The Valdai International Discussion Club has been in existence since 2004. Latterly, it has brought together people from around the world, politicians, journalists and academics, for discussion of topical issues relating to Russia. President Putin has been a regular participant. In 2013, in his statement to the final plenary meeting, he touched interestingly on the question of constructing a viable Russian identity after a disastrous twentieth century. For Russia and Russians, he said, “questions about who we are and who we want to be are increasingly prominent in our society. We have left behind Soviet ideology, and there will be no return. Proponents of fundamental conservatism who idealise pre-1917 Russia seem to be far from reality, as are supporters of an extreme, Western-style liberalism.
“The question of finding and strengthening national identity really is,” he said, “fundamental for Russia.” Rehearsing the recent past, he said that “after 1991 there was the illusion that a new national ideology, a development ideology, would simply appear by itself.” This, however, proved not to be the case, and “the lack of a national idea stemming from a national identity profited the quasi-colonial element of the elite ‑ those determined to steal and remove capital and who did not link their future to that of the country, the place, where they earned their money.
“All of us”, he said, “so-called Neo-Slavophiles and Neo-Westerners, statists and so-called liberals – all of society must work together to create common development goals.” Nationalists, he said, “must remember that Russia was formed specifically as a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country from its very inception.” This by way of countering a would-be threat from within, from narrow nationalists. “Another serious challenge to Russia’s identity,” he noted, “is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign-policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities; national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that put large families on the same level with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with belief in Satan. And,” he went on, “people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.
“Without the values embedded in Christianity and other world religions, without the standards of morality that have taken shape over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity. We consider it natural and right to defend those values.” He linked this threat to his standard view of another in the shape of the “unipolar world”, with negative implications for international comity and international law, which he constantly evokes. And this is significant – he sees a many-headed Hydra threatening Russia and, as he would put it, much of the rest of the non-Western world as well.
This presentation of an ideology which isn’t one is a defining moment in situating Russia in the world of today. One could quibble with Putin’s statement that the presumption after 1991 was that, after the collapse of the seventy-year Communist experiment, a new ideology would simply grow of itself. In fact, ever since the collapse, there has been a continuing discussion among Russian intellectuals of the thesis that the multinational, multiconfessional State cannot subsist without a sverkhidea, a dominant idea. Boris Yeltsin went so far as to commission sociological research in 1995 aimed at establishing what the citizens of the Russian Republic thought of this. This, however, did not produce any concrete result. But it remains the case that there is a felt need for such a ruling idea, and Russian history amply demonstrates why this is so. The same history makes it clear that religion, above all, Orthodoxy, has been one of the principal options considered.
Russia received its Orthodox religion from Byzantium; according to legend, after comparing Latin Christianity, Islam and Judaism. In any event, Russia has always dated its consciousness of itself as a separate identity to the moment of conversion of Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kiev, in 988. This linked the upcoming polity of Kievan Rus to Constantinople. The model of Church-State relations of the Byzantine empire was what was called “symphony”. In accordance with this model, God entrusted the emperor and the patriarch with entirely compatible functions. The emperor’s power was a reflection of God’s power over the world; he was hence to be treated with divine honour. He was the patron and protector of the church on earth and, although he did not fulfil a liturgical function, he was its leader and, together with the patriarch, responsible for the fate of the church and the people. Thus, the emperor and the patriarch jointly represented the oikumene and were responsible for this in the earthly and spiritual domains. In the view of a leading authority on Byzantium, Dimitri Obolensky, one of the most important factors in the development of Russian statehood was precisely this: the commonwealth was a community of ideas focused on the two institutions, the emperor and the patriarch, or the empire and the church. At the very beginning then of the polity from which all succeeding Russian ones trace their descent is the Christianisation of Rus, said to have been massive and spontaneous, at the instance of the prince. In due course, the vocation of this Christian state was invested with universal significance: it was, it was said, the only one in which the symphony of secular and ecclesiastical authority was fully realised. Thus, in the social concept agreed in 2000 by the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, it is said that, as far as symphony is concerned, Kiev surpassed Constantinople in that, among other reasons, the pagan concept of pontifex maximus was unknown to Slavic rulers. Thus religion was, next to language, the most important factor of identity of Kievan Rus. From then until the Mongol invasion of 1240 the Orthodox church created a structure that included sixteen dioceses and more than sixty monasteries, including the most important historically, the Kiev Monastery of the Caves.
