The Privatization of God by Putin
The number and variety of tricks Putin has used to insure his power and justify his legitimacy as the Russian leader surpasses those of all who ruled Russia before him in both their inventiveness and diversity. This is certainly true about the Soviet leaders; Putin’s trickery even surpasses Stalin’s, with all his tactics for removing his rivals in the late 1920s. Western politicians are, of necessity, forced to participate in a complicated parliamentary struggle, and in a climate of unhinged public opinion. However, their ingenuity pales in comparison with the cunning of Putin’s lieutenants.
Two major events during Putin’s rule determined Russia’s domestic and foreign policies, whose single goal was the maintenance his own personal power: the Orange Revolutions in some post-Soviet republics in 2003-4, and the mass protest movement from December 2011 to May 2012. The Orange Revolutions led to Putin’s decision to dismantle aspects of democracy in society and take a hostile position toward the West—which was, in his opinion, behind these revolutions. The mass protests made him even more aggressive toward the opposition, and highlighted the fact that the regime does not have its own ideology. In the winter of 2011-12, Putin saw, probably more clearly than ever before, that the lack of ideology necessary to legitimize his regime was a major problem, despite the high price of oil and his well-paid special police teams.
Putin’s technology for keeping power
The roster of political maneuvers used by Putin and his people to prevent the success of rivals is indeed very impressive. Besides rigging the election at both the campaign and voting stages, this roster includes the creation and dismantling (when useful) of the various fictitious oppositional political parties that have, supposedly, initiated attacks on the Kremlin and its party, “United Russia.” The fictional oppositional parties emulate critiques from a nationalist position (e.g., “Fatherland” headed by Putin’s acolyte Dmitry Rogozin), from a liberal perspective (e.g., the “Party of the Right Cause” headed by various Kremlin’s myrmidons, the “Civic Force” party headed by the official bureaucrat Mikhail Barzhevsky, and “Business Russia” headed by Boris Titov), and from the left (e.g., the “Just Russia” party headed by Putin’s crony, Sergei Mironov).
Putin’s strategy has also included transforming the Communist party into a pawn in his political games. Putin’s political technologists can boast of the subtle manipulation of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party, which was created by the KGB in 1990, pretending to oppose the government but faithfully serving Yeltsin’s and Putin’s regimes. Putin’s operators initiated various supposedly spontaneous movements, including those that targeted the youth, such as the “Nashi” (Ours) movement (founded in 2005). He also aimed at all strata of the population through “The Popular Front.” These technologists, together with big money, can be proud of their success in having recruited many of the most sophisticated intellectuals as Putin’s propagandists. Putin and his masters of political intrigue were able to advance bogus political rivals and seduce even very rich people in Russia like Mikhail Prokhorov, who readily obeys any task from the Kremlin. As fake critics of the regime, Prokhorov was joined by Alexei Kudrin, former deputy premier minister and Putin’s personal friend. Also joining in the ranks of the illusory opposition was Anatolii Chubais, Putin’s Minister. These people comprise a pseudo-liberal team that Putin can use as a last protection—an alternative against real opposition—when he is cornered and thinking only of how to avoid the fate of Mubarak or Gaddafi.
The Orthodox Church’s Ideology –the major reliable ally of the regime
More important than all of the previously discussed political tricks is Putin’s decision to use the Orthodox Church as an instrument in solidifying his power. Indeed, Putin has been haunted since the beginning by the lack of a viable ideology and the solid legitimization of his rule. There has not been an ideology (or a “national idea” in Moscow’s parlance) with which he was able to unite Russians and provide everybody with a directive of how to behave and act in the absence of clear-cut commands from the Kremlin.
