Faith in Putinism: A Church-State Symbiosis

Vladimir Putin is building his political power around strongly vertical state power, reassertion of central control of the economy, and reinvigoration of the military, relying on the support of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The September 18 elections for the State Duma, Russia’s lower chamber of the Russian Federation Assembly, have confirmed the dominance of President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia. With his personal popularity at over 80% nationally, the nation’s leader can now claim a mandate for another term following the presidential election in 2018, if he chooses to run.

A familiar pattern is holding true: sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea continue to bite. Yet, despite the sagging economy, which, in the form of higher prices for essentials such as food will make life harder for pensioners and lower class workers, and despite tensions building within the upper elites of his vertikal1 as they compete for the lower revenues coming in from oil and gas exports, Putin’s hold on power seems secure for now.

His popularity in the face of deteriorated economic conditions means that his hold on power lies elsewhere than in the rise of living standards achieved in his first two terms in the presidency (2000-2008). The answer may lie in his grasp of the psychological needs and vulnerabilities of the Russian masses. He is using these to construct a new ideology to replace Marxism-Leninism.

Ideologies bring an ordered structure to the programs of a regime. They offer a descriptive element (how things are); a normative or evaluative element (how things should be); and a prescriptive element (a plan of action to move from the descriptive to the normative). Putin has adroitly combined the strength of a top-down, vertical state wedded to Russian Orthodoxy, the religious tradition vital to the self-image of most Slavic Russians; a profound sense of Russian national exceptionalism; and Russia’s perennial fears of, and antipathies toward the West and its political and social culture. In this essay I look at the symbiosis, buttressed by a sense of exceptionalism, between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church (hereafter ROC), that supports President Putin in his drive to reclaim Russia’s former ability to confront and challenge the West.

Repression and Resurrection

Although Christianized over a thousand years ago, Russians have never accepted the notion that church and state were two forces that must be kept apart. Rather, the relationship between the two is often described as “symphonic.”2 The ROC, a Church of Eastern Orthodoxy, was a main supporter of the state in the long reign of tsarist autocracy. There are many historical references to the tsar as chosen by God to rule over a nation made sacred by its status as the “Third Rome”, the true, eternal and final home of the Church established by Jesus Christ.3

The collapse of the Soviet Empire marked the end of seventy-plus years of drastic repression of Russian Orthodoxy. Lenin instigated, and Stalin perfected, a program of property confiscation, exile, torture and execution that reduced the ancient Church of Russia to a fragment of its tsarist era power and scope.4 The remnant of her hierarchy allowed to exist under Soviet power was not permitted to stand against the state in any way as a moral force; indeed, the leaders of the ROC were compelled, as the price of survival, to operate as informants in the service of the state security apparatus. The repressions finally abated after the demise of Soviet power.

Early in his time as President, Boris Yeltsin promised to return church property confiscated by the Soviet state and to re-legitimize religious belief and practice in Russia. As a result of Yeltsin’s opening of Russia to outside influence, however, the ROC in the 1990s experienced increased competition for Russian believers, as many Western missionaries, including certain evangelical denominations new to the country, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. surged into the country. ROC leaders became alarmed, fearing that the Church’s historically dominant position among believers was threatened by the new, aggressive Western sects. They lobbied the government to pass a law in 1997 restricting the practice of faiths of foreign origin. Yeltsin opposed and vetoed the bill, but eventually, despite strong opposition from Western religious leaders, gave in and signed it into law on September 27, 1997.5 This was the beginning of a turn away from tolerance for religions other than Orthodoxy.

Under Putin, the rehabilitation of the ROC has been replaced by promotion and outright protection of Orthodoxy. In 2004, the Duma decreed the return of all property taken from the Church in Soviet times. The act, when put into effect, made the Church potentially one of the largest landholders in all of Russia. Under Yeltsin’s but mainly under Putin’s orders, state-owned energy firms have contributed billions to the construction or rebuilding of thousands of churches. Many of the oligarchs6 have become, whether willingly or not, reliable supporters of the ROC. The ROC is now quite involved in Russia’s social life, having the right to teach in public schools, operate as spiritual counselors in the military, and review any laws before the Duma.

