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 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.
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