The Russian Orthodox Church and Contestations over History in Contemporary Russia

By Torbakov, Igor | Demokratizatsiya, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

The Russian Orthodox Church and Contestations over History in Contemporary Russia


Torbakov, Igor, Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: This article investigates the role that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) plays in the politics of history in contemporary Russia. I suggest that the picture we are looking at is rather complex as the ROC is not a monolithic entity. While the ROC's top leadership appears to be united with the Kremlin in their common intent to uphold a "patriotic" and state-centered historical narrative, certain segments of the Church and the Russian secular establishment might differ in their appraisal of various episodes of the country's past. The article will demonstrate that the ROC doesn't have a unified and consolidated position on how to treat the controversial past, in particular the Soviet period. Rather, there are several church subcultures whose historical interpretations tend to clash. Yet, ultimately, it is the Patriarchy's stance that defines the official position of the Church. In this sense, the ROC hierarchy's willing participation in the Kremlin-led attempt at forging a single "true" historical canon makes church-state relations in Russia ever more problematic. Both sides stand to lose due to their excessive coming closer together. The Church's subservience to the state is likely going to cost it dearly in terms of moral stature and prestige. The state's ruling elites' casting of Orthodoxy as a "national religion" is counter-productive, if not outright dangerous in a multicultural and polyconfessional country.

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Russia officially designated the year 2012 the Year of History. So it would seem proper that in early November 2012, on the eve of Russia's Day of People's Unity--a new national holiday introduced in 2005 to replace the November 7 celebrations of the lackluster Day of Accord and Conciliation (which itself was a post-Soviet replacement of the holiday marking the Great October Socialist Revolution) and to commemorate instead the ousting of the Poles from Moscow in 1612 as well as the Orthodox religious feast of the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan--the Moscow Patriarchate jumped at the chance to give a history lesson to the populace.

Speaking on November 3, in "The Pastor's Word" television program on Channel One, Patriarch Kirill addressed the country's dramatic experience in the final days of the Smuta--the Time of Troubles--in 1612. Yet the Patriarch's treatment of past events betrayed a strong proclivity towards the crude instrumentalization of history. What was designed as a history lesson by the spiritual authority proved to be a perfect example of the forging of a "usable past" keyed to the vision--and the immediate political interests--of Russia's temporal powers-that-be.

Having stated that the defeat of the Poles 400 years ago meant the "deliverance of our country and our people from perdition," Kirill mused on how it was at all possible that the enemy managed to reach Moscow and enter the Kremlin without facing any serious resistance. At the heart of the 17th-century Russian catastrophe, according to him, was the betrayal of the elites. "Polish armies invaded the Russian land," said Kirill.

   But who invited them to Moscow? Who opened up
   this path to them? It was the [Russian] boyars, the
   elites who believed that the coming of [Polish] Prince
   Wladyslaw to the Muscovite throne would be a kind of
   modernization project for Russia. (1)

Those traitorous elements of the Russian upper class allegedly held that the new power, being Western, would be more efficient and better educated; it would bring along a better organized and better equipped army, European level of education and culture as well as a "Western interpretation of Christianity." In a word, concluded Kirill, "Many people in Russia tended to see all this as a way toward modernizing the country." But this was, of course, a dangerous delusion:

   The best people in Moscow and in Russia at large
   understood that this would lead not to modernization,
   not to progress . … 

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