In 2012, the Russian government adopted the “foreign agent” law, which required foreign-based non-governmental organizations, including missionary groups, to register with the state. Requiring registration as a “foreign agent” is stigmatizing, and echoes traditional Soviet fears of foreign spying. In June 2016, the Russian parliament passed a new law, effective as of July 20 of this year, that prohibits sharing one’s faith in homes, online or anywhere but in officially sanctioned church buildings.7 Since finding a space to be rented or purchased for religious use is very difficult for Western Christian sects, this new law is virtually prohibitory.

Thus, although the Russian constitution defines the Russian Federation as a secular state, in practice the ROC enjoys the support of Putin’s government and to a vastly greater degree than the three other officially recognized faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism). Non-officially recognized, foreign-based faiths are under continual harassment and duress. Far from being merely rehabilitated, the ROC actively supports Putinism, including its claims of Russian exceptionalism.

An Exceptional State

Russians see themselves as neither wholly Europeans (even though nearly 80% of the population lies west of the Ural Mountains, the traditional eastern geographical boundary of Europe), nor wholly Asians. This straddling of both worlds has two implications: on one side, Russians see themselves as uniquely situated to bridge, or interpret between, East and West; on the other side, they stand alone, a sui generis “other than” whose essence cannot be encompassed by either pole. But rather than being neutral between East and West, Russian exceptionalism more and more finds its driving energy in strident opposition to whatever the West is seen to believe in and stand for. The claim by Russian Orthodoxy to be the “Third Rome” is today both a point of pride for patriotic Russians and an explanation for the perceived hostility of the West.

Of course there are those—mostly the intelligentsia—in Russia today who still desire an opening of Russia to the West (famously so in the past by Peter the Great).8 But now for the most part, views of the West in government-owned or controlled media stress the unbridgeable distance between the two. Of late, both Russian Orthodoxy and Putin have accused the West of having abandoned its Christian roots. The drop in church attendance in Europe and in both North and South America add to this view, even though few Russians themselves attend services in the ROC on anything like a regular basis. Such phenomena as militant feminism, gay marriage, and the homosexual rights movement in general have moved both Putin and Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow, to pronounce Christianity dead in the West.

Exceptionalism, Russian style, then, has both political and religious-cultural dimensions. Russian geography and history assigns to the state the mission of maintaining and spreading the unitive benefits of strong state rule over a landmass whose boundaries are only vaguely defined east and west of the Slavic Russian heartland and which is peopled by multiple minority ethnicities. In its religious/moral dimension the last and true home of the religion founded by Jesus Christ has assumed by default the mission of preserving and spreading the salvific message of the gospels. The role of the ROC in this mission extends beyond Russia itself to nearby states where Russian Orthodoxy has adherents.

Threats from the West

When we add these elements to the historical ambiguity inherent in Russian views of the West, we can see the logic at the heart of Putinism. Although, as noted, there have been times in Russia’s past when she more strongly and openly desired an opening to the West, this strain is often and rather easily put aside. Easiest to understand in this regard is the history of invasions from the West. Whether it was the Norsemen, Sweden, Poland-Lithuania, France, Germany or Great Britain and the U.S. (on the side of the anti-Bolshevik “Whites” against the “Reds” at the time of the Russian Civil War), there is no lack of examples Russians can cite of, in their view, rapacious Western eyes looking eastward. Add to these the humiliation attendant to the fall of the Soviet state, which, nearly overnight in historic terms, reduced Russians from citizens of a superpower, feared and respected by all, to objects of pity, shorn of the belief structure of Communism, which, for good or ill, had brought power and purpose to three generations.

When Putin came to power in 2000, he mourned the death of Soviet power, not because he was a Marxist ideologue (he almost certainly was not), but because with the surrender of the Soviet Empire went the fortunes of Great Russia herself. More of a nationalist than a leftist ideologue, he considered the collapse of the Soviet imperium to be unnecessary, panicky, and a dangerous abandonment of the centuries-old verticality of Russian political authority. Loss of the protective outer ring of buffer states, rebellion in the Caucasus, and the expropriation of the heights of the economy by the oligarchs were to him proofs of the chaotic, near fatal depths to which the Motherland had fallen by the late 1990s. He saw danger everywhere and was sure that the West, lead by the United States, wanted a crippled, if not dismembered, Russia.

