The Orthodox Church is filling a political void left by the collapse of the party system in Russia. Kirill I, the Patriarch of Moscow, is forging stronger links with the Kremlin, attacking what he ominously describes as "anti-Russian" behaviour, including homosexual propaganda, the all-female pop group "Pussy Riot" and even more bizarrely the works of Lenin.
This is an article by Astrit Dakli from 2012. We republish it in his memory. He will be sorely missed.
Prison for protesting feminists, prison for gays who flaunt their homosexuality, prison for anyone publishing Lenin’s works … the so-called “nostalgia for Soviet values”, expressed recently by the official spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, has decidedly sinister overtones. Taking a tough, aggressive stance, the Russian Orthodox Church seems more and more determined to provide the ideological backbone sadly lacking in Putin’s United Russia party – now discredited and in disarray. What is more, at the inauguration of his third mandate on May 7, the new president seemed inclined to abandon his party to its fate.
The crisis being experienced by United Russia looks like part of a more general crisis afflicting the whole of Russia’s party system – a system which has evolved within the limits of a “managed democracy” over the last few years. Almost all the “official” parties, which had been allowed to participate in the elections and which have representatives holding seats in the Duma, are experiencing internecine struggles – fundamentally due to the fact that they are merely functionaries of the apparatus of power and have no real social base.
The explosion of street protests in recent months, rather than threatening the Kremlin, has instead created major problems for the political parties. The Communist Party leadership, under the eternal auspices of Gennady Zyuganov, is being challenged with growing success by more courageous personalities like Sergei Udaltsov, whose outlook is more sympathetic to the protests, and the Just Russia Party has been broken apart by factions and schisms, forcing it increasingly into an opposition role, which was not one of its original goals. Even Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats are not immune from the contagion, having suffered a decrease in both electoral support and party discipline.
The general crisis is also affecting political parties that have not even taken shape yet: the Liberal Party, whose founding was announced by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, has seen its inauguration postponed to an unspecified date due to internal disputes; the Social Democratic party pre-announced by the dissidents from Just Russia has not yet managed to nominate a leader …. as for United Russia, the fact that Putin passed on the party leadership to the previous President and current Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev , thus openly distancing himself from United Russia, speaks volumes about the state of the party – and is even more revealing than the millions of votes it lost in last December’s elections.
In this general chaos within the parties, the assertiveness of the Moscow Patriarchate appears even more significant, particularly as it is imbued with such a sense of urgency that caution has been thrown to the winds. During the presidential campaign, the Patriarch, Kirill made a remarkable affirmation, describing Putin’s years as president as “A Blessing of God for Russia”, a statement which goes well beyond the traditional cordial relations between the Patriarchate and the Kremlin. These have continued uninterrupted since 1943 when Stalin, driven by the necessities of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) recreated a version of the national Church using a few of the clergy who had survived the decimation the dictator himself had ordered in previous years.
During the seventy years since that time, the various patriarchs (Sergius I, Alexius I, Pimen I, Alexius II and now Kirill) have supported the regime in power and its leaders: Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin. But this support was always indirect, based on non-opposition and the silencing of dissenting voices within the Orthodox Church. Calling Putin a divine blessing goes somewhat beyond this tradition. It is also clear that the reciprocal understanding between the Patriarchate and the current leadership in the Kremlin is now far more explicit than in previous years. Putin and Medvedev take advantage of every opportunity to be seen at the side of the Patriarch during the celebrations of each and every one of the country’s religious festivals, and the Patriarch in turn enthusiastically blesses each new achievement of those in power.
The Church has begun to make explicit recommendations and specific requests to the leaders in the Kremlin – recommendations and requests that are only apparently eccentric or “colourful”. Through the offices of the archpriest, Vsevolod Chaplin, for many years his spokesman, the Patriarch asked for the writings of Lenin to be banned under the new legislation relating to political extremism. And only a few days later, once again through his spokesman, he praised the “system of values” upon which society was based in Soviet times, as an “alternative to capitalism which is currently in crisis” seeing that it “encouraged social justice instead of the ideology of money”.