Despite its erosion over the course of Soviet history, the Soviet ideology performed this function quite well until its end. Working all 12 years of Putin’s term, his aides have not achieved the goal of offering their master even a draft of a national ideology. This task was not solvable because it was impossible to combine all of Putin’s statements, which are mutually exclusive and contradictory, like the praise of private property and the market on one side, with the justification of state intervention in the economy and the confiscation of private property of undesirable people on the other. It was impossible to reconcile the praise of democracy with the commendation of the Soviet past (Stalin and the regular broadsides against the West) ; the slightly hidden nationalism; and the rude denunciation and persecution of the critics of the regime. The radical shift to an alliance with the Church has solved the problem, as pointed out by noted ethnographer Yurii Semenov, “the authorities’ instruments but Orthodox rhetoric.”
Figuratively speaking, Putin put God at his service. He “privatized” God in his personal interests in the same way he privatized the major television channels, as well as the oil and gas companies, as a part of his clandestine domain. As a part of the deal, the Orthodox Church (again without historical precedence) received extensive power to intervene in the ideological and political life of the country. The involvement of the Orthodox Church in Russian politics and ideology helped Putin strengthen his regime, and at the same time encouraged obscurantism in society and the decline of science, contributing to the flight of the best minds from Russia as well as to the country’s isolation by the West.
Of course, it is possible to contend that one ideology exists in Russia, whose major goal is the accumulation of wealth for Russians, from their leaders down to ordinary people. However, such an ideology is essentially deeply individualistic, and is actually destructive in terms of consolidating a society’s public ideology around what a desirable society should do.
Individualistic ideology, with greed as its main value, appeals to the anti-social instincts, encourages the atomization of society and is deeply hostile to state and order. In fact, all secular ideologies prompt the bureaucracy and all of a country’s citizens to act in the interests of the society, even without commands from the ruling elite (although the efficacy of these ideologies is another matter.) None of the secular ideologies—liberal, Communist or radical nationalist—suited Putin, whose behavior is ostensibly aimed only at the maintenance of his personal power and his wealth. Even the relatively mild nationalist ideology, with patriotism as its main value, which Putin has tried to regenerate since his arrival to power, could not gain real support in a deeply fragmented and politically indifferent society. Most Russians today are deeply indifferent to the national interests of their country, because they can see the ruling elite is completely absorbed with the maintenance and expansion of their power and illegally acquired wealth.
The Orthodox religion as an ideology appears more consistent than any other versions of ideologies offered by Putin’s aides, “sovereign democracy” among them. All other secular ideologies are a threat to Putin’s personal power. By accepting, de facto, the Orthodox religion as a national ideology, and demonstrating his personal allegiance to the Church and friendship with the Patriarch, Putin hopes to significantly improve his political standing in the country, and to expand the ideological basis for his relations with the majority of Russians, which has significantly deteriorated in the last several years.
Indeed, the official ideology of the Russian Orthodox Church satisfies Putin in every way. This ideology not only includes the various “pure” religious postulates which if—and only if — implemented can indeed boost morals in society, it also provides political directives that are fully acceptable to Putin’s regime. Of all the possible ideologies, the ideology offered by the Church best helps Putin to solve his most important problem—the legitimization of his regime.
First, it sermonizes about obedience to political power and supports the cult of state, along with an unwavering rejection of a societal focus on the individual and human rights. As patriarch Cyril said, speaking before students at MoscowUniversity: “It is the Orthodox tradition to pray for the tsars and all superiors.” He added that “the State is a sacred institute in the mentality of our people.”[i] The Church not only avoided participation in the pro-democratic movement in 2011-2012, it openly condemned it as a threat to the stability of the country, and openly condemned the participants of the protest movement, using Soviet terminology, “enemies of people.” (On the other hand, the Church never condemned those of their dignitaries who cooperated with the KGB. ) What can be more pleasant to Putin than the Church’s regular assault against democracy? Putin can also only be delighted with the attitudes of the Church toward the West. From the Patriarch to the ordinary priest, the West is described as a satanic power.
Of great merit to Putin is the fact that the clerical ideology avoids critiquing any problems in Russian society. Aside from a few empty phrases, the Church has not denounced corruption and criminalization in the country, or matters relating to the material polarization of Russian society. Indeed, it would be impossible, since Russians consider the church itself to be a deeply corrupted organization. Defending itself and the regime, the Church suggests that the fight against corruption in society and in the Church is equal to a fight against the state and the church as institutions.
