Nationalism and Religion in Post-Soviet Russian Civil Society: An Inquiry into the 1997 Law “On Freedom of Conscience”

HomeArticlesNationalism and Religion in Post-Soviet Russian Civil Society: An Inquiry into the 1997 Law “On Freedom of Conscience”

What will be the contribution of the Russian Orthodox Church to the creation of a civil society in post-Soviet Russia?  Much depends on whether the Russian Orthodox Church is a nationalist institution.  On the one hand, if the Russian Orthodox Church is in fact a nationalist institution, then its contribution to a democratic civil society will be negative; on the other hand, if the Russian Orthodox Church is not a nationalist institution, then its contribution to civil society can be a positive one.

Of course, the answer to this question depends upon how one defines nationalism.  Rather than relying on a popular definition of nationalism (e. g. demonstrating unqualified support or loyalty to one’s own nation as opposed to other nations or supranational institutions),  I have decided to use Eric Voegelin’s definition: nationalism is a fundamental re-orientation of man’s and society’s spiritual condition that mistakes the mundane for the divine.  It is an attempt to remake the world into man’s own image.  Voegelin’s definition of nationalism as well as his methodology allows us to explore the issues that “modernization theory” is unable to address.  It also gives us the opportunity to examine empirical phenomena via Voeglin’s “new science,” something which few academic works have attempted to do.

There are also practical consequences to determining whether the Russian Orthodox Church is “nationalist.”  Since the collapse of communism, the Russian Orthodox Church has been the only nation-wide institution which the Russian people have continually trusted.[1] Political parties of all stripes as well as social institutions such as the media have failed to capture the confidence of the Russian people.[2]  Given this high degree of trust from the people, what does the Russian Orthodox Church plan to do with it?  More importantly, how will the future direction of church-state relations impact the development of a civil society?

The recent passage of the “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” legislation, which in essence made the Russian Orthodox Church the de facto state religion, may be a harbinger of what the Russian Church might do.  The new statute clearly violated human rights as guaranteed by the new Russian Constitution and Russia’s international agreements.[3] Nevertheless, Yeltsin signed the legislation into law in September 1997 over the objections of international human right groups, Pope John Paul II, and the United States Senate.  The Russian Orthodox Church was quickly derided by its critics, both within Russia and abroad, as a “nationalist institution.”  Supporters of the Russian Orthodox Church, on the other hand, argued that the “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” legislation was merely a return to an older Byzantine conception of symphonia, or harmony, between church and state, what in the Western parlance might be termed as “accommodationist.”[4]

In order to determine whether the Russian Orthodox Church is nationalist, a scholarly analysis is required that not only provides an adequate definition of nationalism but is also sensitive to the historical, cultural, and theological context of the Church.  Without an awareness to these concerns, scholars may apply a priori definitions, concepts, and theories to the empirical phenomena which they are studying and thereby arrive at dubious conclusions about the role and function of the Church in post-Soviet Russian society.

Modernization Theory

One of the most prominent explanations of nationalism is modernization theory.[5] It states that the political development of all societies follows a single path towards modernity that is characterized by “structural differentiation,” “cultural secularization,” and “nationalism.”  Structural differentiation is the bureaucratization, rationalization, and specialization of functions of people and institutions; while cultural secularization is the process whereby individuals become increasingly rational, analytical, and empirical in their political action.  Nationalism, for its part, is the process by which people understand themselves as a nation and therefore demand a sovereign state.  At the center of nationalism is the idea of the nation, which is said to embofy: the traditional, implicit, and unquestioned values of a community–itself acting as the irrational limitation of cultural secularization.[6]  Modernization theory therefore defines modernity as a rationally-ordered society that is planned according to specialized, rational, and bureaucratized designs that holds an irrational value, the nation, as its primary principle of self-identification.

The persistent existence of religious institutions in the modern world, however, have caused some scholars to revise the modernization thesis into a “deprivatization” one: religious institutions re-enter the public sphere to “defend their traditional turf” and “to participate in the very struggles to define . . . private and public spheres,” after years of being marginalized to the outskirts of society.[7]  Religious institution are not viewed as spiritual or symbolic entities; rather, they are power structures that mask socio-economic interests:

“religion is relevant to politics only as a surrogate for some other form of ‘real’ social conflict.  For example, the religion of a low status group may simply reflect the correlation between the pattern of religious affiliation and socio-economic status.”[8]

Religion, however, is not merely a “surrogate for the social disadvantage.”[9]  People of higher socio-economic status, for example, could share religious symbols and beliefs that supported the regime.

According to these thinkers, religion’s persistent existence is not because it appeals to man’s spiritual or symbolic nature, but because it has preserved in the modern world a society’s  cultural beliefs, practices, and rituals. [10] These beliefs, practices, and rituals in turn have a practical effect within society.[11]  In other words, religion is not beneficial for its own sake but for its instrumental use to the regime:

“Religion is not merely a set of ‘beliefs’ about a ‘world beyond’ but also, and perhaps more important, a set of beliefs about how the present world should be organized, what the relations of hierarchy in society should be, and what the nature of authority and law is.  Liturgy and ritual are less important for their own sake than as occasion for the reaffirmation by a community of the authority . . . leaders.”[12]

Since religion preserves a society’s cultural beliefs, practices, and rituals, they can provide the basis for a common citizenship.  If a religious body possesses “doctrinal unity of the whole mass of the faithful,” then “religion, or a particular church, [can] maintain its community of faithful.”[13] The state for its part then would absorb “the Church in order to better preserve its monopoly with the support of that zone of ‘civil society’ which the Church represents.”[14]  Religion is valued for its political instead of moral or spiritual use.

