On January 19, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin stripped off his fur coat and boots in sub-zero temperatures and, flanked by black-robed Orthodox priests wielding enormous gold crosses, descended into the icy waters of Lake Seliger. The 65-year-old leader crossed himself as he entered the pool and then lowered his head underwater before emerging. It was a gesture of enormous symbolism: the commemoration of the baptism of Christ is an Orthodox ritual that has been practiced in some parts of Europe since the 4th century. To many, Putin’s observance of the religious ritual was simply another cynical attempt at a bare-chested photo op. To the Russian Orthodox faithful, meanwhile, it was more evidence of Vladimir Putin’s support for the Russian Orthodox Church—if not his own personal devotion.
Each of these perspectives contains elements of truth. Putin’s increasingly visible support of the Russian Orthodox Church is a key part of the leader’s search for a new national identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an identity that is uniquely Russian and rooted in Russia’s rich and storied history. Putin’s biographers agree that he went through a tremendous crisis of identity following the collapse of the Soviet Empire where he had spent his life serving in the KGB. But those who dismiss the rejoicing in some Orthodox quarters are forgetting that many of the faithful still remember living in a nation that persecuted all the Christian denominations with vicious relentlessness. For those who recall being forbidden to teach their own children about their faith, seeing the leader of Russia joining an Orthodox ritual is both potent and profound—just as Putin intends.
A couple of years ago, I joined another journalist in Russia for several weeks to research what some have called a resurgence of Orthodoxy. Is Russia experiencing a great reversal of her century of state-enforced godlessness? Is Vladimir Putin only a crass opportunist, or is he also genuinely a Russian Orthodox believer? Is Russia becoming more socially conservative, as media outlets across the West consistently claim? To what extent do any of these trends impact Russia’s standing in the West and influence the increasingly toxic geopolitical climate? Over dozens of hours of research and many interviews with Russian journalists, students, and historians, a few embryonic answers began to emerge.
It is certainly true that the perception of Russian Orthodoxy in Russia has become positive. It is also true—which I saw for myself—that it is not just the elderly attending church. The cathedrals I attended were packed with young people and families on Sundays. A choir director noted in awe that nobody is prohibited from singing in a church choir these days—indeed, many singers from prestigious music institutions now also sing at church services on Sunday. Churches are everywhere, and they are actually open. In some, wizened old men and women cross themselves and place carefully lit candles and burning incense. In others, young people stand with their hats respectfully twisting in their hands. Church is again an intergenerational experience.
A new narrative concerning the Russian Orthodox Church is beginning to emerge: the story of an institution that survived the savage persecutions of the Soviet era and preserved the true history and culture of Holy Mother Russia from the godless barbarians who could butcher with the comfort that there was no God to judge them for their bloody deeds. These martyrs now serve as inspiration, and the blood that watered the Russian soil is a new lifeblood for a desperately needed Russian identity.
Salavat Scherbakov, a sculptor, told one interviewer that, “We are coming back to our roots. We still do not understand these roots very well. It is a kind of search for identity.” He described the atheist schooling of the Soviet Union as “a kind of struggle against our own history and spirituality” and noted that while he did not know pre-Soviet Russia, he knew people who remembered it. “We are trying to resurrect it,” he said. “We want a spiritual rebirth.” Many now see Putin’s tacit endorsement of the church as atoning for seventy years of state persecution.
On the other hand, others are concerned about the increasingly close relationship between the Church and the state. Orthodox blogger Deacon Andrey Kuraev, for example, is worried that the state will co-opt the independence of the Church again, especially considering the well-documented history of Soviet infiltration and attempts to utilize the Russian Orthodox Church as an ecclesiastical wing of the Communist Party. Kuraev and others are suspicious that Putin, in his efforts to recreate a muscular national identity rooted in Russia’s past, may be attempting to strengthen the social position of the Russian Orthodox Church for his own purposes. Defending Christian values is a good thing, he notes, but “is freedom of religion on the list?” Considering the KGB’s thorough infiltration of the Russian Orthodox Church under the Soviets, this is a good question.
An initial glance, at least, would indicate that the Russian government’s new fondness for religion extends exclusively to the Russian Orthodox Church, with the history and sense of continuity that it provides, leaving other religious groups abruptly out in the cold. In 2016, Vladimir Putin signed several so-called “anti-terrorism” measures into law that made it mandatory for Russian citizens to acquire a permit from the government through a specifically registered religious organization in order to engage in proselytism—and even then, these efforts are restricted to churches or other religiously-oriented sites.
