Russia’s spinning moral compass


Vladimir Putin’s latest political course as president – from the jailing of Pussy Riot to the law against gay ‘propaganda’ – strikes many as being one defined by the Russian Orthodox Church. But is it really so?

Geraldine Fagan
16 November 2013

Vladimir Putin’s latest course as president – from the jailing of Pussy Riot to the law against gay ‘propaganda’ – strikes many as being one defined by the Russian Orthodox Church. On this point, both Orthodox statists and their secularist opponents can agree.

But is it really so? Church-state relations in Russia have certainly changed over the two years since Dmitry Medvedev swapped jobs with his old boss. The Church had been edging away from the state, only to be yanked back and secured more firmly. But this process happened quickly: by the time the Pussy Riot scandal focused world attention on the Russian Orthodox Church, it looked to have been an ever-present fixture at Putin’s side.


Putin and Patriarch Kirill seemed on best terms during his most recent inauguration in 2012. The relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin has not, however, always been this cosy. 

Church support for the Putin regime was previously not assured. In 2000, its bishops infuriated the Kremlin by approving civil disobedience as a potential response to any government policy forcing Orthodox believers to commit ‘spiritually harmful actions.’ When pensioners across Russia braved blizzards to protest against Putin’s monetization of state benefits in 2005, Patriarch Aleksy II supported their ‘defence of their right to a decent life,’ and declared the policy unjust. In 2008, he refused to side with the Kremlin in Russia’s brief war with Georgia. 

These were isolated criticisms; more typically, during Putin’s first two presidential terms, the Church oscillated between support for the state, and neutrality. Russian citizens broadly welcomed the political status quo, despite growing signs of corruption and cronyism. Why would the Church rock the boat by challenging Putin’s sacred value of ‘stability’?

Thus, when Medvedev proposed on 24 September 2011 that Putin return as president, the Church responded by welcoming the move. This was ‘a real example of goodness and morality in politics,’ spokesperson Fr Vsevolod Chaplin enthused; when in the history of Russia had state power been transferred ‘so peacefully, nobly, honestly?’

‘What are you doing?’ Fr Dmitry Sverdlov railed at electoral commissioners ‘you are destroying our country with your own hands!’ 

Demonstrations of loyalty

Just two months later, parliamentary elections forced the Church to face up to whether the shift in power was as noble and honest as all that. With smartphones and Facebook, evidence of massive fraud went viral. In just one instance, a young Orthodox priest volunteering as observer at a Moscow polling station blogged how 690 votes were recorded for Putin’s United Russia against 202 for the Communists - when the two piles of ballots were plainly of equal height. ‘What are you doing?’ Fr Dmitry Sverdlov railed at electoral commissioners ‘you are destroying our country with your own hands!’ 

Similar outrage brought 5,000 Muscovites out on to the streets after polling day, a crowd many times larger than previous opposition demonstrations of recent years. A popular Orthodox website quizzed parish priests on whether Orthodox Christians should participate. ‘What’s Orthodoxy got to do with it?’ Fr Dimitry Smirnov commented. ‘Can the Orthodox go to the baker’s? Of course – the Constitution is for everyone.’ Another priest, Fr Aleksandr Ilyashenko, complained that the will of the people was being ignored, ‘often quite cynically. We can and must protest against cynicism and a devil-may-care attitude.’ Even Church spokesperson Vladimir Legoida demanded that the state ‘be attentive to all, both satisfied and dissatisfied, not allow violations of citizens’ rights, and show serious respect for the will of all the people.’

Tentative criticism, perhaps, but representatives of other faiths were far more defensive of the regime at this time. Protestant leader Sergei Ryakhovsky insisted that it was the job of religious believers to bless the authorities, In the view of Muslim representative Damir Mukhetdinov, ‘Satan and his cohorts are calling upon believers to go out on to the streets and rebel.’

As the Moscow demonstrations swelled, the Russian Orthodox Church grew still more vocal. 

As the Moscow demonstrations swelled, the Russian Orthodox Church grew still more vocal. When 50,000 assembled on Bolotnaya Square on 10 December 2011, and state media claimed they were American stooges, the Church disagreed: ‘Demonization of dissenters is the path to repression and war,’ objected one of the Church’s most influential clerics, Protodeacon Andrei Kurayev. By now, Church spokesperson Fr Chaplin was urging the authorities to answer the ‘serious and awkward questions’ being asked of them, and calling for ‘national dialogue on the format of the electoral process and civic control over it.’