The contribution of the modernization theorists is their focus on the structures and processes of political reality.  However, these scholars are unable to explain how and why structures and processes coalesced around the idea of the nation.  They also do not  consider whether the structures and processes themselves change as a new social, cultural, and political context emerges.  Finally, these scholars assume a priori that these structures and processes must fulfill some teleological end in history.  The historical configuration of the modernization theory presuppose a rupture between the traditional and modern world.  Unfortunately, this philosophy of history is only posited to us.  It is never proven.

Although structures and processes are important factors in the explanation of nationalism, modernization theorists do not take seriously the role that religion itself may play as a primary cause of nationalism.[15]  Religion is conceptualized by these thinkers as a passing phase of history or as an instrumental tool used by political elites.  It is never examined on its own terms.  Eric Voegelin’s “new science” of politics can remedy this deficiency because it  takes religion seriously, i.e., as a primary cause, in the explanation of nationalism.  This is particularly required in examining post-Soviet Russian society because of the political potency of Russian nationalism.  If the Russian Orthodox Church is nationalist, then, given its popularity, such a situation bodes ill for a strong, democratic civil society.  On the other hand, if the Russian Orthodox Church is not nationalist, then it may be able to provide an alternative political symbol to Russian nationalism in the creation of a democratic civil society.

Eric Voegelin’s “New Science” of Politics

Eric Voegelin begins his “theory of consciousness”, to explain how man understands the world, by adopting “process theology.”  According to this “process theology,” man participates in various levels of being (inorganic, vegetative, animalic, and divine) with the most important one being his relationship to the divine.  When man encounters divine reality within his consciousness (“inner illumination”), he attempts to translate this experience into an existential order by creating symbols: “the attempt of making the essentially unknowable order of being intelligible as far as possible through the creation of symbols which interpret the unknown by analogy with the reality, or supposedly known.”[16] These symbols appeal to other people’s consciousnesses (“inner illuminations”) that result in the formation of a political unit–based upon shared symbolism.

With respect to Christianity, Voegelin argued that only those symbols which are non-gnostic (non-nationalist/universal) are valid symbols of right order.  A gnostic is a person who claims absolute certain knowledge of the fundamental principles of reality (while maintaining, however, that this fundamental knowledge cannot be accessed by all individuals, only by a certain few), thereby committing violence to the truth that man ultimately cannot know the mystery of being.  Gnostic movements such as nationalism, which divide people into “us” and “them” on non-objective and unknowable criteria, are characterized by a Manichean obsession with a worldly evil that can be blamed on social disorganization rather than original sin and by a conviction that salvation from the evils of existence can be achieved in one’s lifetime through a historical process dictated by human actions, i.e., historical agents who possess gnosis, a certain knowledge, to guide correct action.[17]  Voegelin does not believe such a transformation could ever occur, so he regards all gnostic movements, visions, and symbols as magical or delusionary.

The evaluation of a society’s symbols is not merely a scholar’s subjective opinion; rather, symbols are evaluated according to a philosophy of consciousness that has a proper procedure:

“Theory is not just any opining about human existence in society; it rather is an attempt at formulating the meaning of existence by explicating the content of a definite class of experiences.  Its argument is not arbitrary but derives its validity from the aggregate of experiences to which it must permanently refer for empirical control.”[18]

The political scientist must search for those experiences and symbols that “are amenable to theorization as an intelligible succession of phases in a historical process” so that “the order of history emerges from the history of order.”[19] The accumulation of these symbols of order becomes the “datum of human experiences” which consists of “God and man, world and society [that] form a primordial community of being.”[20]   With this datum of human experiences acting as an empirical control, the political scientist is able to evaluate the symbols of order.

The task of the political scientist therefore is to evaluate the symbols by comparing them with a society’s historical culmination of symbols of order (non-gnostic) and disorder (gnostic).  The search for a society’s datum of human experiences is not a scholar’s subjective selection of a society’s symbols; rather, he must attempt to reconstruct the consciousness of political actors who have engage in the symbol-making process.  By examining their situation, behavior, and self-interpretations, the political scientist is able to infer the motives and experiences of the political actors and thereby the symbols that they have created.  Thus, the reconstruction of consciousness requires not only reliance upon written records and cultural familiarity, but imagination, wit, and sensitivity to a society’s historical context.

Unfortunately, this methodology does not guarantee absolute certainty in its results because the experiences, thoughts, and passions of men cannot be rigorously demonstrated.  However, Voegelin’s “new science” is not a substitution of subjective opinion for reasoned investigation.  By using his own and the reader’s experiences as a point of reference, the political scientist is able to consider several alternative explanations in his analysis.  In the reconstruction of a political actor’s consciousness, the political scientist hopefully will be able to determine which explanation seems to be the most feasible to him and to the reader.  Instead of relying upon mathematical models and quasi-experiments, Voegelin’s “new science” of politics asks for introspection about our  knowledge of human nature to determine, in this instance, whether the Russian Orthodox Church is nationalist.

