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← Rise of religion in Russia

Stephen of Wimbledon's Avatar Jump to comment 22 by Stephen of Wimbledon

As someone who has lived in Russia, and who has Russian family, I sympathise.

The thing you have to remember is that any organised religion is a political organisation. First and foremost their objectives are all aligned to increasing the power of the priesthood - and the power of the religion's leaders in particular.

Before the revolution the Orthodox Church was the established church (meaning: it was an arm of the State). During the revolution the Orthodox Church found itself on the losing side - and paid the price.

However, the Communists (Stalin in particular, probably because he studied at an Orthodox seminary) realised that you cannot simply remove the opium of the people and expect them to give it up, cold turkey. The Communists tried various approaches - one solution was famously satirised by George Orwell in his book Animal Farm (banned by the Communists but probably available in Russia now, I recommend it). In Animal Farm Moses, the crow, like Moses in the Bible is there to lead the animals (the revolutionaries) to the promised land of Sugar-candy Mountain. Communism attempted to take on many aspects of religion and in the 1970's I bought an Atlas in which Marxism and Maoism were listed as religions.

You say that your friends (I assume schooled under communism?), are turning to the Orthodox Church. But Communism was at least partly religious.

The Communists were followers, probably unwittingly, of the religious structures that the great British philosopher David Hume so effectively critiqued:

... the greatest crimes have been found, in many instances, compatible with a superstitious piety and devotion.

For these reasons, if no other, the Communists slowly relaxed their grip on the Orthodox Church. Religion can be a distraction, a palliative (as another Commentator notes: a placebo). When the revolution had failed to deliver equality and the good life to the third post-revolution generation what better solution than an organisation that explains this as being due to forces beyond worldly control.

Although Russia's education system, under communism, had a superb reputation I was often surprised during my first visits to discover how superstitious modern Russians are. It is clear that, while religion was not taught in schools, neither was superstition challenged - just as Moses went unchallenged in Animal Farm.

In addition it has to be said that the old education system did not teach critical thinking in any form. The reasons for this are obvious and the consequences dire - I still sadly recall my ineffective efforts to stop Russian friends from investing in the pyramid scheme MMM. Many lost their life savings.

In Yeltsin's time the school system was given scant attention, I can rememebr reading newspaper stories about it while in Moscow. The predictable result is that standards have dropped. As it has been twenty years since I first visited Russia I can only imagine what condition the education system is in now. Since then, the weakened education system has had time to produce an entire generation of religion-ready Russians.

Yeltsin and Putin found themselves running a country with almost no political structures typical of the average democracy.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that Putin's solution to this lack of political supporting structures was to put Yeltsin's reforms, at least partially, into reverse.

One move was to re-assert the power of the bureaucracy, as Putin moved to reassure them that old sins would be forgotten, their unelected power would remain unquestioned, and the fraternity of membership:

I am a Chekist.

There is no such thing as a former member of the KGB.

Another was to re-establish government control and censorship of the media, in his battle of wills with the Oligarchs.

I'm guessing that Putin did not immediately understand what the Orthodox Church could offer him, but he has learned that lesson now. The Orthodox Church was revitalised by Yeltsin - for the rather spurious reason that it was a part of the 'lost' Russian culture - so the priests were already in the Kremlin when Putin first came to power as Prime Minister. They have had plenty of time to work on him. Russia at that time lacked political parties with established bases among the normal citizens on the one hand, and had oligarchs pushing for more power and highlighting the shortcomings of the bureaucracy on the other hand - while the bureaucracy itself sat sulking in the middle. Meanwhile the new political class were trying to outdo each other in populist rhetoric, while actually achieving nothing concrete - with the result that they were nearly completely sidelined by Yeltsin's constitution.

