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Russian Church & Russian State

A complicated view of the relationship between Putin and Russian Orthodoxy

The NYT had an interesting piece yesterday about how the Russian Orthodox Church is a part of Vladimir Putin’s aggressively nationalist agenda. Here are some excerpts:

While tanks and artillery have been Russia’s weapons of choice to project its power into neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Putin has also mobilized faith to expand the country’s reach and influence. A fervent foe of homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community or nation, the Russian Orthodox Church helps project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women’s and gay rights.


Thanks to a close alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, religion has proved a particularly powerful tool in former Soviet lands like Moldova, where senior priests loyal to the Moscow church hierarchy have campaigned tirelessly to block their country’s integration with the West. Priests in Montenegro, meanwhile have spearheaded efforts to derail their country’s plans to join NATO.

But faith has also helped Mr. Putin amplify Russia’s voice farther west, with the church leading a push into resolutely secular members of the European Union like France.

The most visible sign of this is the new Kremlin-financed spiritual center here near the Eiffel Tower, now so closely associated with Mr. Putin that France’s former culture minister, Frederic Mitterrand, suggested that it be called “St. Vladimir’s.”

The piece goes on to talk about how Russia sees itself as a guardian of Christian values. One bishop tells the reporter that Europe has “definitely given us lots of money, but wants too much in return. It demands that we pay with our souls, that we alienate ourselves from God. This is not acceptable.”

Much of the story focuses on Russia’s push, through the Church, into western Europe. More:

Opposition to gay rights has also been taken up with gusto by Russia and the Orthodox Church in Western Europe.

The Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a research group in Paris headed by a former Soviet diplomat, threw its support behind opponents of a new French law in 2013 allowing same-sex marriage. It organized a conference on “defense of the family,” and promotes Russia and its Orthodox faith as protectors of Christian values across Europe.

Natalia Narochnitskaya, the institute’s head, told an Orthodox Church website run by Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, a Moscow monk close to Mr. Putin, that Europeans are fed up with what she called the “victory parade of sin” and increasingly look to Russia for guidance and solace. “We have started to get letters at the institute: ‘Thank you Russia and its leader,’” Ms. Narochnitskaya said.

What role the new cathedral complex in Paris might play in this agenda will not be clear until it opens later this year, but those who have studied Mr. Putin’s methods predict it will serve as a megaphone for his take on the world.

“This cathedral is an outpost of the other Europe — ultraconservative and anti-modern — in the heart of the country of libertinism and secularism,” said Michel Eltchaninoff, a French writer and author of “Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine,” a book about the Russian president’s thinking.

Read the whole thing.  It would be an understatement to say that as an Orthodox Christian, I have very mixed feelings about this. Mostly it troubles me deeply to see the Church become an instrument of State policy. It is naive and foolish to expect Russia to have American-style separation of church and state. Even some western countries don’t have that yet (e.g., England, the Scandinavian countries), though the state churches are mild and have become nearly impotent, as those societies have secularized. Things like this make me grateful that we have that separation in the US. If I had to watch my church cheerleading for the policies of the US president, as opposed to playing a prophetic role, it would be profoundly discouraging. As I write this, I have a particular Moscow friend in mind, who despairs over what’s happening to his Church.

On the other hand, as Western societies disintegrate under aggressive secularism, individualism, materialism, and hedonism, it’s hard as a traditional Christian not to sympathize with the general thrust of what Russia is doing, if not in certain particulars. When I was in Italy in the summer of 2015, I was surprised to have a couple of conversations with practicing Catholics who, when learning that I am an Orthodox Christian, assumed that I approve of Putin, and began praising him and the Russian Orthodox Church for its strong voice for traditional Christian morality. I was genuinely surprised to hear this from them, but I understand where they’re coming from. They see their own society drifting far from the faith, and the Catholic Church unable to halt the slide, and often unwilling to lift a finger to try. Put another way, they see Putin, for all his flaws, trying to protect his country from sliding into the moral and cultural abyss.

Again, I think it’s a devil’s bargain for the Church, but at the same time, I grudgingly admire Putin’s unwillingness to capitulate in the face of the worst aspects of Western liberalism. The fact that Orthodoxy is “ultraconservative and anti-modern” is a feature, not a bug — but to be clear, its conservatism is not the sort that would find much favor in the GOP.

It shouldn’t be hard for you to understand why I, as a Westerner, find so much to criticize in Putin, and in his relationship to the Russian church. I’m guessing I don’t need to rehash that here; just think about murdered journalists and political opponents, the relative lack of religious liberty for sects not approved of by the state, aggression towards Russia’s neighbors (especially Ukraine), etc. It may be hard for you to understand why I find anything at all to approve of in Putin, and his militant defense of traditional Christian social values. These quotes from a Vox interview with Sebastian Junger, about his new book Tribe, gives you an idea. The interview focuses on Junger’s point, expressed in the book, that an extraordinary number of US soldiers have trouble reintegrating back into American society because they see it as purposeless and fragmented — unlike what they experienced in deployment. Excerpts:

[Vox:] You write that “[t]oday’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.” What do you mean?