The Russian Orthodox Church During the Yeltsin Years (1991-1997)

To determine whether the Russian Orthodox Church is a symbol of order or disorder, non-gnostic or gnostic, democratic or nationalist, I will focus on the events surrounding the passage of the September 1997 law “On Freedom of Conscience.” Such an investigation will reveal whether the intentions and goals of the Church, as manifested by its leadership, were nationalist in scope, or whether they sought a restoration of a system of church-state relationships based on the Byzantine arrangement of symphonia.[21]

After the open persecutions and harassment of the Soviet period, the climate for religion changed dramatically at the close of the 1980’s.  In October 1990, both Mikhail Gorbachev (then-Soviet president) and Yeltsin adopted measures “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” that revoked the 1975 legislation on religion (which itself was an update of Stalin’s 1929 law) which sole purpose was to eradicate religion in the Soviet Union.[22]  The October 1990 law created a separation between church and state and permitted religious freedom for all religions.  The Russian Orthodox Church became legally established as a corporate entity, as did other Orthodox groups.  The Roman Catholic Church and Protestant missionaries were allowed to expand their proselytizing activities; and other religious sects such as the Mormons and Hare Krishnas were permitted to practice and to recruit members into their organizations.

For its part, the Russian Orthodox Church–the Moscow Patriarchate–managed to double the number of parishes in the six years since Russia had declared its independence from the Soviet Union.  The Patriarchate, however, faced competition from other Orthodox groups, which were also experiencing similar growth.  The Free Orthodox Church led by Archbishop Valentin of Suzdal’ claimed ninety-eight parishes in January 1996, while the “catacomb” True Orthodox Church declared twenty-six, and several unregistered, parishes.  The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad under Metropolitan Vitaly of New York had opened five dioceses in Russia; and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kievan Patriarchate) allegedly possessed seven registered parishes in Russia.[23]

At the same time, the Russian Orthodox Church faced competition from groups that were external to Orthodoxy altogether; a growing Roman Catholic Church with 183 registered parishes and successful Protestant missionaries: 677 Evangelical Christian Baptists, 248 Evangelical Christian parishes, and 141 Lutheran ones.  Islam claimed 2, 494 communities in 1996, while Buddhism had 124 and Judaism, 80.  Finally, unorthodox religious denominations (“new religious movements”) continued to make inroads in Russia: 129 Jehovah Witnesses’ parishes, 112 hare Krishna’s communities, and 20 Bahai’i’s groups.[24]  Much to the concern of the Russian Orthodox Church, the 1990 law “On Freedom of Conscience” law was successful in fostering religious diversity.

Faced with competition externally and internally, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church became worried.  Although the Russian Orthodox Church had in the past had accepted that there were areas in Russia in which Muslims and Buddhists had traditionally predominated, it had difficulty ceding regions that had been predominantly Orthodox prior to the existence of the Soviet Union to Catholics, Protestants, and other religious organizations.  The Russian Orthodox Church therefore lobbied both houses of the Russian parliament to pass legislation that would restrict the religious activities of both its Orthodox and non-Orthodox competitors.

Ironically, the Church found a political movement receptive to its concerns in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).  The Communists, formerly devoted to the outright destruction of religion, now sought for itself the mantle of the defender of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Party leader Gennady Zyuganov referred to the proselytizing activities of non-Moscow Patriarchate organizations as “the uncontrolled activity of totalitarian sects in Russia, whose activity is often dangerous to people’s lives.”[25]

Equally sympathetic to the Russian Orthodox Church’s plight was Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his Liberal Democrat Party.  By the summer of 1997, the CPRF, Liberal Democrats, and Russian Orthodox Church formed a united front to pass the restrictive “On Freedom of Conscience” legislation in the State Duma on 23 June 1997by a margin of 300 to 8 votes, and later in the Federal Council by 112 votes to 4 against and one abstention.[26] The rationale for the legislation, according to the governor of Kaluga Oblast’, was “to protect society from the massive expansion of pseudo-religious cults and organizations, which through their proselytizing endanger individual rights and freedoms and the health of citizens.”[27] However, there was no overwhelming public demand for such legislation; instead, it was orchestrated largely by politicians.[28]

The reaction in the West was not favorable to the Russian Orthodox Church.  The Clinton administration, along with twenty-six members of the United States Congress, and the European Union appealed to President Yeltsin not to sign the legislation into law; and to add muscle to their measure, the Congress threatened to cut off $200 million in aid to Russia if the “On Freedom of Conscience” legislation became law.[29] Yeltsin conceded to western pressure and vetoed the legislation on 23 July 1997.[30] The bill, according to Yeltsin, contradicted “the fundamentals of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation . . . universally recognized principles and norms of international law.”[31] Specifically, the bill violated 16 Articles of the Russian constitution and several international human right agreements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention of the Council of Europe.  Yeltsin particularly emphasized Article 15.4 of the Russian constitution: “acts of international law [are] an inalienable part of the Russian Federation’s legislation on freedom of conscience.”[32] Yet two months later, Yeltsin had signed a revised version of the “On Freedom of Conscience” legislation into law on 26 September 1997.[33]

In this second version, the Yeltsin administration had introduced minor changes to the text of the legislation in order to give the impression that the government would modify the law in a manner more agreeable to the international community.  Yeltsin’s official representative to the Duma, Aleksandr Kotenkov, stated that the new version of the law would remove all the “odious” points and conform the law with international standards of human rights.[34] But this did not happen.  Instead, the opposite was true as attested by Viktor Zorkal’stev, the Communist Party chairman of the Duma’s committee on public organization and religious associations, who proclaimed: “We [the communists] did not surrender a single position of principle [to Yeltsin]”; and that Yeltsin actually “made the text of the law better and significantly developed its ideas.”[35] The revised legislation was presented to the Duma on 19 September 1997 by Kotenkov and communist deputy Viktor Zorkal’stev.  It passed by 358 votes with 6 against and 4 abstentions.[36] In the Federation Council, the revised bill was even more successful, passing unanimously.[37]

