Putin is always looking for new ways to consolidate his power, and a well that never seems to run dry for him is the traditionally state-friendly Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill I, the primate of the Church, recently celebrated the fourth anniversary of his leadership, and Putin took the opportunity to state his support for increased Church influence in Russian life. Reuters reports:
“While preserving the secular nature of our state, and not allowing the over-involvement of the government in Church life, we need to get away from the vulgar, primitive understanding of secularism,” [Putin] said.
“The Russian Orthodox Church and other traditional religions should get every opportunity to fully serve in such important fields as the support of family and motherhood, the upbringing and education of children, youth, social development, and to strengthen the patriotic spirit of the armed forces.”
For a while now, Putin has been appealing to a Russian “silent majority” to build support for his Putinocracy. There’s a division in Russia between the increasingly restive and dissatisfied urban middle class, and the majority of poorer, often more traditionally-minded Russians. This silent majority not only take a kinder view towards the centralized government, which they rely on for financial support, but they also tend to be more pious.
Enter Putin’s courting of of the Orthodox Church. The close relationship between the the Church and Putin became especially clear in the Pussy Riot trial, when Putin cast himself as the defender of the faith against godless blasphemers. Many commenters have picked up on the “unholy alliance” between Putin and the Church. The two power centers have a lot in common, including the fact that many senior Orthodox clerics got their start in the days when Putin’s old employer the KGB made sure to fill the church’s ranks with pliant government stooges.
But it’s also true that the two share a common antipathy toward “foreign” ideological and religious currents emanating from the west. Secular liberalism is something the priests hate as much as the Putinites, but there is also a deep suspicion of non-Russian religious traditions. Note Putin’s careful reference to the “traditional” religions that he feels have a place in Russia. That firmly excludes a number of Protestant and other religious movements that the government and the church both want to marginalize. Neither religious nor political groups with roots abroad are welcome in these defensive days in Russia.
Fortunately for the Orthodox Church, its greatest resources don’t lie with the power-friendly, Rolex-wearing clerics who will serve any secular master who comes along. A deep tradition of popular piety that rejects the trappings of wealth and power and is deeply suspicious of glittering prelates gave the Orthodox Church the spiritual strength to survive 70 years of Communist persecution. That faith in the heart remains the source of much that is strong and good in Russia today, and whatever the fate of the institutional church, the spiritual light that illuminates so many Russian lives is not easily corrupted or coopted.