Despite the reestablishment of the vertikal, some Russians openly lament that post-Soviet Russia did not adopt the “Chinese way.” That is, they believe that their desire for what they call “a normal life” could have been best achieved by retaining a centralized communist political authority to manage a transition to a Deng Xiaoping-like market-oriented economy. Instead, they got a robber-baron period of faux-democracy, which thrust men of the security apparatus such as Putin into savior roles. Thus, for them, the path to a “soft landing” after the shattering of Soviet power was not taken and Putinism is the result.

For Putin, the threats from the West were legion. The reunification of Germany, the expansion of the European Union into the “near abroad” of former Soviet buffer states (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic) and the enlisting of new members of NATO (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia) when Russia was weak are often cited by both Putin and Kirill as an “encroachment” politically and culturally into the Russian sphere of influence, the Russian world, or Russki Mir.9 The intervention against Serbia, a traditional Orthodox client state of Russia, during the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, is seen by Moscow as an American-led NATO display of arrogant power projection.

By Putin’s second term as President (2004-8) he had given up on his earlier attempts to find an accommodation with the West. The “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine were, for Putin, wake-up calls for the future of the Russian state. Specifically, the flirtation of Ukraine with the European Union and NATO was the last straw. Putinism is now being built reactively, around strongly vertical state power, reassertion of central control of the commanding heights of the economy (especially gas and oil), reinvigoration of the military, assertion of Russian influence in the Middle East, especially in Syria, and a push to assert and protect the rights of Russians living in the “near abroad.” In these endeavors, especially the last one, Putin counts on the support of the ROC since Orthodoxy exists in some measure in every state in the former USSR and its eastern European buffer states.

Limits in the Symbiosis

There are limits to the utility of the symbiosis on both sides in the struggle against Western values and practices.

For Putin, as he has moved forcefully to protect the ROC’s dominant religious and cultural role in Russia, he looks more and more like a classic Soviet boss to the outside world (however, to be clear, he seems to care little about this aspect). Inside the country, while many Slavic Russians see the ROC as the Church par excellence in their self-image, others believe what Yeltsin said about the necessity of creating a real right of religious expression: that it requires an openness to all faiths. In addition, Putin must be wary of awakening the moral power potential of a ROC in opposition. For example, when there were large demonstrations in 2011-12 in Moscow in reaction to Putin’s decision to stand for a third term as President, Patriarch Kirill spoke out urging Putin to listen to the voices of the protesters. This was a bold departure from then-current practices of the Church. Not long after that, Putin called a meeting and invited Kirill and the top leadership of all other faiths. At this meeting Kirill effusively praised Putin, thanked God for sending him to Russia’s side in her hour of trial, etc.10 It appears that there was an “understanding” prior to the meeting. But could Kirill lead the ROC over to the opposition if Putin’s power should be seriously threatened? For Putin, as for all Russian political strong men, this must always be seen as a possibility. He cannot assume the acquiescence of the ROC in every instance; as with his other supporters, he can never rest secure in its loyalty.

For Kirill, there are dangers in becoming too close a partner of Putinism. Inside the country, seventy-plus years of official atheism has clearly reduced the Orthodox faith of most Slavic Russians to a cultural form with little active involvement in the sacramental life of the Church. Russians may understand the ROC uniting with Putin when he was rescuing Russia from chaos and/or dismemberment; but now such cooperation can be riskier. Russians who oppose Putinism surely resent the ROC’s role as cheerleader for the regime.

Even riskier for the ROC is its support for Putin’s reassertion of power in the “near abroad.” Millions of Orthodox Russians live outside the Russian Federation, in the Baltic States and most numerously in Ukraine. Orthodox churches aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate in the “near abroad” have already begun to distance themselves from Kirill’s authority. This is especially the case in Ukraine.

As is well known, Ukraine comprises two increasingly separate political-cultural-religious zones: an eastern zone, heavily populated by Russians and Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians who adhere to the Moscow-led Ukrainian Orthodox Church; and a western zone, with fewer Russians, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church split between Ukrainian nationalist and pro-Moscow adherents. In western Ukraine, there is a long history of contact with the West. The Greek Catholic Church, which is strongly rooted in western Ukraine, shares in the traditional liturgical forms and practices of Eastern Orthodoxy, but views the Pope as its spiritual head and is Catholic in full communion with Rome. With these vital ties in the West, the Greek Catholics are especially noxious to the Moscow Patriarchate, which became alarmed at the rapid and vigorous revival of this Church, which survived the imprisonment or execution of its hierarchy. These Catholics continued an illegal “underground” Church life for many decades following WWII, recovering from a persecution overwhelmingly approved by the ROC leadership, which nevertheless came to count heavily on Ukraine both for financial support and vocations to the priesthood.