What is often called “the Mongol Yoke”, domination by the Mongol Horde, begun by Genghis Khan, in Russia lasted from 1240 until 1480. While its effects are controversial to some extent – some, like Lev Gumilev, assigning to the domination a civilising influence distinguishing once again Russia from the West – it is certain that the Orthodox church, during this period, when no centralised government existed in the area, became the strongest non-Mongol institution which existed on a national scale in Russia. Mongol policy was not to interfere with institutions that did not challenge the Horde’s right to extort revenues from the conquered. Even further, the church gained a privileged position. It had the same status as the princes – who collected revenues on behalf of the Horde ‑ and, even further, the clergy, monasteries, and even laymen connected with church institutions were freed from taxes. Guaranteed inviolability of property, the church in due course became the largest landholder in the state. There was no interference with its religious activity. Church leaders played the role of mediators between the Khan and the princes, aiming usually at mitigating conflict and forestalling rebellion against the Khan, seen as the rightful ruler in respect of whom there was a religious duty of obedience. The leaders of the Orthodox church were an essential part of the transfer of the centre of gravity of the Russian state from Kiev to Moscow, which became the Metropolitan’s headquarters between 1326 and 1328, with the title of Metropolitan of Rus, not just of Moscow, thus raising the political prestige of the then duchy of Moscow. Subsequent Metropolitans played a growing role in mediating between the princes in Moscow’s interest and supported the Moscow princes in their rivalry with Tver. This prestige grew even further under Metropolitan Alexy, whose support was decisive in the conferring by the Khan in 1328 of the title of prince of all Rus on Ivan Kalita. After Ivan’s death in 1340, Alexy assumed the role of regent and guardian of his descendants for ten years. Later, as power more and more shifted towards Moscow and away from the centre of Mongol power, the distant Sarai, the Church’s role too began to shift. This change first became apparent in the monasteries. A decisive moment came in 1380 with the battle of Kulikovo, where the monk Sergei of Radonezh had blessed the undertaking of Dmitri Donskoy against the force of the Horde, whereas the Metropolitan, Cyprian, had imposed his anathema on the Muscovite prince. Dmitri Donskoy’s victory changed the cards – during the fourteenth century the church more and more took on the role of mobiliser of forces in defence of the Russian lands.
The official religion of the Golden Horde from 1312 was the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. This did not change its policy of tolerance. What was of great significance for the religious policy of the rising Moscow princes was the Qasim khanate on the middle Volga. In 1446 the khan’s son, Ulug Mohammed, on joining Vasily II, the Blind, received title to land called Kasimov on the banks of the Oka. This kingdom, which existed for more than two hundred years, was situated between northeastern Rus and the khanates of Astrakhan and Kazan, and supported Moscow in its struggle with the Horde. Later, it provided a core element in the Russian army in its conquest of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia. According to some historians, it was thanks to this intimate contact with the Muslim Kasimov khanate that Russia became a multinational and multiconfessional empire. For all that, however, although the Islamic statelet was for certain instrumental purposes integrated into the Muscovy state, Islam remained associated with the Tatars who were the inhabitants of Kasimov. For all other purposes, orthodoxy and the Byzantine tradition remained the main source of legitimation and, along with the Russian language, the identity, of the grand duchy of Moscow. This was underlined by the story that the crown used by the grand dukes of Moscow, “the hat of Monomachos”, even if in fact conferred on Ivan Kalita by Uzbeg Khan, was a gift from the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachos to the Kievan prince Vladimir II, son of the Byzantine princess Anastasia. The story was used in due course to legitimise the claim of the Moscow grand duke to assume the title of tsar, understood to be the holder of all power over the lands of Rus and thus the contemporary analogue of the Byzantine emperor. In further development of this arrogation of the Byzantine mana, Ivan III, upon marrying Zoe Palaeologina, niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, placed the Byzantine two-headed eagle on his family’s coat of arms – it remains to this day the most prominent feature of the Russian coat of arms.
