By Paul Goble
Just over one in five Russian Orthodox believers – 21 percent – makes his or her decision on whom to vote for on the basis of the recommendations of priests and fellow believers, according to a new poll, casting doubt on the widespread assumption that priests are leading Russians by the hand.
The study, involving an online survey of 2735 people, was carried out by two sociologists at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, Kirill Sorvin and Maksim Bogarchev, who acknowledge that the actual figure of influence may be higher because those taking part were disproportionately younger.
Their findings are published in “Politics in the Church: Do Priests Affect the Electoral Preferences of Orthodox Believers?” (in Russian) Mir Rossii 4 (2019)68-91, at publications.hse.ru/mirror/pubs/share/direct/308940255 summarized by Svetlana Saltanova at iq.hse.ru/news/314828008.html).
Under Russian Orthodox Church rules, priests are prohibited from getting involved in politics but they can express a moral position both general and personal. “Formally, this is not agitation; in fact,” the two authors say, “it is a mechanism which influences the decisions of believers.”
An earlier study of the situation in 20 Moscow churches in 2014, they point out, found that this influence can be significant (A. Yu. Kulkova, Religiosity and Political Participation: The Role of Politics in Russian Religious Communities (in Russian, 2015, 48 pp.) at publications.hse.ru/mirror/pubs/share/folder/u2fr5idv7c/direct/151058935).
Other studies have found that priests affect the opinions of their parishioners not only via their homilies but in conversations with members of their flock. Believers frequently turn to priests for advice on how they should vote, and the priests provide such advice.
Sorvin and Bogachev found that many priests have little interest in politics and therefore do not give much advice. But others are very political and do. And the more believers take part in the life of the church, the more likely priests are to speak to them about how they should vote in elections.
Among the believers they surveyed, one in six – 14.5 percent – said their decision on whom to vote for was based on what their priest had said. But half of those taking part in the survey said that they had never heard their priest talk about politics at all. And many insisted that they made up their own minds and did not listen to others, including their pastors.