A Constitution of Orthodoxy

December 2, 2013

Yelena Mizulina, chair of the State Duma Committee on Family, Women and Childrens’ Affairs, is the infamous Russia politician who co-authored the “homosexual propaganda” law that banned advocating for gay rights. She is a member of the Just Russia party who has also been elected to parliament from the Communist Party, Yabloko, and Union of Right Forces.

Two weekends ago, she attended a family values conference in Germany where she disparaged the local gay activists and made other comments that made international news. She is also an advocate for changing the Russian Constitution that would make the Russian Orthodox Church the basis for the national identity. – Ed.

Yelena Mizulina, a State Duma Deputy, once again made the blogosphere ​​happy with yet another initiative: this time the morality crusader suggests to amend the Constitution of the Russian Federation as to declare that Orthodoxy is the basis of national and cultural identity of Russia. ”Fontanka” found out what the possible consequences of stating this seemingly obvious fact in the preamble to the Basic Law of the country could be.

At a regular meeting of the Interfactional Group in Defense of Christian values​​, held on November 22 in Moscow, the deputies endorsed the initiative by Yelena Mizulina of [the political party] Just Russia to amend the preamble of the Constitution of the Russian Federation to state that Orthodoxy is the basis of national and cultural identity of Russia.

“And at the same time to repeal the article of the Constitution stating that Russia is a secular state,” said the executive secretary of the Human Rights Council of St. Petersburg Natalia Yevdokimova. “Otherwise, we have a contradiction in the Constitution. Of course, I’m kidding, but this is where everything is going to. In my opinion our Orthodox, or pseudo-Orthodox rulers, are moving in the direction of amending the Constitution precisely in this part. And then what do we do with Muslims, Buddhists, Jews? And so the tension increases, and they add fuel to the blaze. This can lead to sectarian violence. And even the fact that these words may appear in the preamble and not in the main text of the Constitution, is crucial. The preamble to the law on illegally persecuted political prisoners contained the provision, whereby the state recognized its responsibility for the repressions, but then these words somehow disappeared from the preamble. And the spirit of the law changed.”

Heydar Jemal, a theologian and the Chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia, believes that the proposal by Yelena Mizulina is nothing but an attempt to ”patch up” something that should be scrapped and then drafted from scratch. ”The current Constitution was drafted by liberals who just wanted to legitimize the military coup, the coup by Yeltsin against the Supreme Soviet,” says Heydar Jemal. “They put this Constitution ‘on the knee,’ and it adopted with large-scale violations. And this Constitution reflects the liberal mentality, and if it is patched up in the traditionalist Eurasian style, the result will be a chimera with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion. This Constitution cannot be corrected, it has to be completely scrapped and replaced by a new one.” The scholar also believes that the thesis proposed by the deputy is fundamentally wrong. “Maybe in the days of the Romanovs, Orthodoxy was the basis of national identity, but the 90 years of Soviet and post-Soviet times have seen several generations,” says Heydar Jemal. “They were based on the formation of a different matrix of Soviet community, that eventually was destroyed. As a result, today we cannot say that Orthodoxy is the basis of any identity. A basis of identity means being part of a more or less defined political space. Not of the past, of which no one has the knowledge. The only reality is a political space from the Baltic Sea to Sakhalin, and today it is the minimum that is the basis of our identity. Because the rest is hypocrisy or lies. Neither Soviet nor the royal past is an effective factor here and now. The past cannot be the basis of identity like some kind of historical trauma. But at the same time, belonging to the same political space, we can be atheists or skeptics, Muslims or Christians. This political space is the common denominator for all the people living here: Tatars, Chechens, Yakut, and so on, and the destiny of this space is at the same time their destiny. And all these ideas by Mizulina is nothing but mythology that has nothing to do with reality.” The theologian explained that the ”political space” refers to a single territory, that has a common destiny and acts as a distinct entity vs. the rest of the world.

“It is clear that Orthodoxy is the main guardian of the Russian cultural tradition,” says the rector of the St. Petersburg Traditional Buddhist Sangha temple, Buda Badmaev. “But the Russian cultural tradition has many other sides as well. And we can say that there were some pagan things, and much more. But, nevertheless, Orthodoxy today is a fundamental component of culture. I think the other major religions, such as Islam, are entitled to equal treatment. And they can raise this issue and that could lead to controversy. As for us, Buddhists, we are not too many, and we do not claim a leading role in this regard. For Buddhists, of paramount importance are understanding, clarity of mind and knowledge. We understand why this issue is relevant today, we understand that it is about protecting the interests of the Russian culture and identity. Anyway, after a while, if this issue ceases to be relevant, it may even be removed from the Constitution.”

