“Of course, we have a separation of State and Church……But in the people’s soul they’re together.”
Vladimir Putin January 2004
One of the least well received speeches at the Liberal Democrat conference last week was one in the security debate made by a representative named Adrian Whyatt. Never having met him I hope Adrian won’t mind if I say that it was a very bad speech. It didn’t seem to have all that much to do with the topic of the debate, being about something to do with Russia and the Orthodox Church, and at times appeared to be about a personal grievance. At the end it got no applause. I suspect it may have left many in audience confused over what it was supposed to be about. But, not wanting to rush to judgement, I made a mental note to do a bit of research when I got home.
Having done so, and in defence of Adrian, I think he had an important point to make.
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) was for many decades severely persecuted under Communism, but under Gorbachev and Glasnost greater religious freedoms were introduced and the ROC saw a revival. After the downfall of Communism the Constitution of the new Russian Federation provided for freedom of religion, equality of all religions before the law and the separation of church and state. So far, so good.
But the reality is far more complex. It appears that in the last days of the Soviet Union the hierarchy of the ROC was significantly infiltrated by agents of the Soviet state. According to some who have seen the relevant archives the church was “practically a subsidiary, a sister company of the KGB”.
This influence seems to have been continued. It is well known that former Russian President and now Prime Minister and puppet master Vladimir Putin begun his career as a KGB officer. Yet it has also been fairly well established that the current Patriarch of the ROC, Alexei II, was also a KGB agent.
Earlier this year the Telegraph reported on “the unholy alliance the Church has forged with the Kremlin since Mr Putin came to power eight years ago.” This has seen the ROC acting to support the Putin regime as the case of the Priest defrocked for showing support for one of Putin’s enemies reported in the Wall Street Journal illustrates. It has also benefited the ROC. A reading of the US Department of State’s 2008 Report on International Religious Freedom – Russia demonstrates how the ROC is favoured over other religious groups. Putin has clearly sought to identify himself with the Orthodox Church and the ROC has increasingly become a symbol of Russian nationalism. The relationship between church and state has begun to resemble that which existed back in Tsarist Russia over a 100 years ago.
In the run up to this years presidential election the ROC endorsed Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev.
This close relationship between church and state is not just a matter internal to Russia. There are international aspects also. In May 2007 the U.S.-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR), which is believed to be 1.5 million strong, reunited with the ROC and accepted the leadership of the Russian Patriarch. The ROCOR had split from the Russian Church at the time of the Bolshevik revolution and since then has been the main force for Russian Orthodoxy across the rest of the world. As Time magazine reports, the reunification “sealed the four-year long effort by Putin, beginning in September 2003, to have the Moscow Patriarchate take over its rival American-based cousin and launch a new globalized Church as his state’s main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument”.
I imagine this creates something of a dilemma for followers of the Russian Orthodox faith outside of Russia. Do they really want to continue to be part of a church that is headed by a former KGB agent and is a tool of an increasingly aggressive Russian state? I suspect that this was the issue that Mr Whyatt was attempting to raise with conference representatives.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.