Putin the Great
Russia’s Imperial Impostor
In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington memorably bemoaned that, whereas in the West there has historically existed a divide between the secular and sacred realms, elsewhere in the world they are inseparably tangled. “In Islam,” he wrote, “God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar’s junior partner.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin would no doubt find it convenient if the Russian Orthodox Church were fully subordinate to his political project. He must have been quite pleased when, for example, the current head of the church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Rus’ (the geographic reach of the title is significant), declared prior to the 2012 presidential election that the prosperity and stability Russia has enjoyed since Putin took power in the 2000s was a “miracle of God.”
And Putin surely didn’t lose sleep over the dismissal of two outspoken Orthodox figures that many in the church had come to regard as political liabilities (although their terminations appear to have had more to do with the patriarch’s dislike of dissenting opinion than a failure to toe the Kremlin line). The first to be ousted was Sergei Chapnin, the liberal-leaning editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, who had become critical of the neo-imperial nationalism that some clerics espoused and of the ideologically driven “post-Soviet civil religion” taking hold in Putin’s Russia. The second was Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the conservative head of the Department for the Cooperation of Church and Society, who was ostensibly fired because his department was slated for reorganization. An enigmatic figure known for making controversial remarks, Chaplin had disagreed with the patriarch on many issues, including the conflict in the Donbas and the nature of the church’s relationship with the government.
At the same time, however, there is much that suggests that the Russian Orthodox Church is not simply the handmaiden of the state. Rather, the church seems to outwardly enjoy a good deal of influence and prestige over the government, despite the formal separation of church and state enshrined in the 1993 Constitution. Putin and his entourage, for their part, prefer to reinforce such perceptions. They are frequently photographed attending liturgical services and otherwise paying obeisance to the church as a touchstone for national identity. The Russian president, often seen wearing an Orthodox three-bar cross, is likewise not shy about recounting how he was secretly baptized as an infant by his mother during Soviet times. It is also a fact that Putin helped facilitate the 2007 reunification between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, a fiercely anticommunist body based in New York City and largely composed of the descendants of nobles and intellectuals who fled the Bolsheviks in the wake of 1917.
It isn’t hard to see why Putin would tie himself to the church. The Orthodox Church is distinctly popular in contemporary Russia, consistently ranking among the top three institutions that Russians report trusting most. (An October 2015 survey found 80 percent trust the president, 64 percent the army, and 53 percent the church; by way of comparison, only 24 percent trust the media, 21 percent the court system, and 18 percent the police.) Moreover, between 1991 and 2008 the percentage of Russians who identify as Orthodox increased from 31 percent to 72 percent. The affiliation, however, is overwhelmingly cultural rather than faith-driven. During the same period, for example, the percentage professing belief in God only went from 38 percent to 56 percent, and those reporting belief in an afterlife remained stagnant (33 percent in 1991 versus 32 percent in 2008).
Meanwhile, the church has benefited from the close ties between its leadership and the government. In 2011, then President Dmitri Medvedev granted the patriarch a residence in the Kremlin. In late 2010, Russian legislators passed a long-awaited bill allowing the return of Church property seized by the Soviet Union, codifying and expediting a process that had been proceeding piecemeal since the 1990s. The Russian Orthodox Church and affiliated organizations have also been the country’s biggest recipients of presidential grants in recent years, receiving more than 256 million rubles in funding between 2013 and 2015. (Other major beneficiaries include organizations that promote the regime’s geo-political interests, such as the Eurasian Youth Union and the Institute for Eurasian Studies, along with so-called patriotic youth groups close to the Kremlin.)
Outward appearances of a strong bond, however, can be deceiving. The church’s and Kremlin’s preferences do not always align, and the church’s worldly influence, in any case, is quite circumscribed. Although Putin is more than willing to invoke the church’s imprimatur when it suits his agenda, the church does not have much independent ability to either set or sway that agenda. Indeed, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has had surprisingly little success in pursuing its political goals when these did not coincide with the Kremlin’s interests.