It doesn’t seem to matter that the two statements directly contradict one another: one moment praising the values of Soviet times and the next requesting the banning of the writings that ensured the dominance of those very values for a time. Nor does it seem to matter that a few weeks ago Patriarch Kirill found himself involved in an embarrassing scandal involving expensive private apartments acquired in a somewhat dubious fashion, a multi-million dollar court case for damages against another member of the clergy (his next-door neighbour), luxury watches worth tens of thousands of dollars, which were “disappeared” in official photographs, mysterious female “cousins” who were guests in his private apartment and so on. These are all circumstances that in theory would invite a certain amount of prudence in matters of media exposure but that appears not to be the case.
Patriarch Kirill seems keen to score political points at all costs, to impose his own line. Hence his request that the law on extremism be applied to the publication of the works of Lenin – which could mean jail-time for anyone publishing or selling them – something that would normally be unthinkable in Russia. Despite the fact that Communism collapsed over twenty years ago, despite the general refusal to adopt Socialist political solutions, and despite periods of harsh repression (the banning of the Communist Party between 1991 -93, and then the prosecutions that followed the flare-ups of civil war in Moscow), nobody has ever dreamed of banning what was for decades obligatory reading, and which is fundamental to the national history of Russia.
The Patriarch has also asked for other bans and further repression , all in the name of the national good – not in the name of morality. A case in point is the jailing of three girls belonging to the punk group “Pussy Riot,” guilty of having “profaned” the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow with a musical agit-prop show against Putin. Although the Church has not formally requested indefinite detention for the three – who are currently in prison until 24 June, awaiting trial with a potential sentence of seven years jail for “hooliganism” – it is clear to everyone that this is exactly what Kirill wants, having repeatedly stated that it is “impossible to forgive” the girls for their “sacrilegious, blasphemous and anti-Russian actions”.
Apart from the fact that it has not been proven that the three girls participated in the action (they were arrested a few days later) and that technically no sacrilege took place (the show did not damage or sully anything in the cathedral and the words of the song they sang were not anti-religious in any way, merely calling upon the Virgin to get rid of Putin), what is worrying about the Patriarch’s statement is his use of the words “anti-Russian” as this goes well beyond his brief of religious and social concerns.
The Patriarchate’s determination to stick to this political line was confirmed a few days later by the calling for a day of national prayer and a mobilisation of the faithful to “defend the Church from anti-Russian attacks”. On the plaza in front of the cathedral, 70,000 people responded to his call, whereas the demonstration called to protest against the unjust detention of “Pussy Riot” (who have the support of the majority of Russians – including the mainstream media) only managed to attract a few hundred people.
The campaign against “anti-Russian forces” has now turned on another important symbolic target: freedom of sexual orientation. Last winter in some regions of Russia – under pressure from the clergy – new legislation was brought in to criminalize “propaganda in favour of homosexuality” (which is put on a par with paedophilia) amongst minors, meaning anywhere near schools, nurseries and any other institutions for adolescents or minors.
Since April pressure has built up to have this legislation extended to the entire country. In the space of a few weeks, the law passed its first reading, just one step from becoming legislation. The law itself is worded so vaguely that it risks being interpreted very rigidly, in reality transforming any public manifestation of homosexuality into a crime. What this would mean is a return to Soviet times when homosexuality was a crime punishable by law – particularly a return to the Stalinist and post-Stalinist years. ( Up until 1928, the freedom of sexual orientation was something that the USSR took pride in supporting). It would also be in direct contradiction to the Russian penal code, which as of 1993 abolished the crime of homosexuality. Nevertheless, opinion polls show that the vast majority of Russians are strongly against any public manifestation of sexual diversity. It looks like the Church has decided to exploit this wave of public sentiment to assert itself yet further as the ideological guarantor of the nation.