I decided to take a different direction from the more explicitly political blogs I’ve recently written. In my next two blogs I will discuss religion in Russia. The first one will be more general and deal with both historical and political issues. In my next blog I’ll address more personal issues of religion and life here in Russia. I have several reasons for discussing religion in Russia: First, for many of us this is the season of Lent. It is a period of forty days of “ascetic fasting” leading up to the week of Pascha, or what most Westerners call Easter. It is the most significant season in the Russian Orthodox Church. So especially at this time of the year my thoughts naturally drift toward issues of faith. Second, Billy Graham passed from this life last week. Graham was widely known and admired, but those of us who grew up in the predominantly Protestant and rural south took special pride in him as “one of us.” He dined with Presidents and preached all around the world. Other than politicians very few people from my culture got that opportunity. Although well-known, Graham never seemed to lose the sense of who he was, and evangelism became neither a popularity contest nor a means of attaining material wealth. His death took me back to my childhood and the religious atmosphere of that day. Third, I get questions about religion in Russia from time to time. Those who have never been here seem quite interested. Finally, I believe understanding something of the religious character of any country is essential to understanding its culture and what it values. While religion and faith are of nominal importance to many modern observers, I think ignoring it makes one miss interesting and important features of a nation like Russia.
Caveat: I use the terms “religion” and “religious” to refer primarily to the public practice of matters of faith. I realize some juxtapose or contrast faith and religion. (Yes, I’ve seen the, “I’m not religious, I just love Jesus” posts.) I am using the term in a sociologically descriptive manner. A long time ago Emile Durkheim described religion as a system of beliefs and practices related to what one considers “sacred” and includes uniting with others in a single moral community. If one attends a church, synagogue, or mosque, for example, then one qualifies as “religious” in this sense of the word.
My target audience is, again, the person who hears a lot about Russia on the news, but would like to know what life is really like here. As is commonly known, quite a number of people in the West no longer trust what they hear from the mainstream media about a lot of things, including Russia. Discussing religion and politics in a blog means I have to omit some complex, albeit important, developments. I hope the reader can still come away with a good basic understanding. That’s my goal anyway. I’ll give a little historical background and general overview of religion here. Over Russia’s long history its leaders have sought, at various times, to encourage religion, mix it with politics, or, for most of the last century, obliterate it from life in Russia altogether.
The role of religion in Russian history is quite different from the American experience. First, Christianity, specifically Eastern Orthodox Christianity, has been the dominant religion in this region of the world for over a thousand years, although other religions or branches of Christianity have not been absent. According to tradition, Christianity was brought to the region by Saint Andrew, the disciple of Jesus. I’ll skip the historical developments to get to the main tradition (some say legend) about how “Kievan Rus” became Christian. Prince Vladimir (ca. 987), believing that one religion would unite the kingdom, sent out emissaries to the neighboring regions to discern what religion should be adopted. They returned with news that the Bulgarian Muslims had no joy, and they also smelled bad. The German religion had no beauty. They needed look no further, however, after their experience of worship at the Orthodox Cathedral, Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople. They reported, “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, and of such beauty we know not how to tell of it.” Now, most historians believe it was a bit more complicated than that, but the point is that old Rus “officially” became Orthodox Christian. The Princes and Tsars of the Rurikid and then Romanov dynasties considered themselves and the lands they ruled Christian. In their minds, the Emperor was just as much an emissary of God to his people as were the bishops.
During much of its history Russian society revolved around the Christian calendar. At a time like now, during Lent, daily life focused on the Lenten fast. No one ate meat or dairy; many shops closed; there were no opera performances or plays and certainly no dancing. In some locations even judicial offices shut down. Life revolved around preparation for the coming holy week.
