By Dmitry Filippov
BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) today effectively constitutes a supplementary propaganda arm of the Kremlin, aimed at shoring up popular approval of the state’s domestic and foreign policies, most recently in Ukraine and Syria.
The Orthodox Church in Russia has never, and still does not, exist independently of the state, and has historically served as a tool of public indoctrination aimed at maintaining the support for the regime. It relies entirely on the state for its financial prosperity and public image.
The Russian Orthodox Church should be understood as part of the state, approached from this perspective, and viewed as a de facto political actor in its own right. If they are to be effective, any Western countermeasures directed at Russian politicians, lawmakers, and military figures should be similarly applied to senior and politically-relevant Orthodox prelates and bishops responsible for creating and disseminating the liturgical justifications for Russia’s destabilizing foreign policy.
The clout that the Orthodox Church wields in Russia, the pervasiveness of its influence, and its consistently, fiercely reactionary stance on socio-cultural issues has led some Russian outlets to refer to it pejoratively as the “Orthodox Taliban.” From gay rights, to the putative moral implications of drug use to the role of religion and piety in political life, the Russian Orthodox Church is firmly and defensively in the camp of Tradition against Modernity. Insofar as this positioning is aligned with the objectives of the Kremlin, this has created an ongoing situation where the Church can serve the ends of the State directly. This partnership is often tacitly and even explicitly acknowledged by the state, as high-ranking Church officials often receive some kinds of preferential treatment generally reserved for agents of the regime.
Orthodox priests involved in criminal activities, from drug or weapon possession to fatal car accidents, usually walk away with suspended sentences. The Kremlin often transfers to the Church various state-owned cultural and religious objects from civic museums to cathedrals, despite the Church having no legal claim to them. In the lawmaking realm, the third (current) Putin government has adopted a “Religious Feelings offense law” and the “Homosexual Propaganda law”, both of which are little more than reactionary speech control legislation that has fanned the flames of homophobia under the religious pretext of homosexuals as a threat to the fabric of society. And while the Church does not directly receive any state funds, from 2013 - 2015, it was the biggest beneficiary of state grants earmarked for non-profit organizations. Other sources of its income include the large-scale sale of religious paraphernalia such as candles and Orthodox icons; as well as money paid by visitors to Church-owned cultural objects.
On the foreign policy front, the ROC has become very nearly a Kremlin mouthpiece for Russia’s military campaign in Syria, referred to by the Patriarch as a “holy war” (see video, in Russian), as well as tacitly supporting the conflict in Eastern Ukraine through rhetoric about preserving a “Russian world” (Russkiy Mir). This idea views all Slavic countries, including Ukraine, as constituting a unique spiritual and cultural entity and has been used as a rallying cry of sorts by the Donbass separatists and the many Russian mercenaries fighting in Ukraine. It should be noted, however, that Patriarch Kirill himself has largely stayed away from commenting on Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, calling for an end to the “fratricidal” war, but blaming the crisis on Russia’s “external enemies”.
The nexus between the Kremlin, the Church, and the (ethnic) Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine come together in the singular figure of Konstantin Malofeev, an oligarch who in the past has been accused of fraud and corporate raiding. In addition to owning the Marshall Capital company, Malofeev is known for being a mega-donor to the Orthodox Church and the CEO of the Tsargrad religious TV channel. His security chief Iror Girkin, better known by his nom de guerre Strelkov (“Gunslinger”), took part in the occupation of Crimea and served as Minister of Defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in 2014. His short stint was characterised by heavy religious undertones, with Girkin and his troops visiting Orthodox churches, taking part in rituals, and kissing icons. Meanwhile, Malofeev’s consultant Alexander Boroday became the DPR’s Prime Minister for a while before leaving Ukraine with Girkin mid-2014.
Given the stakes and profile of the Ukraine conflict, Malofeev is unlikely to have coordinated the rebels’ actions in Eastern Ukraine without the Kremlin’s consent (at least implicit and more likely explicit. As Russian investigative website The Insider reported, Malofeev got in contact with then Presidential Administration head Sergey Ivanov through their mutual acquaintance father Tikhon, Putin’s personal confessor. Tikhon represents another link between the government, the so-called rebels, and the Russian Church. It is likely that the Kremlin used Malofeev’s connections and resources to operationalize the initial stage of Donbass invasion without resorting to the services of Russian regular army.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union launched, among many other cultural and social shifts, a trend towards clericalization in society, which picked up pace in the 2000s and especially accelerated around the start of Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term in 2012. While some similarities can be easily found between the Russian Orthodox Church and religious organizations in the US ( such as tax exempt status), the Church in Russia cannot be considered an autonomous or purely religious entity as it is very closely intertwined with the state and is involved deeply in national politics, regime objectives and official culture in ways US churches cannot, owing to legal and constitutional constraints. While the principle of the separation of church and state does exist in the Russian constitution, it has never been enforced rigorously, and has been eroding over the years despite, or perhaps in response to to, decades of state-enforced Soviet anti-theism. The Putin years have been marked by the regime making increasingly more concessions to the ROC in multiple domains.
The capacity of the Russian Orthodox Church to influence Russian society and culture is difficult to overstate. Enjoying political and financial support of the Kremlin, the Church’s stance on most social issues carries tremendous weight, which it uses to cultivate support for the government among the population, especially outside the cosmopolitan centers of Moscow and St Petersburg. Some members of the ROC have also used this platform to justify the Russian intervention in Syria, propagandize and foment the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, while the religiously-charged concept of the “Russian world” has been employed by both Russian public figures and local separatists to perpetuate the war. More importantly, there is a deep network of ties among the Church, the Kremlin and the Ukrainian rebels, with oligarch Konstantin Malofeev serving as a liaison between the parties. These connections are crucial to examine in further detail to reveal the role of the ROC in the Ukrainian war to a further degree. The Russian Orthodox Church is an organization whose leadership activities, connections and behaviors gives every indication that its primary interest is the justification and perpetuation of the political aims of the state, and not the spiritual succor of its followers.