Last Thursday, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a new anti-terrorism law, which, among other things, restricts missionary activities in Russia significantly. As was the case in the Soviet Union, believers will be able to evangelize only on property that belongs to their religious organizations and affiliated institutions. Violators may be subjected to steep fines. In addition, the law would tighten government control over Russian Internet providers.
While it would be easy to blame these events on the history of communism in Russia, the relationship between church and the state has a longer and more influential history in Russia.
A ‘Harmonious Relationship’ Between Church and State
In contrast to the cherished ideals of religious liberty and the separation of church and state held in the United States, a major contributing factor to the recent events in Russia is the concept of symphonia, or institutionalized “harmonious relations,” between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state. This intentional connection between church and state allows the Orthodox Church to enjoy all the attendant privileges of political preference and feeds into a uniquely Russian national identity. This recently signed legislation goes a long way toward preserving this status quo by massively restricting non-Orthodox Christian congregations and organizations in Russia, making their missionary activities effectively illegal and subject to constant surveillance.
While such a law would be unthinkable in the United States, this sort of measure stems from a long and complex relationship between the Russian Church and the Russian state. The late Max Stackhouse, a preeminent authority on faith in the age of globalization, pointed out that “one cannot imagine trying to understand the politics of China or India without reference to Confucianism or Hinduism, or the systems of government in Southeast Asia or the Middle East without understanding Buddhism or Islam, or what is going on in the EU without reference to the legacy of traditional Christendom.…Nor can we understand the US without an awareness of Protestantism’s historic influence.” Similarly, one cannot understand Russian politics without reference to Russian Orthodoxy and the influence this faith has had on the formation of the predominant worldview in Russian culture.
The worldview of Russian Orthodoxy is holistic and organic. It does not have sharp divisions between various spheres of human society or branches of power. While it does grant considerable importance to human personality, atomistic individualism is alien to it. The search for meaning and purpose is central to this worldview, and Russians look to the Orthodox Church to provide this meaning and purpose.
A Religious Aversion to Consumerism
The notion that people will invariably choose a Western-style democracy once they taste the fruits of a market economy has been a bedrock of US foreign policy until just a few years ago. When people move to the middle class, so this theory goes, they become less susceptible to militant ideologies and more predisposed to embrace democratic values. It may be true that people living in abject poverty may be more amenable to extremist ideologies, but a material solution to their situation may only provides for their physical needs. It is deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche that people have needs that cannot be met by merely providing consumer goods.
After decades of economic misery under the Soviet central planning system, Russians have certainly enjoyed the recent relative material abundance that has come since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For many, however, this abundance cannot provide the sense of meaning they are looking for. Simply “moving up in the world” does not provide that crucial sense of purpose for most Russians. Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church’s official document outlining its position on social issues, calls grave social ills, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, “a retribution for the ideology of consumerism, for the cult of material prosperity, for the lack of spirituality, and the loss of authentic ideals.”
Whether one agrees with the Russian Orthodox Church on this point or not, a survey of recent Russian history indicates that Russians feel a need for “spirituality” and “authentic ideals” that go beyond simple material abundance. Being more prosperous does not necessarily make Russians more inclined to follow Western-style values. For example, despite the fact that the last decade has brought prosperity unparalleled in Russian history, it has also been a time when Russian society has stubbornly resisted the Western political models that are ostensibly responsible for that prosperity. Modern Russian history consistently illustrates that relatively prosperous times tend to make Russians more aware of the spiritual limitations of material prosperity. This awareness makes Russians search beyond wealth and prosperity for meaning and significance, even though this search often results in actions that the West views as undesirable or dangerous.
A National Community
In accordance with the longstanding tradition of sobornost, a “spiritual community of many jointly living people,” many Russians believe that they can only fully acquire a sense of meaning and purpose as a people, not as separate individuals. Nikolai Berdyaev, a prominent Russian Orthodox philosopher, puts it very well in his article titled The Truth of Orthodoxy. Individualism, says Berdyaev, is alien to orthodoxy. The true freedom of the Spirit is not found in the isolated, autonomous person who finds self-affirmation in individualism. Instead, this freedom is found in the person who sees herself as a part of one spiritual organism, which is the church. The heavy Western emphasis on individualism does not resonate with this quest. Of course, by and large, Russians appreciate the newfound individual freedoms and opportunities afforded by the influence of Western values. Nevertheless, to many in Russia these individual callings can find a sense of completion only in a larger communal context.
Additionally, this context cannot be limited to local communities, important as they are. Ultimately, it has to culminate in the Russian people as a whole. The separation of various realms of human endeavor and activity common to Western individualism does not fit in with the organic, interconnected worldview informed by Russian Orthodox spirituality.
