Moscow Patriarchate Pushes Notion of ‘Ethnic Orthodox’ to Bolster Its Claim to Speak for Russian People


Encouraged by “the ethnicization of political rhetoric” in the wake of the Manezh clashes, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has been pushing the idea of “ethnic Orthodox,” a term that conflates nationality and religion, to bolster its claim to be able to speak for the Russian people, according to a Moscow analyst.

In a lengthy article posted on, Nikolay Vinnik, the leader of the portal, traces the way in which this hsift in rhetoric by Dmitry Medvedev and others over the last two months has been accompanied by greater “public acitivity” by the Moscow Patriarchate (

Medvedev appeared to give approval to the former by his statement on January 17 that “we must devote attention to our multi-national culture but beyond any doubt particular attention must be devoted to Russian culture,” despite his partial “disavowal” of that idea on February 11 when he spoke in defense of multi-culturalism.

But the genie was out of the bottle, Vinnik argues, and many analysts agreed. Maksim Kononenko of “Gazeta,” for example, noted that “in Russia a national revolution has taken place,” adding that nationalist ideas are “extremely popular” and that this shift in Moscow’s position is “more serious than the decision to introduce tanks into South Osetia.”

In this upsurge of commentary, the Russian Orthodox Church sought to demonstrate its “’Russophile’ and more generally ethnocentric content.” In one document, it specified that “the subjects of social relations are not so much citizens and their voluntary organizations as ethnoses” (

And that because that is so, the document continued, the Russian Orthodox Church has every right to present itself as “one of the most legitimate representatives of the Russian people in international and inter-ethnic dialogue,” conversations that must replect “adequately the number and role” of the Russian nation.

To that end, the Patriarchate proposed creating a special group in the Inter-Religious Council of Russia to consider the possibility of creating “a Council of Peoples of Russia, ‘on the basis of the criteria” that would reflect “the objective relationship in Russia of peoples and religious groups.”

Following that, the Patriarchate released another document in which it declared its readiness “to lobby on behalf of legislative measures ‘which will increase the defense of religious symbols, holy names and terms’” and also block slander and attacks against “collective religious and also national and racial feelings of the human worth of social groups” (

What is particularly noteworthy, Vinnik says, is that the Church has positioned itself as a defender of groups rather than individuals, placing the rights of the nation as higher than those of the individual, an idea that Kirill, now the patriarch, has been pushing since at least 2006 (

On this basis, one that reduces the importance of individual rights relative to collective ones, Vinnik says, Patriarch Kirill is pushing for the prohibition of free abortions not so much on moral grounds as part of a defense of the nation and a means of overcoming the country’s demographic problems.

“For the first time,” the Moscow analyst continues, “anti-abortion initiatives of an all-Russian scale are not reduced to propaganda but immediately directed at the worsening of the legal status of citizens.” Moreover, “for the first time, in the name of the Church, is diretly sounded the thesis about the necessity of national-proportional representation.”

And “for the first time, the Church has directly declared itself as the plenipotentiary representative of the Russian people, something it had early asserted indirectly but did not proclaim or propose as the basis for organizational measures.” What is taking place, Vinnik says, is “the ethnicization of Orthodoxy,” something “politically profitable” to the Patriarchate.

Kirill first used the term in December 2005 in a letter to Ravil Gainutdin of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) who has often spoken of “ethnic Muslims” ( But now that Kirill has become patriarch and that Russian political discourse has shifted, he is in a position to make use of this term more broadly.

The term “ethnic Orthodox,” Vinnik says, “is not only theologically absurd but also sets Orthodoxy apart from other confessions which are ready topresent themselves as having a super-ethnic or catholic status.” But it is politically useful because it allows the Patriarchate to advance a claim to speak on behalf of “the entire Russian people” and not just its own faithful.

That the Church might want to do so is understable, but this idea has more serious consequences: “An ethnocentric picture of the world correspondents to a legal consciousness in the framework of which collective subjecthood, collective responsibility and collective rights dominate over individual subjectivenss, individual responsibility and individual rights.”

Thus it matters, especially in Russia. By its exploitation of “the ethnicization of public rhetoric,” Vinnik says, the Russian Orthodox Church is obtaining “political dividends” but it is also settting the stage for making even broader claims that will both “legitimate” such ethnicization and lead to a further “archaization of legal consciousness.”

That may help the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church to win benefits greater than other groups will, but those benefits will come, Vinnik says, only at the cost of “the erosion of civil accord and the worsening of the legal position of citizens,” something Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike should be concerned about.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

One thought on “Moscow Patriarchate Pushes Notion of ‘Ethnic Orthodox’ to Bolster Its Claim to Speak for Russian People

  • February 22, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    In the light of this, the Russian “Orthodox” Church can no longer be recognised as an Orthodox Church. Its Patriarch is nothing more or less than a heretic.


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