Post-Soviet civil religion instead of Orthodoxy

June 21, 2022
  • Sergei Chapnin 

    Senior fellow at the Orthodox Christians Studies Center at Fordham University.

Sergey Chapnin on the post-Soviet evolution of the Russian Orthodox Church: what the “church revival” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union really meant and how Patriarch Kirill chained himself to the Putin regime and lost Ukraine.
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia, 2011. Source: Wiki Commons
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is isolated from the Christian world. At first, the isolation was intellectual and cultural, the ROC refusing to cooperate in the fields of theology, religious education and youth work with other Churches. Then, in 2018, due to its extremely unsuccessful policy in Ukraine, the ROC broke off eucharistic communion with local Orthodox Churches – the Ecumenical and Alexandrian patriarchates, as well as the churches of Greek and Crete – that had supported the creation of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Now, by supporting the war in Ukraine, the ROC has taken another step toward self-isolation, exposing itself to harsh criticism from both other Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Throughout the war in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and Patriarch Kirill have remained on the pages of global media. Unfortunately, this isn’t because Patriarch Kirill is taking a stand against the war and denouncing the aggressor. Rather, a scandal has erupted: the patriarch pays lip service to peace while at the same time justifying the war. In addition, not a single Russian bishop has condemned the aggression against Ukraine. Priests who deliver antiwar sermons are subjected to repression. Quite possibly, this could be the most shameful page in the thousand-year history of Russian Orthodoxy.

How did it happen that the commandment “thou shalt not kill!” was forgotten and Russian military chaplains are quoting lines from the Gospel like “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 13) as they admonish soldiers being sent to fight and loot a neighboring country?

Post-Soviet civil religion

Unfortunately, all this can’t be called an accident. Religion and atheism in Russia have made the leap from opposition to synthesis.

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union – when the Church was said to be witnessing a revival – the focus was entirely on restoring churches and monasteries, founding new dioceses and forming a new administrative model."
The successes in expanding and strengthening of the Church looked impressive but said nothing about the content of the faith that took shape in the 1990s and 2000s. Calling the revived faith in Russia traditional Orthodoxy was rather naive, though over decades it has become commonplace to say so.

The main problem is attributable to the fact that the ROC reluctantly and extremely ineffectively approached catechesis and religious education. The overwhelming majority of those who had joined the Church and been baptized retained both the worldview and habits of the Soviet era. Thus, a synthesis of Orthodox and Soviet emerged, which in 2011 I called “post-Soviet civil religion.” It combines elements of the Orthodox tradition, usually superficial and formal, and standard Soviet imperial content.

This synthesis was rather organically accepted by the state bureaucracy and a significant section of both society and the ROC itself.

There is an element of chance that this synthesis was successful, though you can’t deny that overall the post-Soviet civil religion turned out fundamentally well constructed, providing reliable mechanisms to channel religious ideas and historical myths into deeply secular post-Soviet society. The Commandments, which serve as guidelines for the life of a Christian, have been replaced by so-called “traditional values.” At the same time, the struggle for traditional values both in Russia and around the world has assumed the significance of an apocalyptic battle. The defense of traditional values has become the raison d'etre for many Christian organizations in Russia and the content of their activities, as well as an important element of domestic and foreign policy.

The concept of “Holy Russia” is no less effective, becoming in the secular context the “Russian World.” At the level of communication, the Russian language plays the central role in that, but in determining the general geopolitical contours of the “Russian World,” the most important contribution belongs to the ROC. It is the “canonical territory” of the ROC that has turned out closest to the contours of the “empire” that Vladimir Putin aspires to rule directly and indirectly.
Vladimir Putin, Metropolitan Kirill and Xenia Sheremeteva-Yusupova, October 2001. Source: Wiki Commons
The state takes the place of a deity

The government easily incorporated both concepts into its neo-imperial ideology and showed gratitude to the Church, which had been directly involved in their development and had shaped the worldview of state officials.

With respect to the religiosity of Vladimir Putin, we can draw parallels with the Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great. At the beginning of the 4th century Constantine declared Christianity the state religion, replacing the polytheistic content of Roman civil religion with monotheism; meanwhile, at the beginning of the 21st century Putin took the next, no less radical step: he de facto removed the actual religious content of the post-Soviet civil religion and made it a form of state ideology, in which the state takes the place of a deity, but without a link to any conception of the divine – be it polytheism or monotheism.
"Putin's empire doesn't need any gods – the divine miracle is the revival of the empire following the 'greatest geopolitical catastrophe'"
This is precisely the meaning of the phrase about Russia “rising from its knees”. These words were first spoken by Boris Yeltsin when he became president of Russia as a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, but they took on their contemporary meaning much later, in a Putin speech eight years later: "Russia might rise from its knees and whack [someone] good.”

