President Erdogan’s decree on converting historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque has created a tense situation portraying the deteriorated status of current Turkish regime and the Christin world.
The iconic importance of Hagia Sophia dates back to its Byzantium legacy as the church was dedicated to the name of St. Sophia in the year 537 AD and it continued as the epicenter of Orthodox world till Ottoman captured Constantinople in 1453 under Sultan Mehmet the Second. Nevertheless, in 1934 Turkish president Mustafa Kemal turned into a museum by a government decree as a part of his modernization process.
After the recent presidential decree confirming the change of status, Russian president Vladimir Putin has expressed his concern about the sudden change. Even though the Kremlin has officially declared that it would not meddle with Turkey’s internal decisions, Putin emphasized the importance of preserving Hagia Sophia as a common property of the mankind or a symbol of peace. Putin’s statement was followed by the statement of Patriarch Krill in Moscow who vehemently condemned the decision made by Turkish president as a contempt of Eastern Christianity.
In examining Russia’s robust alacrity on patronizing the Orthodox Church in post-Soviet space, one can fathom that effects created by the decline of Soviet Union have galvanized Russian minds to get back to their aged old belief in Orthodoxy, which was trampled during the Soviet rule for seven decades. Indeed, it was Orthodoxy that had dominated the Russian space in the pre-revolutionary era.
The ideology pervaded in Russian empire before 1917 was confined to three essential pillars such as Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationalism ( Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie, Narondaost ) was a creation of Sergei Uvarov, the Russian minister of Education in Tsarist Russia in 1833. Russia’s intellectual transformation in the 19th century took a crucial direction in search of an identity as the Russian avant-garde intellectuals sought the discontent of the Western modernity imposed upon Russia by Peter the Great.
The twisted identity of Russia’s historical mission remained ambiguous even at the height of its imperial expansion under Empress Catherine and they were aware of their incompatibility with Europe, at the same time they knew that it would not be Russia’s destiny to tryst with the Orient. While expressing his sentimental views on Russia’s destiny in the global realm, poet Fyodor Tiutchev made his famous exclamation “Rationally Russia cannot be understood, one has to believe in it” which symbolized the general attitude of the 19th-century intellectuals to distinguish Russia as a unique civilization from Latin Europe.
The sudden awakening of the religiosity in Russia can be partially attributed to the ideological vacuum befell after the collapse of the USSR which exploded Russia’s pride that people ardently dwelled upon for decades and these phenomena intensified the growth of church influence in Russian state apparatus.
When the setback that persisted in Soviet period for functioning Russian Orthodox church began to vanish after 1991 that resulted in the rapid increase of Orthodox followers with the rise of 73.6% in 2006. The growth of religiosity among Russians in the post-Soviet space compared to other Eastern European states was an interesting factor from two sides. From one side the renewal of the Orthodox faith brought the church influence back to the political realm of Moscow reminding of how Orthodox Church meddled in the state affairs in Russia’s imperial past.
Putin’s predilection on Russian history was compatible with the Orthodox church revival and it is not an exaggeration to note that his references to Orthodox Christianity as the core of Russian value system regardless of 1993 Russian constitution’s guarantee on the secular status of Russian Federation has been one of interesting indicators that vividly shows his alacrity on bringing the religious tradition to Russian social-political space, where religion remained a dead factor during the Soviet time.
The blatant use of Orthodoxy in state apparatus enormously helped president Putin prior to 2014 when Russia’s economy was much stronger with the high oil price in the world market and in his annual address to Federal Assembly in 2014 Putin declared “Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force, In the creation of Russian nation and Russian state. It was thanks to this spiritual unity that our forefathers for the first time and forevermore themselves saw themselves as a united nation.
Secondly, the newly bloomed interest on Orthodox Christianity in Russia became a paramount factor in awakening Russian ethnic nationalism in the post-Soviet space. In fact, Putin seemed to have used it aptly in his political project by convincing Russians on their uniqueness in global history. As we are aware the jubilation erupted in the West after the disintegration of the USSR focused on the triumph of liberalism and free-market order which championed the USA as the omnipotent world order who would ensure the individual liberty. A plethora of liberal slogans existed in the Western society in the 90’s such as the rise of LGBT rights activism and multiculturalism appeared to be many attractive movements illustrating the liberalism of the West wherein Putin realized the necessity of revving Orthodox Christianity as a dominant value in the preserving Russian social-cultural space. In this context the nostalgia for 19th century Romanov slogans “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationhood “became Kremlin’s shield in its new mission to reform Russian society in the new millennium.
Besides his rhetorical statements and advocacy for Russia’s civilizational values which have primarily derived from Orthodox virtues, Putin seems to have been practically incorporating Orthodox church in the temporal political sphere. This was evident when he proposed a reference to God to be included in Russian constitution prior to the constitutional referendum in 2020. The preamble to the current constitution in Russia, which was adopted in 1993 remains completely secular preserving the multiethnic diversity in Russian Federation and it has excluded any references to spirituality by upholding the secular status of Russia under Article 14 to the constitution.
But, the growing influence of Russian Orthodox church as an ally to the politics of Kremlin has continued to uproot the secularity from the constitutional structure of Russia under church’s antagonism of depicting Russia as another secular European state. The inclusion of God in the basic law by this proposed amendment embodies Putin’s eagerness to cling to Russia’s 1,032 years of Orthodox history and on the other hand it very much akin to epitomizing the moral values insisted by Filofei in Moscow’s destiny as the “protector of the true faith”.
All of this Putinist strategies in strengthening ties with the church and inculcating the church values denote his anathema to the liberal values of the West and his frequent reference to upholding the affinity with the Orthodox church is rather reminder of Russia’s destined place in global affairs as a unique civilization differed from the West.
*Punsara Amarasinghe is a former research fellow at center for global legal studies in University of Wisconsin Madison and held one year research fellowship at the Faculty of Law in National Research University, Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He is currently reading for PhD in International Law at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna in Pisa, Italy. He can be reached at [email protected]