Russian identity as asserted in distinction to the West was, of course, also strongly influenced by the break in communion between the Eastern and Western churches in 1054. The threat posed to Constantinople by the Turks led to the Council of Florence, which closed in 1445 after concluding union with various Eastern churches. In a demonstration of the primacy of the anointed tsar over the church hierarchy in matters of religion, in 1441 Ivan II ordered the imprisonment of Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev for betraying the orthodox faith by agreeing to the Florentine union in the name of the orthodox church. In this also the Muscovy state marked its distance from Constantinople. The orthodox church in Russia began to attribute to St Andrew the first Christian community on the north shore of the Black Sea, and even the foundation of Kiev, “the mother of all Russian cities”. And, as a consequence of the signing by the Byzantine emperor John VIII of the Florentine act of union with Pope Eugene IV and the imprisonment of Metropolitan Isidore, the Russian orthodox bishops, by naming Jonah as metropolitan of All Rus without reference to the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople in effect declared the autocephaly of the Russian orthodox church. With the eventual fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 it became clear that the one orthodox power that now outweighed all others was Russia, and, even if the ecumenical patriarch was not willing to cede primacy, others, such as Antioch, were prepared to take account of the new reality. In Russia itself the consciousness of pre-eminence was growing. Early in the sixteenth century the monk Philotheus of Pskov wrote to Vasily III and his son, Ivan the Terrible, the description which has resonated through the centuries of Moscow as “the third Rome”, after the first, which was Rome itself, and the second, Constantine’s creation on the Bosporus. Philotheus added that there would be no other and that Moscow now had to assume the burden of maintaining the Christian faith. According to Boris Uspensky, the third Rome represents a theocratic eschatology in which “Moscow is the last Orthodox Empire, and the tasks of the Russian Tsar take on a messianistic nature”. A logical consequence was the ceremonial establishment of the Moscow patriarchate in 1589, with the installation of Metropolitan Job as the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. A political consequence was the establishment of the Union of Brest, on the western border of Russia, between Poland and Lithuania, in 1596. One of the results of this was the establishment of the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church. This Polish-Lithuanian Catholic power threatened the Russian state at a time of weakness – the “Time of Troubles” and during the early seventeenth century invaded twice and occupied the Kremlin. The second time, the throne of Russia was taken by the Polish king, who announced his objective of converting Russia to Catholicism. The Polish project failed due to popular resistance, which was significantly based on the confrontation of orthodoxy with the alien Latin Christianity of the Poles and Lithuanians: Russia, it was said, was plundered by “Latinists, Jesuits and other agents of the Vatican”. The date of defeat of the Polish armies, November 4th, was in fact marked as National Unity Day until the Bolshevik revolution.
The resumption of Russian sovereignty was, significantly enough, based on the election as tsar of Mikhail Romanov, the son of the patriarch Philaret Romanov. The patriarch was to exercise de facto power for many years, taking the title of “great lord” (gosudar). The Romanovs were to remain in power until the collapse of tsardom, emphasising the pre-eminence of the throne over the altar. This pre-eminence was underlined by Peter the Great in his modernisation push, based on Western models. He was impressed in undertaking this effort, so fateful for much of the rest of Russian history, by the example of the Lutheran churches of Germany and Scandinavia. In 1721, he assumed the title of emperor, as distinct from tsar, and at the same time replaced the patriarchate by the holy synod, which was overseen by the grand procurator, a civilian official appointed by the emperor. His successors took this further, culminating in the confiscation by Catherine the Great in 1726 of church properties, putting the clergy on state salaries and giving secular courts jurisdiction over deacons.
Catherine also moved to bring her Muslim subjects under her oversight. By her time, the Russian state had taken over large sweeps of territory inhabited by Muslims. Muslim merchants were allowed to trade over the entire territory of the empire and, by the tolerance ukaz of 1773, the Orthodox church was forbidden to interfere in the affairs of Muslim communities, which led to a partial return of properties earlier confiscated. Mosques and schools were permitted, and the mullahs began to be paid from the state treasury. Catherine established muftiates in Ufa, Bakhchisarai and Baku as a way of controlling the sometimes widely scattered communities, and the members of the muftiates were appointed by the minister of internal affairs.
Similar steps were taken to regularise for state purposes the situation of the Buddhist communities which came under Russian sovereignty with the expansion of the empire into Buryatia and Kalmykia in eastern Siberia, an important aim being to insulate these communities from undesirable influences proceeding from Mongolia and Tibet.
Judaism was, as in many other places, the exception. Catherine I ordered Jews to be removed from Russia, with conversion as the condition for returning, a policy pursued by her successor, Elizabeth. Catherine was relatively true to her Enlightenment ambitions in allowing Jews to create their own local governments, granting limited religious freedom and allowing them to register as townsmen. But a decision of 1791 provided that they could only exercise these freedoms in what was called the Pale of Settlement, present-day Belarus, and parts of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. In the later nineteenth century, these freedoms were even further restricted, and the pogroms which were a violent manifestation of such prejudice cast a dark shadow over the late empire.
