Russia’s Church Mirrors Russia

Foreign Affairs has an interesting if somewhat shortsighted piece on Russia’s ongoing, quiet social revolution, this time focused on the Russian Orthodox Church and its role in society. The essential idea of the piece is that the Russian Orthodox Church is slowly becoming more liberal, which is a stand-in for less aligned with the Kremlin, and that there are interesting implications for Russia and its historic faith.

As multiple people who emailed me the story noted, this is too simplistic by half. Russian Caesaropapism — an illness and a feature of most of the Orthodox churches going back to Justinian if not sooner — is not synonymous with “conservatism.” It is true that conservative Orthodox are more inclined to Caesaropapism, but one may be — and many are — theologically and socially conservative without being great fans of Vladimir Putin or Patriarch Kirill’s ties to the President. Similarly, it is very possible to venerate that close tie and be broadly in favor of gay rights, abortion, and a greater level of theological ecumenism.

What’s actually happening in the article: two things. Most importantly, this is an attempt to see what the author rather wishes would happen, a liberalizing trend in one of the most conservative (by faith and by praxis) of the Christian churches, which in turn should magically cause Vladimir Putin to lose support by some sort of associative principle. This is a sort of projection that would ordinarily call for psychoanalysis.

The reason for that disparity is because the article is both absolutely right and completely wrong. There is a large segment of Russian society that is moving in a liberalizing direction, for good and for ill, and many of them are devout Orthodox, or more or less devout Orthodox, or vaguely Orthodox. These people exist. They are a real force.

And they are electorally outmatched, now and into the future. They represent an urban minority with no secondary support structure outside of the large and most cosmopolitan cities. They live lives frequently disconnected from their countrymen who are slowly patching together their own civil society; and most damningly, they don’t have children.

It is hardly a preschool bonanza outside of the cities, but if anyone will be in Russia in 2060, it will be the children of the men and women who keep their icons next to a picture of Kirill and under a photo of Putin, who think homosexuality not merely a sin but a perversion, who have fewer abortions than the national average, and who are why Putin did not need to cheat very much to win in his last election.

It is often said that Putin is racing against his country’s demographic collapse to build his empire, but because of his base of support, the Russians who will re-elect him in 2020 and 2024 and so on will outlast the rest.

This leads to the second shortcoming in the piece: it is basically a standard-issue wish-fulfillment template used by Western writers with the Catholic Church for five decades, with the Russian Orthodox substituted in its place. See the enterprising and brave liberals boldly challenging the hoary and out-of-touch establishment! The future of a more progressive church is nearly on us!

The Catholic Church is 2,000 years old, the Russian Orthodox Church 1,000. These are not things that will change wildly in this or the next lifetime. Trying to see liberalism creeping out here will give the average observer a migraine.

And, mostly for ill, the same is true of the country to whom the Russian Orthodox Church is so closely tied.

Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons