The Russian Orthodox Church in the new Russia

I read in a Christopher Hitchens piece in Slate a while back that the Russian Orthodox Church was quite friendly with the Russian government run by Putin and Medvedev.  So when my girlfriend passed on a recent National Geographic with an article about the Russian church, I was eager to find out more.

According to Serge Schmemann, Russians were baptized in great numbers after the fall of communism allowed for the revival of the church, which had survived under communism only as “a barely tolerated ‘cult’” whose clergy (called “servers of cult”) were forced to collaborate.  Yet this upswing in baptisms and identification with the church has not been matched by church attendance, which may be hampered by the fact that the liturgical traditions are difficult to follow for newcomers.  Schmemann also informs us that the services are in Old Slavonic rather than modern Russian, but he doesn’t say if this is part of the barrier.  Nevertheless, he quotes one researcher who estimates that less than 1% of people attend church more than once a month, while others estimate around 10%.  On the other hand, there are many interested in the priesthood, and the church has been active in ministering to the needy.

As far as political power goes, Schmemann confirms that the Church enjoys a cozy relationship with Putin and Medvedev.  Clergy often appear at government events, and some worry that the church will resume the role as the justifier of state power that it played under the tsars, rather than act as an independent moral authority.  One interesting picture in the article shows Putin kissing the body of Patriarch Alexy II.  According to the caption, “Putin has called the church as vital to Russia’s security as its nuclear shield.”  Some in the church have reciprocated this love by supporting Russian nationalism wholeheartedly.  A particularly bewildering passage can illustrate this point:

One reason traces back to the early post-Soviet years, when the euphoria of freedom gave way to disillusionment with the consumerism, corruption, and chaos that followed. Reactionaries in the government and the church accused the West of deliberately humiliating Russia, fuel­ing suspicion of denominations and groups with ties to liberal democracies. In right-wing circles, the call went out for Holy Russia to return to her roots.

Some astoundingly dark and retrograde notions openly circulate in reactionary churches and on nationalist websites. One is a drive to canonize Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible, two of the more noxious characters of Russian history who have been reinvented by extremists as “defenders of Holy Russia.”

Outside St. Petersburg, the decaying summer palaces of old Russia’s tsars and grand dukes overlook the Gulf of Finland. Behind the ruins of one such palace stands a tiny, half-restored chapel. Inside I come face-to-face with a spectacle that makes me gasp—a large icon of Joseph Stalin. He’s not wearing the halo of a saint, but a saint is blessing him.

The icon depicts a legend in which Stalin, at the outbreak of World War II, secretly visits St. Matryona of Moscow, a blind and paralyzed woman to whom many people came for spiritual guidance until her death in 1952. According to the legend she counseled the Soviet dictator not to flee Moscow before the invading German Army, but to stand firm against the onslaught.

The chapel’s pastor, Evstafy Zhakov, is a fiery nationalist highly regarded by his flock for his charismatic sermons. In an interview with the right-wing newspaper Zavtra, he defended the icon by explaining that Russia has a long tradition of saints blessing warriors before battle.

“But Stalin was an atheist,” the interviewer interjected.

“How do you know?” Father Evstafy retorted. Two wartime patriarchs proclaimed Stalin a believer, “and I will believe them before I believe all these liberals and democrats.”

As Joel and I discussed in the comments on one of his posts a while back, there is a long history of churches within countries claiming to have a special relationship with God, as reflected in the idea of Holy Russia.  This can often seem really good for the church, as it is protected by the political establishment and has a chance to influence the society through its favored status.

The description of the Russian church above illustrates the peril of this kind of relationship.  The temptation seems to become that the church feels the need to baptize the power structure as holy, to open itself up to the charge (and perhaps sometimes the reality) of being “the opiate of the masses.”  And so we see things like the Catholic Church largely supporting the Spanish empire in Latin America, some people supporting European imperialism to spread the gospel in the 19th century (see Charles Spurgeon’s critique of this attitude here), and many southern Christians justifying segregation earlier in this century.

I don’t wish to make this charge arrogantly and condemn everything about those who gave in to this temptation, as I’m sure that some of my opinions will not look very good in 5 or 10 years, let alone in the perspective of eternity.  But I do think that we should try to learn from these mistakes so that, by God’s grace, we might avoid them ourselves.

UPDATE (5/9/09): I realized that one of my sentences was a little unclear.  When I said there is a long history of churches within countries claiming to have a special relationship with God,” I meant that there is a long history of churches supporting the idea that the country in which they are based has a special relationship with God.



  1. The notion of “Holy Russia” is not quite as simple as you present it. There has been a similar concept in other nations as well, but there are two ways of looking at it — one through the eyes of secular nationalism, and the other through the eyes of faith.

    If you would like to know more, see Nationalism, violence and reconciliation

  2. Thank you for the article, Steve. It seemed to be a very evenhanded treatment of the issues, and it was great to get a religious perspective on the conflicts.

    If I’m not mistaken, you’re saying that the Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe see themselves as providing the spiritual and cultural identity for the various nationalities of the peoples there, an idea in competition with secular nationalism.

    Do you think that anything has changed with the Putin government that has come to power in the time after you wrote the article? Or would you say that the Russian Orthodox Church is still fairly apolitical while being courted by the political figures.

    • An example is last August, with the conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. In both countries the Orthodox Church is the biggest religious group, and in both countries the church leaders urged the politicans to show restraint and stop provoking one another. Many of the politicians claim to be Christian, though how much of it is just to try and polish their public image I don’t know. Some clergy are nationalist too, like the one you mention with Stalin in the ikon, but they are in the minority. Of course if their countries are attacked the church tends to get patriotic, as Christians tend to do in other countries too.

      • I agree that it seems to be a nearly-universal or universal tendency. What would you argue is the relationship between nationalism and faith for the majority of the clergy?

        And do you mind if I post your responses as a separate entry on my blog so that others can see them too?

        Thanks for the dialogue!

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