The potentiality for problems arising in circumstances of a multiplicity of confessions was managed under the tsardom by requiring a strict acknowledgment by all confessions of the supremacy of the state. Thus, while the Catholic church was tolerated, its clergy were required to take an oath of allegiance to the Russian sovereign, they were subject to observation by state organs, they had limited freedom to travel within Russia and their sermons were censored. The Jesuits were expelled several times. The Protestant churches too were effectively under state control.
There was thus in tsarist Russia a hierarchy – if the word be permitted – in the treatment of religions. The Russian Orthodox Church was more than a primus inter pares. The summary statement in 1832 by the long-term minister of education Count Uvarov of the tsarist state ideology – “the truly Russian saving principles of Autocracy, Orthodoxy and the National Principle” (narodnost) “constitute the sheet anchor of our salvation and the most faithful pledge of the strength and greatness of our country” ‑ makes it clear that the orthodox church was a key state institution, raising subjects in a spirit of obedience and loyalty to the state, legitimising the authority of the tsars, and providing the empire with an integrating idea. All other religious communities, for instance, even after the proclamation of their relative freedom, needed the approval of the local orthodox priest to establish a new temple, church or synagogue, and there was a ban on the construction of temples, synagogues or churches near an orthodox church.
Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War led to questioning by those conscious of Russian backwardness vis-à-vis Western Europe, and by the intelligentsia – not accidentally a Russian word – of the policies of the regime of Nicholas I, essentially rigid adherence to the Uvarov principles, which, in their view, had given rise to the defeat. There was, therefore, some easing in official positions, and Nicholas’s successor, Alexander I, famously brought about the liberation of the serfs in 1861. But there were decisive voices at the centre of power determined to put strict limits on liberalisation. Chief among these was Konstantin Pobedonostsev, chief procurator of the holy synod from 1866. He upheld in all circumstances the claims of the orthodox church against other denominations and was fanatically devoted to autocracy. His influence extended far beyond purely church matters; not only was he the chief ideological adviser of the tsar, he ensured that his intolerant views prevailed in a wide spectrum of public affairs, to the detriment of all who thought otherwise. The last two tsars were pious in a manner not characteristic of any of their predecessors. Alexander II and the royal family made a special point of patronising missionary projects and societies such as the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, founded in 1882, an undertaking that was not, of course, without foreign policy significance. Nicholas II was a deeply pious man, as was his wife, Alexandra. Despite this, the troubled events of 1905 obliged the tsar to issue the paschal edict on religious toleration of that year, declaring that apostates from the official religion would no longer be punished by the law and that all non-official religious bodies were free to practise their faith, and even to disseminate it to others. But here, as in other state matters, Nicholas soon began to backtrack. After a period of supporting Pyotr Stolypin, his reformist prime minister, in his programme to advance religious toleration in the Duma, he began to back off from this. By 1909, Stolypin was forced to abandon his religious toleration legislation altogether. “The monarch,” he declared in the Duma, “according to our law is the defender of the Orthodox Church and the custodian of its dogmas…(and) these religious laws will operate in the Russian state and will be confirmed by the Russian Tsar, who for more than one hundred million people was, is and will be an Orthodox Tsar.” Nicholas, along with Alexandra, was to take orthodox piety to exorbitant lengths, even in the view of the hierarchy of the church. Because of their solicitude for the Tsarevich Alexei, they became the dupes of the renegade monk Rasputin, who used his court influence in church and state affairs in a manner ultimately intolerable to the highest officials in both. The episode was not insignificant in contributing to the loss of credibility of a system relying on an “orthodox tsar”.
The 1917 revolution resulted in scenes of chaos in the midst of which the orthodox church too had to decide on the path to take. A general synod was set for August 1917. Amid some confusion involving departures of delegates for varying reasons, the synod decided in November 1917 to re-establish the patriarchate, appointing Tikhon as the new patriarch. From the beginning, he faced opposition from right and left within the church and interference, playing on intra-church differences, by the new Soviet power, which was radically hostile to the maintenance of any religion. After the new patriarch denounced the crimes of the new regime, the state retaliated. In the course of 1918 at least twenty-eight bishops were murdered, thousands of clerics were imprisoned or killed and twelve thousand laymen were reported to have been killed for religious activities alone. The patriarch himself remained untouched and, in a first instance of coming to terms with what could not be changed, in 1919 he decided on a course of civil loyalty to the new Soviet government.
