Orthodox Christianity, Civil Society, and Russian Democracy

By Marsh, Christopher | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Orthodox Christianity, Civil Society, and Russian Democracy


Marsh, Christopher, Demokratizatsiya


During the Soviet era, many people assumed that the Communist Party dictatorship was all that stood in the way of democracy in Russia. Once the Soviet Union entered the dustbin of history, however, the path to democracy in Russia was clearly plagued by other, perhaps more formidable obstacles than the decaying monolith of the Soviet state. Indeed, the body of scholarship on Russian democratization since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been a virtual enterprise of identifying the many obstacles to democracy in Russia. The range of such obstacles is dizzying and seemingly endless, extending from the country's autocratic past, to the authoritarian tendencies of President Putin, and even to some regional leaders, such as Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prussak and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, not to mention the debate over the absence or existence of a democratic political culture and civil society in Russia.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Russia's religious heritage has had its share of blame for the country's woes. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Samuel Huntington proclaimed that "the cultural division of Europe between Western Christianity . . . and Orthodox Christianity and Islam" was reemerging, and that "the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500" was "the most significant dividing line in Europe."1 Huntington not only predicted that the Orthodox world would clash with the rest of Europe, but that Orthodox societies seemed "much less likely to develop stable democratic political systems." In a similar vein, Michael Radu later announced the "burden of Eastern Orthodoxy," arguing that the Eastern churches were only interested in promoting nationalism and could not contribute in any meaningful way to the construction of civil society and democracy in postcommunist Europe.2 As Prodromou has argued, such ideas are not the exception, but rather part of a "cultural map" that has been drawn, dividing Europe between the "modern" and "civilized" West and the "antimodern" and "uncivilized" East, with the region's Orthodox religious tradition serving as a major defining characteristic.3

Given the seriousness of the implications that follow from such characterizations, the topic certainly warrants a more detailed and robust examination than that offered by Radu, Huntington, and others. If we are to understand the role of Orthodoxy in Russian society accurately, we must do more than analyze the political maneuverings of the Moscow patriarchate and the religious rhetoric of pragmatic politicians who seek to appeal to the spirituality of Russian citizens; we must look to the actual civic, political, and democratic orientations of Russian Orthodox Christians themselves. This is what I do in the pages that follow, as I explore the civic, political, and democratic values of devout Orthodox Christians and the more secular-leaning "cultural Orthodox," whose connections to the church are more cultural than religious. The findings suggest that although Russian citizens are only loosely predisposed toward democratic governance, devout Orthodox Christians as a group are more favorably inclined toward democracy than are other Russians. Moreover, religious belief and practice have virtually no impact on democratic values, suggesting that, although Orthodox religiosity may not be the miracle that Russian democracy has been waiting for, neither is it the curse many have made it out to be.

Russian Orthodox Religiosity

Before one can explore the civic, political, and social values of Russian Orthodox Christians, one must first probe the religious beliefs and practices of Russians, to determine just who can be considered a practicing Orthodox Christian.4 Although it is clear that Orthodox Christianity is the majority religion of Russia, estimates of the number of adherents range from 55 to 80 percent, depending on how one calculates the figure. The degree to which Russians are actually connected to the church, however, is a matter of great debate. …

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