The Church Has Replaced the Communist Party
18 September 2012
By Vladimir Ryzhkov
As President Vladimir Putin tries to strengthen his vertical power structure,
the country's social divisions are growing deeper.
The Pussy Riot case divided Russian society between those calling
for leniency for the women and those who demanded that they be severely
punished. This split also represents the division in attitudes toward
the Russian Orthodox Church itself. Many Orthodox believers have openly
criticized the church hierarchy for its reactionary stance on the case and for
its close alliance with the country's authoritarian leadership. In response,
squads of self-appointed Orthodox vigilantes have taken to the streets
to enforce the church's moral code of public behavior.
Amid all this, there has been a sharp discussion on the Internet regarding
the list of Orthodox church scandals — from the appalling way that Patriarch
Kirill pressed charges against his neighbor for leaving excessive dust in his
luxury apartment to a series of car accidents involving Orthodox priests,
sometimes drunk, driving expensive foreign automobiles. Topping the list
of scandals was a photograph showing Patriarch Kirill wearing a very expensive
watch, which the church sloppily tried to erase using Photoshop.
Orthodox leaders claim that there is an organized campaign, supported by the
opposition and its supposed sponsors, to discredit the church. In response,
public figures accuse the church of colluding with the Kremlin to force
obedience to the authoritarian regime, stifle dissent and violate
the Constitution by merging the church and state.
It seems that the Russian authorities are the ones most actively
and deliberately working to deepen divisions in society.
There are, indeed, two Russias. The first Russia consists of about 15 million
"modernist and European" citizens, or 11 percent of the population, who live
mostly in large and medium-sized cities, have a higher education and are
employed in the private sector, which makes them less dependent on the state.
They are the foundation of the opposition movement that has taken to the streets
for the protests that began in December. Most of the Russian intelligentsia
belongs to this group, although there are many high-profile members of the
"creative intelligentsia," such as singers Oleg Gazmanov and Yelena Vayenga
and film director Nikita Mikhalkov, who go out of their way to support Putin.
The second Russia consists of about 40 million conservative citizens, or 30
percent of the population. They are nostalgic about the Soviet period, support
Putin and believe the country as a whole is moving in the right direction. They
are mainly residents of outlying provinces, small and medium-sized cities
and rural areas. Their distinguishing feature is their dependence on government
support in the form of salaries, pensions, social benefits and subsidies
from the federal budget. The members of this group don't want convulsions to the
existing social order and favor stability even when it means stagnation.
Uralvagonzavod factory director Igor Kholmanskikh has become a poster child
for this Russia, along with Sveta from Ivanovo. Kholmanskikh is now
the presidential envoy to the Urals Federal District, and Sveta became the host
of a prime-time show on NTV.
These two Russias hold vastly different values and attitudes toward
democracy, freedom and human rights. The Western-bent and modernist Russia
demands protection of human rights and freedoms, tolerance of dissent, the right
to privacy, free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, freedom of the
press and guarantees for private property and fair market competition. It calls
for a secular government and a strict separation of church and state. In foreign
policy, this more educated and progressive class supports closer ties with
the European Union and the United States and is suspicious of Russia's
friendship with Belarus, Venezuela and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Much of provincial, conservative Russia has little concern for democracy
and human rights and is most interested in receiving government handouts
and achieving lifetime job security with positions in the bloated state
The same people who once bowed before portraits of Vladimir Lenin
and Communist leaders now pay homage to the Russian Orthodox Church and its
icons. In Soviet times, any criticism of the Communist Party was considered
blasphemy. Now, criticizing the Orthodox church qualifies as blasphemy. This
Russia is strongly anti-Western and anti-U.S., and it believes that there is
a global conspiracy against the country. It is convinced that the opposition is
a fifth column of agents funded by the U.S. State Department.
Putin has openly aligned himself with the conservative Russia and has
initiated a war against the values most important to the progressive Russia:
freedom of speech, the freedom to form nongovernmental organizations, freedom
of creative expression and the right of assembly, and the unrestricted use
of the Internet.
Russia has not been this deeply divided since the supporters and opponents
of democratic and market reforms battled each other in the 1990s, a period
marked by dangerous social tensions. The danger we face today is that social
divisions and the escalating standoff between society and the ruling powers will
once again erupt in a violent standoff between retrograde and progressive
members of society.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political
talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio and is a co-founder of the opposition RP-Party
of People's Freedom.
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