The place of the Orthodox Church in Russia has become a controversial issue after its Patriarch, His Holiness Kirill 1, warmly welcomed Vladimir Putin’s election as Russian President, after previously endorsing his candidature.
During the campaign criticism of the Patriarch’s role voiced in social media was bizarrely expressed when the female punk group Pussy Riot staged an anti-Putin ‘prayer protest’ in front of the sacred ikon screen in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral.
This blasphemous event – which Putin called “unpleasant for all believers” – shocked and outraged Orthodox Christians, but officially the Church requested mercy for its perpetrators.
Kirill called the election result – when Putin won 64 per cent of the vote amid controversy over alleged malpractice – “an outpouring of support from most Russians,” stressing the backing Putin received from the hierarchy, priests and lay people of the Orthodox Church.
Going beyond customary protocol, Kirill said it was a vote for “Russia’s stable and consistent development … in truth, peace and prosperity,” while the Church’s head of Church-Society Relations, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, even spoke of Putin as a ‘mighty personality’ who would enable Russia to attain its special ‘mission in world history.’
As a new Russia has been developed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church has ranked among its most trusted institutions, respected and courted across the political spectrum for uniquely embodying Russia’s national and spiritual heritage (as the 1997 Church-State law expressly recognizes), given state finance towards the reconstruction of churches closed under Communism, and accorded special access to public institutions.
It is not an established Church – but has de facto primacy, albeit usually above party politics.
For anti-Putin oppositionists this role is now controversial, for non-Orthodox faith groups, officially deemed “an inseparable part of the historical heritage of Russia’s peoples,” it may become uncomfortable.
Yet at the February pre-election summit of faith leaders with Putin, convened by Patriarch Kirill at Daniel’s Monastery, Orthodoxy’s administrative centre, representatives of Armenian, Catholic and other Christian traditions, along with Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist leaders, united to praise Putin’s achievements. They paid tribute, especially, to his bringing of stability and prosperity, and restoring Russia’s national pride, after the chaos and mass poverty of the Yeltsin years.
Addressing Putin, Kirill stated unequivocally: “Through a miracle of God with the active participation of the country’s leadership, we managed to exit this horrible systemic crisis. I say it openly as Patriarch who must only tell the truth: you personally played a massive role in correcting this crooked twist in our history.”
Although Kirill did not explicitly call upon Russia’s Orthodox Christians to vote for Putin, his message was clear: Russia’s recovery under the 12 years of Putin and Medvedev must continue under Putin for a further six years at least.
Yet Kirill was not necessarily bidding for closer Church-State relations (reports that Putin at the February meeting promised further state aid remain unconfirmed). Rather, Kirill sees in Putin, for all his showmanship, a 21st Century version of the Russian ‘Christian prince’, both devout and dedicated to Russia’s welfare in a way Yeltsin never was, recognizing Orthodoxy’s special mission.