Staunton, January 7 – Despite Vladimir Putin’s very public invocation of religion and his tight embrace of Patriarch Kirill, the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church has fallen over the last year, the result of government policies which could be called “covert secularization” and the spread of the notion of “Orthodox atheism,” according to Boris Kolymagin.
In a commentary in Yezhednevny Zhurnal, Kolymagin argues that the Russian government has become increasingly involved in the affairs of the church, blocking the recovery of Russian Orthodoxy from Soviet oppression and reducing the church’s influence on many aspects of public policy.
And that in turn means, he continues, that “’Orthodox atheism,’” a term used by and associated with Alexander Lukashenko, “’the last dictator of Europe,’” has now crossed the Belarusian border and is “proudly marching through Putin’s Russia,” however much Moscow political technologists try to conceal that fact.
The course of events in Ukraine and the recent declaration by the Orthodox of Belarus that they want autonomy or even autocephaly has paid to the notion of a strong “Russian world” in which Patriarch Kirill and Putin had put so much faith. As a result, Kolymagin says, “’Political orthodoxy’” lost much of its utility as a political resource.
But perhaps more importantly, the Moscow commentator continues, Orthodoxy as a resource has been falling “not only in politics but also in culture.” Superficially, Russia’s “political elite continues to use the ruling confession as a means of communication,” but, Kolymagin argues, this is increasingly “being done by inertia and without prospects.”
It has become obvious that “the church’s top managers are interested in the cultural theme only as a means of extracting budgetary funds designated by the government for culture” rather than in culture as such. And that reality has been highlighted by the response of the church to the budget crisis, Kolymagin says.
As less money is available for anything, the church leaders are “moderating their appetites.” No one is talking anymore about projects “like the conversion of Rostov Velikiy into Kitezh in the manner of Luzhkov’s stylization” of Moscow. For that, Kolymagin continues, everyone can say “thank you to the crisis.”
More seriously, he says, “cultural impulses from simple parishioners are disappearing” primarily because the heavy hand of the state is taking control of all sorts of “musical festivals, literary competitions, and socially significant initiatives.” If anything alive does get through, it is “despite” that rather than because of official encouragement.
At present, Kolymagin writes, “the new Putin secularism, connected above all with the subordination of religion to the needs of the government is gathering force.” To say that, he continues, “does not mean that it was not operating earlier but rather that [over the last year] quantity has passed into quality.”
Support for his argument, the commentator says, is to be found in a new collection of articles issued by the Moscow Carnegie Center, “The Construction and Deconstruction of the Secular World.” He points to the articles of Boris Dubin, Sergey Filatov and Oleg Morozov as particularly valuable and instructive.
But Kolymagin says one essay in the collection, Aleksey Uminsky’s “The Christian Community and Civil Society,” requires a response. Uminsky paints an idealized picture of the organization of church life, but nowhere does he say how that can emerge in Putin’s Russia, “under conditions of authoritarianism and the tyranny of the church’s top managers.”
That failure, Kolymagin says, makes Uminsky’s call “to cereate a society something like the call of Father Gapon” in 1905 when the priest led a group of the Orthodox faithful to petition the tsar. “To go in that way is possible,” says Kolymagin, “but what is to be done if they begin to shoot?”
The commentator does suggest that one result of the last year may prove positive for the church in the future: many of the “hot heads” who had been attracted to its ranks in recent times on the assumption that they could make careers are leaving, opening the way for real believers to take their place. If that happens, the future could become less bleak than it now appears.
Kolymagin’s essay is one of a large number of articles which have appeared in recent months about the fate of the church. Most of them accept the following paradigm: Russia was an intensely religious country before the Bolsheviks came. Then the Communists with their official atheism harmed the church, and now it is recovering.
There is more than a little truth in that version of history, but it is not the whole story, and some Russians are now exploring the fact that while the church as a structure was strong before 1917, the population was in many ways significantly less religious than many now think.
Such investigations, of course, often reflect an alternative ideology, but they also help to explain much that happened in the 20th century and much that is happening now, when the senior hierarchs are increasingly subordinate to the needs of the political leadership but increasingly isolated from the needs of those they claim as their flock.