There has been visible slippage in the Moscow Patriarchate’s influence in Ukraine since Putin’s actions in Crimea and the Donbas. In June of this year, the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, even appealed to the worldwide head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, to declare invalid a 1686 act that attached the Kievan metropolitan to the Moscow Patriarchate.11 A drive toward full independence from Moscow is not unthinkable for Ukrainian Orthodoxy in the future. In addition to Ukraine, in Belorussia, Church leaders, although under the tutelage of the Moscow Patriarchate, have been seeking more autonomy in Church governance. This is in parallel with the policies of Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has sought, with some success, to maintain a modicum of political distance from Putin’s policies.12

Putinism: An Ideology for the Future of Russia?

The end of the USSR marked the demise of Communism as the dominant ideology in Russia. Putinism is an ongoing attempt to form a new political framework that may or may not outlast its namesake. Putinism has gained a foothold in today’s Russia. Of the various parts comprising this new ideology, Russian Orthodoxy, operating in symbiosis with the state, contributes a description (a “Russian World” under siege by a morally corrupt West); an evaluation (church and state should be politically and religiously preeminent in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence); and a prescription (maintain a strong, vertical state and confront Western political and socio-religious incursions into the “Russian World”).

But the symbiosis is not perfect; risks exist for both Putin and the ROC even as they combine efforts. The fate of Putinism at this time is unclear; many challenges loom within and outside Russia. For now, however, the “symphony of church and state” in Russia has been reestablished. Whether the music they are making can ultimately lead to harmony inside Russia and between Russia and the world beyond remains in doubt.

Related on CWR: “Vladimir the Inevitable? Understanding the rise of Putin” (Aug 5, 2016) by Joseph Kremers


1 The term “vertikal” is the Russian-to-English transliteration of the term for top-down, vertical authority structures in Russia.

2 “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church”, (see section III.4.) Church and State, Department for External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.

3 In Russia, Rome is seen as representing the first home of Christ’s church. Byzantium, centered in Constantinople, is viewed as the second home. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Eastern Orthodoxy, centered in Moscow, is thought by Russian believers to have inherited the claim to be the true home of Christianity, the “Third Rome” and the last.

4 For a classic account of Soviet repression of believers and other “dissidents”, see The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Editions du Seuil, 1973.

5 Michael Gordon, “Irking US, Yeltsin Signs Law Protecting Orthodox Church”, The New York Times, September 27, 1997

6 The term “oligarch”, from the word oligarchy, or rule by the few, has become a shorthand term for those influential persons who, in post-Soviet Russia, acquired control over the oil, gas, mineral, timber and other industries. Some are still powerful players in Russian society and some of the richest men on earth.

7 Kate Shellnutt. “Russia’s Newest Law: No Evangelizing Outside of Church,” Christianity Today: Gleanings, July 8, 2016

8 For a contemporary argument for turning Russia toward the West, see Dmitri Trenin, The End of Eurasia: Russia on the Border Between Geopolitics and Globalization, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C. and Moscow, 2002

9 Russki Mir is a Russian initiative by Vladimir Putin in 2007 to promote the Russian language and, in cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church, to promote values that challenge the western cultural tradition.

10 Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) pp. 403-4

11 “Ukraine’s Rada Urges Orthodox Church’s Separation From Moscow”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 16, 2016

12Paul Coyer, “Putin’s Holy War and the Disintegration of the ‘Russian World’”, Forbes Opinion, June 4, 2015

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About Joseph Kremers 6 Articles
Joseph Kremers is a political scientist who taught Political Ideologies, International Relations, and Soviet/Russian studies in Oregon for 28 years. He was a "citizen diplomat" that helped form the Sister City partnership between Eugene, Oregon and Irkutsk, USSR. He was co-founder of a private, non-profit corporation that conducted citizen-to-citizen exchanges between American and Soviet athletes, students and professionals, and was an exchange professor teaching American Culture at the Irkutsk State Teachers' Training Institute of Foreign Languages in Irkutsk, the capital city of Eastern Siberia. He made eleven trips to the USSR/Russia between 1988-98. A US Air Force veteran, he guest lectures to AFROTC cadets on international affairs.