ENGLISH VERSION: Autocracy or Theocracy? By Lawrence A. Uzzell
Is Russia becoming a theocracy? The country's increasingly monolithic political structure seems to call for a monolithic ideology, and the strongest available candidate is Russian Orthodox Christianity. Today's Moscow Patriarchate uniquely combines deep roots in Russian history, instinctive loyalty even from millions who never go to church, and leaders who are sufficiently, but not excessively, Sovietized for the tastes of today's Kremlin.
Nevertheless, a closer look shows that the patriarchate's political clout is actually shrinking. Dramatic events such as its second-highest bishop's recent denunciation of Russia's human rights movement obscure a deeper reality: The patriarchate is most seemingly influential when it is helping the Kremlin do what the latter already wants to do anyway. When the church's goals clash with powerful secular interests, it usually loses.
In recent years, the patriarchate has tried to win restoration of church lands confiscated by the Soviet regime; to recover ownership of icons and other valuables now held by the Culture and Press Ministry; to introduce chaplains as a formal part of the military; to secure more favorable tax treatment of its charitable and other activities; and to get the state school system to adopt a religious studies course based on a controversial pro-Orthodox textbook. On every one of these issues, the patriarchate has been defeated or at least neutralized.
Consider the debate over land ownership, pitting the Orthodox Church against collective farms and other institutions that now occupy old monastic farmlands and other church holdings nationalized by the Bolsheviks. Two years ago, the State Duma considered a proposal to return such real estate to the church. It soon became clear that a huge area was at stake: as much as 3 million hectares, far more than needed for worship or religious education. The patriarchate argued that it would use the revenues from that land to support programs such as charitable services -- but given the lack of transparency in the church's budget, many were skeptical.
A year later the patriarchate's allies in the Duma tried a more modest proposal: to grant religious organizations full ownership of real estate used specifically for religious purposes. (Most church buildings, even those actively used by Orthodox parishes revived since the Soviet collapse, are still formally owned by the state -- which legally might charge those parishes rent or even expel them, should it choose.) Even this proposal, which would only concede the same property rights that religious bodies take for granted elsewhere, was rejected. Significantly, the Kremlin opposed it.
The Orthodox are now turning to a tactic usually associated with human rights activists: suing their own government. Three weeks ago, a Moscow parish launched a lawsuit demanding recognition of its property rights to its own church building, occupied for decades by the State Oriental Museum. Other parishes are reportedly preparing to file similar cases. This new tactic is a sign of weakness: If Russia were the theocracy that some claim it to be, state property agencies would simply bow to the church's will and no lawsuits would be necessary.
The issue of religion in the state schools also pits the Orthodox Church against entrenched interests. Two years ago, then-Education Minister Vladimir Filippov endorsed a new school subject, "Foundations of Orthodox Culture." The course's textbook was promoted as a neutral history of the contributions of Orthodox Christianity to Russian history, art, music, literature, etc. -- about which any educated Russian should know whether or not he is a believer. But critics argued with good reason that parts of the textbook amounted to theological indoctrination -- suitable for parochial schools, but not for state schools serving families from various religious and ideological backgrounds. The new curriculum drew vigorous opposition from Duma deputies, Communist leaders, Muslim clergy and others who had previously supported the Moscow Patriarchate's measures to repress Protestants and other minorities. The patriarchate was forced to start backtracking as early as spring 2003, when its representatives met with Islamic, Jewish and Buddhist leaders to develop a common proposal for a course on "Foundations of Religious Doctrines."
The Education Ministry also retreated. Filippov announced in December 2003 that the issue would be left up to regional governments, perhaps even to individual schools, and that "we don't yet have a common textbook that the ministry could recommend to all." President Vladimir Putin also hedged, vaguely reassuring skeptics that "we have a constitution and federal laws by which the state is separate from religion and religion separate from the state. ... We are not planning to change anything in that area." Filippov's successor, Andrei Fursenko, has since continued to distance the ministry from its original position. In May 2004, he announced plans for a new school subject to be called "history of religion." Non-Orthodox parents still have reason to fear that regional officials will quietly slip Orthodox apologetics into local schools -- but that is a far cry from the systematic nationwide policy that the church originally sought.