The new regime set about conciliating some other denominations as a way of demonstrating that its aim was to proceed against those who had enjoyed privileges under the old regime, not to persecute beliefs. In 1918, a Muslim commissariat was set up under the chairmanship of a Muslim mullah, Nur Vakhitov. For the Jewish community, special Jewish sections were formed within the Communist Party, even if these were said to be representative of a nationality, not a religion, and one of the purposes was to stamp out the faith and secularise Jewish culture and education. For all that, synagogues could only be closed by the Jewish sections of local party bodies, which consisted of Jews alone. Other denominations were less fortunate. A frontal attack on the Catholic church began in 1923, and by the end of that decade it had virtually ceased to exist in the USSR, except for a handful of parishes in the largest cities. The first five-year plan, on the other hand, had the destruction of all religion as one of its undeclared aims. And it spared no religion: all faiths, temples/churches/synagogues were thenceforth persecuted more or less indiscriminately. The orthodox church was the object of mocking interference, which at one stage saw the patriarch condemned and defrocked by a manipulated synod. Continuing manipulation of factions within the church saw Sergii as a new head, now a metropolitan, no longer a patriarch. As such, he issued in 1927 a Declaration of Loyalty to the Soviet state, which caused such splits in the church that it became easy for the Soviet government to annihilate one by one the whole spectrum of individual church jurisdictions and schisms. Such church activity as did survive did so under extraordinary restrictions – confined to the four walls of the church building, with no corporate identity as far as the state was concerned, and with its surviving clergymen subject to punitive taxation. In 1922 the Soviet authorities decreed that church property should be seized in order to raise money to ease the famine which raged during the civil war. While the church was ready to make its contribution to ease the suffering, the authorities decreed that the sacred vessels should be seized and sold as part of the campaign. By 1939, the synod consisted of only two metropolitans and two archbishops. All the others had either been killed by various means, imprisoned, or lived in retirement, either as laymen or, depending on whether they had registered with the authorities, as legal or illegal priests. Later, one of those involved said:
We were like chickens in a shed, from which the cook snatches out her victim in turn … For the sake of the Church we reconciled ourselves to our humiliating position, believing in her certain victory and trying somehow to preserve her for better times, or the downfall of Bolshevism.
Soon after the German invasion in 1941, all vocal and printed anti-religious material disappeared from the Soviet media, and no attempts were made to prevent Metropolitan Sergii from rousing a patriotic resistance to the Germans, or to hinder the distribution of his patriotic remarks, including in those churches that were still functioning. As a foretaste of later manoeuvrings, however, Sergii was not yet allowed to return to Moscow, but Metropolitan Nikolai was. Nikolai immediately set to active cooperation with the government in external propaganda, and soon became the patriarchate’s foreign policy spokesman, in fact, the main Soviet foreign policy spokesman in clerical garb. As early as November 1942, he became a member of the Extraordinary State Commission of Inquiry into German Crimes in Occupied Territory. It was not until September 1943 that Sergii and two other surviving metropolitans were invited to Moscow, where they met Stalin and Molotov and where the future conditions of operation of the church were verbally agreed. Within four days a synod of nineteen bishops gathered and elected Sergii patriarch. The change was purely for tactical reasons on Stalin’s part, but a certain freeing up of the church did take place. The price the Church paid from then until the end of the USSR was outward subservience, vigorous participation in Soviet foreign-policy campaigns, and the outward pretence that complete religious freedom existed in the Soviet Union. The orthodox church was complicit with Stalin and the NKVD in the violent assault on the Ukrainian Uniate Church. Metropolitan Nikolai became the principal voice in Soviet “peace” campaigns in 1945-48. A new period of persecution opened under Khrushchev from 1959 to 1964, to which the church’s ineffective response was to remind the Soviet public of the church’s historical role in forming Russian culture and identity. Another was continued cooperation in the furthering of Soviet foreign policy. For instance, the eventual Metropolitan Nikodim, who succeeded Nikolai and became head of the Department of External Ecclesiastical Relations, led the patriarchate into the World Council of Churches, but also co-founded and joined the Prague Peace Conference. By the eighties of the last century, towards the end of the Soviet Union, it became almost impossible to tell who was a true believer and who an opportunist. The story went that much of the higher clergy consisted of men who, under the cassock, wore KGB boots, and it was undeniable that Patriarch Pimen, patriarch from 1971, had been a major in the Soviet army in World War II. Pimen was said to be so afraid of taking any action whatsoever that, according to one source, “he is simply frightened of everything and spends his leisure time embroidering mitres and baking little pies, which are his two hobbies”.
Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federative Socialist Republic, dominated by Boris Yeltsin, adopted in 1990 the Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations, which guaranteed the neutrality of the state’s world view, the equality of all religious associations and freedom of religious activity. It resulted, in orthodox eyes, in a free-for-all which corresponded with what was simultaneously happening in the economic sphere. For many new Russian democrats, the orthodox church was one of the last remainders of totalitarianism which should be swept aside by the new Russian democracy. The state had acted accordingly and, in the view of the traditional orthodox church the 1990 law destroyed the historically based and canonically established foundations of ecclesiastical life and its organisational principles and replaced them with provisions foreign to orthodox thinking. The orthodox church was regarded as only one social organisation among others; indeed, it received no institutional recognition, and, most unsettling for the “established” church, all sorts of churches and sects from abroad, with, in orthodox eyes, unlimited propaganda material and means to furnish humanitarian assistance, were allowed free rein. To make matters worse, in the economic sphere too the church found itself in a strange landscape: an early capitalist market economy system operating in an atmosphere of corruption, blackmail and self-service privatisation. The orthodox church made many efforts under Yeltsin to change this, even bringing Patriarch Alexi II onto the scene to persuade deputies. In vain. Yeltsin rejected a revised document in 1993. However, he did not choose to risk a parliamentary defeat on the issue in 1997, when he signed a new law, which forms the basis of the current Russian law on religion. The preamble distinguishes those religions which, it says, “are an integral part of the historical heritage of the peoples of Russia”. Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism are specifically mentioned, while orthodoxy is assigned a special historical role as contributing to the spiritual and cultural development of Russia. The main purpose of the 1997 law was to restrain the influx of foreign missionaries in Russia and to limit the activities of religious associations that maintain intensive contacts with foreign religious communities. Apart from the privileging of “traditional” religions, the State has been concerned with what is called “spiritual security”, dukhovnaya bezopasnost’. In 2001, a Law on Political Parties forbade the establishment of a party based on a certain profession, race, ethnicity or religious affiliation. In 2002 a Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity, which increased the powers of the authorities in regard to religious institutions, was passed. This allowed a prosecutor to suspend an organisation’s activities pending a court decision. And there are laws applicable in certain territories which go further, for example, in Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, where wahhabist activity, seen as politically subversive and supported financially by Saudi Arabia, is explicitly outlawed.
In January 2007, there were nearly twenty-three thousand registered religious organisations in Russia, more than half of which were parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church. According to information from the same year, around hundred million citizens of the Russian Federation consider themselves orthodox, while the figure for Muslims fluctuated between fourteen and twenty-three million. Given demographic trends, the expectation is that the proportion will shift in favour of Muslims. Indeed, in 2007, it was expected that by now the largest single ethno-religious group in the Russian army would be Muslim. In the same year of 2007, there were more than two million members of Protestant denominations in Russia – the largest single group among these would have been Lutherans. There were almost two million Buddhists, and about six hundred thousand each of Jews and Catholics. The orthodox church has a well-established and well-connected hierarchical structure, which cultivates close relations with the authorities and, it is fair to say, is equally cultivated by them. Muslim organisation is more scattered regionally, given that there are distinct differences between the Islam of Tatarstan, traditional Sunni, and that of the North Caucasus, with a strong Sufi tradition, especially in Dagestan, and also a long tradition of guerrilla opposition to Moscow. These are the two principal Muslim centres in the federation. There are some one hundred and eighty registered Buddhist communities, with a concentration on Kalmykia and Buryatia. When one looks at the extent to which orthodoxy is actually practised, the picture largely corresponds to that of religious practice in most Western European countries: the commitment is largely a cultural one. The figures I have seen refer to the period 1990-2000, but are unlikely to have changed significantly since. These show that in Russia practice in the sense of weekly church attendance rose in those ten years from a low figure of six per cent to one of ten per cent. There are no such criteria for non-Christian confessions, but the picture is likely to be the same, except in Chechnya, where one of the elements of the deal between Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov which has pacified the territory on the surface is ostentatious manifestation of piety, accompanied by building of spectacular mosques, along with professions of loyalty to the Russian state.