Making religion his main ideological instrument, Putin has transformed the Church into an organization that resembles the propaganda department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party, and the patriarch Cyril into a sort of Soviet ideological guru like Mikhail Suslov. As theologian and publicist Yakov Krotov said, “the top Church hierarchs perform the same role as Marxists under Bolsheviks”.
Ordinary Russians – a respect for Orthodoxy even with low religious services attendance
When choosing religion as his major ideological weapon, Putin, of course, took into account the rather positive attitudes of most Russians toward Orthodox religion and the Church. In a twist of history, Putin’s regime benefited from the harsh treatment of the Church by the Soviet order, with the image of the Russian church as a martyr in Soviet history.
Research shows that, according to Levada’s survey in October 2012, 79% of Russians consider themselves religious. However,most Russians are dubious about the sincere religiosity of their countrymen (84%). Indeed, only a minority of them—no more than 10-15%—attend Church (8% at least several times a month). However, with this data, there is no doubt that there is respect for religion and that the Church is held in high esteem, a fact that is exploited by the regime. Many Russians now wear the cross on their body, an action which was almost impossible in Soviet times. The majority of Russians see the Church as the “main force for the spiritual revival of the country,” and as a moral authority (about 60%). The number of Russians who share this view has almost doubled since 1994. Three quarters of Russians now think that “the Church saved the country in difficult times and now it should do it again”. The pro-Church activity of Putin’s state is actually supported by two-thirds of Russians.
Moreover, two-thirds support hardening punishments “for actions insulting religion” and support the relevant law passed by the State Duma. On the whole, society is tolerant of the personal enrichment of the clerical dignitaries, despite several publications in the liberal media.
Even more important is the fact that the Church is the most trusted institution in the country (as much as the president), and surpasses the army. According to the Levada center, 49% trusted both the president and the Church in June 2012, compared with 41% who trusted the army. The patriarch also enjoys a high popularity rating. A reasonable speculation is that, in the case of a national emergency, the patriarch would be first, or at least second, in addressing the nation on the issue on TV, with suggestions on what should be done to overcome the national crisis.
Certainly, with a rise in the levels of education, enthusiasm about religion—particularly about the Church and its dignitaries—diminishes. Many educated Russians are greatly irritated with the expansion of church activity in society, and have mocked the Church and the patriarch incessantly on the Internet. As a result, the growth of the Church as an ally to the regime has further polarized the Russian intellectual community. Those who chose to be loyalists show their fealty to the Church. Those who are enemies of the regime take an anticlerical position and, with the growing political and economic power of the Church, their hostility toward the Church has increased. The critical attitudes of many Russian intellectuals toward the Orthodox Church today show a large contrast with the position of the Russian educated class under the last decades of Communist rule. Then, the respect for the church, which was persecuted by the authorities, was included in the code of conduct of the Russian intellectuals, though, ironically, most of them were atheists.
The ideological support of the regime by the Church
Having abandoned the idea of the spreading its own secular ideology, and having ignored the constitutional separation of church and state (in some cases, Putin has supported it directly or has twisted the concept of the separation of church and state to such a degree that he finally praised the total coalescence of the two institutions ), the regime has expended great effort in entrenching the Orthodox activity in each segment of Russian society. With the Patriarch’s slogan about “the coalescence of the Church with society state”—the regime officially launched “the Christianization” of the country. Now, whereas a position in the Communist nomenclature required one to conspicuously refuse to observe Orthodox rituals or to identify himself or herself with the Church, the current government’s close ties with the church (in Russian parlance, to be “accepted by the church”) calls for the opposite, which signals a demonstration of loyalty to the regime. One has no chance of making a career in Putin’s Russia without showing respect for the church. The amusing thing is that in both cases—the Soviet and Putin’s—it turned out that only ordinary people who held no position in the state hierarchy were free from pressure by the state on religious matters. The transformation of former members of the Soviet nomenclature into Orthodox believers weirdly resembles the flight of cynical Roman aristocrats from paganism into Christianity, in order to save their positions and wealth, when it became the state religion in the Roman Empire in the 4th century.