After an 80,000-strong opposition march along Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue on 14 December, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill also urged ‘those with differing opinions - including on the political situation in the country and the recent elections - to enter into real civic dialogue.’ With Putin facing his deepest political crisis yet, Kirill clung to the same neutral stance adopted by Patriarch Aleksy during the standoff between President Boris Yeltsin and parliament in 1993. In both cases, it was not immediately clear which side held the upper hand.

But the Church’s most forceful criticism of the Kremlin was yet to come. The protest mood was a ‘legitimate negative reaction’ to state corruption, Patriarch Kirill declared on 22 December, and it was imperative ‘from a moral point of view’ that the president address it. He again emphasized the Church’s neutrality in a 9 January 2012 interview on national television, pointing out that there were Orthodox Christians among both the demonstrators and those being demonstrated against. On 18 January, Fr Chaplin received opposition leader Aleksei Navalny – the Kremlin’s new bête noire – to discuss ‘how we can help foster dialogue.’

Putin was clearly not going to budge; and the Church began to waver.

But the protest movement was beginning to lose momentum, despite another massive Moscow demonstration in the bitter cold on 4 February. Putin was clearly not going to budge; and the Church began to waver. ‘Orthodox people don’t know how to go on demonstrations… they pray in the quiet of monasteries… at home,’ Patriarch Kirill opined in a 1 February speech. ‘They see clear historical parallels between what is happening with our people today and the rowdy and thoughtless behaviour of the pre-revolutionary years.’ 

The Church’s switch back to the regime was sealed at an extraordinary 8 February meeting at Moscow’s Danilovsky Monastery, where Putin was guest of honour. For four hours, religious leader after religious leader offered him paeans recalling the Stalin period. Patriarch Kirill thanked Putin for his huge personal role in ‘correcting’ Russian history: ‘You once said you toil like a slave in the galleys, with the only difference that no slave showed such dedication.’ With the presidential election just weeks away, the patriarch made sure to mention that Putin’s candidacy had ‘the best chances, of course.’ 

Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot’s now infamous ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on 21 February 2012 was a reaction to such obsequious posturing. Ironically, it also handed Putin a political lifeline. A wedge could now be driven between the Church and the opposition movement, whose alliance would have been devastating for the Kremlin had it developed further along the cautiously critical line taken up by Church representatives in late 2011. And with Pussy Riot’s protest cast as purely anti-religious, the Church served as a convenient shield to absorb blows meant for the regime. Putin gladly joined in the Church’s condemnation of the women’s stunt as ‘blasphemy’, dubbing it a ‘witches’ sabbath’ on 6 April.


Pussy Riot was a blessing in disguise for Putin, despite the international outcry it caused. It allowed him to drive a wedge between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian opposition; a relationship which, had it been left to foster, could have been devastating to him.  

To many, Putin’s response to Pussy Riot appeared the product of genuine outrage at their affront to Russian Orthodoxy. But his initial, unfazed reaction – practically unnoticed by the media – reveals his subsequent position to be tactical. Mingling with female journalists on the eve of the 8 March public holiday for International Women’s Day, Putin was asked what he thought of the incident at the cathedral. ‘If they violated established church order, then I apologize to all believers and clergy on their behalf, if they could not do it themselves,’ he replied. ‘I hope that it won’t happen again.’ If Pussy Riot violated church order – what devoutly Orthodox president would say that? Interfax news agency toned down the gaffe – clearly audible in a video of the event on Russia’s government website – to ‘if they violated the law’. 

Moral credentials

This initial response, in fact, chimes with Putin’s earlier revelations about his faith. He may have stood candle in hand at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour every Easter, projecting the sort of cosy Church-state relationship loathed by Pussy Riot. But on the rare occasions when Putin has volunteered information about his beliefs, he has appeared strikingly alien to the Church. What devoutly Orthodox president would admit he had not sought a church blessing on his marriage, more than two decades after this stopped being risky to a government career? Or refer to the fact as ‘the religious side of the matter’ not existing, as Putin did in his June 2013 divorce announcement? As early as 2002 he claimed that it does not matter to which faith a person belongs, since ‘all confessions are thought up by people.’

But it was the Church’s, and not Putin’s moral credentials that came into question in the wake of the Pussy Riot incident.