Skip quickly to the era of the Bolshevik Revolution. Again, I’ll pass over many details. The October Revolution of 1917 spelled the end of the Romanov dynasty, although technically one could argue that the earlier revolt in February had essentially “sealed the deal.” The Bolshevik leaders knew, however, the battle wasn’t over. Vladimir Lenin and other leaders believed that religion in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular was woven so intricately into the fabric of the old regime that it had to be eradicated as well. The task was not to curb freedom of religion; the task was to convince a whole nation of republics that religion was not even an option. Drastic measures, including executions, were taken to change people’s minds, and they began the task of training the next generation that all religion was wrong and unacceptable.
My other world—America—has never had either an official religion enforced by the government or a government that forbade the practice of religion. Clearly Christianity was also the dominant religion in America in terms of numbers of adherents. Nevertheless, the “theologies” of, say, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams represented three distinct ways of seeing religion and faith. There is reference to belief in the Creator in our Constitution, but the views of those who signed the document ranged from Deism to what perhaps could be called Evangelical Theism. Neither has the U.S. Government ever explicitly set itself up against any religion or prohibited the practice of any major religion, although there have been hotly debated curtailment on exactly what is permitted as the practice of religion in the last generation or so. When I played high school football many years ago, the coach led our team in praying “The Lord’s Prayer” together before we went out on the field. Just before the games started a local pastor would offer a prayer over the loud-speaker. No one thought it controversial. Times have changed. Even so, when Americans interpret religious practices or statements by President Putin or anyone else in Russia through the lens of the American experience there is great danger of misinterpretation. So I will offer a few observations based on my own experience of living in both “worlds” that I hope will be helpful.
While Russian Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion here in terms of adherents and influence, it is not the only religion. In 1997 Russian law referred to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the four religions significant in Russian history. After Russian Orthodoxy, Islam is the next most widely practiced religion in Russia. Estimates show about 5-7% of the population is Muslim. In September of 2015 President Putin spoke at the dedication of The Moscow Cathedral Mosque, the largest Mosque in Europe. Also present were President Erdogan from Turkey, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Putin praised the “great global religion of Islam,” while blasting “terrorists from the so-called Islamic State.”
There are also Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in towns the size of Luga, although far fewer than in towns of this size in America. Protestants and Roman Catholics make up a very small percentage of the population (most think around 2-3%), but they are recognized as part of the religious landscape in Russia. In the summer of 2016 I wrote three blogs on the anti-terrorism law that came to be known as the “anti-missionary law.” Despite the alarmist writings from the West that Protestant mission efforts were being outlawed, I tried to show why that interpretation was wrong. Since then nothing much has been mentioned. A few people were fined modest amounts for violating their visas, but Protestants churches still carry on as before in freedom as far as I can tell. None of my Russian Protestant friends or my American Protestant friends who come here to help them out have complained of any problems.
I mentioned in my blog on Putin’s early life that an observant Jewish family shared their communal apartment when he was growing up, and it appears that the warm relationship he had with them impacted his perspective on Judaism into adulthood. This does not rule out the fact that there has been a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment “in the air” in Russia. Judaism has a long and tumultuous history in Russia, but today perhaps less than 1% of the population is Jewish, and the majority of those persons identify as ethnic, not observant, Jews.
Estimates of how many Russians are Orthodox vary a great deal, but the latest I read was 41%. There are far more who claim to be Orthodox than there are who actually attend Liturgy on anything like a regular basis. The fact that many people identify themselves as part of a religious group and yet do not really participate regularly with that group is true in many countries, however. Still, there is no question that Orthodoxy occupies the prominent place in Russian history and is the religion with which most Russians identify today. When Vladimir Putin wants to reach out to the “religious community” for assistance he reaches out to the Patriarch of Moscow or other representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.