It is thus too simplistic to view the church as simply an extension of the state, just as it is naive to assume that it has much power to achieve political objectives over the state’s head. The truth falls in between, with Putin’s government leaning on the church to provide it a veneer of historical and cultural legitimacy, and the church relying on the Kremlin to uphold its position as a moral arbiter for society. The tensions in this convoluted relationship have revealed themselves in Russia’s soft-power promotion efforts, as well as during its interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
In 2007, the Kremlin established the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation, embarking on a concerted soft-power campaign to promote Russian language and culture beyond the country’s borders. The project initially focused on fostering closer political and economic ties with Russian speakers in the former Soviet republics, but it soon came to encompass a worldview constructed in conscious opposition to the West. The evolving emphasis of the project became especially noticeable around the time of the first large-scale anti-regime protests in late 2011, when allegations of fraud in the wake of Russia’s legislative election brought people out onto the streets. Followed in short order by the Pussy Riot scandal in February 2012 and the uproar over the so-called 2013 LGBT propaganda law, these events cast a pall over the Sochi Olympics and tarnished Russia’s reputation on the world stage.
The Russian Orthodox Church has always viewed society as a communal organism; it is skeptical of the kind of individualism promoted by liberal thought.The Kremlin’s response was twofold. On the legislative side, parliament passed three bills (the 2012 Foreign Agents Law, the 2013 Law Protecting Religious Feelings, and the 2015 Undesirable Organizations Law) that were officially designed to curtail the activities of foreign organizations on Russian soil and protect the sensibilities of believers but which, in truth, curbed freedom of speech and hobbled civil society. On the ideological side, the regime placed new urgency on portraying oppositionists as a treacherous fifth column corrupted by their embrace of permissive Western attitudes and money from foreign donors. In other words, the Kremlin’s rhetoric shifted from opposing the negative effects of Western actions around the globe to opposing the West in principle, portraying it as an excessively individualistic civilization fundamentally incompatible with Russian values. The conflation of Russia’s economic, political, and military interests with a moral opposition to the West was sharply evinced in Putin’s 2013 speech at the Valdai Discussion Club, where he insisted: “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. . . . They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”
In this effort, Putin and the church would seem to be well aligned. The Russian Orthodox Church has always viewed society as a communal organism; it is skeptical of the kind of individualism promoted by liberal thought. It is also conservative in its social values and exquisitely sensitive to perceived encroachments on its spiritual turf by foreign religious groups. Kirill, moreover, has long painted himself as a cultural warrior, even before Putin’s conversion to the cause. Further, given that the Russian Orthodox Church’s canonical territory surpasses Russia’s current borders—it mirrors to a significant extent the footprint of the Tsarist, and later Soviet, empires—the promotion of Russian soft-power abroad via the reimagined Russkiy Mir project looks like a natural fit for church-state collaboration.
Nonetheless, the reasons for countering the perceived hegemonic pretensions of Western liberalism are understood in somewhat different terms by Putin and the Patriarch. For the Russian president, the moral and ethical component of the Russkiy Mir represents an add-on to realpolitik objectives. Kirill, meanwhile, views the promotion of conservative values as primarily a theological undertaking that can be aided by political means. He sees the project as having both external and internal dimensions, and therefore advocates a “second Christianization” of Russia to rid it of the lingering effects of Soviet atheism, such as its declining but still extremely high abortion rate. These different understandings have occasionally created tensions between the Kremlin and the church over how overtly religion should impact public life.
For example, since the 1990s, the church has strenuously advocated for Orthodoxy to be taught in Russian schools. It was not until 2012, though, that the Ministry of Education and Science implemented a nationwide curriculum called the “Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics.” And even that represented a compromise for the Russian Orthodox Church, since instruction was to be provided by secular teachers and parents were allowed to choose between “modules” emphasizing Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, World Religions, and Secular Ethics (the last option proved most popular).
