Russia’s traditional political culture returns
In the Russian movie Leviathan, released in 2014, the corrupt mayor of a town conspires to expropriate the land on which a local worker’s house stands.
A series of tragic events ensue, and in the end, the house is torn down and the mayor’s project is revealed: a lavish Russian Orthodox Church for his friend the local Russian Orthodox bishop has been built on the site. The film concludes with a sermon by the bishop, with the mayor in attendance.
It’s a microcosm of how things work in post-Communist Russia. Once again, we see the unity of church and state.
Unlike the tradition in the Roman Catholic lands in Europe, where the “two swords” theory separated the temporal and ecclesiastical spheres of a kingdom, the Eastern Orthodox tradition that emerged in Byzantium, known as caesaropapism, united them.
This doctrine combines the power of government with the spiritual influence of the Church. Hence there is little political space for the hierarchy to oppose the ruler.
The Russian state inherited this form of governance in medieval times. And with the collapse of Communism, it has re-emerged. In Vladimir Putin’s post-Soviet Russia, there has been a spectacular ascendancy of the once-powerful Russian Orthodox Church.
Putin supports the Church’s efforts to reclaim properties that were nationalized by the Communists, and to restrict the activities of foreign missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant.
The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, includes a Committee on Property Affairs. Its chair, Sergei Gavrilov, is also Coordinator of the State Duma’s Inter-Factional Group for the Defence of Christian Values.
In return, the “Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia,” Kyrill, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, has given his enthusiastic backing to the military as the guarantor of the integrity of “Holy Russia.”
However, in the now-independent Ukraine, its new Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Kyiv Patriarchate, as well as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church which is in communion with Rome, both now serve as the religious wings of their state.
The Kyiv Patriarchate separated from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as that body remained under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.
The new Church opposes the Russian takeover of the Crimea and the demands by Russians in eastern Ukraine for political autonomy.
Patriarch Filaret, its head, has compared Putin to biblical villains such as Cain and Judas. He in turn was excommunicated by the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which retains its loyalty to Kyrill.
As a result, many Ukrainians have switched denominations, moving away from the Moscow Patriarchate.
Last spring, a Moscow Patriarchate priest serving an Orthodox Church in Soloniv, a Ukrainian village, prohibited villagers from praying for the souls of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the war against Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine.
By August, the priest was gone — driven out by villagers who invited a priest from the Kyiv Patriarchate to take over.
Such transitions have been taking place in many Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country, where nationalists consider Russia an enemy. But the Moscow Patriarchate remains strong in the culturally Russian eastern Ukraine
These tensions continue to inflame relations, both among Ukrainians themselves and between the two countries.