This is not to say that the church does not enjoy significant privileges. Though weak relative to the best-connected secular interests, the Moscow Patriarchate is incomparably stronger than any other religious body. In flagrant violation of the statutory provision that all religious associations are equal before the law, the patriarchate enjoys state subsidies for its buildings, preferred access to institutions such as prisons and hospitals, and a symbolic presence at ceremonies such as presidential inaugurations. It has achieved substantial, though incomplete, success in lobbying state officials to repress other faiths -- for example, to bar Protestants from renting public meeting rooms. Nevertheless, such discrimination falls far short of Soviet-style imposition of a monolithic, compulsory belief system. What we are seeing is not theocracy but interest-group politics, the co-opting of religious leaders as useful allies.
For one thing, the co-opted religious leaders are not only Orthodox. As was made explicit in the 1997 law on religion, Russia now has four formally recognized "traditional" religions: Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. In order to get the law passed, the Moscow Patriarchate had to settle for a cartel rather than a monopoly. Restrictions on religious minorities have become significantly harsher since the early Yeltsin years, but in practice they fall well short of what one would expect in a theocracy. One sees virtually no correlation between the degree to which a religious entity disagrees with Orthodox doctrines and the likelihood that the state will crack down on that entity. The state picks favorites on the basis not of their theological beliefs but the state's own political interests.
Not surprisingly, the clerics who enjoy state favoritism can usually be counted on to avoid speaking up on issues where their moral heritage contradicts the state's current policies. One would be hard-pressed to name a single mainstream religious leader who has vigorously criticized the atrocities of the military in Chechnya -- even when the victims of those atrocities are Russian draftees. The top clerics concentrate instead on lobbying for institutional privileges for themselves, while leaving the tough questions to secular activists such as the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers. Overall, the Kremlin has already achieved with the nation's key religious bodies what it would like to achieve with NGOs in general: intimidation and conformity. It is not the church (or mosque or synagogue) that dictates to the state, but vice versa.
In the long run, the Russian Orthodox Church has tremendous potential to rediscover its independent prophetic voice, to revive ancient models such as St. Philip of Moscow, who heroically denounced the abuses of Ivan the Terrible. But today's patriarchate is warped not only by Soviet but by 18th- and 19th-century habits of servility to the state. It is Russian first, Orthodox second -- shaped more by romantic nationalism than by classic Byzantine theology. That distortion is especially clear in its relations with the armed forces and security agencies.
Despite the Defense Ministry's continued reluctance to revive the formal institution of military chaplains, the Moscow Patriarchate has made considerable progress at building ties with the siloviki. It has signed formal agreements with several security agencies that make it easier for its priests to visit military bases; a major emphasis is "patriotic education," reminiscent of the indoctrination programs conducted by political officers during the Soviet years. Even more clearly than in other areas of church-state relations, the patriarchate seems satisfied to accept the role of the military's junior partner. Preaching uncritical obedience to the state is what comes naturally.
As long as instinctive servility remains part of the genetic code of Russia's most important religious organization, the Kremlin does not need to pursue a coherent, consistent policy on religion.
However, the absence of an Orthodox theocracy does not necessarily mean the triumph of religious freedom. Instead it can mean the entrenchment of officials who arbitrarily grant and withdraw privileges on the basis of bribery, personal favoritism, secular ideologies or popular emotions such as the current hysteria against the Jehovah's Witnesses. That is more or less what Russia has today -- accompanied by a vague sense that it is still "an Orthodox country," where most ethnic Russians tell pollsters that they consider themselves Orthodox even if they almost never go to church.
A politician who wants to succeed in such a climate would be well-advised to follow Putin's example: His staff arranges photo ops for him at settings such as provincial monasteries, and he allows rumors to spread that a prominent Orthodox monk is his spiritual adviser. But when asked four years ago by a U.S. television interviewer whether he believes in a "higher power," Putin gave an answer that could have come from a liberal agnostic: "I believe in human beings ... in the fact that all of us have come to this world to do good ... and if we do so together, then success is awaiting us." He did not once use words such as "Christ," "God" or any other distinctively Orthodox or even distinctively Christian term -- though Orthodoxy gives huge importance to specific creedal affirmations.
Authoritarian though Putin clearly is, neither his words nor his actions are those of a theocrat.
By Lawrence A. Uzzell
Lawrence Uzzell, president of International Religious Freedom Watch (www.irfw.org), contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.