One important factor that must be remembered is that the blatantly atheistic and anti-religious attitude of the Communist party has been removed as far as I can tell. For the upcoming election the Communist Party of the Russian Federation chose Pavel Grudinin as their candidate. This is the first time since the fall of the USSR their candidate has not been Gennady Zyganov. One article I read said they are preparing for “life after Putin.” They know Grudinin is not going to win. They want to get his name and his views out in the political arena now. He is a well-spoken candidate. When Putin serves this last six-year term, the people will have become used to seeing Grudinin’s name, and there is value in name recognition. I think that is a logical interpretation of events. There is no indication that Zyganov had to be asked to step aside. He agreed with the plan according to the author of the article. I don’t think their plan will work, because my own view is that Putin will soon begin grooming his replacement to carry on similar policies that are now in place. What is significant for our purposes, however, is that the Communist Party does not seek an adversarial relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church if at all possible. Gone are the days of Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev who were solidly opposed to the Church. If the Communist leaders today were to battle with the Church, they would lose political influence. From the handouts that the older Communist gentleman gives me as I pass his tent from time to time, I see no opposition to religion.
Since my wife was born and raised here in the heyday of Communism, many of our friends and acquaintances are former Communists. I think these relationships have helped me understand more of the political and religious landscape of Russia. I think many Russians of a whole generation are like my friends Gennady and Masha. Gennady is retired from the Russian army, and Masha is a retired school teacher. Both were card-carrying Communists (literally) up until the fall of the USSR. They were of the generation that was brought up as Octobrists, Pioneers, and members of the Komsomol. They never considered becoming religious. Life is different now, however, and their views are different. Both their grown children are Russian Orthodox and take the grandchildren to church weekly. At one time this would have been shocking and would have caused family dissension. Not any more. While they do not attend the Liturgy, Gennady and Masha have gone inside the church to light a candle and say a prayer on important occasions of joy or need. They even talk about going to church more regularly at some point in the future.
My hunch is that Vladimir Putin may have had a subtle influence on them. I do not mean they looked at him and thought they would follow along. I think he changed the “atmosphere” in a way that made for better relations between people like Gennady and Masha and the Church. They did not vote for Putin when he first ran for President. They preferred the Communist candidates. Over time, however, they came to believe he was doing a good job and obviously Russia was doing better under his leadership. Although Putin was not the Communist Party candidate, the fact that he was former KGB probably made it easier for them and many others of their generation to vote for a non-Communist.
Furthermore, Gennady and Masha believe that the Orthodox Church preserves both a sense of Russian identity and the morals they see as valuable in society. They don’t mind that their grandchildren were baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church supports a strong family, honesty in business affairs, and concern for the needy. These are values and moral concerns they also think are important. Unlike many of their leaders from the Soviet times, these values were what they and so many others thought was good about Communism. That they do not accept all the Chruch’s teachings does not mean they overlook what their generation and the Church have in common about this country. When I say “Communist” to many of my American friends they think of Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev who I mentioned above, as if they were typical Russians. My response to them is to ask if Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton are typical Americans. The mainstream media in America stereotypes Russians and hopes America will conclude “they’re all like that.” Note again how James Clapper was explicit in his lumping Russians together as “almost genetically” drawn to do all the controlling things he accused them of. (Excursus: Clapper’s accusation seems even more bold since he lied to Congress in front of TV cameras. Mr. Wyden (D-Oregon) made it clear he wanted a yes or no to his question as to whether, during Clapper’s tenure as Director of National Intelligence, the NSA had spied on Americans. Clapper feverishly rubbed his bald head and said, “No.” Later Clapper told Andrea Mitchell he chose “the least untruthful manner by saying no.” Of course, that is hard to reconcile with the fact that “yes” would have been completely honest. What does “least untruthful” mean? This man still believes he has the right to sit in moral judgement of Russians, and he continues to be asked to testify in Washington despite the fact he lied and then lied about lying.)
