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Consent and Unrest

The Russian Orthodox Church in the "Putin System"


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 11/2012, P. 569-574
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The trial of three women of the punk rock band "Pussy Riot" has drawn attention to the role of Russian Orthodox Church under Vladimir Putin's presidency. The Church benefits from the "Putin system" and supports it, regardless of resistance in its own ranks. Whether she is well-advised with it remains to be seen.


The parliamentary (Duma) elections in Russia, the "Russian Federation", dated 4th December 2011 resulted in the expected victory of the ruling party "United Russia", the party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev - not least due to massive vote rigging. With 49.3 percent "United Russia" was admittedly well ahead of the following Communists (19.2 percent), but the expected target of the ruling party was crucially missed: compared with the last parliamentary elections (2007), "United Russia" had lost 15 percent!

As anticipated, also the presidential elections on 4th March 2012 saw Putin with 63.6 percent of the votes as winner. In September 2011, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had announced a highly questionable exchange of posts: Putin would compete as a presidential candidate and, in case of victory, appoint the then President Medvedev as prime minister. This was welcomed by the Russian Orthodox Church (in the following ROC). According to a change in the law, the old-new President Putin is now able to hold office for six years. And in 2018, after his terms of office 2000-2004, 2004-2008 and 2012-2018, he may possibly even compete for a fourth term of office (2018-2024).



The head of the ROC, Patriarch Kirill, congratulated Putin in a telegram where it says inter alia, "The vast majority of Russian voters - including priests, bishops and many members of the ROC - has re-elected you as national leader." The citizens had thus recognized the positive developments in the country, which had been made possible by Putin's policies. By Putin's election, the voters had opted for a "stable and consistent development of Russia." It would now be possible to continue his policies "for truth, peace and prosperity." Moreover, in an interview (15 March 2012) the Metropolitan Hilarion, the "foreign minister" of the ROC, referred to Putin as the only candidate who could rightly be called a practicing Orthodox Christian." "This is very important for us Orthodox Christians."

The ceremonial (third) inauguration of Vladimir Putin took place on 7 May 2012 in the Kremlin. He himself had created the pompous ritual. After that he was blessed by the Patriarch in the Annunciation Cathedral of the Kremlin in the context of a prayer service (Moleben). The ceremony arranged by Patriarch Alexy II (1991-2008) on the occasion of the first inauguration of Putin as Russian president in 2000 takes place in a small circle: Besides the president and his wife and Patriarch Kirill, also this time only a few bishops were in attendance.


The ROC as a Neutral Institution?

In the patriarch's intercessory prayer it says inter alia, "We pray for the President of our Russian country, Vladimir. The heaven may give him power and wisdom for his rule and for just judgment, so that he promotes peace and order in our country, and puts enemies and adversaries (...) to rout."



At the end of the ceremony the Patriarch blessed the President with a time-honored icon of the Mother of God. He presented it to him and said, "The majority of our people deliberately, reasonably and freely have chosen you as President. (...) Today, we pray above all that the Lord grants you and our country his grace, and that he may give you (...) strength, wisdom and a strong mind. (...) The legitimacy of a president is based on the trust of the people - you have it. (...) However, it is possible that the voice of the people is drowned by voices of well-organized groups or individuals who sometimes pretend their opinion to be that of the people. It is therefore essential for the successful service of a president that he is able to discern the spirits and to hear the voice of the people."

With it, he certainly alluded to the mass demonstrations against Putin and vote-rigging. Representatives of the ROC always emphasize that the ROC was a neutral institution in which all political movements among the Russians should find a home. But it remains undecided, whether the personal words of the patriarch may still be seen as apolitical.

For the next six years, the election results secure a comfortable governance for President Putin and his party. But the vote-rigging by the ruling party and its supporters has led the Russian society to the brink of splitting. There were large demonstrations in protest. The government took action against them by massive use of police and military units. In contrast to the past, due to the heated atmosphere in the country, the leadership of the ROC felt compelled to give its view on the situation. On 18 December, Patriarch Kirill guardedly got behind the protesters. The dispute between Putin's opponents and supporters should be settled in the context of a "civilized dialogue." The authorities should put more trust in people, and the government should rather listen to society and correct its policy.

In his sermon at the Christmas service in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral on 7 January 2012, in which also President Medvedev took part, the Patriarch called upon all parties to exercise restraint. The political leaders should reach out to the citizens so that the life of the nation would become peaceful again, and the risk of splitting the nation or even a civil war might be averted.