Putin needed to find a way to ensure popular support if he was to become President. One way was to use his new-found power over the media to build what looks, dangerously, like a personality cult. The other was to use the Orthodox Pulpit. The reason that politicians in every country like priests, rabbis, shamen, imams or whatever is that they get to speak to their followers - without interruption - from a place of authority to an audience that is open to whatever propaganda they might hear while they are in a reflective frame of mind. Not forgetting, of course, that priests (etc.) are supposedly moral leaders.

Finally, throwing out the communists has not created a better Russia for many. The Orthodox Church is helping out by telling the poor that they will get theirs in the next life - and all those naughty people leading the high life now will get their comeuppance. It is the classic religious move - keeping the lower classes in their place, and happy about it.

The Orthodox Church supports the President - the President supports the Orthodox Church. Today, the Church has nearly returned to it's old position as the established church of Russia.

If the above sounds critical of Putin, then I need to add something; Putin is not a great leader, he has held the Russian political clock still - rather than let it advance and handle the full challenge of change. This is clearly beginning to frustrate many Russians, who have begun to protest. On the other hand, I do not believe Putin to be a bad man - he was always clear that his own goal was stability and he has achieved that. The problem with stability in politics, of course, is that what it actually translates to is supporting the status quo.

When Yeltsin handed over to Putin, as President, many changes had been made. In order to keep those things which he thought worked (because they delivered political results) Putin was forced to continue to make some changes. Re-establishing the Orthodox Church was probably sold to him as: Actually, only putting back some of the political stability that was taken out by the communists. The worst we can say about this is that Putin was a man of his time; seeking out a new way forward for Russia in a near political vacuum.

The Orthodox Church has another string to its bow: The old Orthodox Church was a central part of the old Russian Empire. Many of the people's in surrounding countries can be, and are, influenced by priests selected, trained, appointed, supported, promoted, administered and managed from Moscow. How many Russians could honestly say that, if they had been in Putin's place, they would have ignored the Orthodox Church's influence in this arena.

The ways to combat this mess are many. As Russians are learning, rather slowly: The only way to make politics work, is to work at politics - and that includes between elections.

I suggest you read Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince to understand what you need to aim for - a humanist approach to religion and the State.

Remember what we said at the beginning? The Orthodox Church is a political organisation, or it is nothing. You will have to work extra hard to unseat the church from Russian politics now that they have had 20 years of re-building; government favouritism (e.g. legal restrictions on other religions), government propaganda, 'cultural' funding for the re-building and decoration of church buildings, being friendly with nearly every politician, and so on ...

One very serious problem is Russian censorship. This is a 21st Century problem, not just a Russian problem - though it has to be said that Russia has a worse situation than most countries. But only Russians can turn the tide of censorship and propaganda in Russia. I suggest you start with the Фонда защиты гласности.

To his great credit, Medvedev has pointed out that the bureaucracy dominates the Media - and he has pushed for a more open political dialogue. But the Church is as one with the bureaucracy on this: Censorship is vital to give them the freedom to manoeuvre. The only way for any politicians to move this area forwards is for ordinary people to keep pushing. Get involved in the Pussy Riot.

The next most important problem is education. Are the Orthodox Church in Russian schools now? It is not enough (as discussed above) to have science taught - what must be included is rationalism and the scientific method: humility, facts, observation, thesis, testing. If science is only taught as a series of facts (e.g. learning the periodic table by rote) then children will not develop critical thinking. The development of critical thinking in the young is key. Resist the Church's influence in schools. If you have children, volunteer to work for the school in your own time and try to work out how best to influence its policies.

Join a political party. Attend the meetings, push for a progressive agenda.

Talk to your friends about their beliefs and superstitions. Do not make fun of them, but do question them - and always ask the hard questions. One of the great things about Russian culture is that you can ask a friend anything.

Finally; don't expect miracles. Putin has sometimes shown that even things he doesn't like can happen. He is no fool, and knows that Russia must at least evolve if it is not to have another Gorbachev / Yeltsin moment of upheaval. Push for the big change, embrace the small wins.

Good luck.

Sun, 05 Aug 2012 18:59:42 UTC | #950416