The 1997 law “On Freedom of Conscience”

The 1997 law “On Freedom of Conscience” violates Articles 14, 15, 19, 28, 29, 45, 54, and 55 of the Russian Constitution; Articles 18, 19, 26, and 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Article 13 of the International Treaty of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Articles 18 and 26 of the International Treaty on Civil and Political Rights; Articles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination on the Basis of Religion and Beliefs; and Articles 16 and 17 of the Concluding Document of the 1989 Vienna Meeting of the OSCE.[38]

In the law’s preamble, the Russian Federation is declared to be “a secular state,” and Article 4.1 states: “The Russian Federation is a secular state.  No religion may be established as a state or compulsory religion.”  However, the preamble also recognizes “the special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia’s spirituality and culture.”  Other religions constitute “an inseparable part of the historical heritage of Russia’s peoples” are “Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism.”

The law makes a distinction between a “religious group” (religioznaya gruppa) and a “religious organization” (religioznaya organizatsiya).  Members of religious groups are denied rights enumerated in the 1993 Russian constitution, while members of religious organizations are guaranteed those rights, if their registration is approved by the state.  A “religious group” is defined by Article 7.1:

“a voluntary association (ob’edinenie) of citizens formed for the goals of join confession and dissemination of their faith, carrying out its activities without state registration and without obtaining the legal capabilities of a legal personality (and therefore cannot seek legal redress through the judicial system) . . . Premises and property necessary for the activities of a religious group, are to be provided for the use of the group by its participants.”

Article 27 makes it clear that members of a religious group are not eligible to own premises or any property; nor are they permitted to disseminate their faith in public meetings or through the printed word.  The only right a religious group possesses is to hold a religious service in a private location; and even if the local law enforcement deems such services disruptive, then this right can be revoked.

A “religious organization,” on the other hand, is a body that “consists of ten or more participants who are at least eighteen years old and who are permanently residing in one locality” (Article 8.3).  However, a religious organization must first register with the state.  The first requirement is to have an official document that confirms the religious organization has “legally existed on a given territory for at least fifteen years (since 1982)” (Article 27).[39]  Those organizations that do not have such a legal document must apply for registration annually for fifteen years.  During this “waiting period,” the members of the religious organizations are denied the religious rights guaranteed by the Russian constitution.

After a religious organization had registered with the state, a process that is difficult to accomplish because of the state’s demands of minute documentation of the organization’s membership, meetings, and history (Article 11), it is still vulnerable to liquidation by the state (Article 14).  The state can liquidate a religious organization on the following grounds: 1) “the undermining of social order and security”; 2) “forcing a family to disintegrate”; 3) “hypnosis and the performing of depraved or other disorderly actions”; and 4) “hindering the receiving of compulsory education.”  Finally, Article 8 of the new law stipulates:

“A centralized religious organization the structures of which have been active on the territory of the Russian Federation on a legal basis for no fewer than fifty years as of the moment when the said religious organization files its application for state registration has the right to use its names the words “Russia” (Rossiya) and “Russian” (rossiiskii).”

In essence any religious organization that has existed after 1947 cannot use the words “Russia” or “Russian” in its title.

And to make sure that there is no misunderstanding, Article 27 explicitly denies followers of unregistered religious organizations the right to religious expression: such organizations are not “equal before the law in all spheres of civic, political, economic, social, and cultural life.”  Unregistered organizations do not have the right “to create educational institutions” such as church schools or seminaries; nor do they have the right: “to carry out religious rites in health centers and hospitals and children’s homes, in old people’s homes and institutions applying sentences of imprisonment for criminal offenders at the request of citizens held there.”

Lastly, unregistered believers do not have the “right to produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature, audio and video material and other articles of religious significance.”  They are denied the right “to institute enterprises for producing liturgical literature and articles for religious services.”  Thus, the 1997 legislation places real limits on the development of civil society and genuine religious pluralism by restricting the number of organizations who can organize and have access to the public square.

After the legislation was signed into law, the first protesters against the “On Freedom of Conscience” law was not the Roman Catholic Church or Baptist organizations, as observed the director of the Institute of Religion and Law in Moscow, but “Orthodox Christians – those who do not recognize the Moscow Patriarchate.  They claim that the law is directed first of all against them.”[40] In fact, breakaway Orthodox Christian organizations, as well as other indigenous Russian religious movements, have often proven to be the targets of official harassment to an even greater extent that so-called “foreign” religious organizations.

In some cases, it has been the federal government itself which has initiated action against a minority religious community; most religious persecution, however, happens at the local level by officials acting in contravention of federal statutes.  What is critical to observe, however, is that acts taken against both dissident Russian[41] and “non-traditional” religious groups[42] accelerated after the passage of the 1997 legislation.  The international human rights community began to wake up to the reality of Russia’s new law.  For example, the Moscow Helsinki Group sent a letter to the Russian government that expressed “grave concerns” over the erosion of religious liberties in Russia, particularly the attempts to close down the Moscow community Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Islamic Vatan party.[43] However, both the Yeltsin and Putin administrations have largely ignored protests by the international community on the right to religious freedom.