Junger: I wasn’t a soldier, I’m not a veteran, but the impression I get from talking to them is that their sense of purpose and their sense of devotion to a common good is foremost in their minds in combat. The common good, by the way, not being the country so much as the platoon.

Then they come back and they see a country which is racially divided, it’s economically divided, it’s politically divided. There are powerful, wealthy people frankly getting away with enormous financial crimes without consequences.

It’s a country at war with itself, and I think on some level, unconsciously or consciously, it must be quite complicated for soldiers who risked their lives for this country, were wounded maybe, lost friends, to come back and see that the thing they were fighting for is fighting with itself. I think that must be incredibly demoralizing.


[Vox:] Reading your book, it seemed to me that you were using the psychological state of our veterans as a measuring stick for the health of our society. So let’s close with the obvious question: After writing this book, do you believe we’re a good or healthy society?

Junger: When you use the word bad or good, those are relative terms, they’re moral terms, and it depends on how you define them. We’re a good society if you define good in the terms that our society defines good as. Every society does that — it’s natural.

But if you step back and ask, are we a human society? In evolutionary terms, no we are not. We do not elevate the moral values that have always kept humans safe and happy and secure for hundreds of thousands of years. We do not elevate those qualities on a national level. In that sense, we are way outside of our evolutionary past and, in many ways, are an anti-human society.

Read the whole thing — it’s important, and I thank the reader who sent it to me.

It is my view that American society — and the West in general — has given itself over to a way of life that is anti-human, and unsustainable. I don’t know what specifically Junger has in mind when he says that we don’t elevate the moral values that have kept humans safe and happy and secure for hundreds of thousands of years, but I would say that the family is one of them, and so is religion which, from a sociological point of view, provides cohesion at the horizontal level (in part because it teaches us what the common good is) and meaning at the vertical level, in that it assures us that there is something greater than ourselves, and so calls us out of ourselves.

In the West today, nothing is sacred, except the individual Self, and the future. We are happy to overthrow the conditions that make for a healthy society, one that balances individual freedom with the common good, and call it progress. It can’t last. In fact, I believe that more than a few Americans know, in their hearts, that there is something deeply wrong with us, and that neither Clinton (who represents the status quo) nor Trump can fix it. The liberalism of our culture (by “liberalism,” I don’t mean merely the philosophy of the Democratic Party) dissolves everything in its path. Eliot’s “permanent things” remain permanent, but become almost unrealizable under these conditions. I promote the Benedict Option for the sake of encouraging Christians to hold on to what is true and what is truly human in the Dark Age now upon us.

Obviously I have no idea what Vladimir Putin’s personal views are, or of the state of his soul. But if I were the leader of Russia today, I would reflect on the moral and social devastation wrought by 75 years of communism, which very nearly destroyed all that was human in Russia. (Vaclav Benda, a Czech dissident, said that the communist regimes controlled the people by isolating everyone through the annihilation of civil society.) Russia’s leader would be faced with trying to put back together a society in shambles. He would look to the West, and see good things, certainly — much more wealth and physical health than Russia has, certainly — but he would also see a civilization that has lost its will to live, and that is rapidly disintegrating. Large parts of it has lost its religion, and the rest is well on its way to that place. The West is losing the idea of marriage and family, and now, even the concepts of male and female — and all this is hailed as progress. Young people are ruining their hearts and minds by dosing themselves heavily with pornography, and there’s nothing in Western culture to stop them. And on and on. How could the West be a positive model?

Russia does not have the answers, but it is asking necessary questions, questions that our liberal ethos, in both its left-wing and right-wing forms, deem off limits. But the questions remain. From a purely secular, evolutionary point of view (which I take to be Junger’s), the West is living through an experiment that will answer the question, “Can a materialistic civilization that places individual liberty and individual self-expression over all other goods survive?”

Here’s another clue as to how I think and why I think it. Last week, there was an outcry among some readers because I did not disagree with the Russian state for arresting the young atheist provocateur who went into an Orthodox church to play Pokemon Go, deliberately breaking the law and defiling the church, then bragged about it on YouTube. I only protested that the potential sentence was far too long. People couldn’t believe how I could be so illiberal as to believe that it should be against the law to play Pokemon Go in church. Well, this address about the liturgy, given by the American philosopher and Orthodox layman David Bradshaw, conveys something of the intensity with which Russian Orthodox Christians regard their churches. Here’s an excerpt:

Eastern Orthodoxy holds what may appear to the non-Orthodox to be a remarkably exalted view of the status and significance of its liturgical services. Possessing no Pope, magisterium, or universally agreed catechism, and for many years being unable (owing to various forms of persecution) openly to teach their faith, the Orthodox have long looked to the divine services as the surest and most profound repository of Orthodox theology. St. Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth-century Russian monk and bishop, well expressed this attitude of reverence:

All of our liturgical hymns are instructive, profound, and sublime. They contain the whole of our theology and moral teaching, give us Christian consolation, and instill in us a fear of the Judgment. He who listens to them attentively has no need of other books on the Faith.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, in a lecture entitled “Orthodox Worship as a School of Theology,” has discussed at length the theological content of the divine services. He adds, however, that the value of the services does not lie exclusively or even primarily in their teaching function, but in their power of placing man in the presence of God. Everything about the services—including not only the words, but the architecture and ornamentation of the church, the icons, the chanting, the candles, the incense, the liturgical vestments, the making of the cross, the kneeling and prostrating, and the processions of the clergy—constitutes a single harmonious whole, a kind of perpetually enacted drama in which all have a role. Crucially, the drama is not limited to its earthly participants but incorporates God himself as auditor and (through the reading of Scripture) as speaker. Metropolitan Hilarion quotes in this regard another Russian of the nineteenth century, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, whose description of traditional Russian chant captures something of this sense of a continual ongoing interchange with God:

The tones of this chant are majestic and protracted…they depict the groans of the repentant soul, sighing and longing in the land of its exile for the blessed, desired country of eternal rejoicing and pure, holy delights…These tones now drag on lugubriously, melancholically, drearily, like a wind through the wilderness, now gradually disappear like an echo among cliffs and gorges, now thunder suddenly…The majestic “Lord, have mercy” is like a wind through a desolate place, so sorrowful, moving, and drawn out. The troparion “We hymn thee” ends with a protracted, shimmering, overflowing sound, gradually abating and imperceptibly fading under the vaults of the church, just as an echo dies out under a church’s arches. And when the brethren sing at vespers, “Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me,” the sounds emanate as if from a deep abyss, are quickly and thunderously wrested therefrom and rise to heaven like lightning, taking with them the thoughts and wishes of those at prayer. Everything here is full of significance and majesty, and anything merry, light-hearted, or playful would simply seem strange and ugly.

Above all it is in the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic service celebrated on Sundays and feast days, that God is felt to be palpably present.

The West, then, appears to many Orthodox eyes as a civilization that has lost a sense of the sacred, of the holy, and is willing to profane holy places and trample holy things (and not just church buildings) for the sake of individual self-expression. To a believing Orthodox Christian, matter matters. The church building is not simply a meeting hall for Christians, but a place halfway between heaven and earth where God’s people communicate (= share communion with) the All-Holy, in a special way. We cannot treat the material world, including the human body, as if it were nothing more than material for us to fashion as our wills dictate. If the Soviet experiment proved anything, it’s that. However brutish and cynical Putin may be, he is intelligent enough to have learned that from 20th century Russian history. If he looks to Russia’s recent past, he sees 1984. If he looks West, he sees Brave New World, a materialist anti-human civilization that is being chosen by its people, and called Good. And he does not want that for Russia.

Maybe Putin himself doesn’t think in those terms. I don’t know. Like I said, I have deep, deep misgivings about the Russian state (or any state) entangling itself with the church, though it should be said that it has always been that way in the Christian East, back to the days of Byzantium. And I deplore the thuggishness with which Putin rules. But those who see the disintegration and decline of the West in the grips of secularism and civilizational acedia may be forgiven for not being willing to call Putin the devil incarnate, because whatever his motives, he is at least unwilling to throw Christian civilization onto the ash heap of history. The survival of his nation is at stake. Alas, our leaders don’t see it this way.

UPDATE: Reader Blackadder writes:

As an Orthodox Christian with friends in Moscow and who visits Russia frequently (just got back, actually), and is no fan of Putin and his authoritarian kleptocracy, allow me to throw in my two mites.

1) Just because there is no opposition to Putin that is reported on in the west doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Aside from the immediate threat of state retaliation, Russians as a rule don’t have much of a tradition of in-the-streets-with-signs protesting, for obvious historical and current reasons. Rather, those conversations are carried out in private, and countermoves are done subtly. Trust me, the opposition to the Kremlin within the Russian Church is stronger than you think – it’s just that its happening below the radar of most outside observers.

2) To add to the point made above, Russians are culturally *extremely* protective of churches and other holy spaces, a trait reinforced by their cultural tendency towards conformism. There are churches in even small-town Russia whose splendid interiors could compete with the most famous in mainland Europe, but photographs of them are tragically often nonexistent. The reason is that the mere use of electronic devices in a holy place is often seen as an affront to God Himself, and pulling out a camera (or heaven forbid, a cell phone) will get you a very stern lecture and possibly expelled from the building. The idea that religious spaces might be considered cultural and artistic monuments and objects of tourism to foreigners is largely lost on them. So when you see people being charged for putting on a profane rock concert in a cathedral, or livestreaming playing Pokemon Go, you have to realize that there’s a deep-seated cultural revulsion to those actions that goes beyond mere politics, but that kind of mindset is incomprehensible to most Westerners, who default to materialist political explanations.