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The Orthodox Church and the Struggle for Russia's Soul

Message Nicolai Petro
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A version of this item first appeared in the
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel of April 20, 2012

Introduce by Vladimir Frolov: As Russians celebrated Easter this past weekend, the Russian Orthodox Church, or to be more precise its conservative top leadership, including Patriarch Kirill, are facing increasing public criticism and pressure for their cozy relationship with the state, extending unabashed political support to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during the recent presidential election, repression against critics, conspicuous consumption and flashy lifestyles by some of the Church's prominent leaders.

 Why is the Russian Orthodox Church under attack? Is it because the Church leaders have aligned themselves too closely with Vladimir Putin during his presidential campaign? Or is it because the Church leaders, including Patriarch Kirill, are undermining the moral authority of the Church by their conspicuous personal consumption and persecution of their critics in and outside the Church? Is the Church leadership's cultural conservatism at odds with a more culturally diverse society in Russia's major metropolitan centers, particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg? What should be the proper relationship between the Church, the State and Society in the modern post-industrial country Russian is striving to become?


This conflict is but a small skirmish in the struggle for the soul of modern Russia. There will be many more to come.

This particular skirmish involves the question of how society should respond to three masked young women who staged a "punk prayer service" in front of the altar in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in the area where the faithful take communion and the Gospel is read.

Setting up portable speakers they belted out a song calling upon the "Mother of God, [to] Throw Putin Out." Ostensibly about Putin, their crude lyrics were aimed primarily at Patriarch Kirill, who is referred to as a "b*tch" who believes in Putin rather than in God, and at the Orthodox faithful, "whose chief saint is the head of the KGB" and who "crawl and bow" before their "rotten" Church leaders.

After their impromptu service was halted by church security, the young women were escorted from the premises. When they posted a clip of their performance on YouTube, however, the state prosecutor issued a warrant for their arrest on charges of hooliganism. Under Russian law the penalty for hooliganism, when accompanied by conspiracy, ranges from a hefty fine to imprisonment for up to seven years.

The case would seem to be a rather straightforward one, but unexpectedly the women's detention became a cause celebre. Amnesty International hailed them as "prisoners of conscience." A few noted artists and intellectuals called for their release, saying that the incident was another example of the repression of dissent and free speech (this, indeed, has been the dominant theme in Western reporting).

The response among the Orthodox faithful has been mixed. Some have held public rallies and, in cities like Krasnodar, speakers have called for the full application of the law.  But there have also been public comments, even by priests, who have called upon the Church to forgive them, saying that the girls were merely trying to raise issues for discussion.

Senior clergy have tried to steer a middle course. They have condemned the group's actions as sacrilegious and warned that this sort of behavior should not be trivialized, particularly in the context of Soviet history. This point is not to be taken lightly.  After all, it was widespread tolerance for antireligious bigotry at the turn of the century that fed the organized antireligious violence of the 1920s and 30s. Perhaps there is even some significance that we are not yet aware of to the fact that the group chose to stage their act in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the very same church built on public donations that Stalin had demolished in 1931 as a sign of his victory over religious superstition.

The Church's critics, however, complain that the constitutionally guaranteed separation of Church and State has been gradually eroded. Presumably, they would like seek to establish a regime in which the practice of religion is neither suppressed nor encouraged, but kept quiet and out of sight. A society like modern America in which, as Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter put it, religion is "something without political significance, less an independent moral force than a quietly irrelevant moralizer, never heard, rarely seen."

But instead of meekly retiring, Patriarch Kirill has charged the Russian Orthodox Church with the ambitious task of "re-Christianizing society."  While accepting the separation of Church and State as a reality of modern democracy, it has said that there should be no forced separation of Church and society. It is precisely the Orthodox Church's (or any religion's claim, for that matter) bold claim that its social vision has relevance for a modern Russia that its most arch critics cannot tolerate, and which makes this an epic struggle for the soul of modern Russia. 
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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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