For example, truth and justice can be designated in Russian by the same word, pravda. While these are two related concepts for English speakers, in Russian they can hardly be separated. If a given social order is not perceived as meeting basic the criteria of justice, it is regarded as based on lies. The famous treatise by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “Live Not by Lies,” typifies this pattern of Russian thought. In the ’90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when people saw their elderly teachers digging in dumpsters while young, moneyed mobsters drove around in luxury cars, the reality they were experiencing ran contrary to the Russian understanding of basic justice. The injustice Russians witnessed came to be associated with Western economic models and was seen to reveal the falsehood of Western values. This suspicion of the validity of Western ideals fueled the Communist parliamentary election victories in the ’90s, and the subsequent emergence of Vladimir Putin as the dominant political leader in Russia.
A Not-So-Private Faith
The idea that one’s faith is a private matter has become deeply ingrained in Western culture, and very seldom are “religious” considerations used to justify public actions. When they are, such considerations are often related to various interpretations of religious freedom, as in the Hobby Lobby case decided by the US Supreme Court in 2014. Not so in Russia.
Igor Evlampiev, a contemporary secular historian of Russian thought, identified the search for the hidden meaning stemming from Christian ideas as the most important motif of Russian thought. The Russian Orthodox Church agrees. Tellingly, Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church addresses secularism in the same section as international relations, indicating that it views secularism as a foreign concept. The document states, “The Church seeks to assert Christian values in the process of decision-making on the most important public issues both on national and international levels.” It goes on to call for recognizing the legitimacy of a religious worldview “as a basis for socially significant action (including those taken by state) and as an essential factor which should influence the development (amendment) of international law and the work of international organizations.” It is clear from this language that the Russian Orthodox Church sees itself explicitly as a political actor, and this view overflows into Russian culture as well. To regard Christian faith, or any faith, as merely a private matter runs contrary to Russian cultural traditions. Rather, Russians see faith as inherently public and political, and a Russian does not need to embrace the current state of Russian Orthodoxy as the de facto state religion in order to take these traditions seriously.
Of course, one could object that for 70 years secular Communism, not Christianity, was the dominant ideology in Russia. However, Russian Communism intentionally adopted many of the trappings of religion—including dogmatic beliefs, iconic symbols, slavish devotion, and ritualistic gatherings—in order to establish cultural control. During the Soviet era in Russia, secular Communism arguably did not attempt to eradicate religion so much as it attempted to become the religion. The astonishingly swift desecularization that followed in the wake of the collapse of Communism demonstrates that the stated Communist ideal of secularism never really took hold in Russia. Coupled with Russia’s failure to establish a religiously and ideologically “neutral” public space in 1990s, this indicates that Christian religious ideals still hold strong influence over Russian culture.
An Enforcible Display of Cultural Unity
These three features of Western culture—consumerism, individualism, and secularism—have not been fully embraced by Russians since Western ways of thinking became more familiar to them after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Certainly, Russian people enjoy having more personal autonomy and the greater selection of goods provided by Western capitalism. At the same time, they are hesitant to adopt Western values to the extent that individualism becomes the most important cultural ideal, and consumerism becomes the defining modus operandi for all walks of life. As long as there is the pressure, often unspoken, for secularism, consumerism, and individualism to become the new bedrocks of Russian culture, this pressure will be resisted.
One way that resistance manifests itself is in the close affiliation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government, illustrated strikingly in this recent anti-terrorism law. By restricting the activities of foreign organizations and what are seen as non-Russian forms of religious belief, the Russian government has consolidated its religious support and made an intentional (and enforceable) display of Russian cultural unity in the face of the external pressures of consumerism, individualism, and secularism. As oppressive as this legislation seems, it is fitting that these new regulations come under the guise of an anti-terrorism law, because that fits well into the narrative of protecting Russian national identity and deeply held Russian values against dangerous foreign influences.
Understanding the current Russian political moment requires an appreciation of the long history of Russian Orthodox influence on Russian culture. Russian national identity is tied to Russia’s religious history in a way not unlike how Western culture is deeply connected to its Catholic and Protestant histories.
While the ingredients might be similar, the outcome is stark cultural divisions between East and West. These deep cultural disagreements between Russian culture and Western culture admit no easy answers and they are unlikely to be solved by diplomats alone. But recognizing the theological and ideological roots of the disagreements is a first step.
Andrey Shirin is an assistant professor of divinity and director of transformational leadership at John Leland Center for Theological Studies (Arlington, VA) where he researches and teaches at the intersection of theology, leadership, and public life.