Andrei Kuraev, the Archdeacon of the Russian Orthodox Church and a professor of the Moscow Theological Academy, was not enthusiastic about ​​Yelena Mizulina’s idea. ”In today’s environment, the consequences of making such an idea part of the Constitution will be negative for the church, there will be accusations that we want something,” says Andrey Kuraev. “The preamble of any law has no legal force, it is just a declaration of the legislators’ motives. Making amendments to the Constitution requires a constitutional majority in the State Duma and the Council of the Federation, and in both chambers there are people of different religious and ideological persuasions. The law on freedom of conscience and religion contains some provisions to this effect, and it is not immediately clear why they have to be duplicated. As to Ms. Mizulina, what is expected of her is not such legislative novelties, but a more coherent position regarding protection of the traditional family. Recently the Central Office of the State Duma blocked a bill that provided for technical limitations designed to reduce the number of abortions in Russia. It would prohibit doctors [who do not have certain qualifications] to perform abortions. But even that novelty was rejected by the State Duma, and representatives of religious organizations were not even invited to discuss it. Words and preamble are one thing, but reality is something completely different.”

The press service of the Great Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg said that at the moment there is no reason to comment: ”Once they adopt it, then we’ll talk. They can propose anything.”

Leonid Polyakov, the Head of the Higher School of Economics Department of Political Science, notes that there is nothing out of the ordinary in Yelena Mizulina’s proposal, that is in terms of international experience. ”In the German constitution in the very first sentence there are the words on the responsibility of the German people before God, the Constitution of Bulgaria defines Eastern Orthodoxy as a traditional religion, the Bolivian constitution has similar provisions, and, of course, I’m not even talking about Islamic states,” says Leonid Polyakov. “The United Kingdom is a model of democracy, but even there the Queen is the head of the Anglican Church of England and Presbyterian Church of Scotland. And this combination of secularism and religion does not surprise anyone. The initiative itself should not generate some a public controversy, as is happening now in blogs. Another question is how wise such proposals could be from a political perspective. That Orthodoxy is the basis of our cultural identity is a self‑evident fact. Anyone who knows history understands that without Orthodoxy there would be no Russia, not even the Soviet Union. But to make this self-evident fact part of the law is to recognize that now this fact is in question. The law is always some kind of indirect coercion, or enforcement. And while guided by the best of intentions we are moving along a wrong path. If there is some place where this should be laid down as a base storyline, that would be a standard Russian history textbook. As for the political consequences in a country where there is interfaith peace and there are no sectarian conflicts, such an initiative in the form of a constitutional amendment can ‘awaken a sleeping dog.’ We see how these conflicts erupt over some minor things. When a provincial Swedish tabloid published some caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, riots erupted in several countries, some people died [the newspaper was, in fact, Danish – Ed.]. I would suggest to stick to the current preamble. And the fact that the actual status and the historical role of Orthodoxy must be the focus of history teachers and a part of cultural policy is beyond question.”

Vitaly Milonov, a member of St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, notes that amending the Russian Constitution is a long and complex process that requires public debate. ”We live in a democratic state, where anyone can come up with any proposals, provided they do not call for beating up anybody who is black, white or red,” said the deputy. “And any changes to the Constitution, given the nature of its origin, can only be made by a national referendum. If enough signatures have been collected, the proposal can be discussed. But if you draw a cross on your forehead it doesn’t make you a Christian. If Russia is called Christian state, it cannot simply be called that, it needs to be such a state. About 70-80 percent of people call themselves Orthodox, but how many would actually agree to stand up against abortion and absolute permissiveness in public space? To be called and to be are two different things. And to her credit Yelena Mizulina is actually involved in several initiatives against abortion. A abortion ban needs to be supported at least at public expense. My personal opinion is that Russia should be an Orthodox state. But when making important decisions, the State Duma does not consult the church.”

It should be remembered that the last time the Constitution of the Russian Federation was amended was in 2008. The changes of December 30, 2008 required the government of the Russian Federation to submit to the State Duma annual reports on its activities, including on the issues raised by the State Duma. Those changes also extended the presidential term from four to six years, and the term of the State Duma from four to five years.