Putin's Russia affirms itself not through a convincing vision of the future, but by justifying itself with history. A powerful source of self-justification from the 20th century was the Victory in World War II. However, the idea of war as a tragedy, as a crime against humanity, is nonexistent in the new myth. Under Putin, Victory Day celebrations have become a lavish demonstration of Russian exceptionalism. An important element of this ritual is the entirely pagan worship of the Eternal Flame and the mass march (a secular "cross procession") with portraits of those who died in the war, which represents a cult of heroic ancestors instead of the cult of venerating saints more familiar to the Orthodox tradition.

Back in 2005, Archpriest Georgy Mitrofanov, a leading Christian publicist in Russia, called this cult of the Victory “pobedobesie” (“Victory obsession”). However, his warnings went for naught.

The para-religious justification of the war that it will bring victory over evil remains an important element of “patriotic” journalism in Russia.
"Thus, the idea that Russia is always right and fights 'for the truth' is automatically transferred from World War II to any other war, and now to the war in Ukraine."
Alexander Prokhanov, editor-in-chief of the Zavtra newspaper, wrote this on Easter 2022:
“Today Russia is leading an Easter procession around Mariupol. Lighting lamps in Donetsk and Lugansk. Putting out Easter candles near Kharkov. Hanging lights near Kherson and Nikolaev. Merging with the Easter choir is the roar of long-range guns, the whistle of Hurricanes [Uragan rockets], the roar of diving bombers.”
Contemporary Russian theology and religious thought were caught completely off guard by these developments, and the attempts to substitute the Gospel with a "national-Christian ideology" received the full support of the official Church. Here is what Alexander Schipkov, a leading ideologist of the post-Soviet civil religion and a close adviser to Patriarch Kirill, wrote during the war:
“Russophobia in its current political forms is a set of both discriminatory and repressive practices and has a specific goal: the violent de-Russification of Russians on their own historical territory… This is a hybrid war being waged against Russia and Russians by representatives of the contemporary liberal and Nazi political consensus.”
Schipkov's article was published in the official newspaper of the Duma and reprinted without any comments on the website of the Moscow Patriarchate. It fully conforms to the general line of Russian propaganda – that the war is not being waged by but against Russia, that it wasn’t Russia that attacked a neighboring state, but the forces of the collective, openly "Nazi" West that are waging a hybrid war on Russian territory.

Such a plunge into darkness couldn’t help but trigger rejection by the dioceses and self-governing Churches that had been more open to the West or were weighed down by constant ideological pressure from ROC officials. Since the war started, several parishes in Western Europe have broken with the ROC and joined the Ecumenical Patriarchate, while a substantial number of parishes outside Russia have stopped commemorating the name of Patriarch Kirill at services – all this being a sign of categorical disagreement with the position of the ROC in relation to the war in Ukraine.

Judging by the speeches of Patriarch Kirill, he refuses to take this disagreement seriously: Ukraine has become something abstract for him, a distant land where a people that is “one with the Russians” lives, though this people isn’t worthy of support, sympathy or love. The patriarch couldn’t find a single warm word for the victims of the war and hasn’t expressed condolences to the families of dead Ukrainians. Moreover, in early May, when Russia's aggression against Ukraine had been going on for more than two months, Patriarch Kirill preached:Contemporary Russian theology and religious thought were caught completely off guard by these developments, and the attempts to substitute the Gospel with a "national-Christian ideology" received the full support of the official Church. Here is what Alexander Schipkov, a leading ideologist of the post-Soviet civil religion and a close adviser to Patriarch Kirill, wrote during the war:
“We don’t want to fight with anyone. Russia has never attacked anyone. It’s amazing that this great and powerful country never attacked anyone – it’s only defended its borders. God grant that until the end of the century our country will be like this – strong, powerful and at the same time loved by God.”
Three weeks after this sermon, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which for three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union had remained part of the ROC, convened a Council, the highest institution in the Church, and expressed its disagreement with the position of the patriarch and declared its independence from the ROC.
"Patriarch Kirill has lost Ukraine and has lost it exclusively by his own choice."
He failed to take the risky yet essential step of calling on Putin to end the war. On the contrary, Patriarch Kirill has actually supported the war and chained himself to the Putin regime.

EU sanctions against Patriarch Kirill could’ve become an important indication that the global community understands his role in justifying the war. However, Patriarch Kirill has influential allies – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban vetoed the move. Still, the UK took the first step in mid-June, announcing sanctions against Patriarch Kirill “for his prominent support of Russian military aggression in Ukraine.” Perhaps Patriarch Kirill will have some tactical achievements to his name, but they won’t help either him or the "official Church" to solve the main strategic problem – the substitution of Gospel teachings with religious ideology designed to serve the political interests of an authoritarian regime.

The return of the Russian Church to its true mission will take place only through crisis. That crisis will be protracted, deep and severe. And getting over it will be possible only after the political regime changes.
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