But it was the Church’s, rather than Putin’s, moral credentials that came into question in the wake of the Pussy Riot incident. Both state-controlled and independent media lapped up episodes like a Church representative’s botched attempt to airbrush Patriarch Kirill’s 30,000-euro wristwatch from an official photograph (the watch’s reflection remained in the highly polished tabletop beneath). Newly vulnerable to public mockery, the patriarch was thus prevented from resuming his earlier position as mediator above the political fray. If the Putin ship was going to sink, the Church would have to sink with it.


Putin has never been one to shy away from a religious photo op.  His own personal relationship to religion and the church, however, is somewhat ambiguous. 

Protodeacon Kurayev sensed soon after Pussy Riot’s cathedral performance that the focus on the Church’s reaction was a trap: ‘Church people are being provoked into taking part in a play where we have already been allocated a particular role, and the TV cameras are ready to shoot our grimaces.’ Given that many in the Church indeed supported its close relationship with the state, he foresaw an even greater danger: ‘If they are granted the political opportunity to go beyond secular and internal Church restrictions, will they be able to stop?’ 

‘Traditional’ values

A test was not long in coming. In late 2012 Russia passed the so-called Dima Yakovlev Law – named after a Russian boy who died in the care of his US adoptive parents – which banned US citizens from adopting Russian children. This closely followed Washington’s Magnitsky Act, which barred Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses, from entering the USA, including those thought to have contributed to the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer investigating fraud by Russian tax officials. 

In the earlier phase of Putin’s rule, ‘one could be both a liberal and work for the Kremlin: everything was play and nothing was taken seriously,’ Russia analyst Peter Pomerantsev observed. But the new political climate demands a sense of morality. ‘Now you have to make a decision: either you back the use of orphans as a political weapon or you don’t; either you support the imprisonment of Pussy Riot or you don’t.’ 

Instead of drawing a clear moral line, the Church has so far given conflicting responses. ‘It is inadmissible to take decisions affecting children for political reasons,’ the head of its charity department, Bishop Panteleimon of Smolensk, said of the Dima Yakovlev Law, ‘while we have not yet created proper conditions to raise children in foster care, and while we have many social orphans, it is wrong to ban adoption to the USA.’ By contrast, Church spokesperson Fr Chaplin brushed aside criticism of the same legislation with, ‘There are no ideal laws,’ insisting that the Dima Yakovlev Law was not in revenge for the Magnitsky Act, he suggested that an overwhelming majority of parliamentarians had simply ‘supported measures aimed at keeping Russian children in Russia.’

Laws against gay ‘propaganda’ and ‘offence to religious feelings’ followed in the summer of 2013. But their trumpeting of Orthodox values was, like the response to Pussy Riot, firmly on the state’s terms. Addressing an annual Orthodox conference this January, parliamentarian Yelena Mizulina – key sponsor of the anti-gay ‘propaganda’ legislation – let slip how distant her thinking really is from the Church’s, by affirming homosexuality as a morally acceptable adult choice. ‘Excessive promotion of homosexuality,’ she noted, ‘limits the sexual freedom of our children and deprives them of the opportunity to choose their sexual preference when they grow up.’ 

Toeing the official line

In September, Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova wrote an open letter describing the violent and degrading conditions at her women’s prison, run by a self-confessed Stalinist. Apparently as punishment for this protest, she has been transferred to a different camp in remote Siberia. Even given the brutal detail of Tolokonnikova’s account, Church spokesperson Fr Chaplin insisted it required proof. He dismissed her complaints of 17-hour working days, a diet of rotten potatoes, and beatings: ‘A person who has committed a crime should understand that deprivation of freedom does not happen in the setting of a holiday resort.’

Protodeacon Kurayev’s quite different reaction to Tolokonnikova’s appeal highlights how deep the Church rift over politics has become. ‘Before us is a situation straight from the Gospels – a person is crying in pain, asking for help… Should we make faces and say, ‘No, no, no, until we see an expert analysis in triplicate and officially stamped saying there really are violations and problems there, we won’t waste our compassion’?’

Imagine if such a letter lay on the desk of Pope Francis, asked Kurayev. Would his reaction be the same as Fr Vsevolod Chaplin’s? ‘I don’t think so.’ For the protodeacon, the stakes of clerical support for the regime in the new Putin era could not be higher. ‘This is already a question of the honour of our Church.’

Despite clear indications that the Kremlin line can change abruptly should political circumstance require, and despite words of warning from some in the Church about too close a collaboration with the Putin regime, some official Church representatives continue to toe the line, but might they not be making a rod for their own backs? 

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