While non-governmental organizations have taken a key role in the fight for religious liberty, official Western reaction following the passage of the legislation was also largely muted..  The United States, the European Union, the World Council of Churches, and the European Council of Churches made no reference to Yeltsin’s capitulation.  Only in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe did one deputy, a Briton, protested against the discriminatory nature of the law.  He was supported by forty-one deputies from ten countries.  One journalist speculated that “because the economic situation in [Russia] is seen as stabilizing and the climate for investment, as auspicious,” that the West turned a blind-eye to the “On Freedom of Conscience” law.[44]

Church, State, and Nationalism

Before signing the bill into law, A. Proptopopov, a representative of the Yeltsin administration, had consulted with leaders of the principal religious bodies in Russia: the Russian Orthodox Church, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Old Believers, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, and other groups.  Unfortunately for them, the administration had duped them, as attested by Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusewicz, the apostolic administrator of the Roman Catholic Church in European Russia: the new law “was not the one the interdenominational commission had been working on.”   He was surprised to discover that “another law was being drafted in parallel.  And this indicates that something was being done behind the backs of the religious confessions.”[45]  What this meeting suggests is that the motives behind the drafting of the legislation were political and statist, rather than religious and nationalist, and that the state, rather than the Russian Orthodox Church, was the primary moving force.

One cannot help but be struck by the prominent role played by largely non-religious and atheist CPRF politicians in drafting and passing this legislation.  From the communist viewpoint, the Russian Orthodox Church fitted into their ideology of Russian nationalism and neo-Stalinist communism.[46] The Russian Orthodox Church, however, was more ambivalent about entering into an alliance with the CPRF, for its main concern was not to become part of the institutional structure of the state, but instead coping with spiritual competition from abroad (e.g., Protestant missionaries and the Roman Catholic Church) and within (e.g., the rise of cults).[47]  Therefore, even though communist and nationalist politicians and the Russian Orthodox Church might both support the legislation, they did not do so from the same motives.  For the politicians, the Church was a part of their nationalist vision for society, an institution to define Russian-ness; the Church, on the other hand, did not want to lose members to competing religions.

It still is not clear why Yeltsin capitulated to the demands of communists, nationalists, and the Russian Orthodox Church.  What is known is that Yeltsin did changed his position after a meeting with Patriarch Aleksii in August. Yeltsin seems to have been unwilling to take the political risk of opposing such a popular institution like the Russian Orthodox Church.  He also recognized that the Russian Orthodox Church could assist him in providing legitimacy to his political regime and his national ideology of liberalism.[48]  Yeltsin, himself not personally a believer, viewed the Church as one of the “nationalist” institutions which he could utilize to support his policies.

Support for the passage of the “On Freedom of Conscience” legislation was not just limited to politicians and their political parties, but could be found in the general population as well, not because most Russians are religious believers, but because many saw the Church as an institution which could help to unite a fractured society.  The daily Russian newspaper, Nezavisimaya gazeta, had published an article by Aleksandr Morozov in its religious section:

“The role of the Church in the socio-political life of Russia is growing in colossal fashion . . . This thesis may seem unconvincing to many.  Usually such critics allude to various statistics: they point out that the number of communicants, that is, of “churched” people, waves between 0.5% and 6% of the Russian populace.  But in fact much more important to look at other figures.  In 1997, all public opinion polls showed that the army and the church occupied the two top places in terms of trust by Russians (rossiyan).”

Another point is also interesting.  To the question asked in a poll, “Should the Russian Orthodox Church enjoy privileges within the state?”  49% of the respondents answered “no,” but 27% answered “yes.”  And we have to consider what stands behind that 27% . . . the rating was maintained despite a torrent of anti-church publications, despite accusations of obscurantism, of engaging in illegal financial operations, etc.  The reason for this is obvious.  In Russia, there is no civil society; there is only the populace and the regime, while the regime does not enjoy the support of the majority of the populace.  And regional processes are such that the breakup of the Federation over the next twenty-to-thirty years seem inevitable to many analysts.  Under such conditions, the role of the Russian Orthodox Church as the sole state institution which conjoins all ethnic Russians (russkikh) is naturally growing.

Journalists can write about the fact that Luzhkov does not come forward to receive communion, but that does not alter the inevitability of a soldering together of the leaders of various political forces and the church.  The vote on the new law “On the Freedom of Conscience” should be viewed in this light.[49] Boris Dubin of the polling organization, the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VtsIOM), provided statistical evidence to Morozov’s contention: the political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church continued to grow in spite of the fact that a majority of Russian Orthodox believers do not practice.[50]  Thus, a distinction must be drawn between the Church as a body of committed religious believers and as a social institution.


After examining the evidence, it seems that the Russian Orthodox Church, as a church, is not an nationalist institution or symbol according to Voegelin’s “new science” of politics.  Despite how it may be perceived, the Church is not advocating a substitution of “Russia” in the place of God, nor compromising its claims to possess universal spiritual truth, accessible to all people, as opposed to something limited to ethnic Russians.  The Russian Orthodox Church’s support of the 1997 law “On the Freedom of Conscience” was not an attempt to transform the state into a church or to create a theocracy .  There is no evidence that the Church directly participated in the politics of the Russian state, e.g., the formation of a clerical political party, and in fact such attempts, to create a “church” political party have been firmly rejected by the Church leadership.[51]

Instead, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church appears to have been working towards a restoration of the Byzantine ideal of symphonia where the state enforces the church’s doctrine, dogma, and canon law, though the secular powers refrain from the formulation of the church’s theology.  Under this model, church and state cooperate in the management of their respective spheres of social life, the spiritual and the political.  However, the Russian Orthodox Church cannot be seen as an institution that supports a democratic civil society, one based upon pluralism and competition of ideas, because of the paradigm of symphonia in which it operates.

