The Orthodox Church’s Ambiguous Role in Russian Politics

Vladimir Putin

Kremlin Photo

While the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has played an important role in shoring up public support for Vladimir Putin’s government, it is not a monolithic institution and one whose power is waning.

At a glance, the ROC looks like a valuable partner. Some 80 percent of Russians self-identify as Orthodox and the Church enjoys higher levels of trust than any other institution in the country.

However, religious groups also pose a challenge to the political system as nationalists intertwine with the religious far-right. While occasionally there have been attempts to harness such radicals, they are increasingly treated as a nuisance and even a threat, as official reactions to their public antics become more severe.

The Church’s progressive, reformist wing was decimated in the 1990s and the clergy who still fall in that category have little support. The ’90s resurgence of the hard right within the ROC, by contrast, was curtailed to a lesser degree. The current mainstream is closer to its positions than to that of the failed progressives.

But even the current mainstream of the Church is not entirely beholden to Putin’s politics. The Patriarchate, for example, has not supported Russia’s “adventures” in Ukraine as actively as the government would undoubtedly have preferred.

The ROC is slowly losing popularity. Religion was in vogue in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, but while the overwhelming majority of Russians still identify as Orthodox – and more do so than actually profess belief in a God – the shiny, uncorrupted image of the post-Soviet ROC has failed to last. Very few people in Russia practice, as measured by somewhat regular church attendance, parish involvement and so forth. The overwhelming majority of those who do are poor female retirees – not exactly a crucial demographic in shaping political trajectories.

The government does its best to foster the institution on the public through such things as promoting somewhat mythical Russian values and religious classes that are now a part of the school curriculum. Government patronage has helped the Church become once again a wealthy institution with vast amounts of property and significant power. But this very symbiosis is also part of the reason its popularity is fading.

The government’s attempts to use the Church as means of legitimation have not been an overwhelming success. In the process, the government did recreate an influential, if largely dependent entity, and it continues to use the ROC as the ideological dressing for political constructions sold to both domestic and external audiences.

About the author

Olga Tkachuk

Olga Tkachuk
Wikistrat Researcher
Country Editor at Pangea Today

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