Russian Orthodoxy: rendering unto God…but Caesar pulls the strings


The Russian religious revival has seen a huge increase in church-going, but morality has not improved. The relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state has always been controversial, its business interests are often questionable and its views on art and literature bigoted. Is this really what Russia needs? Vladislav Inozemtsev takes a wide-angled view of the Russian Orthodox Church past, present – and future?

Vladislav Inozemtsev
22 July 2011

Russia today is a country of paradoxes. Quite recently atheism was the official doctrine, but now the country is officially immersed in religion. At the beginning of the 80s, 8% of the population described themselves as members of the Orthodox Church, but today that is figure is more than 70%. Instead of the 5,300 churches and 18 monasteries functioning in the RSFSR in 1985, we now have more than 31,200 churches and 790 monasteries with more being built at a much greater speed than maternity hospitals, kindergartens and schools.

But for some reason this has not resulted in greater morality: there are more than 46,000 murders and almost 39,000 suicides a year; the number of single-parent families has reached 22% of the total; there are reckoned to be 2,2 million drug addicts and 180,000 people involved in prostitution; every year there are 230,000 underage pregnancies. Any comparison between these figures and figures for the godless Soviet period is extremely dangerous, as you could well be considered to be offending the sensibilities of the believers. But the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) treating these vices is becoming ever more influential and prosperous.

L’état c’est nous


Patriarch Kirill I sees no chance for doctrinal
compromise with the Catholic Church. For him
Russia is an orthodox country with national
and religious minorities.

Over the last 2 decades the ROC has constantly tried to prove that it speaks for the majority of the population and thus has rights almost on a level with those of the secular authorities. Even at the dawn of the new Russia Patriarch Alexii II from inside the Danilov Monastery was trying to resolve the conflict between the President of Russia and the Supreme Soviet. From the end of the 90s there were regular attempts to introduce the teaching in schools of the basic orthodox concepts, which were subsequently embodied in the ‘Basic Principles of Orthodox Culture.’ 

In 2002 at a press conference during the 8th Radonezh International Festival, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad (now the Patriarch) stated: “We must completely forget the current term a 'multifaith country' – Russia is an orthodox country with national and religious minorities” (author's italics.) During the first half of the 00s he worked hard in the field of 'religious geopolitics', contrasting Russian civilisation with Western liberalism, developing an 'Orthodox human rights doctrine' and attempting to improve on the theory of democracy in such a way as to confirm the unquestioned priority of the rights of society over the rights of the individual.

In recent years members of the ROC have often appeared on our TV screens and church feast days have become official holidays in Russia, which cannot be said for any important day of another faith in our multinational and multi-ethnic country. Even 'authoritarian' Belarus celebrates both the orthodox and the catholic Christmas as holidays.

Over the last 2 decades the ROC has constantly tried to prove that it speaks for the majority of the population and thus has rights almost on a level with those of the secular authorities.

Priests now dictate fashion in literature and art: they have ordained that some of the plays of Pushkin's fairy tales should be rewritten and in the Komi Republic Shostakovich's opera Balda [based on Pushkin's The Priest and the Fool] has been withdrawn. The priests are demanding that Grandfather Frost be 'christened' and that comic museums such as the Baba-Yaga Museum in Kirillov (Vologda region) should be closed. They engage in hard-hitting cut and thrust with scientists daring to express their discontent at the clergy's downgrading of science, and are even insisting that theology should be elevated to the status of a scientific discipline according to the State Commission of Academic Degrees and Titles system of classification. We increasingly see them on building sites and wharves, blessing new buildings or ships.

State companies respond with generous sponsorship of ROC initiatives and every year at Easter time the foundation supported by funds from Russian Railways flies the Sacred Fire from Jerusalem (we should be grateful that the high speed railway line from the Holy Land to the Third Rome, which would be used only once a year for this purpose, has not yet been built). The Russian Army will soon have 400 serving priests, funded from the military budget i.e. paid directly by the state. The same thing happens in the penal system and as public health deteriorates it's not completely out of the question that the Ministry of Health budget will be used to pay for prayers for the sick.


Vladimir Putin has surprised observers with the profoundly
religious overtones of many of his official appearances.

