NEWS FEATURE: Orthodox Church Plays Controversial Role in Russian Politics

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

MOSCOW _ When President Boris Yeltsin resigned and made his dramatic New Year’s Eve transfer of power to Vladimir Putin, the historic event was witnessed not by the heads of the legislative or judicial branches of Russian government.

Instead, the solitary, robed figure of Patriarch Alexii II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, stood by and then blessed the new president.

The patriarch’s presence at one of the most crucial moments since the breakup of the Soviet Union is a triumphant display of the completeness of the church’s rehabilitation after 70 years of devastating Communist oppression. It is also, one religious freedom advocate says, quite frightening.”It is a demonstration of the unity between state power and spiritual power. It is a concordance that the Russian Orthodox Church has always dreamed of,”said Moscow lawyer Yekaterina Smyslova, who counts Protestant communities among her clients.”Now, it is going to become more difficult for religious minorities to defend their rights.” Adding to Smyslova’s concerns is the background of acting President Putin, who is favored to win presidential elections set to start March 26.

Putin, 47, spent 15 years in the KGB, the former Soviet Union’s secret police, rising to the rank of colonel, and was a member of the Communist Party. The KGB and the Communist Party were the two institutions most responsible for 70 years of brutal Soviet religious repression.

His past aside, Putin took to Russia’s airwaves hours after Yeltsin resigned, making a commitment to religious freedom. He said,”Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, the right to private property _ all these basic principles of a civilized society will be reliably protected by the state.” Putin’s relationship with Alexii is described by a church spokesman as”warm and mutually respectful.”Russian press reports cite frequent meetings _ and one meal at Alexii’s suburban Moscow residence _ as evidence of genuine affection between Putin and the patriarch.

The church spokesman, Viktor Malukhin, refused to speculate on whether Putin gets along better with the patriarch than did Yeltsin. Malukhin dismissed Smyslova’s suggestion there was anything threatening about the Russian Orthodox Church’s prominent role in the nationally televised transfer of power.”The patriarch has the trust of the people. He has a very high popularity rating. So, it was important for him to be present at precisely such a delicate moment for Russia,”said Malukhin, who cited czarist coronations as precedents.”It is a Russian tradition. Worldly authorities naturally seek to have spiritual authorities present at such a moment.” Improved relations between the Orthodox and the state should not be reason for concern, because the church has no desire to hamper the activities of traditional faiths, as opposed to”new and exotic religions,”Malukhin said.

Church officials regularly categorize Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as”dangerous, totalitarian sects.” In a telephone interview from his office in Novosibirsk, Siberia, Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Werth cautioned against attaching too much significance to Putin’s outward demonstrations of faith, such as Putin’s crediting Christ’s birth for liberating”people from sickness, trouble and death”in remarks after a Russian Orthodox Christmas service.”It is really too early to tell. It is either simply a sign of fashion or of genuine religious feeling,”said Werth, apostolic administrator for Latin-rite Catholics in western Siberia.”I can only hope that he doesn’t change the government’s attitude toward the (Catholic) church,”the bishop said, referring to Russian government policies that allowed for a dramatic revival in Catholic life. Before the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, only two Catholic parishes operated in Russia _ in Moscow and Leningrad. Now there are about 200. Less than 1 percent of Russia’s 147 million citizens have Catholic backgrounds.

Currently Putin is only the acting president, but he is likely to win a four-year term in presidential elections if his standing in the polls remains high. His strongest challenger is Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who made a similar bid in 1996 and lost to Yeltsin.

A key factor in determining Putin’s fate at the ballot box will be how the Russian Army fares in its attempt to defeat rebels in the breakaway, predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya. To date, nearly all the presidential candidates have been supportive of the action, which the government has carefully avoided characterizing as a religious conflict.

Ultimately, one Moscow Jewish leader predicted, it will not make a tremendous amount of difference to Russians of any faith who the next president is.”Today it is not nearly as important as it was in, say, 1991 or 1992,”said Zinovy Kogan, chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities in Russia.”We have come to respect our laws more than our leaders.” Yeltsin’s eight years in office gave Russia’s Jews _ up to 500,000 by some estimates _ a chance to build institutions and a solidarity that will prove long-lasting, Kogan predicted. Today, Kogan said, there are at least 160 Jewish religious groups in Russia compared to 10 in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

On a purely anecdotal level, Kogan said he had observed little reaction to Yeltsin’s resignation.”The Jews didn’t start packing their suitcases. And the Russians didn’t start drinking more than usual,”he said.


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