Less than three decades ago, it’d been unthinkable for a Russian premier to exchange public expressions of solidarity and goodwill with the head of the country’s Orthodox Church. For years under communism, the institution was suppressed, its priests harassed by the authorities, its churches closed or given over to communal secular pursuits, its devotees scorned for their “superstitious” adherence to doctrines that the state and the party regarded with deep suspicion. Indeed, the USSR was the first nation to have elimination of religion as an ideological objective and tens of thousands… if not hundreds of thousands… of people paid very dearly for their beliefs consequently.
However, things have changed. Nowadays, the nation’s political leaders and top clerics seem to be building an extraordinarily-close relationship. Last week, President Vladimir Putin appeared with Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev to celebrate the latter’s fourth year of leadership of a religion that’s re-establishing its traditional place at the centre of the country’s affairs. Putin, speaking at a ceremony in the Kremlin, said, “At the heart of all Russia’s victories and achievements are patriotism, faith, and strength of spirit. We should give the Church more control over aspects of Russian life; we should give it every opportunity to fully serve in such important fields as the support of family and motherhood, the upbringing and education of children and youth, social development, and the strengthening of the patriotic spirit of the armed forces”.
Such sentiments, which one hears increasingly-often these days, are music to the ears of those who hark back to the days when Russia’s particular brand of Christianity was the country’s dominant moral force. From its foundation in the 10th century, when the Orthodox Church broke from Roman Catholicism (sic), its power and influence grew until it became central to the nation’s very identity, synonymous with Holy Mother Russia. Now, its champions tell you, after the barren wilderness years of Soviet hostility, the Church is merely reclaiming that rightful pre-eminence. Others aren’t quite so convinced. Adherents of other religions and committed atheists (there are still plenty of both in Russia, despite polls which show that almost three-quarters of Russians consider themselves Orthodox) question whether Putin’s recent co-joining of Christian values with patriotism actually has more to do with his desire to unify a country where ethnic and political fault lines are beginning to show than with any genuine commitment to spirituality.
Nevertheless, the Church’s top clerics, basking in the warmth of the Kremlin‘s new-found appreciation, are grateful and happy to reciprocate. Patriarch Kirill famously likened Putin’s time in power to a “miracle of God”. When in the run-up to last year’s presidential elections, the feminist punk-band Pussy Riot controversially entered the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and sang that the Virgin Mary should “throw Putin out”, Church leaders were publicly delighted that the government cracked down hard and that the women received long jail terms. However, there’s more to this closeness than just mutual admiration. One can see physical signs of the Orthodox Church’s resurgence all over Moscow, where a massive state-funded programme, worth billions of roubles, to restore hundreds of Orthodox churches is currently underway.
Although this initiative undoubtedly is returning some of the Russian capital’s ancient architectural wonders to their full glittering glory, it’s caused some to wonder whether the Church should be choosing its friends more wisely. Some even talk darkly about corruption, about the less-than-transparent way publicly-funded reconstruction projects are contracted out, about the oddly-commercial relationships of certain Church institutions, and the controversial use of taxpayers’ money for church-related projects in what is still officially a secular country.
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2 March 2013