Islam is important to Moscow not only because of the numbers involved and the future implications of these given demographic trends. It is also significant for Moscow’s ambitions to develop its potential as a Eurasian state, which play a particular role in Vladimir Putin’s geopolitics. Equally, Russia’s position of being also a Muslim state is important for Russian relations with the Islamic world, and Russia is an observer at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which gives her opportunities to exert influence in an international organisation of crucial interest to Russia itself, given its geographical situation, but of all the greater interest perhaps because no Western country is an observer. Indeed, in this respect Russia’s vaunted Islamic identity plays a significant part in its foreign policy. During his visit as president to the headquarters of the Arab League in 2009, Dmitri Medvedev said that “Islam is an inseparable element of Russian history and culture”, Russia “is organically connected to Islam” and “reinforcing mutual respect between believers in different faiths” was a priority of Russia’s foreign policy. Moscow’s interest in its Buddhist component of course also adds to its Eurasian vocation, but the communities are small, and the main preoccupation of the federation in their regard is the avoidance of foreign policy complications arising in regard to China (the Dalai Lama), or Mongolia, historically a bone of contention between Russia and China.
There is, however, no doubt that, when it comes to the “spiritual security” of the state, the primacy belongs now, as it has historically, to the Russian Orthodox Church. A prophet in this regard was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who, in a publication of 1991 entitled Rebuilding Russia, said that Russia’s future depended on spiritual, moral and cultural renewal. Although his relations with the orthodox church – or anyone else for that matter – were not exactly easy, he advocated a return to orthodox values as a way of alleviating many problems: for example, raising the birth rate, reducing the number of abortions, fighting alcoholism, improving work efficiency and limiting crime. All these were, of course, social problems already under the Soviet Union, but the collapse of the USSR had done nothing to alleviate them. In positing the orthodox church as a remedy for social ills, Solzhenitsyn was appealing to two distinct, though related, constituencies. On the one hand, it has long been a staple of Russian, especially orthodox, thought that Russia needed to be on its guard against the morally fallen West. Russia has had continually to fend off invasions from the West, and these were nearly always presented in moral terms. Russia was the defender of the truth against foreign unbelievers. The belief that the Vatican planned to overthrow the Third Rome and extend its influence onto Russian territory was widely believed, as were theories of Jesuit conspiracy, the embodiment of hypocrisy. The industrial revolution in nineteenth century Europe was seen as a systematic selling of workers’ souls to Mammon. An example is a priest-professor at the University of Kiev in 1905, who spoke of “the pitiable position of the modern European world” contrasted with what he called the growing vitality of Russian culture. He particularly spoke of Dostoyevsky’s vision of a European future in which Russia’s national mission was to witness the truth of Christianity to an apostate West. In Dostoyevsky’s view, Russia was endowed with the character of “human universality” and was “a God-bearing nation”. Modern secularism, hedonism, the emphasis on consumption and egoism are seen as indices of decadence which Russia has at once to avoid and to counter.
The concept of “sovereign democracy” was propounded as the main objective of Vladimir Putin’s politics. As formulated by his grey cardinal, Vladislav Surkov, in 2006, it involves three priorities – rebuilding social solidarity, forming a responsible and involved new elite and using culture, in the sense of tradition, as a building material for national identity, here appealing to the Orthodox concept of sobornost’, roughly, bringing all the faithful into one community. In 2007, Putin, on the significant occasion of the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church after the split of the Soviet years, said that, during the Soviet period, the church had protected the national culture, language and soul of Russia. He later credited it with a historical role in the formation of the Russian state, culture and identity and thanked it for its “enormous contribution to the unification of the Russian world”, the latter a concept which can be interpreted to include Russian-speaking communities everywhere, but certainly Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus. This, it should be emphasised, does not mean that Putin’s government is an unconditional advocate of the whole agenda of the Russian Orthodox Church. For example, although the Moscow patriarchate considered it “an offence against the Church”, Dmitri Medvedev as president in 2008 abolished the clergy’s exemption from military service. On the other hand, interests largely coincide in the ideological sphere, and here there is strong mutual support, reminiscent of tsarist times when orthodoxy was an explicit element of the state’s ideology. Formally, apart from appealing to orthodox-based ideology, the association of the state with the church finds expression in attendance by Putin at Christmas and Easter services, the presence of the clergy at significant state functions, such as installation of the president, and, perhaps most important of all, state help in recovering church property confiscated during Soviet times, along with, frequently very significant outlays of public money in restoring and rebuilding churches. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow is an outstanding example: it was rebuilt from the foundations with the financial support of the then mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. The foreign ministry has been assigned a particular rôle in relations with churches. An example is its intervention in 2002 in the interest of the Russian Orthodox Church which, in its objection to what it regards as proselytism – reminiscent in this of the attitude of the Anglican church in the nineteenth century to the restoration of a Catholic diocesan structure in England – objected to the raising by the Vatican of four administrative districts in Russia – Moscow, Saratov, Novosibirsk and Irkutsk – to the rank of diocese. In 2002, the foreign affairs ministry addressed a formal note to the Holy See asking for the decision to be delayed. This position was supported in the Duma, which asked the foreign ministry to deny visas to representatives of the Holy See. In consequence, in that year, five Catholic priests were refused entry to Russia.
