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Russia: Religion on a Leash

Lawrence A. Uzzell

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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. You may find it impossible to buy or rent a building for your congregation's worship services, or even to conduct an open-air revival meeting. In general, the less your denomination collaborated with the old Soviet regime, the more likely you are to suffer repression today.

An especially clear example is the independent (initsiativniki) Baptists. Formally known as the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, they split from the larger and better-known Baptist Union in 1961 after the latter accepted certain compromises demanded by the Soviet state. For example, the Baptist Union agreed not to teach religion to children--not even the children of its own members. Boris Yeltsin's 1997 law on religion--a milestone in his turn away from his own reforms of the early 1990s--formally stripped the initsiativniki and similar groups of rights which the Baptist Union retained, such as the right to distribute religious books. The enforcement of that law has become harsher during the past two years, and sometimes the independent Baptists have had to meet for worship in forests, as they did during the Soviet years.

The 1997 law was explicitly xenophobic, creating extra regulatory burdens on foreign religious organizations and their representatives in Russia. But the first few years after its passage gave rise to a traditionally Russian paradox. In practice, domestic religious minorities found themselves facing more difficulties than did Western missionaries, despite waves of propaganda about "spiritual invasion." Officials gave less energy to enforcing the law's formal provisions than to continuing Russia's old practice of welcoming visitors while trampling on its own subjects. Also, the law provoked an unexpectedly strong response from the U.S. Congress, the Vatican, and other Western institutions, and Russian officials perceived these institutions as being primarily interested in the religious freedom of their fellow Westerners, not that of purely indigenous minorities. This perception, unfortunately, was and is largely accurate. Under Putin, however, foreign missionaries have lost ground. Economic revival has made Moscow less dependent on foreign aid; the so-called "coalition against terrorism" has created new opportunities for deal-making; and Putin has been even better at personally charming George W. Bush than Yeltsin was at wooing his predecessor.

Overall, foreign and domestic religious minorities now find themselves on a more equal footing within Russia--not because the domestic ones have more freedom than they did in the 1990s, but because the foreigners have less. Mark Elliott of Samford University, America's leading expert on Protestantism in Russia, estimated last fall that there have been "eighty-four known expulsions of foreign religious workers (1997-2003), including fifty-four Protestants, fifteen Muslims, seven Catholics, three Buddhists, three Mormons, and two Jehovah's Witnesses." He stressed that his figures "undoubtedly are incomplete because of the desire of many to avoid publicity." Most of these expulsions took place after Putin rose to power in late 1999. Typically the officials responsible have cited vague reasons of "national security"--without producing any concrete evidence. Especially noteworthy were the expulsions of five Roman Catholic clergy in 2002. That figure exceeded the combined total from all previous years, and for the first time one of the expellees was a bishop.

Now the situation has stabilized. We have seen no further expulsions of Roman Catholic clergy since September 2002, but none of those previously expelled has been allowed to return. Roman Catholic priests and nuns continue to report harassment by local officials, such as protracted wrangles over getting and renewing visas. They continue to experience frustrations in seeking the return of nineteenth-century church buildings which used to serve the pockets of ethnic Germans, Poles, and other Roman Catholic communities scattered across czarist Russia. These structures, built by and for Roman Catholics, were confiscated by the Soviet state and often remain in the state's hands to this day. (One should note that the Orthodox often have the same problem, though not to the same degree. Much depends on the political connections of the concert hall or other secular institution now occupying what used to be a place of worship.) Last year the Roman Catholic parish in Tula, about a hundred miles south of Moscow, sought temporary access to their stolen church building so that the visiting papal nuncio could say Mass there. The local authorities refused, and the Mass took place on the building's front steps.

With Roman Catholics, Putin has been especially successful at showing the world a civilized face, visiting the Vatican for friendly, well-publicized meetings with John Paul II, even while the Pope's spiritual children were getting far from friendly treatment back in Russia. The key to this double game, as to others played by the Kremlin, is a certain division of labor. Putin specializes in telling the West what it wants to hear, while anonymous, taciturn bureaucrats do the dirty work. This particular game includes a third player, the Moscow Patriarchate, which plays the role of propagandist. The denunciations of Roman Catholic "aggression" in Russia come from the Patriarchate, while the concrete measures restricting Roman Catholic activities come from the state.

Unfortunately, the Vatican has played right into Putin's hands with its excessive emphasis on the Pope's hoped-for personal visit to Russia. If that visit had ever taken place, it would have been primarily a feel-good media event, making it even easier for Moscow to continue restricting the religious freedom of rank-and-file Roman Catholics.

Under Putin, corruption has continued to be one of the major realities of Russian life, despite the highly publicized crackdowns on a few carefully selected "oligarchs." Squeezing citizens for bribes is still routine among government officials, from the traffic police to university admissions officers, and there is no reason to think that church-state relations are an exception. This is a difficult subject to investigate: both the official who extorts a bribe and the clergyman who pays it want to keep the whole affair a secret. But every now and then we get a chance to peak behind the veil.