The problem with the paradigm of symphonia being applied to modern Russia is two-fold: 1) the conception that the leader of the state is not an agent of God but a democratically-elected representative of the people, subject to recall or replacement; and 2) the Russian Orthodox Church does not technically enjoy the status of the official state religion.  The principles of symphonia can only work if the president is not only a baptized Orthodox Christian but understands himself as a servant of God; otherwise, the Church lacks recourse to admonish the president.  Patriarch Aleskii may conceive of himself operating within this paradigm, but the paradigm does not correspond with the current political reality of a transitional society on the path to liberal democracy.  During its Bishops’ Council in 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church adopted a social doctrine which addressed questions of church-state relations.  After discussing the paradigm of symphonia, the bishops noted:

“The Orthodox tradition has developed an explicit ideal of church-state relations. Since church-state relations are two-way traffic, the above-mentioned ideal could emerge in history only in a state that recognises the Orthodox Church as the greatest people’s shrine, in other words, only in an Orthodox state. . . . In their totality these principles were described as symphony between church and state. It is essentially co-operation, mutual support and mutual responsibility without one’s side intruding into the exclusive domain of the other. The bishop obeys the government as a subject, not his episcopal power comes from a government official. Similarly, a government official obeys his bishop as a member of the Church, who seeks salvation in it, not because his power comes from the power of the bishop. The state in such symphonic relationships with the Church seeks her spiritual support, prayer for itself and blessing upon its work to achieve the goal of its citizens’ welfare, while the Church enjoys support from the state in creating conditions favorable for preaching and for the spiritual care of her children who are at the same time citizens of the state.”[52]

While recognizing that in modern society the paradigm is no longer operable, the Russian Orthodox Church nonetheless does not see pluralism as the ideal basis for a new social order:

“The emergence of this principle testifies that in the contemporary world, religion is turning from a ‘social’ into a ‘private’ affair of a person. This process in itself indicates that the spiritual value system has disintegrated and that most people in a society which affirms the freedom of conscience no longer aspire for salvation. If initially the state emerged as an instrument of asserting divine law in society, the freedom of conscience has ultimately turned state in an exclusively temporal institute with no religious commitments.”

The adoption of the freedom of conscience as legal principle points to the fact that society has lost religious goals and values and become massively apostate and actually indifferent to the task of the Church and to the overcoming of sin. However, this principle has proved to be one of the means of the Church’s existence in the non-religious world, enabling her to enjoy a legal status in secular state and independence from those in society who believe differently or do not believe at all.[53]

The conclusion therefore is the Russian Orthodox Church is, by its own understanding, neither a nationalist institution nor a nationalist political symbol.  Although other political parties and social forces may usurp the Russian Orthodox Church for its own ideological ends, e.g., the CPRF, the Russian Orthodox Church does not conceive of itself as a political entity; rather, it sees itself strictly as a religious body that requires the state to ensure its supremacy within the religious sphere of Russian society.  Yet the Church is not just a tool used by political elites to furnish legitimacy.  It conceives of itself as re-establishing the paradigm of symphonia.  The problem is this paradigm no longer corresponds with current political reality.  Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church is neither nationalist nor pro-democratic.  It is stuck in its own past.



[1]  According to a recent poll conducted by the ROMIR research group, 66% of Russians trust the Russian Orthodox Church, while only 25% of the respondents trust the judiciary (with 33% completely distrusting it) and 6% trust the media (with 16% completely distrusting it).  Only President Putin scored higher than the Church at 72%.  Alexander Porfiryev, “Russians Believe Putin, the Church and Nobody Else,” RIA Novosti, 5 January 2001, 1.

[2]  “Russians Trust Putin, Not Courts,” ITAR-TASS, January 3, 2001, 1.

[3]  Boris Yeltsin, “The President Appeals to Russian Citizens in Connection With His Rejection of the Federal Law ‘On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations’”  Rossiiskiye vesti, 24 July 1997, sec. A, 1.

[4]  ”Yeltsin Signs Religion Law.”  RFE/RL Newsline.  Washington D.C.: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inc., 2000.  Archives on-line.  Available from http:/  Accessed 27 March 2000.

[5]  Although the inspiration for many of the current works about nationalism stem from the Germanic nineteenth century thinkers, Marx, Weber, and Durhkeim themselves only make fleeting references to phenomenon.  Marx understood nationalism as a secondary manifestation of man’s alienation from the workplace, while Weber never analyzed nationalism, though he thought it was not economically-motivated but was derived from “sentiments of prestige from historical attachments of power-positions.”  Differing from both Marx and Weber was Durkheim who conceived of nationalism as the state’s re-creation of a communitarian ideal after it had broken society’s sub-national and trans-national loyalties.  Marx, K. and Engels.  The German Ideology: Part I in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. R. C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978), 159; Weber, M.  Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 921-925; Durkheim, E.  The Division of Labour in Society, trans. G. Simpson (New York: Free Press, 1933).

