By Paul Goble
The speed and arrogance with which the Russian Orthodox Church has sought to build new churches wherever it wants and its open reliance on the police power of the state to put down opposition is certain to further undermine the church as an institution, driving people away rather than attracting new adherents.
That has been widely recognized (e.g., sibreal.org/a/29952385.html). But the consequences for religious life – and thus, in the Russian context, politics as well, may be far more significant than that. The ROC MP claims 80 percent of Russians are Orthodox, but only three percent are active in the church. So having slightly fewer won’t necessarily change things.
However, according to Andrey Lesnitsky, a translator of and specialist on the Bible, says the ROC MP’s attitudes and actions are likely to lead not simply to an exit from Orthodoxy or religious life but rather to a demand for “another kind of Christianity,” one more concerned about faith than about buildings and power (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2019/05/20/1781961.html).
Most of the reporting about the events in Yekaterinburg describes the two sides as if they were far more homogeneous and extreme than in fact has been the case, he says. Not everyone who supports building the church is some kind of black hundred; and not everyone who opposes it is “godless,” as even Vladimir Putin suggested.
Russian society is too infused with Christianity for that to be true, and it is too diverse as well. Instead, what we are seeing, Lesnitsky suggests, is the maturation of a demand “for another kind of Christianity,” one that doesn’t need the backing of the authorities or money from business. In short, one based on “Christ and the apostles without all the extras.”
“I would even say,” he continues, “that in Russia there are many varied Christian confessions.” Some disappointed in Orthodoxy become Catholics or Baptists, especially east of the Urals. But that is far from the only development that is taking place. “For many Russians, leaving Orthodoxy is seen as a rejection of an important part of one’s national identity.”
As a result, many don’t leave but find other ways to cope with their rejection of official Orthodoxy. “There are all kinds of ‘true Orthodox’ jurisdictions” at odds with the state. But there are problems with them: “too often such ‘true Orthodoxy’” instead of becoming truly Orthodox “drift toward sectarianism,” a direction few want to follow.
Instead, Lesnitsky says, most remain with the church for identity reasons but represent a change in what it means to be Orthodox, taking positions at odds with the hierarchy and affected profoundly by other faiths as a result of the internet. As a result, Orthodoxy is not as monolithic and unchanging as both its supporters and opponents say.
“Today, I see,” he writes, “that even among the most standard kind of priests and active parishioners (equally far from Stalin and from LGBT) disappointment and tiredness [with the official church] is growing.” Such people aren’t leaving the church and slamming the door; they are changing it from within.
Many think that Christianity is something from the past and incompatible with democracy and modern life, but that is not true. Indeed, Lesnitsky says, he personally is “deeply convinced that the very concept of human rights is rooted in the Biblical tradition where man is said to be modeled after God.”
“In any case, he concludes, “the demand for a Christianity without the OMON exists in our society and will only increase. And more than that, without taking this demand into account, one won’t be able to create the necessary dialogue between those now divided by the wall around the square.”