Two stunning initiatives from the Russian government over the past few weeks illustrate a disturbing fusion of religion and politics as Vladimir Putin’s regime makes a final effort to consolidate dictatorship.
First, the government announced that it would consult the Russian Orthodox Church before introducing any legislative proposals in parliament, in essence giving the church a veto on legislation and allowing the church to promote an openly religious agenda in parliament.
Then, the regime declared it would begin teaching Orthodox religion in schools, ignoring the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. Study of other Christian faiths, like Protestantism and Catholicism, has already been ruled out, and it’s clear that the lip-service being paid to Islam is only window dressing.
It probably should not be surprising to see religion and politics begin to overlap in Russia, since both the leader of the Orthodox Church — Patriarch Kirill — and Vladimir Putin are former KGB spies. Indeed, it was not the men who separated from the KGB, but the organization that separated from them, when it collapsed along with the entire USSR apparatus. Putin has said he views that separation as one of the greatest tragedies in Russian history, and he played a key role in bringing Kirill to the seat of power.
As Russia finds itself more and more in the grip of a paralyzing economic crisis, the blessing of the church offers a handy bit of leverage against popular unrest, allowing Putin to justify further crackdowns beyond the mere grounds of patriotism. “Sure,” Putin can say, “it violates the Constitution. But the church is OK with it, so how bad could it be?” Putin and Kirill often make official state visits together where they pose for candle-lighting photo-ops — as they did recently in the religious hamlet of Valaam — clothing the regime with an extra indicia of authority and legitimacy that makes it even harder for critics to gain traction.