Who runs the Soviet church?
From The Times Literary Supplement
May 1, 2009
Who runs the Soviet Church?
The Russian Orthodox Church has survived Communism, the Patriarch is the politician's best friend, but who co-opted whom?
Thomas De Waal
An apocryphal story has it that Stalin was driving through Moscow as Hitler’s armies advanced through the Soviet Union, noticed the slogan “Religion is the Opium of the People!” crowning a public building, and exclaimed, “Opium! That’s what they need!”. The essence of the story is true: in 1943, as several fronts were collapsing, Stalin reversed his anti-religion policies, summoned Orthodox bishops to the Kremlin, and restored to them many of their rights in return for the authority they lent him in the war effort.
The Russian Orthodox Church has always been a central institution for the Russian nation, never entirely losing that role, even under an official atheist regime that persecuted priests and destroyed places of worship. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Church was well placed to step in to the ideological breach left by the disintegration of Communism and become a focus of national identity and continuity for Russians.
It did and it didn’t. The secular heritage of the Soviet Union was too strong for the Church to recover its pre-Revolutionary status. But the Orthodox hierarchy did manage to acquire a privileged position of partnership with the new elite. The strongest physical expression of the new ties was the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (the grand and hideous tsarist-era building demolished by Stalin in 1931) in a joint project between the Mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, a chemist and former career Communist Party official, and Patriarch Alexy II.
This church–state relationship is the central theme of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and power in the new Russia. The front cover, showing an embrace between Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Alexy, graphically makes the point. At the heart of the book is a masterful biography of Alexy himself, who died on December 5, 2008. The Patriarch is portrayed as probably the most skilled politician of modern Russia. He made himself an indispensable ally to Dmitry Medvedev and the new President’s three immediate predecessors, enjoying a particularly fruitful alliance with Putin.
Born Aleksei Ridiger in Estonia in 1929, the future Patriarch built a solid career in the church hierarchy in Soviet times, becoming a bishop by the age of thirty-two. He served in the Russian Orthodox Church’s delegation to the World Council of Churches in what was essentially a diplomatic arm of the Soviet state. Estonian sources and circumstantial evidence suggest that he was a KGB employee, although he never confirmed this. As chancellor of the Moscow Patriarchate, Alexy was instrumental as early as 1983 in winning back the Don Monastery in central Moscow for ecclesiastical use. He came into his own during the perestroika era, securing permission for a wholesale revival of the Church. He then distanced himself from the attempted coup led by Communist hardliners in August 1991, earning the gratitude of both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. In that year of upheaval, the Patriarch revived the traditional veneration of St Seraphim of Sarov, a
hermit who died in 1833 and was much revered by Tsar Nicholas II as a Russian patriot. In July 1991, Alexy organized a 600-mile procession across Russia that saw the return of the saint’s relics to the restored Cathedral in Sarov. As John and Carol Garrard write, “This was an exhilarating message, not from a political leader but a holy man, and Alexy delivered it at just the right moment”.
During the Yeltsin era, the Russian Orthodox Church was one of the few national institutions to prosper. Islam, Judaism and Buddhism were accepted as the faiths of Russian minorities, but other Christian denominations were given second-class status. A 1997 law, “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations”, gave Orthodoxy special status, and failed to mention Catholicism, among other traditions. The Vatican has been persistently rebuffed in its efforts to establish a niche in the new Russia, and Pope John Paul II failed in his ambition to visit the country.
Strong bonds have now been forged between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian army. Press releases from the Patriarchate give updates on how priests bless nuclear submarines and lend icons to warships. The late Patriarch recently held a thanksgiving service in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Officers wore badges in honour of St Seraphim, whose monastery at Sarov is next door to Arzamas-16, the Soviet equivalent of Los Alamos. It is worth noting that this bizarre relationship, unthinkable in a Western country, is in an old Russian tradition. As the authors note, the Church and army were intertwined during tsarist times. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was built to commemorate Russia’s “salvation” from Napoleon and decorated with frescos depicting the victories of 1812.