The whole rationale of President Putin’s remarks at the Valdai meeting three years ago is that the question of a governing idea, or national ideology, remains current in the Russian Federation. A school of thought that is close to the orthodox church, Russkaya Doktrina, advocates a role for Russia as the Third Rome, the paramount among the Orthodox nations, responsible to Providence for maintaining a just balance in the world, saving humanity and preserving the Christian faith. This involves above all the maintenance of an alternative to Westernisation, which will allow for an alternative to democracy, at least as conceived in the West, which, in this view, unavoidably leads to atheism. The further course of history depends, it says, on whether Russia can manage to promote a new idea, à la Dostoyevsky, of brotherhood among nations. Orthodox supremacy must return in the role of a “moral hegemon”, protecting the South from the inroads of the North, and Russian leadership is essential for this. An example of this kind of thinking, which also finds its reflection in Putin’s Valdai speech, is a recent statement by Vsevolod Chaplin, chairman of the Synod Department for Relations between Church and Society, and something of an Orthodox ideologue: “In the area of family values,” he said, “the moral norms governing the economy, and the conduct of everyday life, Western Europe is now using up the substantial capital accumulated since the Middle Ages. Once used up or renounced, I wouldn’t give Western European nations even two hundred more years.”
This way of thinking is increasingly evident in Russian official statements, such as those of President Putin. The rationale is clear enough: to the extent that the project of joining the Western developed world has failed, and it has become increasingly clear since the beginning of the century that this is the case, the search for a new/old paradigm, or even a set of motivating ideas, or a distinctive world stance, appears to be urgent. Happily, not all Russian thinkers are persuaded that it is that simple. In a fascinating interview with Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ early this year, Yuri Bulatov, the dean of the faculty of international relations of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which is attached to the ministry of foreign affairs, urges rejection of this kind of facile thinking, pointing out that the development of a viable set of governing ideas is an organic process which can take centuries in a settled country, unlike the position of the United States, which came up with the governing idea of a political nation relatively quickly, because it was a nation of immigrants, not of settled communities with different inherited identities. “It is a fact,” he says, “that today a part of the patriotically inclined community advocates including in the Constitution of the Russian Federation a corresponding section or article, where there would be question of the state ideology of contemporary Russia. It has to be noted that even some groups of believers come out in support of this idea. They declare that the absence of an official ideology in Russian society leads directly to Latin circumstances, that is, confirmation among Russians of the postulate cujus regio ejus religio, or, the ruler of the territory determines the religion, and this, as is known, contradicts the Orthodox canons which have it that ‘God is not in force, but in truth.’ Taking this fact into account, some political scientists agree that at present an ideological vacuum is to be observed in Russian society, which, as learned men warn, leads to a fall in prestige of the patriotic idea, moral nihilism among youth, the growth of nationalistic tendencies in society and so on.” This may appear persuasive at first glance, he says, but only at first glance. The fact is, as the debate about the question shows, there is no vacuum. “It is essential to recall,” he says, “that the core of any ideology is a national idea. I call to your attention that in the nineties of the last century we observed the attempts of state functionaries to proclaim a new national idea as a result of a year-long competition. The result was zero.” His view is that there is no alternative to creating a Russian nation as a political nation, and that, he says, calls for a stretch of historical time, “that is, more than a hundred years”.
It is true that one of the reasons Bulatov thinks a new debate on a constitutional amendment to meet this supposed lacuna is unnecessary is that the process of finding a national idea is already under way and that support for Putin in the matter of Crimea is evidence of this, as it is in itself a consolidation of Russian society. It remains the fact, however, that Bulatov’s rebuttal of the facile views of anti-Western ideologues is indicative that the Russian debate is not monolithic. Apart from the orthodox position, which draws on centuries of defensiveness in regard to the West, there may be some grounds for hoping that the more extreme ideological positions expressed by the political leadership, although feeding from the same source, are more tactically motivated. This, of course, is something that only time will tell.
Alicja Curanović, The Religious Factor in Russia’s Foreign Policy, Routledge, London, 2012
Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, Moscow, January 2015
Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. He served as ambassador to the then Soviet Union from 1981 to 1985.