The Russian Orthodox Church: Putin Ally or Independent Force?

Source: Religion & Politics


The image of the Russian Orthodox Church as the “handmaiden” of the state long prevailed in Tsarist Russia. After decades of Soviet persecution, this perception of the church has reemerged in post-communist and, especially, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Western media routinely describe the church as a “staunch Kremlin ally,” as The Washington Post did. The New York Times called the church “a reliable pillar of support for the government of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin,” and the BBC casually referred to the church’s “close links to the Kremlin.” Some in Russia have leveled similar criticism, as in a public declaration by three provincial Orthodox priests: “We urgently ask you to cease the shameful practice of blind collaboration with the authorities and every kind of dalliance with the wealthy in our country.” Such descriptions appear to find confirmation in the many photographs of Putin crossing himself at Orthodox services or standing alongside Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The two leaders demonstrate mutual respect, emphasize pride in Russian culture and history, and invoke patriotism and cultural tradition as enduring values. Collaboration has rewards: The state has been generous (such as a law in November 2010 on the restitution of church property) and accommodating (such as a law of June 2013 criminalizing sacrilegious acts) to the church.

Nevertheless, the church and the state have important areas of disagreement, as both Kirill and Putin bluntly admit. In a 2016 documentary to commemorate the patriarch’s 70th birthday, Putin thanked the patriarch for his advice but volunteered that the two did not always agree. The patriarch noted their disagreements in a face-to-face public meeting in February 2012, when he praised Putin for his role in ending the disastrous 1990s—which brought economic collapse to the country—but added that “this does not at all mean that we agree with all of your actions, with all that is going on in this country. We have our own critical views, and I say this publicly, without any inhibitions whatsoever.” In September 2012, in a BBC interview, the patriarch emphasized that “the church defends its autonomy. The church thinks that only a free church in the state has the capacity to have spiritual influence on people.” Incensed by allegations of a “merger of church and state,” in February 2013 the patriarch retorted: “Yet again I emphasize that the church does not intervene in the affairs of state administration, and the government does not intervene in church affairs, but both sides collaborate for the good of the people.”

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