteries which were used for other purposes, and approved of the opening of seminaries. The religious laws enforced under "Gorby" in 1990 breathe the spirit of religious freedom. True separation of church and state has been promised.



After the end of the Soviet Union (25 December 1991), the ROC was a sought-after partner for politicians of every hue. Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin had to stand for election and re-election by the citizens of the Russian Federation, and wanted to use for this purpose the potential of Orthodox voters: They sought the support of the ROC. Patriarch Alexy II (1990-2008) knew how to use this politically delicate situation for his church. In 1997, the self-assurance of the ROC was considerably strengthened by the revised version of Gorbachev's religious laws of 1990. They had legally equated the ROC, the former People's Church, with other religious communities (Christian and non-Christian). After years of pressure from the ROC and patriotic circles, President Yeltsin signed in 1997 a new law on religion. In its preamble the ROC is referred to as "first religion" in the country, because of its central importance for history and culture of Russia. The law of 1997 grants only an inferior legal status to some of the other religious communities.


The Orthodox Church Willingly Discharges its Duties

In the nineties, the ROC got back tens of thousands of churches and hundreds of monasteries that had been closed by the Soviets. The State contributed financially to the reconstruction of the often dilapidated buildings, which had been used for other purposes. Dozens of theological schools were admitted, and bishops and priests are now in the ROC consecrated independently of the state. Since 1994, Orthodox clergymen are allowed to work in the army as chaplains - like in the days of the Tsars. It is also symptomatic that the ROC, despite alleged separation of church and state, often receives "administrative assistance" from the state. Thus, Catholic priests and nuns from Poland were (certainly on the insistence of the ROC) expelled from the country with the help of government authorities. Sometimes also non-Orthodox churches are handed over by the state to the ROC, as e.g. former Lutheran and Catholic churches in the Russian East Prussia.

After the collapse of communism, Boris Yeltsin has atmospherically adjusted the relations between state and Orthodoxy. But the systematic integration of the Church in public life goes back to Vladimir Putin. When he in August 1999 was appointed Prime Minister by President Yeltsin, he immediately "outed" himself as Orthodox Christian. In order to give his protégée Putin the advantage of incumbency, Yeltsin appointed him 'executive president'. But the Russian Constitution does not at all provide for such an office. Putin's swearing in (31 December 1999) imparts an idea of Yeltsin's and Putin's understanding of the relationship between state and Orthodoxy: Yeltsin used the head of the ROC in order to cover up his unconstitutional action. At the behest of Yeltsin Patriarch Alexy gave his patriarchal blessing to the "executive president' in the Kremlin. This had filled him with pride, Alexy said later.

Under Boris Yeltsin, the religious persecution came to an end. But Vladimir Putin got the ROC a (at least outwardly) prominent position, which it enjoys today. The ROC is very grateful to him for this. Putin is for it the guarantor that communism with its religious persecution will not return. And not only for Orthodox Christians but also for the majority of the population Putin is a guarantee of stability, prosperity and prestige of the "Russian Federation". That's why the church leadership regards the almost unconditional support of the Russian president, especially of Putin, as its safest survival strategy. Patriarchs and bishops feel flattered when Putin, Medvedev (now also baptized in the Orthodox Church) and other state officials gladly appear with them in the public, participate in media-effective Orthodox divine services, and visit the Patriarch.

Orthodox hierarchs bless government buildings, battalions, state carriages, warships, bombers, even nuclear weapons, and love it to be escorted by elite units of the army. For years the Russian leadership has been placing reliance upon the former People's Church. It is supposed to make an important contribution to the moral recovery of Russia and as a moral institution help to solve the social problems, in short, to stabilize the post-Soviet Russia. The ROC gladly complies with its obligations.

With the collapse of communism, the ideology which had determined the life of Soviet citizens for decades turned out to be an illusion. The resulting human uncertainty accelerated the moral decline in the crumbling Soviet state. A catchy state ideology should now provide the citizens with a new vision, new perspectives. For this purpose Putin reactivated the in the Russian people deeply rooted patriotism, which had already been the ideological basis of the Tsarist Empire and since 1936 also of the Soviet Union.

In 1999 he quite purposefully re-ignited the already "sleeping" Chechen War: The controlled media systematically built up a Chechen enemy stereotype and praised the heroic struggle of the Russion "warriors" and their victories. What mattered was Russian patriotism and heroism. Patriarch Alexy allowed to be roped in for Putin's propaganda campaign and discriminated the Chechens as "terrorists and bandits" (Pastoral Letter of 12 November 1999). He awarded soldiers who had distinguished themselves in the Chechen war ecclesiastical decorations - quite in line with Putin.

In his old-new state ideology of the "Great-Russian patriotism with Orthodox core," the ROC regained its traditional, central place, as in the state ideology of the tsarist empire ("autocracy, Orthodoxy, national traditions").



Putin sees "his" Russia as successor of the Tsarist Empire: The Soviet regime had admittedly interrupted the state continuity of the Russian empire for 75 years - but the Orthodoxy Church was the bridge between czardom and "Russian Federation". And the Orthodox Church, which he, Putin, reinstated in its rights, serves him as a legitimization of his Great-Russian ambitions.

In this context it is understandable that the canonization of the "Martyr Tsar" Tsar Nikolai Romanov, II., who on 18 July 1918 had been murdered together with his family by the Bolsheviks, had the special interest of Putin. But first he had to overcome the resistances of the bishops, who were still entangled in Soviet thinking patterns, because the relevant part of them initially disapproved of the canonization of the Tsar. In the nineties, there had been highly controversial discussions about it. Patriarch Alexy, e.g., had as it were programmatically not participated in the burial (18 July 1998) of the in 1991 discovered bones of the murdered Romanovs, and had also prohibited his bishops to do it.

In early 2000 the bishops then took a turn, undoubtedly due to Putin's pressure. During the year, most bishops were brought into line with the canonization policy. However, large parts of the priesthood and laity still opposed the canonization of the Romanovs. That's why a for August 2000 scheduled Local Council was cancelled without further ado. It was supposed to decide in favour of the canonization of hundreds of "New Martyrs" (including the murdered Romanovs). But it is impossible to steer reliably a council with at least 600 participants (the majority of them lay persons) - with regard to the canonization of the Romanovs, which was now sought by the Church leadership. Instead of the Local Council a council of bishops was convened, which can be controlled more easily. On 14 August 2000, it decided in favour of the canonization of 860 "new martyrs" from the Soviet era, among them as "witnesses of faith" the "Martyr Tsar" and his relatives.

Putin similarly resolutely accomplished the union of the ROC with its "hostile sister" in exile, the "Russian Orthodox Church Abroad". Both churches had insulted each other for eight decades ("Imperialist lackeys" resp. "Soviet Church"). But in 2001 Putin announced that "every Orthodox church parish abroad with Russian roots must become a representation of the Russian Federation in the world." The "Church Abroad" had an important place in the concept of his great power ambitions: Its approximately 350 parishes ought to serve as an outpost of Vladimir Putin's Russia.

But as the ROC resorted to delaying tactics, Putin made the unification of the two churches a "matter for the boss".



After secret negotiations, he quite unexpectedly met the bishops of the Church Abroad in New York (24 September 2003), exchanged with them icons and brotherly kisses, and thanked them that the Church Abroad had since 85 years upheld the Russian traditions in the Diaspora and maintained the ecclesiastical sites. Now, the ROC had to fall into line with Putin's course. The solemn unification of the "enemy sisters" took place on 17 May 2007 in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral - with Putin as the main figure.

