By Paul Goble
Most Russians do not consider the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as separate and distinct from the Russian state, a perception that reinforces indifference to matters of faith and that has led many to ignore or disparage the first signs of a genuine religious revival, according to a leading specialist on religious life in Russia.
Roman Lunkin, the director of the Institute of Religion and Law and a leading scholar at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says this is part of a larger problem: “Religion and chiefly Orthodoxy are conceived in the mass consciousness of Russian society in an irrational and contradictory way” (www.politjournal.ru/index.php?action=News&tek=9555).
“For the majority of [Russians], it is customary to view Orthodox leaders and the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution as a constituent part of the official chronicles on federal television channels and in the press,” Lunkinn says, but when the Church uses these ties to push its agenda, many Russians become angry.
That is because, Lunkin says, Russians are “accustomed to consider themselves as Orthodox and with satisfaction listen to speeches by the Patriarch and the bishops that ‘we are all baptized into Orthodoxy,” but they do not want the Church to try to extend its influence, viewing that as a form of “dangerous clericalization.’”
For most of the post-Soviet period, Orthodox leaders have supported this contradictory view, but “independently from the declared basis of the consteitutional system and the declarations of Orthodox hierarchs that the Church does not want to again become a government church, Orthodoxy has always ceased to be viewed as separate from the state.”
Since 1991, Russian officials and commentators have routinely declared that Orthodoxy is “the preserver of the richness and values of Russian culture and spirituality,” thus replacing the term “people” in the oft-repeated Soviet slogan that “’art belongs to the people’” and thus putting the Church in a complicated position.
Evidence of this is provided in the way in which the media oppose state-supported Orthodoxy and unacceptable “sects,” and the willingness of the Russian people to accept that division, a willingness that shows that “neither in society nor in the media is there an understanding of what faith is, how one can believe and what is religious practice.”
Even more important, all this is evidence of a lack of interest in the faith itself and in the fundamental aspects of the Orthodox religion and a willingness of many Russians to view Orthodoxy iin conjunction with “a semi-pagan culture’ with “astrological-occult” aspects including “superstitions, fortunetelling, diets, and in general about how religion must help.”
This “folklorization of Orthodoxy” is not the result of any “ill intention” or popular inattention. Rather, “under conditions of the existence of the polar opposites” of Official Orthodoxy and sects, “genuine faith does not interest anyone;” and consequently, “what develops is precisely folklore.”
The situation has somewhat improved in recent years, Lunkin says, and he points to the influence of Patriarch Kirill as being a positive one in this regard, an especially interesting comment given that Lunkin has often been criticized by Orthodox hierarchs for his critical attitude toward the Patriarchate.
Evidence of this improvement, of a greater concern with faith rather than form, Lunkin suggests, is to be found in a place many Orthodox hierarchs may not like: in the dissent of the Izhevsk “free thinkers, three priests who declared about their refusal to recall Patriarch Kirill in their prayers and who accused the Church leadership of tight connections with the powers.”
Nonetheless, it is still true, Lunkin says, that “the number of practicing believers as before remains extraordinarily few, and besides this, religious life consists not of Orthodoxy and ‘the sects” but of the most various movements and confessions,” often far beyond Orthodoxy or even Christianity.
“The number of believers who are becoming part of the Russian Orthodox Church in a genuine way is slowly growing, especially to the extent that the Church is becoming more open, more willing to talk about its problems and involved in social projects and the development of parishes.”