Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Syria

Recently, Walter Russell Mead and Peter Berger both wrote about Russia’s history as the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East and how it applies to Russia’s stance on Syria. Here’s the New York Times article that they both referenced.

About three years ago, I linked to an article in National Geographic about the renewed ties between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The religious landscape in Ukraine

Peter Berger writes about Pentecostalism and Messianic Judaism in Ukraine, and how it fits in with his thesis that “that modernity, while it does not necessarily lead to secularization, does to pluralism—unless the state intervenes coercively to arrest this process.”

His post is partially based on this New York Times article on Rev. Sunday Adelaja (a Nigerian immigrant in Ukraine) who has a huge church in Kiev. Adelaja is a Pentecostal minister who, according to the article, is influenced by the prosperity gospel (which Berger believes can mean a number of things).

Berger also notes that there is a growing segment of Messianic Jews who, according to one researcher, are mostly Ukrainian Gentiles. This is notable, Berger says, because of the history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. He has noticed a different type of “Jewish chic,” as he calls it, in Poland.

Berger’s post included this description of religious diversity in Ukraine:

The overall religious situation in Ukraine is decidedly pluralistic—unusual for eastern Europe. The majority is Orthodox, but split into three mutually hostile factions: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the UIkrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church. Please do not count on me to explain all these differences, except that the split is politically significant in terms of pro-Russian versus pro-Western groups.  There are Uniats (who practice eastern rites but recognize the primacy of Rome) and also standard Roman Catholics, especially in the western part of Ukraine (which until 1918 was ruled by Austria; the eastern part was under Russian rule—the old frontier is still relevant). The number of Protestants is hard to estimate, as many may still belong formally to the other Christian bodies, but Protestantism has been growing, especially in the aforementioned Pentecostal version. According to one estimate, Protestants of all kinds make up about 10% of religious adherents. There is (still or again) a sizable number of Jews—non-“Messianic” ones, that is. Not surprisingly, Jewish organizations have been especially vigorous in their opposition to the Messianic movement. There is also a sizable population of Muslims in the Crimea region. 62% of the population say that they are “not religious”, but this could mean any number of things. In any case, the religious situation in Ukraine is very different from that in Russia: There is no parallel to the united and dominant Russian Orthodox Church, or to the support given to the latter by the Russian government. The Ukrainian government is religiously neutral, allowing an efflorescence of religious pluralism.

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.