Vladimir Putin is the person set forth by our MSM as the epitome of the evil Russian. Additionally I hear him criticized for what some see as blatant political hypocrisy of “playing” to the former Communists and to the Orthodox believers as well. I remind readers of his family background I wrote about a few weeks ago. Vladimir Putin was the only living child of a man who was a dedicated Communist spokesman at his factory and a Christian mother who wanted him to be a part of the Church. Their marriage somehow worked. Putin greatly admired his father’s courage, and his limp reminded Putin of the fact his dad had risked his life for his country. President Putin speaks with deep love when he tells how his devout mother had to sneak off with a neighbor to get him baptized. That doesn’t mean I think Putin is always right. It means religion has always been a part of his life. Communism was his world as well. His example has made it clear to people like Gennady and Masha that they need not despise their Christian neighbors or be upset at their children for raising their family in the faith. Is it a perfect “balance”? Probably not. Nevertheless, neither Gennady and Masha nor many of our Orthodox friends think Putin is “using religion” just to get votes. And some of them are not going to vote for him. Their lack of support, however, does not come from the fact that they think he is too religious or that he has a Communist past.
From my experience the people of Russia have a larger sense of shared moral commitments and goals for the country than people in my homeland, America. When I see news clips from America I see a lot of division. Vice-president Pence spoke about his faith and listening to Jesus in an interview, and he was immediately mocked on a popular talk show and accused of mental illness. I hear daily debates on the issues related to transgender children, sexual orientation, and other very private issues and how they should be addressed in public schools in America. On the political front, some are outraged that two FBI agents, who were investigating the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal, were having an extramarital affair, and their numerous text messages revealed clear anti-Trump commitments. On the other “side,” many are absolutely convinced that it had to be the Russians or some such group that took control and got Trump elected. Almost a year and a half after the election some still refuse to accept it as a valid election and the investigation drags on and on. Millions of dollars are being spent on an investigation whose primary indictments right now are of 13 Russians who supposedly used social media to divide America. In any other context that would be laughable. America’s divisions run far deeper and have existed far longer than anything 13 people of any country could do via Twitter and Facebook.
Russia has its divisions and disagreements. Of course, what the Western media shows is Pussy Riot and others like them who disparage the country and all leaders. Their following is minuscule and does not deserve the attention. The West has also drawn attention to the campaigns of Ksenya Sobchak and Alexei Navalny, who has been declared ineligible for his past crimes. I read one article on each a couple of weeks ago, and both articles referred to them as “leaders of the opposition” in Russia. No polling I’ve seen done by organizations from Russia or the West show either of them breaking the 2% mark of public approval. Both candidates appeal mainly to young voters looking for change. Their support derives largely from those who are not old enough to remember the fall of the USSR and the devastation of the decade that followed. Candidates in America who can’t poll above 2% get no attention from the press. A different standard applies when the Western press is covering Russia, however.
I’m quite sure corruption still exists here, although I’m also sure it is not as common as it was when I came here in 2002. While I realize that corruption may exist in Russia on a level of which I am not aware, I am far more concerned about the injection of money going to candidates in America from George Soros, Monsanto, the Military Industrial Complex and many other large corporations.
In summary, the relationship between religion and politics is in general a sensitive and shaky one, whether in America or Russia. Russia has run the gamut so to speak. It went through many years where the two were woven together tightly. While much good was done during those years, the corrupting nature of power crept both into the Church and the State. Passing off religion as an “opiate to the masses” did not work out well in terms of eliminating corruption either. The Communism that was supposed to leave all citizens equal resulted in some being “far more equal” than others. The USSR did not fall because America won the Cold War. It fell under the weight of its own senility and moral bankruptcy. I do not write as one who has intricate or special knowledge of what goes on in the halls and walls of the Kremlin. I see good things that I believe have happened under Putin’s leadership, and I admire his intellect. I especially respect the way he has maintained dignity in the face of crass and unjustified condemnations by American leaders. Nevertheless I don’t think any politician can be the savior of the country, and my comments are evaluations of broad policies not the person. My perspective is “from the bottom up.” I am an admitted cynic when it comes to believing in a perfect balance of religious influence and political power. I don’t think Russia has found that balance. I do think it is far closer than it has ever been and closer than I’ve ever seen anywhere.