CRIMEA, THE DONBAS, AND UKRAINE
Examining the Russian Orthodox Church’s reaction to events in Ukraine highlights further the difference in objectives of the church and the Kremlin. The church has thousands of parishes and millions of parishioners in Ukraine, and the Russian government’s actions in Crimea and the Donbas threaten its hold on them. The situation is further complicated by Ukraine’s unusually complex religious landscape. Leaving aside other denominations, the largest Orthodox body in the country, in terms of both members and parishes, is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which is autonomous (internally self-governing) but falls under the ecclesial authority of the “mother” Russian Orthodox Church. The next largest is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), followed by the much smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The latter two, however, are not formally recognized by the wider Orthodox world.
Putin, for his part, has made a point of using religiously tinged language when discussing Ukraine. This was on full display in his March 2014 speech announcing Crimea’s annexation, where he invoked the imagery of Vladimir the Great being baptized into the Orthodox faith in the ancient Crimean city of Chersonesus, an act Putin claimed laid the foundation for the shared culture and values that “unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.” Months later, during his December 2014 State of the Nation speech, the Russian president called Crimea the “spiritual source” of both the Russian nation and state, noting that the peninsula held “enormous civilizational and sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”
These references were calculated to strike a chord with Russians, who trace their patrimony back to Rus’, the eastern Slavic proto-state that was established in the ninth century and accepted Christianity from Byzantium in 988 AD. Rus’, however, was centered on the city of Kiev, which is now the capital of a sovereign Ukraine. Putin’s religious appeals, in other words, were meant to remind Russians that they had a legitimate right to take back their spiritual and national birthplace from a Ukrainian government that was trying to distance itself from the civilizational root common to all eastern Slavs.
Russian Orthodox officials had a variety of reactions to the Ukrainian crisis, with some supporting the Kremlin’s actions and others criticizing them. Caught in the middle, Kirill refused to take sides, proclaiming that “the children of our church are people of various political views and convictions, including those who are today on opposite sides of the barricades” in Ukraine. Tellingly, despite usually occupying a prominent front-row seat during presidential addresses, the patriarch was not in the audience when Putin announced that Crimea was once again part of Russia. Since then, he has not moved to incorporate the Crimean dioceses of the UOC-MP into the Russian Orthodox Church proper, rumors to the contrary aside. He has also been resolute in characterizing the fighting in the Donbas as fratricidal, averring that “in internecine conflicts there can be no winners, there can be no political gains that are worth more than people’s lives.”
Notwithstanding Kirill’s repeated protestations that the Russian Orthodox Church cannot and will not take sides in the Ukrainian conflict, critics accuse him of muted bias against Kiev’s post-Maidan government. As evidence they cite, for example, an address to Russian diplomats in November 2014 in which Kirill suggested that Ukrainian artillery fire was deliberately targeted at UOC-MP parishes in the Donbas. Meanwhile, in his relations with the UOC-KP, the patriarch has become steadily less measured. His ire was on full display during an international meeting of Orthodox Church leaders held on January 22 in Switzerland, where he vehemently criticized the “gangster raids” of “local militant nationalists” in Ukraine, which he claimed had resulted in the forcible takeover of more than 30 UOC-MP parishes by UOC-KP supporters.
The UOC-MP has likewise not spoken with one voice, with responses ranging from backing the Kremlin and the separatists in the Donbas to urging neutrality to vilifying the Moscow Patriarch as a tool of the Russian state to supporting the Ukrainian Army and the government in Kiev. As a result, the UOC-MP’s current head, Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev and all Ukraine, occupies an unenviable position as the leader of an internally divided church. Marred by its association with Russia and its refusal to clearly support either Kiev or Moscow, the UOC-MP is losing members to the more nationalist UOC-KP. However, a sizeable number of its faithful would likewise react negatively to any stance that put the UOC-MP in defiance of the Russian Orthodox Church. Indicative of how acute the situation has become, on 28 December Onufry unexpectedly reversed himself and allowed priests who did not wish to commemorate Kirill by name during the Divine Liturgy, as is customary, to not do so.
