Russia: Religion on a Leash

Article excerpt

To those who value stability above all other political goods, Russia should look more attractive now than at any time since the early 1980s. That is especially true for church-state relations. Religious liberty, after shrinking since the mid-1990s, now seems to have reached an equilibrium. A year from now Russians will probably not have any more freedom of conscience than they have today, but they should not have significantly less. Religious freedom differs in this respect from freedom of the press, which is on a continuing downward trajectory.

The reason for the difference is that Vladimir Putin has achieved everything he needs in church-state relations: he has no need to put believers in chains, because he already has them on a leash. It is inconceivable that a national leader of any major religious confession in Russia--Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Jewish--would energetically voice criticisms of the secular government's policies on any issue that the Kremlin considers important. Such leaders rarely make any statements about public policy that could not have been drafted by Putin's press office. In return, the Russian state discriminates in favor of the mainstream leaders--not just against other religions, but against rivals within their own confessions. It favors some Jewish leaders against others, some Baptists against others--and, of course, the Sovietized Moscow Patriarchate against rival claimants to Russia's Orthodox Christian heritage. The state has also increasingly come to discriminate against religions seen as "foreign," even if those faiths in fact have deep roots in Russia's pre-Bolshevik history.

Putin's Russia is reviving the old habit of treating every social institution, whether secular or religious, as if it were an extension of the state. A characteristic example came in February, when Russia's largest Old Believer denomination held a nationwide council to elect its new head. Just before the council, Old Believer priests across the country were summoned to visit the headquarters of the FSB (the renamed KGB) in their respective provinces. The secret-police officers asked the priests what they thought of the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, asked whom they intended to vote for as their new Metropolitan, and hinted at which of the candidates the FSB preferred. The good news in this case is that the Old Believers stayed true to their three-century tradition of tenacious independence. The frail, elderly candidate favored by the secret police lost by a wide margin to a young bishop, one of the Old Believers' most effective evangelists. The older man even announced that he would prefer to lose.

Will the state now intensify its discrimination against this most distinctively Russian form of Christianity? That probably will depend on how successful the Old Believers' newly elected Metropolitan Andrian turns out to be. If they come to be seen as a serious competitive threat to the mainstream Orthodox, they can expect state harassment to grow--as it already has for energetic Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses. Potentially the Old Believers have especially strong appeal: unlike Protestants they share Russian spirituality's traditional emphasis on liturgy and iconography, while unlike the Moscow Patriarchate they are not tainted by servility to tyrants. At the same time they are especially vulnerable to state repression, as they have no lobby in the West to mount international campaigns on their behalf.

Note that I use the words "discrimination" and "repression" rather than "persecution." Persecution is what happens in China, where you can lose your job or even be arrested simply for attending a prayer meeting. Stalinist methods of that sort are almost nonexistent in today's Russia: you can say whatever prayers you like within your own home, and even invite your friends. But if you belong to a disfavored religious minority you may run into problems when you try to take your faith into the public square. …