A Government-critical Party of the Churchgoers

In principle, however, the leaders of the ROC supported Putin's re-election. Their cautious criticism not least had tactical reasons. Representatives of the ROC take in the mood of the people, in order to avert the accusation that the ROC is submissively dependent on the government. But this "criticism" by the Church does not mean that she seriously and fundamentally dissociates herself from the government. The real message of the ROC was that Orthodox Christians do not participate in demonstrations. Shortly before the presidential election the patriarch e.g. said, "Orthodox Christians do not demonstrate. They rather pray in silence (that God) will lead our people to discernment and the path of spiritual growth (...), and to developing national self-confidence."

On 8 February 2012 for instance, Patriarch Kirill indicated the position of the church leadership (and with it of obviously large sections of the faithful) when he praised Vladimir Putin, "You personally, Vladimir Vladimirovich, have been of crucial importance (for solving our internal conflicts)!" Such canvassing for Putin took place in the ROC almost all along the line. Thus, in the run up to the Duma elections, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin who as chairman of the Synodal Department for Church-Society Relations and as spokesman for the Department for External Church Relations is one of the principal officials of the ROC said that Putin's election as President of Russia would open up "a long period of stability." And on 27 February, just before the presidential election, he vehemently defended the ROC's right to advocate the election of Putin. He thus countered accusations in the media that Patriarch Kirill as the head of the ROC clearly took Putin's side.


The ROC is Benefiting from Government Support

But among the church members there is also an intellectual, government-critical wing. It cannot be rated statistically. This wing had welcomed the ROC's cautious criticism of the actions of the state leadership, in the hope that a fundamental policy shift was indicated by the Church leadership with regard to the Putin system. This hope has been disappointed. Intellectuals in the ROC (including many clergymen as e.g. Archdeacon Andrei Kurajev, professor at the Moscow Theological Academy) called Putin's "managed democracy" into question - especially via 'Pravoslavie i mir "(Orthodoxy and the World). The priest Georgy Mitrofanov, professor at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, said here that the protests against the vote-rigging had shown how dissatisfied people are with the situation in the country and how frustrated they are in view of their impotence.

Other priests stated resignedly that many people would no longer expect anything of this and the next (Putin's) leadership; despondency prevails everywhere, human dignity and truth would now be treated with contempt in Russia, and the elections were a dismal example of lies, hypocrisy, moral decay and cynicism in Russia. Despite many critical voices, however, there is no doubt that the majority of the Orthodox Christians has adopted the church leadership's attitude, which is pro-government, and in particular submissively dependent on Putin.



It is not surprising that such conflicting groups exist in the ROC. By her own account, she currently has nearly 100 million members. Such an institution is not a homogeneous block; to speak of one church is out of the question. This is confirmed by the figures published in September 2011 (also by the media of the ROC). According to that, 72 percent of adult ethnic Russians describe themselves as orthodox and only 9 percent as unbelieving. The old formula "Russian = Orthodox" would apply again: Those who are Russians would also be Orthodox, even if they are not baptized. Less than 10 percent of the "Orthodox Christians" attended the divine service on Sundays, whereas the rest attended at most the liturgy at Christmas and Easter. 93 percent of those who call themselves "Orthodox" have no relation at all to the congregational life.

Statistics from April 2012 complete the picture: 73 percent of the population of Russia feel positive about the work of the ROC, and at least 64 percent trust the ROC. What gives cause for thought is the fact that only 56 percent of the population have confidence in Patriarch Kirill. 44 percent of the population of Russia are skeptical towards the head of the ROC. He is present in all media and on good terms with Putin. It is likely that negative headlines about his extravagant lifestyle and his enormous wealth in "Novaya gazeta" and "" in February 2012 have contributed to it.

The protests against the vote-rigging were directed against the "Putin system": "managed democracy" and corruption are characteristic for it. However, also the ROC plays a central role in this system. In August 1999 President Boris Yeltsin had appointed Vladimir Putin Prime Minister. Putin then suddenly "revealed" that he was a Orthodox Christian. On the occasion of his appointment as "Executive President" on 31 December 1999 Putin was blessed by Patriarch Alexy II. Putin had realized the enormous figure of potential voters in the Orthodox Church.