The religious infighting, along with the open clashes between rival Orthodox groups in Ukraine, has proved useful to Putin, allowing the Kremlin media machine to play up fears that so-called fascists and pro-Kiev nationalists are oppressing Ukrainians who don’t embrace their ideology. However, if ecclesial conflicts eventually result in a significant segment of the UOC-MP abandoning Moscow and forming a truly unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church, it would not only undermine a central conceptual pillar of the Russkiy Mir but it would also greatly lessen the symbolic standing and territorial footprint of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Kirill actively advocated Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict. However, here again Kremlin and church objectives differed. The church’s stated goal was not to prop up Assad or preserve the regional balance of power but to protect Christians from ISIS.SINKING INTO SYRIA
On September 30, 2015, the Russian government approved the deployment of its armed forces beyond the country’s borders, setting the stage for the Syrian air campaign. The intervention was requested by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Kremlin’s official position was that the Russian military would be specifically helping the Assad regime in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Putin further elaborated Russian motivations during Assad’s surprise visit to Moscow on October 20, when he focused on the threats of spreading terrorism and regional destabilization. Taken alongside the fact that Russia has historically viewed itself as a power broker in the Middle East, and that its lone Mediterranean naval base is located in Syria, the decision was not surprising.
Kirill actively advocated Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict. However, here again Kremlin and church objectives differed. The church’s stated goal was not to prop up Assad or preserve the regional balance of power but to protect Christians from ISIS and other Islamist groups (many Christians in Syria belong to the Antiochian Orthodox Church). In his January 2015 address to Russian legislators, the patriarch observed that Syrian and Iraqi Christians were fleeing their homelands in droves, emphasizing that the “last remaining Christians there today see hope for being saved only in Russia.” Moreover, once Moscow decided to intervene, the patriarch’s press service issued a statement noting that, although Christians face savage crimes, Muslims “are not suffering any less,” and lauding Russian action as a step toward bringing “peace and justice to this ancient land.” Finally, on Orthodox Christmas (January 7), the patriarch further justified Russian operations in Syria by underscoring their defensive nature.
However, contrary to what has been widely reported in the foreign-language media and repeated by ISIS propagandists, the church did not call for waging a “holy war” in Syria. This questionable quote derives from a carelessly translated statement made by Chaplin, then still in his post. What he actually said, in the context of observing that Russia has always played a special role in the Middle East and that Christians in the region were facing genocide, was “the struggle against terrorism, the struggle for a just world, the struggle for the dignity of those people, who are experiencing the challenges of terrorism—this is a very moral struggle, it is, if you will, a sacred struggle.” Nevertheless, the backlash that resulted was considerable, and it undoubtedly played a role in his dismissal.
ORTHODOXY WITHOUT CHRIST
Symphonia, or harmonious, mutually respectful coexistence, represents the ideal of Church-State relations in Orthodox thought. Unfortunately, it has seldom been achieved, and post-communist Russia is no exception. Russia today is still in the process of exiting the ideological vacuum that resulted from the Soviet Union’s collapse. What is emerging in its stead remains inchoate, a selective culling of the past that mixes Orthodox imagery with Soviet triumphalism, interspersed with an increasingly inward-looking nationalism.
Yet this is not ultimately a coherent narrative; it will eventually crumble under the weight of its own historical contradictions. Putin’s conundrum is that he wants the Russian Orthodox Church to help legitimate the restored Russian state while eliding the abject persecution the church suffered under the Soviet regime, just like he wants to emphasize the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII without coming to terms with the horrific crimes of Stalin.
Where does this leave the church? It is not as an institution subordinate to the Kremlin, but neither does it stand on equal footing with the regime in Putin’s Russia. Moreover, despite recent internal efforts to quell dissent, the church still embodies diverse opinions and viewpoints. As a result, the real synergies are not between the church and the Kremlin but between a burgeoning civil religion that Chapnin terms “Orthodoxy without Christ” and Putin’s muscular brand of statist rhetoric. In a society where over 70 percent of citizens identify as Orthodox even though the percentage of active churchgoers is in the single digits, the cultural resonance of the church is as obvious as its doctrinal relevance is moot, making it ripe for political exploitation. In contemporary Russia, it is not the Orthodox Church but the jingoistic Orthodox atheist that is the regime’s greatest ally.