The Russian Orthodox Church is a devoted defender of the interests of the ruling bureaucracy in Russia and adheres to its policy line both inside Russia and abroad. The Church's confirmation in the minds of the masses that all power comes from God, and the interests of the state are more important than personal interests has done much to establish Russia's semi-authoritarian society and to root out any political dissent. The state responds in kind: those at the top ensure that all existing churches and other religious buildings abroad are handed over to ROC, as well as granting permission to buy plots of land for the construction of new buildings. The list of such cases is almost endless.

The basic principles of Orthodox economy

ROC has active business interests, which are based on fairly shaky legal ground. Chapter XV of the ROC Charter states that : “the conditions for owning, using and disposing of freehold property belonging to the ROC, or use of other legally held property are laid down by this Charter and the rules ratified by the Holy Synod and 'Regulations concerning Church Property'“. The problem is that the Regulations have not been ratified and the Charter itself, which was adopted by the Bishops' Council on 16 August 2000 with amendments on 27 June 2008, was not registered in the Ministry of Justice and is therefore, in the eyes of the law, worthless. 

The Russian Orthodox Church is a devoted defender of the interests of the ruling bureaucracy in Russia and adheres to its policy line both inside Russia and abroad.

The so-called ROC Civil Code, which was registered with the Ministry of Justice in accordance with the federal law of 26 September 1997 to comply with the requirement for re-registration of religious associations, has not been published. But, as the German philosopher Karl Schmidt said, sovereignty is the right to establish exceptions and in this matter the Russian state shows that it is a true sovereign. The Church can get away with almost anything.

There are no available figures for ROC income, but most experts set it at between 400 and 500 million dollars a year, which is indirectly borne out if only by the scale of the building and restoration work being undertaken throughout the country. To a large extent this income is built up through unpaid services, in most cases calculated at non-market rates (it is sufficient to remember how virtually the whole of Moscow's construction world laboured on the rebuilding of Christ the Saviour cathedral), or given for free.


The cathedral of Christ the Saviour, destroyed by
Stalin, was rebuilt in post-Soviet Russia. It has been much criticised for the grandeur of its gold, silver and
brass and the expense of the reconstruction.

Quite recently the Mayor of Moscow's office announced that it was handing over to the Patriarchate 60 plots of land within the city boundaries as part of the initial stage of the programme to build 200 “neighbourhood” churches. Added to that, ROC does not have to pay tax on property used for religious purposes, land tax on plots of land with buildings used for religious or charitable purposes, profit tax on income received in connection with holding religious rituals and ceremonies or the production of religious literature and religious objects.

But a subject of much greater interest is the Church's constant attempts at interference in more private economic matters. Everyone remembers the export concessions granted to companies under the Patriarchate's control in the 1990s. Then there was the Patriarch's request that the authorities should pay for the insurance of ROC funds in its bank accounts (2008) and the 2010 Patriarchate's letter to Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubov asking that gas be sold to Ukrainian chemical companies at a considerably discounted rate, because these companies give significant financial support to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).

A special focus of attention are church attempts to regain control of property it has lost, mainly fixed assets and the land on which churches and monasteries stand. Many of these attempts involve encroaching on parts of Russian cultural heritage which are open to the public (the Ryazan and Rostov Kremlin complexes), or buildings currently used by cultural organisations (Kaliningrad's puppet theatre, part of the Russian State University for the Humanities building in Moscow, organ music halls in Chelyabinsk and Kaliningrad etc). The scale of the property conflicts initiated by ROC throughout Russia is very well illustrated by a diagram devised by the Common Sense Foundation [ Фонд “Здравомыслие”].


Provincial officials take their cue from the Kremlin
and actively support the church in their regions.
Here Kuzbass governor Arman Tuleyev is seen
with the bishop of Kemerovo and Novokuznetsk

The Church's riches are so openly flaunted that recently even the priests have found it unpleasant, and the number of examples is growing. Churches are being turned into commercial enterprises with price tags and price lists, the bishops' houses into luxurious detached homes and their sallies forth into the world would be more fitting for regional governors.