Medvedev continued this policy of generous gestures to the ROC on the one hand, and on the other hand of its exploitation. He participates in church events, and maintains confidential dealings with the hierarchs. In what way the dual leadership Medvedev and Putin decide ecclesiastical questions according to their ideas of state policy becomes currently particularly manifest in view of the Russian Orthodox Diaspora: depending on Putin's concept, it must serve both the Russian Federation and the ROC. Founded in 2007, Putin's Foundation "Russian world" has exactly this objective. It is supposed to help to increase the political influence of Russia on the one hand, on the other hand globally to propagate as value system the conservative moral code of the ROC as an alternative to the "liberal decadent West."

After the integration of the Church Abroad into the ROC, the Moscow leadership and the ROC are now apparently pursuing the goal to integrate into the ROC the "Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe" (headquarters in Paris), which is under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The archdiocese with its 70 parishes, with the famous Orthodox Academy in Paris (St. Sergius Institute, founded in 1925) and the old Russian churches (in Paris, Nice, Cannes, Biarritz ...) advocates open, universal and ecumenical positions and tries to implement the Orthodox ideal of "sobornost" (communality) and, resulting from it, democratic principles in practical life.

The Paris archdiocese decidedly fights its submission under the highly conservative, nationalist, hierarchically managed ROC, which follows the principles of a political and patriotic Orthodoxy. By means of political pressure and huge sums of money as well as by litigating, the Russian Federation is currently trying to separate the Nikolay church in Nice from the Archdiocese of Paris and to put it under the jurisdiction of the ROC. The church was built with funds from the privy purse of the Tsar (1903-1912); from this fact Moscow now derives property claims of the Russian Federation. In attempting to do this Moscow ignores that the Russian parishioners in Nice and other Russian diaspora congregations have for nearly 95 years maintained their church by making great sacrifices.

The Russian government has now achieved its goal: On 19 May 2011 the appellate court in Aix-en-Provence confirmed the verdict of the district court of Nice, according to which the Russian Federation is the rightful owner of the Nicholas Church in Nice. A priest from Moscow lives already in Nice. But the former minister at the Nicholas church refuses to hand over the church keys to a representative of Moscow. He would not bow to any political pressure, neither from Moscow nor from Paris. (See, "Keys to St. Nicholas Cathedral in Nice handed over to the Russian Church"


The Combination of Church and State Interests is Obvious

Moscow's strategy of weakening the Archdiocese of Paris includes also the establishment of a seminary of the ROC in Paris (opened in 2009). The political and financial foundations were laid by the Russian Federation; Putin's Foundation "Russian world" pays the running costs and the salaries of the lecturers. This Russian seminary is supposed to leave the Institute of St. Serge high and dry, because in the eyes of the Russian Orthodox nationalists it is too open, too democratic, too liberal.

Another major Russian project in Paris also serves to achieve this objective: the construction of a "Center of Russian Culture and Spirituality." In 2010 the Russian Federation acquired building land near Eiffel Tower and Dôme des Invalides, and paid about 75 million € for it. Heart of the center is a Russian Orthodox cathedral and, attached to it, a seminary (construction cost: about 35 million €). The complex is made available to the ROC free of charge by the Russian Federation. The grandiose project is designed to outshine the Archdiocese Paris, which exists under most modest circumstances - and thus of course also the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Russian government officials willingly ignore the constitutional principle of separation of church and state when it comes to the ROC. The combination of state and church interests is obvious. Like in the Tsarist empire, the ROC is now again an undeniable part of public life, and as in Tsarist times - without political influence. The state is also dependent on the ROC, in order to eliminate the disastrous long term effects of communism. This results in diverse forms of cooperation, especially in the field of charitable, social activities. At the same time, the ROC is often exploited for governmental purposes. On the part of the church, there is no real opposition or fundamental criticism of the governance. Instead of it, one perceives intensive efforts of the Russian church to get and maintain the benevolence of the government. The church does not want to compromise the status which has been given to it by Putin and Medvedev.

The state church is a "system of close links between state and church. Under the sovereignty of the state they constitute one legal entity [Gesamtkörperschaft]. (...) The sole, or at least preferentially registered church is a state institution" (see LThK 2009, Volume 9, column 899). On the basis of this definition, one has to ascribe today the character of a state church to the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).



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