Whatever his weaknesses, Patriarch Alexy should be remembered for being one of the few figures in modern Russia who had the authority to stand up to the government on issues such as the monetization of pensions and hazing in the army. And the conspicuous grandeur of Orthodox worship contrasts with the frugal lifestyles of most of the clergy.
Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent tells us little about the lower reaches of the Church. It is an important and meticulously researched book, but also a frustrating one. The authors lose sight of their stated goal in frequent digressions, interweaving a history of Orthodoxy and a comparative history of church–state relations into the text that leads us centuries away from the main narrative. In a book ostensibly about the revival of post-Soviet Orthodoxy, we are treated to dozens of pages on the history of Novgorod, the theology underlying the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity of 1054, the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, and many other historical events. The circumstances of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket earn a careful half-page summary. A long exposition on Nicholas II and the Russo–Japanese war seems over-extended, before the authors tell us that “Nicholas II’s rule bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, yet his decisions
are eerily reminiscent of Louis VII of France, who reigned in the twelfth”. Then comes a page-long historical parable from medieval France.
The space the Garrards devote to medieval history could more usefully have been filled with a broader portrait of the role played by the Church in society. As the authors point out, for all the putative spirituality of Russians, church attendance is no higher than in “post-Christian” Western Europe. Loyalty to the Orthodox Church is more of a cultural and national affiliation than a spiritual one: “Whereas some 82 per cent of all Russian respondents call themselves Orthodox, only 42 per cent of Russians call themselves ‘believers’. Indeed, 50 per cent of nonbelievers call themselves Orthodox, as do 42 per cent of atheists! In short, claiming to be ‘Orthodox’ reasserts the speaker’s pride in being Russian – much as Jews in the United States can say sincerely, ‘I am a proud Jew,’ though they might not attend synagogue”. This implies that the break from the Soviet era may not be as big as it seems. For the last two generations of the
Soviet Union, the Church did not pose an existential threat to the regime and in many ways was a useful junior partner. Orthodoxy was not so much destroyed as devalued, and is still struggling to revive its former glory.
The Garrards assert that “The USSR’s fatal mistake was to deny Russian patriotism and subsume it under the rubric of Soviet internationalism”, but this is a false distinction. After the first enthusiastic wave of Bolshevist internationalism, the Soviet Union preached Russian patriotism as an overt part of its state message, alongside socialist solidarity. The adoption of Alexander Nevsky as a national hero during the “Great Patriotic War” was one of many symbolic acts underlining continuity with the Russian Empire. In 1944 Stalin ditched the Internationale in favour of a national anthem whose first two lines proclaimed, “The unbreakable union of free republics was forged forever by Great Rus”.
This raises the question of who has co-opted whom in the new post-Soviet national elite: a political leadership that has consistently selected parts of Russian national tradition to cloak its strategic ambitions, or a patriarchate which is the repository of powerful symbolism but was marginalized in public life? The Garrards make much of Patriarch Alexy’s statement distancing himself from the attempted coup of August 1991. But they overplay the Patriarch’s role in defeating the coup. For both the apparatchiks and generals of the “emergency committee”, the Patriarch’s statement of concern on August 20, a day after the coup was launched, was an unwelcome blow, but not a decisive one. After all, they continued their operations, only backing down when they faced the prospect of having to suppress a mass civic resistance movement in central Moscow.
More importantly, the events of August 1991 have now all but disappeared from public consciousness in Russia. There is virtually no commemoration of it any more, and the coup plotters probably enjoy more public favour than the defenders of democracy. Before he died last year, the former KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, was frequently invited to Kremlin events and gave advice to Putin.
So long as Putin wields power, the peculiar Soviet-style ideology of the KGB, traditionally “the sword and shield” of the state, looks set to dominate Russian national life. Russian Orthodoxy can provide decoration, but it seems doubtful that it can penetrate more deeply than that.
John and Carol Garrard
RUSSIAN ORTHODOXY RESURGENT
Faith and power in the new Russia
313pp. Princeton University Press. $29.95.
978 0 691 12573 2
THOMAS DE WAAL a former Moscow correspondent of The Times, is author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war, 2006.
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