Since 13 May, Ekaterinburg has been rocked by protests against plans to build a new Orthodox church in one of the city’s main squares.
The local authorities are supporting the church’s sponsors, the Russian Copper Company and Urals Mining and Metallurgical Company, and the developers have set up a fence around the square. This move led to a street confrontation between, on the one side, city residents and on the other - local police and private security.
To understand the level of passion - and absurdity - of what is currently going on in Ekaterinburg right now, you need to understand how Russian society is divided by different world views, and the authorities’ role in this process.
The majority of Russian society might be non-believers or, at least, not particularly religious, but Russia’s ruling class has turned to the church en masse. Most probably, this is connected with the elite’s desire to imitate President Putin. But it’s possible that the rich and powerful truly want to find some kind of mystical point of reference in their lives, an irrational explanation for their own success and rise up the social ladder.
The Orthodox Church allows them not only to find and justify their place in the world, but acquire a universal logic for interacting with the world around them: “We are good, God has blessed us. We are bringing light and salvation to the downcast, we’re fighting the Devil and his minions, and those who are against us - they’re against God and his church.” And to top this logic off: if any power comes from God, then loyalty to Putin is Orthodoxy. And here the circle closes, the world becomes black-and-white and completely understandable.
Orthodoxy has become Russia’s state religion by default. No matter how any individual public official or businessman relates to religion, it’s still best to be a believer
Orthodoxy has become Russia’s state religion by default. No matter how any individual public official or businessman relates to religion, it’s still best to be a believer - and demonstrate this publicly as much as possible - if you want a career and a successful business.
Cut off in their own world, Russia’s church-going elite have convinced themselves that the country lives and thinks the same way as them - except for the handful of marginals known under the rubric of “gays, atheists, liberals and Satanists”.
Naturally, the Russian Orthodox Church plays an enormous role in this situation: it comforts its rich, influential and prominent members, and helps them solve completely practical problems. The endless charitable foundations, joint pilgrimages and other religious events have become their own little clubs where the rich associate with the rich - and figure out their problems in a pleasantly pious atmosphere. Moreover, for particularly wealthy sponsors, active cooperation with the Church opens up another channel of communication with the upper echelons of power in Russia - via the Patriarch. And in gratitude, the Church receives funds, defence against competing confessions, as well as numerous pieces of property and land across Russia.
This is how Russia’s ruling class lives a rich religious life and sincerely believes that endless public prayers and new churches provoke a similar response from an impoverished and disenfranchised society.
In fact, the mood in Russian society is far from the religious enthusiasm ascribed to it. First, far from everyone who lived under the Soviet Union has turned to the church in their later years. Second, the majority of middle-aged Russians are also quite far from religion - they didn’t receive religious education from their non-believer or “believing” parents. And third, young people are also far from being close to the Church with the exception of the small group that grew up in religious families and had religious education. Young people in Russia have grown up on the internet, not television. Take one look at the most popular people and clips on Russian YouTube and you’ll understand.
Look at the tiny numbers of church visitors on the most important religious holidays, which are stubbornly published by the Russian Interior Ministry every year. These statistics show that only a small percentage of Russian citizens are active religiously. The remaining millions are not involved - because they don’t believe in God or believe differently, not according to Orthodox dogma.
Unfortunately, or perhaps surprisingly, we have to conclude that neither the Orthodox Church, nor the church-going elite, is trying to engage with the majority of Russian society, which isn’t religious. Spiritual discussions, domestic evangelism, creating an attractive image of the Church for non-believers and young people - if the Orthodox Church and its adepts are involved in this, then it seems like they only doing it in theory, rather than practice.
In effect, the Church and its richest and most influential members prefer not to notice that 90% of the country lies outside the confines of their intellectual influence and attention. These are the people that never attend church services or do it several times in their entire lives, without really understanding what is going on.
The clerical project in Russia is doomed to failure. It doesn’t have any basis for growth, and any ideas about Russia as an “Orthodox Iran” are fanciful
How did this confusing situation arise in Ekaterinburg? Because the region’s richest people, Orthodox Church and politicians think according to religion and are trying to talk to a city of 1.5 million people as if it was a religious community, where only a few marginals are breaking ranks from a choir of believers.
The city centre in Ekaterinburg is filled with churches - both old and new. But there’s hardly any green spaces. For a non-religious person, there’s definitely enough churches and there’s definitely room for pedestrians.
But the authorities and the Church don’t buy this logic. First, you can never have too many churches, they say. Second, the city clearly needs a cathedral in honour of Saint Catherine, the city’s heavenly protector. These kind of phrases, which sound absurd to anyone far from the Orthodox Church, are in effect the main and only justification for building the new church.
What is happening in Ekaterinburg is a war of two different worlds - a struggle between two different worldviews. People on both sides sincerely do not understand why their opponents don’t accept their logic. Supporters of building a new church (for the most part, priests, Orthodox activists, representatives of local authorities and businesses sponsoring the church) suggest that everyone should come to the church and have their questions answered. They also promise to make the new church as beautiful and open for everyone - such that even atheists will like it.
Their opponents, the majority of whom either do not attend church, or mosque or synagogue, prefer to place the value of an individual’s right to walk in a public square ahead of a desire to pay homage to Saint Catherine. The first set of people can’t understand that only believers of this confession will attend this church, and the rest are simply not interested in the building - there’s no reason for them to visit it. The second set of people don’t understand that, for a religious person, their faith comes before their own interests, and definitely ahead of the desire of people to take a stroll in a green space of the evening.
In Ekaterinburg, then, something - which is obvious to any thoughtful observer - has become startling clear: Russia today is a secular state not so much according to the Constitution, but the way of life of the majority of its citizens.
The clerical project in Russia is doomed to failure. It doesn’t have any basis for growth, and any ideas about Russia as an “Orthodox Iran” are fanciful. In Iran, from the beginning, many people regularly attended Friday prayers, and then the mullahs came to power, overthrowing the relatively secular and incredibly corrupt regime of the Shah. In Russia, it’s the opposite: a corrupt and Orthodox regime is trying to force the population to attend church or at least submit to religious authority, while not having any mechanisms to do so. The Church and the authorities have lost the struggle for young people’s heads - this is why they have to rely on riot police batons and the fists of local thugs. People will react accordingly.
Get our weekly email