If you have been abroad, you will have seen candles on sale in Catholic churches. The new candles are labelled 2 euros, for instance, and written in small print are the words “if possible”. Some put in 2 euros, some 1 and some, perhaps, 5 and there is no one standing by to check. If your soul is troubled, but your pocket is empty – take a candle and light it. In Russia everything is different, of course. Money, exercise books… accounts.  And no taxes. A bureaucrat's dream, so far, it's true, applying only to part of the “elite”.

In whose name and for what?

The Church insists with conviction that its main concern is its zeal for morality. In Russia this is in decline, but perhaps that is only because our holy fathers have not had time to show what they can do. However, if we look at other countries, we will see that this is not quite the case.

Europe is doing all it can to turn away from religion, but morality is not in such a bad way there, statistically anyway. Yes, Holland has legalised prostitution and light drugs, but there are 8 times fewer underage pregnancies there than in America, the incidence of venereal disease is 11 times less, the figure for the number of robberies is 19 times less and for murders 22. Yet in Holland fewer than 40% of people count themselves as believers; in America the figure is more than 85%.

America itself is often divided into the more liberal and less religious “blue”, and the more conservative “red” states. And so? Of the 22 states with the greatest number of murders 17 are “red”; of the 29 with the highest figures for robbery and rape, 24 and 25 respectively are “red”; 8 of the 10 most dangerous cities are also in the religious states. If America is still one of the global leaders, then it's for her scientific achievements. What is particularly noteworthy is that only 12% believe that God created the world, though that figure for graduates from the best universities is 53% and for members of the American Academy of Science and the Arts it is 93%. 


Russia has 31,200 churches and 790 monasteries,
but sociologists are in no doubt that only a minority
of Russians can accurately be described as believers

Amusing, isn't it? But why, therefore, do we want to “Christianise” our country? Is it so that people can abdicate responsibility and go to confession to get absolution for their sins? So they can believe that their ignorance is a form of grace? But is that what people, or indeed Russia, need?

No less important is the question in whose name the Russian holy fathers are pontificating. The sociologists K. Kaariainen and D. Furman made a detailed study of Russian attitudes to religion during the 90s. In their book “Old churches, new believers”, they pointed out that at the beginning of the 00s only 1% of Russians surveyed said that they regularly talked to a priest, and 79% said they never had anything to do with them.  Only 4% fasted and 44% declared that they had never opened a Bible. The authors concluded that only 6-7% of Russians were true believers;  at that time 22% risked describing themselves as non-believers.

The main question, and it is one of principle, is how long the majority will be prepared not to have a voice or to live quietly feeling no need to use that voice. The longer this continues, the further away is the moment that Russia becomes a modern country.

The figures could have changed over recent years, but not so much as to disprove the assertion that active ROC parishioners constitute an evident minority. And it is in the name of this minority that bigoted views and rituals are being foisted on the whole country today, from top to bottom? Essentially, the apology for the religious renaissance in the name of an insignificant minority of relatively sincere believers and the collusion of the silent majority bears a striking resemblance to assertions about the new Russian state with “nashisty” [combination of “nashi”, “our lads” or Putin's youth movement and the Russian word for fascists, but also sounding like the Russian word for Nazis ed.] marching down the street and election turnout in single percentage figures. The government speaks for these single figures; the state religion is legitimising itself in the name of the same sort of minority.

The main question, and it is one of principle, is how long the majority will be prepared not to have a voice or to live quietly feeling no need to use that voice. The longer this continues, the further away is the moment that Russia becomes a modern country.


The world can be explained without involving God. Moral principles can be inculcated without recourse to commandments in the Bible. The doctrine of human rights was developed – and is observed in many countries – without reference to religious canons.

In due course Christianity became an important step on man's road to freedom, chiefly because it affirmed that all people are equal before God and planted the seed of the thought that we too are equal in our relations with each other. This religion very quickly left the idea that priests are the mediators between God and mankind to the retrogrades and arrived at the conclusion (as expressed by its most famous exponent St Thomas Aquinas) that “if a group of free people is governed by its rulers in the name of the common good of the whole group, this government is justified and just, because it answers people's needs; but if a government acts not for the common good of all, but in the name of the personal interest of the ruler, it will be an unjust and perverted government”.

We should remember the great philosopher's words; they deserve our attention from time to time, so that we can check the reality that surround us against them.

This article first appeared in Russian in 'Ogonyok' (no. 26, 04.07.2011)

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