The 2016 legislation is an extension of a 1997 law signed by Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin with the justification that it is necessary to track extremist Islamist groups. But while the law has been used to take action against a handful of mosques, Dr. Eric Patterson points out that the law is obviously intended to give the Russian government sweeping power over all religious groups: “A simple look at the restrictions makes this clear: restrictions on public meetings, inviting foreign pastors or missionaries to visit, restrictions on publishing and broadcast, zoning and permit requirements, and other legal intrusions.”
The primary targets of this law, it seems, are not only Islamist extremists: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and even traditional Evangelicals have been targeted. Dr. Andrew Bennett, a senior fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, wrote for the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs in 2017 that “close to two hundred individuals and communities” have been “charged with anti-missionary activities since July 2016” and noted that there has been an “outright suppression of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, whose members significantly outnumber those of other faiths facing charges.” According to Bennett, Russia’s government has a very different view of religious liberty than Christians in the West and sees laws restricting religious freedom as a mere matter of enforcing public order. Indeed, Russia has always limited freedom of religion—emerging Christian denominations in Tsarist Russia also faced heavy persecution at times, something Tolstoy described vividly in his last great work, Resurrection.
Part of the rationale for these restrictions has been the inherent Russian suspicion of “foreign influences,” a category that includes missionaries (it was for this same reason that Russian Baptists were, at least initially, treated far more harshly than Orthodox believers under the Soviet regime.) The West is seen as decadent, corrupt, and morally bankrupt—the idea that Western missionaries would have anything to teach the Russian people, who have all the traditions of Orthodoxy at their disposal, is often treated with contempt and viewed as Western arrogance.
To some Western observers, the relationship between Vladimir Putin’s government and the Russian Orthodox Church is simply part of Putin’s strategy to contrast Russia with the West and revive a powerful sense of nationalism. And while that may be true, the narrative that is emerging in Russia is one that should be taken seriously. It is not simply that the Orthodox hierarchy sees Russia as an inherently better, more righteous nation; they believe they have already made the mistake that the West is currently choosing. They tried communism and militant godlessness, and it brought them nothing but bloodshed. Now, they say, Russia is returning to the paths she had abandoned and attempting to rebuild a nation with a soul.
Orthodox Patriarch Kirill said as much in a recent speech:
We know that some developed countries, because of their wealth and power, are trying to uproot faith from their lives. That does not mean there is no faith left inside the people of those countries. But it is harder and harder for them to confess their faith. We, Holy Rus’, having passed through the difficult stages of the full denial of God’s existence and any presence of God in our people’s lives, have now turned to God, and what we see is wonderful. We see big changes, including in our young people’s consciousness. No generation of young people was subjected to such temptations, such attempts to distort moral nature, as this generation, and therefore it is God’s miracle that more and more people are turning to God … and when people who hope in human power take our hope in God with a condescending and ironic smile, we respond to them with prayer for the whole world, not with irony or malice, because we understand that prayer is stronger than weapons, stronger than power.
In a later speech, Patriarch Kirill reiterated the same themes and the same narrative:
We know that our Revolution [intended to] crush the Old World, which centered on God. We drank the bitter cup of persecution. We gained many martyrs and confessors. What I like to say is that in my personal life, my first teachers were confessors. My grandfather and father suffered in prison camps, not because they broke any state laws, but because they did not betray the Lord and the Orthodox Church. Our people passed through those trials. But again today, new forces are capturing the entire planet. They are imposing an idea of life without God, and we see it now being enforced. It took the shape of law in many developed countries. Laws that allow same-sex marriage, a soul-crushing sin that goes against the Word of God, against holiness, against God. The result is a dangerous phenomenon in [the] life of modern humankind. It is called de-Christianization. … Today, we see it as global heresy, human idol-worship; a new idolatry that drives God away from human life. It is global as never before.
And what was Kirill’s response to the global threat of de-Christianization as he described it? A short and powerful mission statement: “Today’s Church is obligated to create the force of its protection. The force of its word, the force of its thought. To put it simply, we are obligated to protect Orthodoxy.” Throughout history, Kirill noted, the persecution of Christians has always ultimately failed, but people are simply too stupid to see it. In the West, he sees the same mistake being made. Today’s “persecutors are making the same mistake in Western Europe in these modern times,” he said. “By closing down churches and monasteries, they think they can have political culture and political philosophy without God. By fighting religion, they think they are going to create a blessed society, trying to uproot the Christian faith. They did not learn. The best [evidence] that persecution fails is our Church and our country.”
Vladimir Putin frequently echoes Kirill’s sentiments in his own public appearances. In one speech, he warned of a “deficit of spiritual values such as charity, empathy, compassion, support, and mutual assistance. A deficit of things that have always, throughout our history, made us stronger and more powerful: these things we have always been proud of. We must wholeheartedly support the institutions that are the carriers of traditional values, which have historically proven their ability to pass these values from generation to generation.”
In the same speech, Putin laid out the basis for the Russian approach to social conservatism (while ignoring his own government’s abysmal record on religious freedom):
Attempts by the government to encroach on people’s beliefs and views are a manifestation of totalitarianism. That would be completely unacceptable to us, and we do not plan to follow that path. We must not follow the path of prohibition and limitations, but instead we must secure a firm spiritual and moral foundation for our society. This is precisely why issues of general education, culture, and youth policy are so significant. These areas are not just a collection of services; rather, first and foremost, they are the environments for creating a moral, harmonious person, a responsible Russian citizen.
In Putin’s words, one can see the fusion, in his mind, of the roles of the Church and the state. I asked a number of Orthodox clergy as well as several Russian journalists what they thought Putin actually believed, and their answers amounted to a collective shrug. One priest noted that “Putin is very smart” and left it at that. Steven Meyer, author of the definitive Putin biography The New Tsar, writes that even during his KGB days people could not quite figure out whether Putin believed in the existence of God or not. Many Russians assume that Putin’s religious appearances are simply part of the same public relations campaign that has him riding about shirtless on horseback—the Russian word for a religious poser translates to “candlestick”—but, nonetheless, these symbols have proven very potent. And that’s not to mention the twenty thousand churches and eight hundred monasteries that have been restored to their former glory.
The best evidence for Putin’s view of the Russian Orthodox Church—that he sees it first and foremost as a vehicle for Russian identity—can be found in a documentary released on the leading Russian television channel, Rossiya 1, just prior to the 2018 presidential election. The film, titled Valaam, centers on a monastery of that name located on a remote archipelago in Lake Ladoga, one of the many rebuilt with Putin’s support. The symbolism is clear: Just like the once-glorious monastery, Russia is being restored to its former greatness under Putin’s rule. The history of Mother Russia can be traced alongside the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the rise of the one is inextricably connected with that of the other.
In Valaam, Putin even makes the bizarre case that the communism of the Soviet Union and the Orthodox Christianity of the Russian Orthodox Church are almost exactly the same. The communists, Putin says, simply recreated many traditions of Orthodoxy, but in a secular way. “In fact,” Putin says, “the communist ideology is very similar to Christianity.” For example, the embalmed corpse of Lenin, Putin noted, bears many resemblances to the relics of Orthodox saints. Furthermore, he says, communism and the Russian Orthodox Church sowed the “seeds” of reconciliation when Soviet soldiers gave Orthodox monks on Valaam a little time to gather up relics before evicting them from their monastery during World War II (a courtesy, he neglects to point out, that was not extended to most clergy). And just like that, Putin managed to create a continuity from the days of the tsars, through the bloody Bolshevik years, to the present moment, when it is time for Russia to recover her heritage and rise again.
It is an extraordinarily powerful narrative, and it centers almost entirely around the Russian Orthodox Church as a repository not only of faith, but of Russian history, Russian culture, and the very soul of the Russian nation.
The problem with most narratives surrounding the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s Russia is that they are too simplistic. It is true that the average Russian now views the Church benevolently, and it is also true that eighty percent of Russians claim to be Orthodox believers. But, just as in Western Europe, where there is an enormous divide between those who claim affiliation with a Christian denomination and those who actually go to church, the number of Russians who actually practice Orthodoxy is staggeringly low: optimists say that at most eight percent of Russians attend church on Easter, the most important Christian holiday in Russian Orthodoxy. That said, observers point out that church attendance is steadily increasing and, at least based on my own observations, that appears to be true. Either way, whatever is happening to the Russian Orthodox Church is still in its very early stages—far too early to make any bold claims about sweeping trends.
While it is true that, whatever his personal beliefs might be, Vladimir Putin sees the Russian Orthodox Church as a key element in his nationalist political strategies, it is also true that the Church sees itself as tasked with reviving Russian Orthodoxy and remaining true to the blood of the 21st-century martyrs by warning the world of the deadly dangers of militant secularism. It is a story that is still unfolding, and it is a story that should not be ignored.