Putin's Russia: Can the Orthodox Church Replace the Communist Party?

Article excerpt

IN NOVEMBER 2011, RUSSIA ADOPTED legislation restricting access to abortion. Women now must undergo a new "silence period"--that is, a waiting period ranging from 48 hours to seven days depending on the gestational age. The new law also limits the availability of the procedure, making abortion accessible upon request only in the first 12 weeks. Abortions are still available and offered by the state up to 22 weeks in cases of rape, and for medical reasons at any point. Additionally, for physicians with a conscientious objection to abortion, the law introduced protocols--framed in a way that could create obstacles for patients with few treatment options, such as in rural areas. The Russian Orthodox church was heavily involved in campaigning for these changes, as well as others that did not pass.

At the time, I could not stop asking myself the question: How, just 20 years after the collapse of the atheist Soviet Union, does the church have such an influence on politics in this country that it could have a hand in amending what was once the most liberal abortion law in the world?

The Orthodox church--and religion overall--were very much under the control of the intelligence services during the Soviet period. Not a single candidate for the office of bishop, or any other high-ranking religious position, could be appointed without the approval of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the KGB. Fully defunded after the 1917 revolution and separated from the state in 1918, the church experienced a period of immense persecution and repression. This was especially brutal in the 1920s and '30s (when bishops, priests and much of the active laity were executed or exiled) and early in the '60s during the rule of Nikita Khrushchev. In the 1990s, Patriarch Alexy II did acknowledge the fact that the bishops (including him) had come to an understanding with the Soviet government and now publicly regretted these compromises. Only with the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev and the implementation of policies of Glasnost and Perestroika did social liberalization and a loosening of control over religious life in the country take place.

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Huge opportunities arose for the Orthodox church from these regained liberties--it was simply up to the patriarch to seize them and return the church's power and status to what existed before the Soviet era. Under the rule of Patriarch Alexy II, enthroned in 1990, the Russian Orthodox church immensely expanded the number of dioceses, parishes, monasteries and schools, not to mention the number of newly built churches.

While Alexy II resisted the idea of the church becoming the political instrument of the Kremlin, the collaboration between the two greatly advanced with the arrival of Patriarch Kirill in 2009. Within the last three years, the Russian Orthodox church has entered into direct cooperation with the government by signing special agreements with a number of ministries and governmental agencies, such as the Ministry of Health and Social Development and the Ministry of Emergencies. According to patriarchate officials, this relationship will also extend to shaping the school curriculum.

The way the church acts in concert with the state generally follows a certain model. The annual International Christmas Educational readings, started in 1993, are a church-society forum for discussing developments in the sphere of Orthodox education that tend to draw more than 5,000 participants. The challenges identified in thematic workshops are then summed up, with special working groups created to propose legal changes to improve the situation.

It was at the 17th International Christmas Educational Readings in January 2010 that the thematic workshop "Ethical-legal aspects of the demographic policy of Russia: the problem of abortion" took place. The workshop participants, which included Hon. Yelena Mizulina, MP, chair of the State Duma Committee on Family and Children, decided to create a Working Group that she would chair. …