The high dignitaries of the state, starting with Putin, regularly attend major church services, and Putin has demonstratively executed the Orthodox rite of crossing himself. This ritual has become a part of political life in the country. Each new church, official building, or new production asset is now blessed in a special ceremony attended by a high official of the government. Vladimir Putin has taken part in the blessing ceremony of several holy sites. He was among many governmental and Church dignitaries who attended the ceremony of blessing a new Church complex in Usovo (Moscow region) in 2010. It has been highly touted by the media that Putin has his own personal spiritual priest, Father Tikhon (Oleg Shevkunov before taking his vows). Putin’s visits to monasteries and churches have also been highly publicized in the official media.
In May 2012, the head of the nuclear corporation, Sergei Kirienko, the Federal center director Valentin Kostikov, and the local bosses participated in the opening of a new cathedral in Sarov, the main nuclear center in Russia. Kirienko spoke eloquently, with the verve of a real preacher: “It is not often that such a center of security and state is created as here at Sarov, the historical center of spiritual power of Russia” (the first Sarov Church was founded in 1706; it closed in 1927 after being plundered).
The government has also permitted the full-scale penetration of the Church in the educational system. The collaboration between local authorities and the Church has become a standard in society. The church received full freedom to create Orthodox schools in the country, even if, paradoxically, the bureaucratic obstacles of state and church hinder the expansion of the religious educational system, in addition to there being a great shortage of teachers able to talk professionally about religion. However, even with all these obstacles it is important to note that the church has aggressively entered into the whole system of education. While the regime has not, so far, ordered the Bible to be taught in schools, it has allowed a sort of substitute—“The Basics of Orthodox Culture.” The cases of interaction between Church and schools have multiplied. Thus, at a meeting arranged by the Church eparchy in Kaluzhsk in August 2011, the head of the educational department of a Borovsk district declared that “cooperation with the clerical institutions in the moral education of children is a priority in the work of the authorities.” This bears an amusing resemblance to a similar narration during Soviet times; at that time, instead of the Church, they referred to the Communist party. It was decided that each school in the Kaluzhsk district would be served by a priest, who would participate in teaching a course in “The Basics of Orthodox Culture” and in the preparation of the Orthodox ceremonies. Many schools have introduced the teachings of the Orthodox religion, despite there being a high proportion of non-Russian students in the schools. Equally important is that a position has been created for a priest in all military units—including the army, the Minister of Internal Affairs, and the FSB—and that Church buildings have gone up on the properties of the various universities. The creation of a theological department at the famous Engineer-Physical Institute, which prepares scholars and engineers for the nuclear industry, was a shock, even to contemporary Russians, who have become accustomed to the Orthodox offensive.
Like the department of propaganda of the Central Committee, the Church is practically (if not formally) endowed with the right of censorship, which is treated as if it were legal by the central authorities as well as by local institutions. Vladimir Pastukhov addressed the issue of the Church’s censorship in his article “The Country on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” in which he talked about the Church which attacked “all oases of cultural growth.” One typical example is that Rostov’s authorities banned the opera Jesus Crisis –Superstar in 2012. The Church inspired a law that would invoke punishment for actions and words that could be considered hostile to religion, as noted by Alexander Nevzorov in his article “Orthodoxy or Life,” who declared the Church an open enemy to freedom of speech and an advocate of obscurantism.
Putin’s regime has also intensely supported the growth of the material basis of the Church. With the help of the state, hundreds of churches have been built throughout the country. In the Moscow region, the Church plans to build 600 cathedrals in 2012. With the total support of the state, the Church has ousted a variety of cultural institutions from their buildings, claiming ownership.