For example, in 2001 the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army was negotiating with the city bureaucracy responsible for registering religious organizations. (Official registration is vital for activities such as renting buildings.) The key bureaucratic gatekeeper, Vladimir Zhbankov, told the Salvation Army's Colonel Kenneth Baillie that the Army needed more competent legal advice to help it through the application process. Zhbankov then recommended a specific firm--one which he himself had previously headed. Colonel Baillie decided not to accept this outrageous recommendation, and the Salvation Army soon found itself in a long court battle threatening its very right to exist in Moscow. Not every religious leader is as principled as Colonel Baillie. Father Simon Stephens, of the Church of England's sole Moscow parish, had a similar meeting with Zhbankov about that parish's stalled registration. Unlike his Salvation Army counterpart, the Anglican priest agreed to hire the bureaucrat's favored law firm. Within days the parish's application was accepted.

The opportunity to win concessions by bribes is one reason, though not the main reason, why Russia is not and will not be an Orthodox Christian theocracy. Some articulate members of the political and cultural elite want Orthodoxy to become the new state ideology--not classic, patristic Orthodoxy but a warped version that values nationalism and statism above all else. But they simply lack the political weight to make that happen.

Post-Soviet Russia, contrary to the triumphalist claims of both Orthodox leaders and Western missionaries, remains a profoundly secularized country. Only two or three percent of Russians are serious, practicing Orthodox. These as a whole are even more politically apathetic than their countrymen; attempts to form a united, influential Orthodox political movement have yielded unimpressive results. Committed atheists still occupy many influential positions, especially in educational institutions. Moreover, making Orthodoxy the state religion would create problems with Russia's huge Muslim minority, about 15 percent of the population.

On the other hand, several federal agencies have signed formal agreements with the Moscow Patriarchate giving it special access to institutions such as prisons. Though Muslims and even Protestants also have such access in some provinces, they have no formal concordats with federal ministries, and they are justified in worrying about discrimination. Nevertheless, the religious minorities facing the most serious threats to their very right to exist are not those whose beliefs are most divergent from Orthodox teachings; despite hysteria over exotic groups such as the Moonies (a hysteria grossly disproportionate to their tiny numbers), such cults have not faced much more difficulty in practice than Protestants and Roman Catholics. Russia's bureaucrats are most likely to restrict those minority faiths that they perceive as undermining the material or ideological interests of the Russian state, or those that simply refuse to provide bribes such as free trips abroad. The bureaucrats have no interest in enforcing Orthodox theology.

Unfortunately, some human-rights activists, such as my friend Lev Levinson, who worked heroically against the repressive 1997 law, have gone too far in setting themselves against Orthodoxy; they are promoting not just freedom of religion but freedom from religion on the French model. Such activists have opposed even the slightest manifestation of religious symbolism at public ceremonies such as presidential inaugurations; they have also opposed any efforts to introduce Orthodox religious teaching into the schools as an optional elective. (On the latter issue, however, they are right to warn that what is optional today might be made mandatory tomorrow.) Last year the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow triggered a totally unnecessary conflict by hosting a tasteless modern-art exhibit that desecrated icons and likened the Eucharistic wine to Coca-Cola. Ultranationalist thugs invaded the museum and destroyed some of these "art" objects. The ongoing scandal in the courts has been a godsend to the enemies of religious freedom.

Although Russia is in many ways a post-Christian society, the political constituency for an extreme, French-style separation of church and state is even smaller than the one that would support a theocracy. The Orthodox Church still commands tremendous instinctive loyalty as a symbol of national identity; most Russians want it to be respected and honored even while keeping it at a comfortable distance from their own lives. Thus it is not surprising that the Putin administration has failed to produce a systematic, coherent policy on religion. Though former officials of the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs are scattered throughout the national and provincial power structures, they have failed in their efforts to restore their old agency at the national level; Putin's inner circle of advisers includes nobody who specializes in religious affairs.

As Moscow correspondent Geraldine Fagan of the Forum 18 News Service observed last summer, "Religious freedom concerns are consequently resolved in an ad hoc manner, if the Kremlin is involved at all, or are more usually left to government departments and/or regional administrations." In Putin's Russia, violations of religious freedom are not ideological but bureaucratic: the state seeks not to invade the innermost recesses of people's souls but to encourage and even subsidize religious leaders whose public statements harmonize with its own policies, while marginalizing others. It now has all the tools it needs to crack down hard on those who get out of line on matters such as the military atrocities in Chechnya. The more Putin succeeds in consolidating his elected dictatorship, the less often those tools will actually need to be used. What he wants is a tame clerisy as well as tame courts, legislators, and news media. To a striking extent, that is what he already has.

Copyright (c) 2004 First Things 143 (May 2004): 14-17.

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Posted: 7/3/04



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