How the Russian Orthodox Church survived communist rule

How the Russian Orthodox Church survived communist rule

Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. (Reuters)

As Notre Dame in Paris smoldered last month, the world’s great and good were scrambling to fund its reconstruction. France’s government pledged to rebuild the cathedral within five years. Wildly varying costs ranged as high as €1 billion ($1.1 billion) — a huge amount to be spent by the government, in a country that is meant to have strict separation between religion and state.
Generating far less coverage, but more significant in its effect, was news last week that the Russian government is to rebuild the Feodorovsky Godorok in St. Petersburg, at a cost of £34 million ($42.8 million), as a home for the Russian Orthodox patriarch of Moscow when he is in the city. The Feodorovsky Godorok was first built as a home for the clergy of the nearby cathedral by Tsar Nicholas II between 1914 and 1917, when he was overthrown.
The Bolshevik reign of terror included an ideological assault on the Russian Orthodox Church. Within five years of the Bolshevik government being established, at least 28 bishops and 1,200 priests of the Church had been executed.
The persecution continued throughout the communist era with varying degrees of intensity, until by the 1980s the once-dominant Church was reduced to fewer than 7,000 churches across the country, with only 31 percent of Russians describing themselves as Orthodox in 1991.
From this low point, the Church has recovered to anything between 43 and 72 percent of Russians today (depending on the survey), and a claim in 2016 that three new Russian Orthodox churches were opening daily across the country.
This rapid advance is thanks, in large part, to the symbiotic relationship between the Church and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In exchange for government largesse and legislative favor, the Church lends the government and its leader authority and legitimacy.
The communist era was an aberration in the history of relations between the Church and the state in Russia, and more broadly in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Eastern Orthodox Church took the form it holds today through its close interaction with the state, from the time of Emperor Constantine onward.
The Russian Orthodox Church was founded upon the baptism of Vladimir the Great (after whom the current president is named) — an act that was probably one of political expediency for a marriage alliance with the Byzantine emperor.
Whatever his reasons, the mass baptism of Vladimir’s subjects followed, and a close relationship between the rulers and the Church began. Through the fluctuations in the fortunes of Vladimir’s successors, the Church and the government remained intertwined, if not always happily. Sometimes the leaders of the Church would exercise effective governmental control; at others, strong rulers would clip the Church’s wings.

The communist era was an aberration in the history of relations between the Church and the state in Russia, and more broadly in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Peter Welby

One of the most notable examples of this was the Church reforms of Peter the Great, which abolished the position of patriarch in favor of a ruling holy synod (or council of senior bishops), removing an individual as a rival power base within the country. The patriarchate was not revived, with coincidental timing, until a vote within days of the Bolshevik coup in October 1917.
After its initial stance of resistance to communist oppression, the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution ultimately survived communist rule through tense acquiescence, with its senior ranks deeply infiltrated by the security state, and opponents driven out. It was in this form that the Church emerged in the 1990s.
These connections stood it in good stead: Then-President Mikhail Gorbachev approved a law in 1990 guaranteeing freedom of religion, and by 1997, after lobbying from the Church, his successor Boris Yeltsin had signed one privileging the Russian Orthodox Church over other Christian churches.
The Church has done its bit to earn this privileged position, by sanctifying state policy and Putin himself. In 2012, just before Putin’s re-election to the presidency, the patriarch described his rule as a “miracle of God,” and compared the complaints of his opponents to “ear-piercing shrieks.” Priests who fail to toe the party line are defrocked or demoted.
The Church has also sought to lend legitimacy to Russia’s military adventurism. It described Russia’s intervention in Syria as a “holy war” (a term that it has since expanded to describe the global fight against terrorism). This choice of words was not lost on the Islamist fighters who believe the same.
During the invasion of Georgia in 2008, then-Russian Patriarch Aleksy appealed for peace and continued to regard the breakaway territories as part of the jurisdiction of the Georgian Church. But his successor was fully behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, describing those fighting against the separatists in Ukraine’s east as “uniates” (under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church). He later said Ukrainians and Belarussians belong to the “Russian world.” Ultimately, this full-throated support for Russian policy led to a schism with the wider Eastern Orthodox churches in 2018.
Despite appearances, church attendance is not particularly high in Russia. A 2017 Pew survey put it at 6 percent of the population. But the Church itself is perhaps in its strongest political position in centuries, all thanks to its close embrace of Putin’s rule.
In the calculations of the Church’s leadership, the benefits of this embrace are worth the cost, even of a split in Eastern Orthodoxy. And from Putin’s point of view, the Church’s support is a crucial plank of his claim to legitimacy.

  • Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby
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