With God on Our Side: How Religion Will Shape Russia’s Political Destiny

As a nation that straddles two continents and stretches from Scandinavia to North Korea, it comes as no surprise that Russia is home to a multitude of religions. In fact, the only Buddhist-majority state in Europe (Kalmykia), as well as one of the oldest and fastest-growing Muslim minorities in Europe, are in Russia. The country’s religious diversity is among its greatest cultural assets. Yet, as differences in faith—more so than in race, language, or nationality—are strongly correlated with conflict, Russia must tangle with and potentially redefine religion’s role in its domestic and foreign politics.

The demise of the USSR created a void in Russian cultural and spiritual life. State atheism in the Soviet Union never fully subsumed religion, but rather displaced it from public life and repressed adherents of all faiths: Russia’s Orthodox majority and Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim minorities alike. After the fall of the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church moved swiftly to regain ground in the hearts and minds of Russians. In the predominantly Muslim areas of the Caucasus and the newly independent Central Asian republics, Islam moved—with equal measures of resistance and support from different authoritarian governments—to fill the vacuum. In the social, political, and cultural dislocation that followed the birth of the Russian Federation, a return to faith provided a sense of continuity, nostalgia, moral authority, and community to a nation in turmoil.

But the divine forces that once united Russians might tear them apart. President Vladimir Putin, who succeeded Boris Yeltsin in 1999, wasted little time in co-opting the power and influence of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The ROC has been closely intertwined with the Russian state since the 1300s, except for the 74 years of Soviet rule from 1917 to 1991. Putin’s elevation of the ROC has, according to the New York Times in 2008, resulted in the curtailment of other groups’ religious freedom. Non-Orthodox churches face scrutiny from the FSB (successor to the KGB and Putin’s former employer). Muslim groups must endure onerous bureaucratic processes to build mosques, which has driven religious practice, and doctrine, underground. Groups with no religious affiliations similarly feel the sting of Putin’s special relationship with the ROC. Most notably, LGBT individuals in Russia became subject to a widely criticized 2013 law that made it illegal for them to spread gay “propaganda” to children, and enshrined the traditional heterosexual nuclear family as a value that must be “protected by the state.” Moreover, calling attention to the government’s close ties with the ROC can lead to serious consequences. In 2012, the punk band Pussy Riot was sentenced to two years in prison for a high-profile protest against the ROC’s support of Vladimir Putin in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.  

The state support of and collusion with this powerful church signals Russia’s moving away from the secular West, and back to a nostalgic, glorious vision of pre-Soviet times, when the strong autocratic state and resplendent Church defined public life and used their hard and soft powers to spread Russian supremacy over an ever-wider swath of geographic territory. Like President Donald Trump’s populism in the United States, which draws from the romanticized values, culture, and policy of the post-World War II era, Putin and ROC head Patriarch Kirill’s arguably Tsarist cultural cues seek to recapture and relive an equally imagined era when Russia was secure in its cultural identity and geopolitical power. They are attempting to, if you will, “Make Russia Great Again.”

Indeed, an article by Marc Bennetts about Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin in Foreign Policy revealed that the ROC and the Kremlin together view the upsurge in conservative religious observance in Russian public life as a bulwark against the corrupting influence of the secular West, and a driving force behind Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Russia’s self-definition and self-determination through the Orthodox faith is not new, but few other modern Christian-majority nations have tightened the bonds between church and state as markedly as Russia has. Fewer still give a religious institution such sway in policy formation.

Russia’s pivot towards piety, as pointed out by Bennetts, is also fueled in part by the rise of the Islamic State (IS), which, like the ROC, rejects the subordinate role of religion in most modern societies. Patriarch Kirill himself stated in an official interview that IS itself is a reaction to the secularization of society, particularly in the West. The Independent, reporting on the interview, translated the Patriarch’s comments into English: “Look how they [the West] build the world—an unholy world—but we invite you to build God’s world… And they [IS supporters] respond to that; it is for this they give their lives.” It is clear that Patriarch Kirill, while certainly opposed to terrorism, views secularism with disdain and suspicion, and believes that it has eroded the traditional values and practices that encouraged social cohesion.

The purported development of the ROC as a religious counterbalance against IS takes on new urgency as Russians and nationals of the former Soviet Union (the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS) make up an increasing percentage of the radical group’s recruits. Russia is no stranger to Islamic insurgency. Yet, the threat of IS to Russia’s social and political integrity is arguably far greater than that posed by Chechen rebels, which—despite attacks such as the Beslan school and Moscow theater hostage crises—has largely been constrained to the Caucasus region in southern Russia. According to The Diplomat, Russian is fast becoming a major language of the so-called “Caliphate,” second only to Arabic. Russia has surpassed other European nations as the largest exporter of radicalized recruits for IS. With its position and intentions on Syria already under fire, Russia can not afford to be a source country for IS fighters or send drones and soldiers to fight its own sons.

Russia’s church-state is now fighting two battles: one to support Russia’s aspirations to be a power separate from the West, and one to counteract a dangerous rival religious-political power. On both fronts, the ROC bills itself as the underpinning of Russia’s political and social agenda and its fundamental identity as a nation. This is not a new role for the ROC, but the question remains: is the Church, and the church-state, strong and flexible enough to withstand being stretched between Russia’s long-held ambitions and its greatest fears? And if so, how long can that strain be sustained?

Image: President Vladimir Putin with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. (Konstantin Zavrazhin for the Presidential Executive Office, Creative Commons)

Jocelyn Spencer is a graduate of Wesleyan University and University College London, Institute of Education. She specializes academically in Chinese history and politics and in language education policy. While studying for her MA in London, she was a project leader and intern for the think tank Project for the Study of the 21st Century, for which she continues to volunteer in the United States. She currently works for a private equity firm in New York City.

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