The political activity of the Church in the regime’s favor
The Church provides the regime not only with an ideology but also, in many ways, with direct support for the authorities.
Feeling like a powerful political actor, the Church has directly intervened in the law-making process. In the fall of 2012, the Church demanded that the Civil Code include, for example, freedom from paying rent on holy land, including buildings, as well as immunity from bankruptcy. Several of the Church’s demands were satisfied by the State Duma.
The Church openly supported the regime in the recent election campaign. Not only did it support Putin’s party in the election, in February 2011, the Orthodox Church permitted priests and all other Church dignitaries to participate in the election as candidates themselves supporting the Kremlin. The Patriarch openly declared that he supported Putin during the 2012 presidential campaign.
With the help of the state, the Church has created its own media, similar to a newspaper, called Vera i slovo (Faith and Word), and supports several very aggressive nationalistic movements like Sacred Russia, Georg’s Orthodox Alliance and others.
The Church has aggressively infiltrated all state structures in the country in a way that resembles the Soviet Communist party, which had its units in each cell of Soviet society. The patriarchy regularly invites high officials to its Moscow headquarters and has also awarded some of them with Church medals.
What is more, the Church has had a strong influence on the political parties. Some of them have proclaimed their fealty to Orthodox fundamentalism. The Rodina—the Motherland party—is regarded as the political hand of the Church. At the suggestion of the Kremlin, the Church even had some success in penetrating The Right Cause party, which was the most well-known liberal organization of the past two decades. In an expansion of their activities, the Church gave some informal support in 2012 for the creation of volunteer guards, whose task was the protection of Orthodox values. The Church has also helped the regime with foreign policy. The evident goals of the Patriarch’s visits to the Ukraine were to increase the influence of Kremlin politics on the leadership of this republic.
Cordial interaction between Putin and the Patriarch
In the past, Kremlinologists tried to measure the importance of Soviet politicians by their closeness to the supreme leader. Those who most frequently accompanied him to various ceremonies or stayed near him at Lenin’s mausoleum were declared to be second to the general secretary in the country. By this logic, patriarch Cyril could claim to play the role of Molotov under Stalin in the 1930s, or Suslov under Brezhnev in 1960s-1970s. Putin and Cyril have never lost opportunities to praise each other. It is absurd to talk about a possible conflict between Putin and Cyril, as some analysts have attempted to predict. The Patriarch is no more than an instrument in Putin’s politics, even if Putin publicly kisses the ritual objects held by the Patriarch’s hand, as demanded by ceremony.
The case of Pussy Riot in 2012 revealed the depth of the collusion between the Orthodox Church and Putin’s regime. Pussy Riot is a Russian feminist punk-rock group founded in 2011. Three members of the group staged a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior last fall. The central part of their performance, which lasted only a few minutes and was stopped by the guard, was chanting the lyrics “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!» The women said their protest was directed also at the Orthodox Church leader’s support for Putin, who was elected for a third term as Russia’s president two weeks later. Two of the three women were incarcerated on March 3, 2012, and the third on March 16. They stayed in prison until October, when they were sentenced to two years of imprisonment (one was freed on probation).
While the majority of Russians supported the harsh sentences meted out to these young women from the punk group “Pussy Riot” for their behavior in the Church, many Russian intellectuals and international public opinion have condemned the decision of a Moscow court to severely punish three young women for “offense to the Orthodox religion.” Putin pretended to ignore the fact that he, personally, was the target of the punks’ action. However, the international condemnation of this highly publicized punishment did not prevent the Kremlin from endorsing the severe sentence simply because Putin’s total support for the Church carries much more importance than any other considerations.
The cost of the alliance
Permitting the Church to play a formidable role in Russian life, the regime, or the country carries an enormous cost that will affect development in Russia for many years to come.
