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.
Putin and Kirill have also seemed to move in tandem when cracking down on dissent within their ranks. Putin has abolished the election of regional governors, wiped out opposition parties in the parliament, and crushed critical voices in the media. Most recently, he’s seized the right to open any letter in the Russian mail, a directive that shamelessly ignores a right to mail privacy spelled out in the Russian constitution (even state-sponsored propaganda project Russia Today was appalled). Yet Kirill routinely gives Putin cover on such decisions, praising and blessing his government at every opportunity.
The church has not been shy about playing the role of enforcer, leading many to see it as just another Kremlin ministry of power. It defrocked a priest who dared to question the show trial and conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky after the oil baron began making noises about seeking the presidency. It demoted another priest when he questioned whether the patriarch had too much power. And it excommunicated a third who participated in a government commission that exposed a large number of Soviet-era clerics as KGB informers.
At the same time, there is increasing nationalism on open display among the clergy. Even as Putin has been moving to rehabilitate nationalist figures like the mass-murderer Josef Stalin by creating new history books that rationalize Stalin’s tactics, one St. Petersburg cleric went as far as to create a holy icon depicting the homicidal dictator — a reflection of a growing movement within the church to canonize the Soviet overlord. For his part, Putin’s many public appearances with Kirill make it absolutely clear which religion Putin approves of.
In a genuinely stunning development, at a recent outdoor religious rally in Tehran, a throng of Iranian worshippers shouted back in unison “Down with Russia!” when called upon by the cleric to chant “Down with the USA!” Iranians are outraged by the unqualified support the Kremlin has provided to their existing government, as they risk their lives challenging their recent national elections as fraudulent. It’s clear that religion is turning into a real powder keg where Russia is concerned and that the rise of Orthodoxy places Russia on a collision course not only with the West but also with the Muslim world — an increasingly significant player in Russian society.