Defender of the Faith: Russia’s Foreign Policy & Orthodoxy

The fall of the Soviet Union, in addition to bringing substantial political and economic changes to Russia and Eurasia, represented a shift in how the newly-formed Russian Federation viewed religion. No longer hampered by Communist philosophy, which eschewed religion, the Russian Orthodox Church has resurged, influencing domestic policy as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive tactics in Ukraine and Syria.

When the Bolshevik Revolution ended in 1917, a long-standing Tsarist tradition with its roots in the great Slavic faith of Eastern Orthodoxy was sacrificed through an effective martyrdom by those who had championed the Russian identity for centuries prior. This destruction of organized faith, replaced by normative Soviet structures depicting Lenin and Stalin as gods, represented a fundamental shift from the Christian foundation of the Russian soul and created a large rift where God and the Church once resided.

During the eight decades that Soviet-branded Marxism was the governing theoretical framework for the USSR, this sense of belief and divine relation was pushed far out of the daily conversation within party lines, but it lived on in village practice, remaining a part of daily life and culture for many Russians. Though the official stance on religion was one of neglect and attempted death by exclusion, Russian Orthodoxy survived in fledgling institutions and through oral traditions, allowing it to rebuild from an emaciated skeleton once the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. Where the voice of the clergy had been snuffed and property of the Church seized by over-eager Communist party members in an attempt to serve the perceived needs of their leadership, the Church was now released into the steppe, free to expand and reoccupy areas that it had previously proclaimed as holy.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, increasingly confident rhetoric from the United States and its allies, as well as a general disenchantment with the Communist regimes and philosophies of the 20th century, drove the former USSR into the new millennia with a newfound perspective on the ancient beliefs of Russian society. Beginning with policies implemented by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late eighties, the Orthodoxy returned to its place among the prominent institutions of the “New Rome,” a title assumed by Kiev when the state of Kievan Rus had only just adopted the faith as its consciously defined religious identity in the year 988 by Prince Vladimir.

In modern times, a second Vladimir has played a similarly crucial a role in defining Russia’s Christian identity. Citing perceived threats and violent vandalism of church paraphernalia, Putin has increased security around churches and hinted at a rejuvenated post-communism Russian Orthodoxy in the Federation, setting the stage for further growth and deliberation within the Christian communities of Russia. In the years following, these beliefs would only become more ingrained in Russian policy, and with purposeful widespread media coverage of cases involving homosexual rights, the government’s stance vis-à-vis the Church is rarely in question.

In addition to the powerful role played by the revived Russian Orthodox Church in crafting policy at the national level within the Russian Federation, the Church has also had a profound impact on Russian foreign policy, specifically in regard to Syria and Ukraine. Though much effort has been devoted to analyzing the diplomatic relationship between Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as the Middle Eastern country’s significance to Russian geopolitics, Russia’s actions are also influenced by a desire to remain active in the struggle for the future of a country that has seen its Christian population drop from 30 percent to 10 percent in the last hundred years, mostly due to state violence and persecution. Any effort by the Russian government to assist Syrian Orthodox Christians—people likely viewed as part of Russia’s national responsibility—should be understood as a necessity in the eyes of the recently reformulated, Orthodox-driven Kremlin.

In the case of the Russian invasion of Crimea, which resulted in the seizure of former Soviet territory, the notion that Russia was primarily interested in protecting their ethnic population within Ukraine is worthy of recognition, but the importance of Ukraine to Russian history and identity is even more important. As the birthplace of the Russian state—and home to the founding capital of the ancient state of Kievan Rus—Ukraine holds immeasurable significance to Russia, a country which once held as much allegiance to Kiev as it currently does to Moscow.

As more troops and military hardware make their way into Syria and, less conspicuously, into eastern Ukraine, it is important to recognize the resurging role played by the Russian Orthodoxy in the creation of Russian foreign policy. The Church survived for nearly a century while religion was violently suppressed and now has the freedom necessary to infiltrate all levels of politics and decision-making. Vladimir Putin appears to be one of the most eager to fly the banner of the Orthodox Church when charging into battle on behalf of the soul of Russia.

Image: Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow. (Edward Mahabir)


Kyle Walter will be starting his Master’s in Russian and eastern European studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford in the fall of 2016. He is a graduate of George Mason University, where he studied global affairs and Russian language, and was editor-in-chief of the Unitatem blog. He is the author of the forthcoming novel, “The Luminary.” Follow him on Twitter.

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