In order to make them favourably inclined towards him, the controlled media incessantly broadcasted photos of Putin's church attendance. He was repeatedly presented with the patriarch at the headquarters of the ROC (Daniil Monastery) and in the presidential palace. He saw to it that tens of thousands once nationalized Orthodox churches and monasteries were given back to the ROC. Today, bishops are often escorted by a military guard of honor. Government buildings, weapons systems (including nuclear) are blessed by the clergy. Especially before elections, representatives of the ROC point to the fact that the church owes her splendid new rise out of nowhere only to Putin.

After the Soviet ideology had proved to be obsolete, Putin replaced it by the time-proven ideology of the tsardom: i.e. "Great Russian patriotism with Orthodox core". Putin sees his "Russian Federation" as the legal successor of the Russian Empire. He sees the Russian Orthodox Church as a link between the two: She authorizes his claim to leadership. The ROC has become an important pillar of the state - not only in elections but for example also in the social sector. By means of her social institutions the ROC has to compensate for deficiencies of the State. The State adopts - rhetorically - moral values of the ROC and her anti-modernist and anti-Western positions, as e.g. the vehement rejection of western, decadent "achievements": on the one hand the moral depravity, on the other hand the freedom of expression, and the open society.

The ROC is benefiting from the support by the government. For some time, once nationalized property is returned to her. Since 1 September 2012 school religious education is on the schedule throughout Russia. It takes into account many religions, but the ROC mainly benefits from it. Most Orthodox Christians are grateful for the benevolence which Putin's ruling party "United Russia" has for the ROC. And the members of the high clergy enjoy the glamorous public presence which they owe to the "Putin system." They are not interested in a change of this situation. But even the "Putin system" can not disguise the fact that most Russians (though avowedly Orthodox) are hardly interested in their church.


The Provocation of the Feminist Punk Band "Pussy Riot"

By a provocative "performance," the five-women punk rock band "Pussy Riot" has anew triggered off the discussion about the role of the ROC in Putin's Russia. The group had already previously protested by spectacular actions against Putin's renewed candidacy for presidency but received hardly any attention. In their naughty texts, they insulted Putin as a dictator and denounced the unholy alliance between State and ROC. On Tuesday, February 21, not quite two weeks before the presidential election, "Pussy Riot" gained worldwide attention by an action that offended many Orthodox Christians.

The masked women planted themselves in front of the iconostasis of the at that time empty Moscow Christ the Savior Church, the Cathedral of the Patriarch, and sang a song which culminated in a "prayer" to the Mother of God: Put Putin away. The video, which soon appeared on the Internet, had apparently been recorded earlier somewhere else. It is unclear whether the text of the in the Cathedral sung "Punk Prayer" was the same as that on the video. There, at least it says inter alia, "Mother of God, put Putin away / The head of the KGB leads protesters to prison. / (...) / The Church’s praise of rotten dictators / Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin. / Bitch, better believe in God instead. / Our Lady, put Putin away! "



After 40 seconds, the women were pushed away by the security forces and three of them taken into custody. The performance in the empty church remained almost unnoticed. The incident became nevertheless a political issue. It caused a stir among the Russian population and split it into at least two camps. A highly emotional, rabble-rousing reporting of ecclesiastical and secular (pro-government) media stimulated outrage and fuelled the affair.

With catchphrases such as blasphemy, profanity, sacrilege, insult of the Orthodox Church, etc. spokesmen of the ROC demanded to punish mercilessly the women - also with regard to Islamic countries where these women would not have survived such an appearance. The patriarch described the action as a "mockery of a sanctuary", other clergymen labelled the three women as "Spawn of Hell" and "Messengers of Satan". Archpriest Chaplin as it were became the symbolic figure for this position. He said that this "blasphemous appearance" was an "extremist political statement" and "incited hatred of the Orthodox Church." This action was "part of a vast conspiracy, a general attack on the Russian Orthodox Church. One must take radical steps against it." Orthodox mass organizations such as the "Union of Orthodox Citizens," the "World Russian People's Council" and others appealed to the public to defend the patriarchy and declared on billboards, "There is no Russia without Orthodoxy", "For blasphemy to jail!" On Sunday, March 18, the severe punishment of those women was demanded in an appeal that was read aloud in several Moscow churches.

On April 22 in front of the Christ the Savior Cathedral a procession of 65.000 believers was formed under the leadership of Patriarch Kirill. While they protested against "Pussy Riot" and further acts of vandalism directed against the ROC (as e.g. the destruction of icons), about 2000 people addressed the Patriarch in an open letter. There they demanded the closing of the proceedings, "We believe that this trial discredits our court system and weakens the confidence in the institutions of Russia."