For twentieth century theories about nationalism that borrow from Durkheim’s modernization thesis, please refer to the following works: E. B. Haas, “What is Nationalism and Why Should We Study It?”  International Organizations 40 (Summer 1986), 707-44; Deutsch, K. W.  Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry into the Foundation of Nationality (New York: MIT and John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1953); Fishman. Language and Nationalism: Two Integrative Essays.  (Rowley: Newbury House Publishers, 1972); Fukuyama, F.  The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992); Gellner, E.  Thought and Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); Gellner, E.  Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983); Lipset, Seymour M. and Stein Rokkan.  Party Systems and Voters Alignments: Cross-national Perspectives (New York: Free Press, 1967); Seers, D.  The Political Economy of Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Seton-Watson, H.  Nation and States: An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and Politics of Nationalism (Boulder: Westview Press, 1977).

All these scholars claim that nationalism is a process embedded in a universal tendency towards industrialism and modernism.  Presumably, once a society has become modern, the idea of the nation itself eventually will dissolve under the pressures of rationality.  Other scholars, however, point out that nationalism remains a potent force in the world in spite of the “historical inconsistencies” of an ever-increasingly modern and therefore rational world.  Fukuyama, F.  The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992); Hobsbawn, E. J.  Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, myth, and reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Tonybee, Arnold J.  A Study of History (London: Oxford University Press, 1934-1954).

[6]  Weber, M.  Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

[7]  Casanova, Jose.  Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 5-6.

[8]  Wald, Kenneth D.  Crosses on the Ballot: Patterns of British Voter Alignment Since 1885 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 118.

[9]  Ibid., 163.

[10]  Chupungco, J.  Cultural Adaption of the Liturgy (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 78-79.

[11]  David D. Laitin, “Religion, Political Culture and the Weberian Tradition,” World Politics, 30 (1978): 563-92;  Michael Parenti, “Political Values and Religious Cultures: Jews, Catholics, and Protestants,” Journal for Scientific Study of Religion 6 (1967): 259-69;  Wald, Kenneth D.  Crosses on the Ballot: Patterns of British Voter Alignment Since 1885 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).

[12]  Pedro Ramet, “The Interplay of Religious Policy and Nationalities Policy in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe,” in Religion and Nationalism in the Soviet and East European Politics, Pedro Ramet, ed. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1984), 3.

[13]  Gramsci, Antonio.  Selections from Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith, eds. and trans. (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 328; also see 170.

[14]  Ibid., 245.

[15]  It is true that the above-mentioned scholars account for religion in their theory of nationalism, but none of them assign it a primary cause or the main psychological determinant in nationalism.  Those scholars who do study religion do so in the context of political legitimacy, i.e., “power politics.”  They completely neglect the symbolic and spiritual component the religious institutions and movements.  Huntington, S.  The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1996); Ramet, S.  Nihil Obstat: Religion, Politics, and Social Change in East-Central Europe and Russia (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998).

[16]  Voegelin, Eric.  Order and History I: Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 5.

[17]  Voegelin, Eric.  Science, Politics, and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1968), 86-87.

[18]  Ibid., 64.

[19]  Ibid., 1; Voegelin, Eric.  Order and History I: Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), ix.

[20]  Ibid., 1.

[21] For a good discussion of the concept of symphonia, see Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, trans. Lydia W. Kesich (New York:  Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963), especially 144-153 and 210-216.

[22]  For the 1 October 1990 Soviet law, please refer to “O svobode sovesti i religoinznykh organizatsiyakh,” Pravda, 9 October 1990, 4; for the 25 October 1990 Russian Federation law, please refer to “O svobode veroispovedanii,” Sovetskaya Rossiya, 10 November 1990, 5; for the 1929 law, as amended in 1932, please refer to “Law on Religious Association of April 8, 1929” in Aspects of Religion in the Soviet Union, 1917-67, Richard H. Marshall, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 438-45; for the 1975 law, refer to Religious Persecution in the Soviet Union: Hearing Before the Sub-committees on International Political and Military Affairs and on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, Ninety-Fourth Congress, June 24 and 30, 1976 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976).

[23]  The Russian Orthodox Church’s parishes grew from 3, 451 in 1990 to 7, 195 in January 1996.  Apparat Soveta Federatsii Federal’nogo Sobraniya Rossiiskoi Federatsii, Analiticheskoe Upravlenie, Religionzyne ob’edinneniya Rossiiskoi Federatsii: spravochnik (Moscow: Respublika, 1996), 244-49.

[24]  Ibid.

[25]  Sovetskaya Rossiya, 22 September 1997.

[26]  Russkaya Mysl’ (Paris), 3 July 1997, appendix 1; RFE-RL Newsline, 7 July 1997.

[27]  Ibid.

[28]  “Half of Russians Are Against Granting the Russian Orthodox Church Special [email protected] in The Current Digest of Post-Soviet Politics.  Vol. XLIV.  No. 32.  (1997): 16.

[29]  Reuters, 16 July 1997.

[30]  Alessandra Stanely, “Yeltsin Vetoes Curb on Religions but Could Face an Override Vote,” New York Times, 23 July 1997, A1, A10.

[31]  RIA Novosti, 23 July 1997.  For the text of the 1993 Russian Constitution, please refer to Vladimir V. Belyakov and Walter J. Raymond, eds., Constitution of the Russian Federation (Lawrenceville, VA: Brunswick Publishing Corporation, 1994).

[32]  Ibid.

[33]  Michael R. Gordon, “Irking U.S., Yeltsin Signs Law Protecting Orthodox Church,” New York Times, 27 September 1997, A1, A5.