In the opinion of many observers, the new holy alliance, which clearly strengthened the course of further alienating the West and democracy, has pushed the country toward obscurantism. Russia experienced a direct anti-civilization period under Tsar Alexander the Third after the murder of his father by the “populists” in 1881, as well as under Stalin in the aftermath of the war. The Kremlin was blinded by the nationalist desire to present Russia’s science as superior over the West’s and, on the eve of Stalin’s death, vehemently attacked Darwin’s theory and the theory of relativity.
In 2011-2012, Russian analysts began talking of Putin’s Russia shift, not toward the Soviet past but rather to its Middle Age status, before the rule of a tsar who loved Europe, as did Peter the Great. The various prejudices, like a belief in various supernatural forces, which had declined significantly in Soviet society have returned en mass in contemporary Russia, even if the Orthodox Church supposedly rejects at least some of them. The number of people who believed in some of the prejudices has doubled. The rumors about the end of the world on December 21, 2012, when a 5,125-year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close, has not influenced as many people in a country as it has in Russia. The New York Times related (December 1,2012) how the Russian government was forced to intervene; its minister of emergency situations said that he had access to “methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth,” and that he could say with confidence that the world was not going to end in December.
Vladimir Pastukhov, a British-Russian researcher, suggested in October 2012 that Putin’s Russia is moving to “the Middle ages clerical and criminal state.” Some analysts have gone so far as to say that Putin “turned Russia into a country of fools.” Certainly, Putin’s Russia is now only at the first stage of a move toward the Middle Age’s intellectual climate, and continues to take one step after another in this direction.
The entrance of the Orthodox Church as a fully fledged ideological, and even political, actor has helped accelerate the decline of science in the country. As the Russian Nobel prize winning physicist Zhores Alferov noted in the book “Power Without Brains: The Retreat of Science from State,” the marriage of the Kremlin with the Church was accompanied by the divorce of the state with science. Both developments have encouraged an outburst of aggressive ignorance in society—consider the multiplication of various absurd projects like those of Victor Petrik, who claimed to have invented various miraculous devices but was mocked by scholars, and the proposal to organize a discussion on the creation of a perpetuum mobile in Skolkovo in 2012. There is no doubt that the clericalization of the country has accelerated the flight of the best minds away from Russia. Still, it is no less remarkable that the Moscow court dealing with the punk group Pussy Riot justified its condemnation of the young women with references to theLaodician and Trull sobors of the 4th and 7th centuries.
An unintended cost of active protection of the Orthodox Church by the state in a multinational country like the Russian Federation is the encouragement of Islamic fundamentalism. Activists demanding equality with the Orthodox Church have expanded Islamic fundamentalism in republics with Muslim populations. The Chechen republic is a good example. The activities of the Orthodox Church have helped the president of the Chechen republic, Ramazan Kadyrov, to justify the Islamization of the region and de facto separation from the Russian Federation; the activities of the Orthodox Church have had the same effect on other Muslim regions. Among them are such important regions as the Tatar republic.
The close alliance of Putin’s regime and the Orthodox Church, with its aggressive anti-Western stance, hostility toward democracy, and contempt for science has had a growing impact on Russian society. Since the Church enjoys high prestige among a majority of Russians, its active political and ideological roles strengthen the anti-democratic trend in the country and its isolation from the West. At the same we do not see the positive moral impact of the Church on the every day life of the Russians.
However,it is unreasonable to exaggerate the influence of the Church on the political process in Russia, and to even talk about the ascension of “Orthodox Nazism,” as previously suggested by some authors. Whatever the intervention of the Church in the political and ideological life of Russia, this institution remains under the full control of the Kremlin and will only do Putin’s bidding. So far, Putin’s regime, with its authoritarian policies, has tried, and will continue to try, to control not only the Orthodox Church but also the nationalist and leftist organizations which, along with the liberal movement, present a threat to Putin’s personal power. Only big external factors (like a sudden decline in the price of oil) and internal factors (like a technological catastrophe) can undermine the political stability of the regime. The Orthodox Church, as has been the case throughout Russian history, remains no more than the compliant instrument of the Russian leaders.