Shared interests have pulled Putin’s government and the Orthodox Church closer together. But how long will their embrace last?
In mid-August, a radical Orthodox gang called God’s Will attacked an exhibition of Soviet-era art in central Moscow. They brought down their clubs especially hard on art they deemed blasphemous; items depicting icons, for example, or Orthodox saints. Condemnation from Russia’s cultural elite was swift. Viktor Shenderovich, an independent journalist, wrote that if the state did not move to isolate the leader of God’s Will “either…the state itself is criminal and shares his political beliefs, or that there is no state any more.”
The group’s leader Dmitry Enteo — a pudgy, bearded man who goes around in jeans and a T-shirt — was taken in for questioning, but quickly released. He received similar treatment after being arrested while at a protest the previous year. Russian state authorities are clearly not in the business of imprisoning Orthodox activists.
In fact, Vladimir Putin is closely allied to Orthodox hardliners. The most famous indicator of this has been the state’s treatment of the punk group Pussy Riot, who were put on trial after they screamed and smashed their guitars in Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral in 2012, and whipped through the streets by Cossacks when they protested anti-LGBT discrimination in the run up to the Winter Olympics in 2014.
The discourse of Orthodox activists and the conservative Orthodox priesthood mostly echoes the official line of the Kremlin, a convergence starting at the top with Patriarch Kirill, who recently blessed the Kremlin’s bombing campaign in Syria as a necessary “holy war.”
The Church was an important component of Tsarist autocracy and never strayed far from the Kremlin line when it was severely suppressed during Soviet times, and since then its growing role in society predates Putin. But Putin’s political entwinement with the Church has become more knotted, and has become was a much more visible alliance than anything seen in the 90s or 2000s.
The Church is flexing its new-found muscle. A youth music festival was recently canceled by the government when the church objected, and a major staging of a Wagner opera in Novosibirsk called off because it offended Orthodox tastes.
For Putin, the alliance with the Church offers the chance to advance an idea of Russianness that is defined by what it is not: not European, not soft, not Muslim nor any other religious minority, not multicultural and not newly invented but ancient and traditional, and very much not gay. Orthodoxy gilds this stance with a kind of Old Muscovy aesthetic and veneer of doctrinal coherence.
There are potential fractures within this alliance. Competing claims to ultimate social authority can eventually butt against each other. The Kremlin looks to the Church for legitimacy, but what happens if the state and the church find their interests diverging? Objection to homosexuality from within the Church can seem visceral, unyielding, even existential. While the Kremlin has made even publicly proclaiming oneself gay a crime, it mostly allows (discreet) gay life to go on unchallenged. What happens if the Church decides this is entirely too tolerant?
Russian foreign policy priorities too are not always perfectly aligned with the Orthodox interests. The Orthodox religion represents various national churches though the Russian church is its largest denomination. In a 2013 editorial on Syria in the New York Times, Putin inveighed against nations considering themselves “exceptional” solemnly declaring that God had created them all equal. The following year he invaded Ukraine, causing major tensions between the Ukrainian Orthodox church and its sister organization in Russia.
National exceptionalism, as we see here, was bad until it was good. The Orthodox Church may find itself the victim of the same sudden shifts of logic.