[34]  RFE-RL Newsline, 22 September 1997.

[35]  Segodnya, 20 September 1997.

[36]  RFE-RL Newsline, 22 September 1997.

[37]  RFE-RL Newsline, 24 September 1997.

[38]  Vladimir Ryakhovskii, “Legal Opinion on the New Law on Church-State Relations Enacted by the Russian Duma on 19 September 1997,” Keston Institute, 29 September 1997.  For the text of the law, please refer to “O svobode sovesti i o religionznykh ob’edineniyakh,” Rossiiskaya gazeta, 16 September 1997, 5-6.

[39]  This article, as Vladimir Ryakovskii has pointed out, is in direct contradiction with Article 54.1 of the Russian constitution.  Ibid.

[40]  Anatolii Pchelinstev, “Bogu-Bogovo, a Dume,” Novaya gazeta, 50, 15-21 December 1997, 7.

[41] On 29 September 1997, Russian militia and security forces stormed the embassy (podvor’e) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kievan Patriarchate) in Noginsk.  About one hundred worshipers, along with their leader, Archbishop Adrian, were arrested.  The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry protested the incident, but the Russian Foreign Ministry declined to accept the protest (Ukrainian Weekly (Parsippany, NJ), 5 October 1997).  On 29 September 1997 a group of Russian militia with a cleric from the Moscow Patriarchate beat Father Pavel Katunin, rector of a parish affiliated with the “Russian Church Abroad” near the village of Ivnya.  He received medical treatment at the hospital but had to be moved because of death threats.  His wife was arrested and fined 100, 000 rubles (Pravoslavnaya Rus’ (Jordanville, NY), 15/28 December 1997, 12).  Another case was Father Aleksander Zharkov who served in Leningrad Oblast.  He was stabbed to death.  The spokesman for the Church Abroad declared that Father Zharkov had been murdered because he had left the Moscow Patriarchate three months earlier and took his parish with him (Anatolii Pchelinstev, “Bogu-Bogovo, a Dume,” Novaya gazeta, 50, 15-21 December 1997, 7).  In Ryazan, the communist governor, Vyacheslav Lyubimov, played a crucial role in pressuring a parish of the Church Abroad to transfer to the Moscow Patriarchate in November 1997 (RFE-RL Newsline, 7 November 1997).

[42] Non-Orthodox religious organizations also suffered a similar fate.  In October 1997 a Lutheran parish in Tuim, Siberia had been shut down by the local authorities, even though, as the head of the parish, Reverend Zayakin commented, “Since Lutheranism had existed in Russia from more than 420 years, we didn’t think that the law would be directed against our mission.”  (Boston Globe, 8 October 1997; Lawrence A. Uzzell, “Repressive Religion Law Has Russian Faithful on Edge,” Christian Science Monitor, 22 April 1998)  Furthermore, the Russian Foreign Ministry began to require all foreign clergy must leave the Russian territory every three months in order to obtain a new visa at the Russian embassy abroad.  Roman Catholics and Jews were affected the most, with Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, a Swiss citizen, being forced to travel between Moscow and Switzerland every three months.  The spokesman of Moscow’s Choral Synagogue is quoted as saying, “We need him to lead prayers.  We need him to teach.  I’m not even talking about the money required to send him back and forth every three months and do all the paperwork.  On top of that he has a big family – six children.”  (Frank Brown, “Religions Hit by a New Visa Rule,” Moscow Times, 5 August 1998, 1, 2.)  And in September 1998 in Anapa Krai, two Cossacks had forcibly broken up a group of Seventh Day Adventists who giving away bibles at a public park.  The Seventh Day Adventist leader was detained and beaten twenty times by the Cossacks with an iron-tipped whip.  The local Cossack commander, Sergei Serebrov, was quoted as saying, “if Protestants continue to engage in public proselytism, then the Cossacks will whip them.”  (RFE-RL Newsline, 17 September 1998).  On-going incidents are chronicled by Keston News Service, available at

[43]  Monitor (Jamestown Foundation, Washington D.C.), 24 September 1998.

[44]  Natalya Babasyan, “Dvoinoi standart?  Reaktsiya mezhdunarodnogo soobshchestva na rossiiskii zakon o svobode sovesti” Russkaya Mysl’, 30 October-5 November 1997, 15-16.

[45]  Reuters, 22 December 1997.

[46]  Ibid.

[47]  Poletayev, Mikhail and Yelena Tregubova.  Kommersant-Daily (30 July 1997), 3.

[48] See Nikolas K. Gvosdev, “The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics,” Orthodox News 1(34), December 13, 1999.

[49]  Nezavisimaya gazeta, 25 December 1997, 1, 3.  The results of the polls was published in Izvestiya, 9 August 1997.

[50]  According to Dubin, television emphasized the patriotic aspect of Russian Orthodoxy, though only 3% of Russian men and 10% of Russian women out of 82-85% of self-identified Orthodox believers attend confession and receive communion once a year.  Boris Dubin, “Religiya tserkov’, obshchestvennoe mnenie,” in Svobodnya Mysl’, 11 (November 1997): 94-103.

[51] Cf. Gvosdev, op. cit.

[52] “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church,” adopted 13-16 August 2000,  III(4), at

[53] Ibid., III(6).


This article was originally published in Civil Society and the Search for Justice in Russia (Lexington Books, 2002)

Lee Trepanier

Written by

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science, Department Chair, and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).