A recent, long article in the Christian Science Monitor profiles the revival of Orthodoxy’s political influence in Russia, arguing that religion is filling the void left by the collapse of Communism. A taste:
[J]ust before the mid-December blastoff of the latest Soyuz mission to the International Space Station, the countdown procedure was halted to allow a robed and bearded Russian Orthodox priest a few minutes to shuffle around the mighty rocket, sprinkling holy water on its fuselage, murmuring snatches of biblical verse, and calling upon God to keep it safe. He also blessed each of the three astronauts – American, Russian, and British – about to make the journey.
Such is the new normal in today’s Russia. The 1993 Constitution strictly defines Russia as a secular state, in which no religion is the official or obligatory one. But many people in post-Soviet Russia yearn for ideological certainties to fill the void left by communism. And with the ascent of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s new order, the Russian Orthodox Church, an ancient institution that was nearly annihilated during seven decades of Soviet rule, is returning to a highly visible and central role in the life of the country.
This article follows the usual path of journalism on this topic. But though the author quotes an academic to the effect that “there is no doubt” that Putin “is in charge,” the piece misses the most important point: Today’s Russian Orthodox Church is the child of the Soviet-era Church, which a relentless, murderous, and utterly determined KGB subordinated to Communist power. The KGB, now turned into the FSB, remains the backbone of the Russian state, and there is nothing to suggest that its power over the Orthodox Church’s hierarchy has withered away. Even if some genuinely independent figures managed to enter the hierarchy during the years of the Yeltsin interregnum, and even if former accomplices with the Communist regime sought to deepen the genuinely spiritual nature of the Church, a powerful, government-backed faction of clerics have retained a decisive voice inside it. Where conviction doesn’t suffice, bribes and threats will do nicely. There are, sadly, as many skeletons in the closets of the Orthodox clergy as there are in the closets of Catholic and Protestant clergy: Original Sin is an ecumenical force. Today’s FSB is no less willing than the KGB of old to use compromising information—whether financial, sexual, or otherwise—to keep people in line.
With the collapse of the synthesis of Bolshevism and Russian nationalism that Stalin forged during World War II, Putin’s state needs a new, post-Communist, legitimating ideological agency, and that is the part assigned to the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. It is less effective at this job than the Communist Party was, and there is always the danger that even the most corrupt and compromised of priests can suddenly start taking religion seriously. But this is the institution Putin has, and he is using it as best he can.
None of this means that the Church is a purely passive instrument. Both in its support of the Syrian war and in its (quiet and tempered) opposition to the adventure in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church has followed its own ideological principles and priorities. But to write about the role of the Orthodox Church in Putin’s Russia without taking account of the deep relationship between the Russian deep state and the contemporary, as well as the historical, Church is to miss something big.