In contrast to this, Archdeacon Kurajev sought to downplay the "Pussy Riot" appearance as a carnival joke. He pleaded for clemency and for the release of the imprisoned women. Also many younger clergy and laity who, like Kurajev, categorically disapproved of this action argued for leniency. The "punk prayer" should not be regarded as a blasphemy of the Mother of God and as a blasphemous act, i.e. as punishable offences. Ultimately, it was only an infringement of the regulations. Without a doubt, the women had grossly hurt the religious feelings of believers but it had not come to blows. The elderly Archpriest Pavel Adelsheim pointed out that the order of the Church "has always been disturbed by prophets and fools in Christ" and that "Christ has always forgiven sinners." He reminded of the fact that "in the population the protest against the closely interwoven State power and church elite is growing."


Putin has won the Showdown

The ROC as an institution did not press a criminal charge but nine church employees (a priest, candle vendors and church guards), who had alledgedly been "traumatized" by the spectacle in the Cathedral. The criminal charge was justified by reference to § 213 of the Russian Criminal Code. According to it, "gross violation of the public order" ("hooliganism" and "rowdyism") may be punished by up to seven years in a labor camp. After the three women had spent six months in custody, after three weeks of court hearings on August 17 the sentence was pronounced: two years in a penal colony under general regime. On August 27 the defendants have lodged an appeal. In the appeal hearing on October 10, the penalty for one of the women was suspended.

In their song, "Pussy Riot" had attacked frontally the "Putin system" and pilloried the ROC as instrumentalized quasi-state church. This was lèse majesté. That's why State and ROC responded so bitterly. In the trial against the three women it was only feignedly about the objectionable performance in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, and by no means about "hooliganism" and "disturbing public order". During the trial a prosecution counsel had stated in "Moskovskie novosti" that these women were "agents of a worldwide organization of extremists who waged a war against the Russian Church".

That's why terms as e.g. sacrilege, blasphemy, desecration of a church etc. were in the focus of the court's opinion. Trial observers said that it had been a political trial: the group had been convicted because of its protest against the "Putin system" with its close links between State and ROC. This view was also expressed by Archdeacon Kurajev after the verdict. One had the impression that not the public prosecution department but the Supreme Church Council of the ROC was the prosecutor.

After the verdict, the Supreme Church Council of the ROC in a statement asked for clemency for the three women, "Without doubting the legality of the verdict, we appeal to the authorities to be lenient with the convicted women - within the framework of existing legislation."



If the ROC had made such an emphatic statement during the trial, this might possibly have influenced the verdict. Afterwards, it is hardly likely that the three convicted women will benefit from it. However, in its statement the Supreme Church Council did not refrain from emphasizing again that the women's performance in the Christ the Savior Church had been "blasphemy and sacrilege, a deliberate insult of sanctuaries, and a gross hostility to millions of believers and their feelings." The Church could not tolerate blasphemy. But it would be appropriate to commiserate the women, and that's why the Church Council asks for clemency.

At the beginning of his third term of presidency, Putin has adopted a course of confrontation with those metropolitan-secular, predominantly intellectual circles that were involved in the mass demonstrations against the election fraud. The "Putin system" used the trial against "Pussy Riot" to call its enemies to account. Putin fully relies on the patriarchal and conservative Orthodox circles in small towns and in rural areas, where his "managed democracy" and the punishment of the rebellious women are welcome. Polls prove him right. About 70 percent of Russians would agree with the sentencing of the three women. Putin has won the trial of strength with his critics, which was triggered by the trial against "Pussy Riot". In the population, also among Orthodox Christians, the criticism of the "Putin system" is rejected by the majority.

Archdeacon Kurajev and other nonconformist clergy believe that the ROC should have ignored the provocative action of the women's group and respond with Christian love. They had hardly any chance to gain acceptance. The appeals of senior representatives of the Church severely to punish those women convey the image of a vengeful church that is intertwined with the state and not willing to forgive. More and more of the faithful seem to be at a loss with the developments within the Church of the year 2012; many are seized with restlessness. By her support for Putin in the election campaign and her tough stance on the case of "Pussy Riot," the Russian Church has alienated some of their intellectuals, perhaps even lost them. In the long run the ROC will lack their, in the eyes of most Russian Orthodox Christians, dissident considerations.



Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'