A reader sent me a link to this Cathy Young piece about the troubling relationship between Russian president Vladimir Putin and the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, asking me for comment. Cathy Young writes:
All this is a far cry from theocracy, even if disturbing examples of religious coercion are common. (Last spring, REN-TV did a report on kids being pressured into baptism at a summer camp for the children of railway employees.) It is, rather, an unequal tandem of a cynically pious state and a cynically servile church.
Of course, subservience to state power is an old tradition for the Russian Orthodox Church; it started under the czars—particularly after the 1700s, when Peter the Great effectively reduced the church to a subordinate branch of government—and continued under the Soviets, when the church was brought back from near-obliteration as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Soviet regime and the KGB.
That dark legacy lives on in the present-day church. In 1992 a parliamentary investigative commission co-chaired by Father Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and Soviet-era dissident, released KGB files exposing a vast network of collaborators among clerics, particularly at the highest levels. (Shortly afterward, Yakunin was defrocked, supposedly for violating church discipline through his political activity.) One of those collaborators, code-named Mikhailov, was almost certainly Kirill himself. In the 1970s, the future Patriarch, then an up-and-coming church official, traveled regularly abroad for conferences where he participated in the Soviet “struggle for peace” and pooh-poohed claims about religious persecution in the USSR.
Compared to Soviet times, the church today enjoys a far more exalted status. Yet there is no doubt as to which side dominates in the church-state “partnership.” A few days before the Pussy Riot verdict, a clip from a Russian newscast made a splash on the Internet: On a visit to a historic monastery, a startled Putin shrank back when the abbot bowed and moved to kiss his hand. Russian media outlets treated the abbot’s abasement as a comical gaffe, and he later apologized for his inappropriate zeal; but many Russians saw the gesture as a fitting bit of symbolism.
Young cites polling data showing that huge numbers of Russians who claim to be Orthodox also say they don’t believe in God. Abortion remains state-funded and commonplace. Russian popular culture, Young writes, is “sex-saturated” to an extent that Westerners find “jarring.” She brings up the case of a wealthy Russian pop star who got all Orthodox in denouncing the impiety of Pussy Riot, but who bore a child out of wedlock with her lover, whom she recently left. Young:
What kind of Christians are these? Ones for whom, writes Kommersant columnist Konstantin Eggert, Orthodox Christianity is “a new ideology to replace ‘the moral code of the builder of communism’—a quaint mix of ill-understood rituals, well-studied conspiracy theories, rote- memorized rules and state-backed patriotism.” Some Orthodox ideologues freely concede this communist lineage. Discussing the Pussy Riot verdict on a radio show, Roman Silantiev, an official in the church-sponsored activist organization the Russian People’s Assembly, predicted that the controversy would draw more “patriotic-minded people” to the church because Russia’s enemies were lined up on the other side. “Just as they used to say ‘anti-Soviet’ meaning ‘Russia-hater,’ they are now saying that anyone who hates the Russian Orthodox Church hates Russia,” Silantiev said. “These are the people who will make the church stronger.”
Religion as nationalism — a deadly enemy of the Gospel, in Russia and in every nation!
The religious situation in Russia is complicated, of course, and though I strongly prefer the American model of separation of church and state, I don’t think that’s the only acceptable way to do things. The complexities of religion in Russia causes me to hesitate to make pronouncements, and I am in the habit of deferring to my faithful Russian Orthodox friends — emigres and in Russia — who have a profound skepticism, bordering on visceral disgust, of the Russian religious establishment and its relationship to the State. These men are serious about their faith, and know Russian politics. If they say the situation is appalling, I believe them.
Their concern is my concern, which is not for the integrity of the State, but for the integrity of the Church and its witness to a society and culture traumatized by seven decades of militant atheism. The thing is, as outrageous as this kind of thing is, it is by no means historically anomalous; our American model is the historical anomaly. Christians found ways to be faithful even when the Church — Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant — kissed the ring of the King, Emperor, or Prince. They had to. Wheat, tares. It is one thing for a believer to suffer for the Church; it is another thing to suffer from the Church, and it requires developing a conscience as subtle as it is strong.
Anyway, if there’s one hard lesson I’ve learned over the past decade, it’s that a Christian has to be extremely careful to protect himself from expecting too much from senior religious leadership. Or anything at all.