Lenin and Stalin did not tolerate alternative sources of power. Immediately after the October Revolution, Lenin declared war on opposition parties and the church. Stalin took the repression of the church to new levels, killing clergy and destroying churches and monasteries. At one point in his regime, there was only one practicing monastery left. Perhaps no other group suffered as much repression, death, and imprisonment as the Russian clergy.
Putin shut down political opposition, free press, and uncooperative oligarchs, but he elevated the Russian Orthodox Church to a core societal institution. Instead of attack, Putin (who professes to be a Christian) co-opted the Church with privileges, preferences, and special treatment. His government cracked down on other Christian denominations, poured state money into rebuilding cathedrals, and allowed church properties to be turned into secure sources of money-making for the church. In return, the Church was to keep its mouth shut. Putin and the Church scratched each other’s backs, but this cozy relationship may be ending.
A hostile Russian Orthodox Church poses a huge danger for Putin and his KGB state. Seventy five percent of Russians declare themselves as Russian Orthodox. Eighty two percent are religious believers, despite a half century of anti-religious propaganda by the Soviet state. The Russian people, despite some reservations, accept the Church as a rare voice of morality in an otherwise corrupt world. Increasingly, young people and the middle class worship alongside the old Babushkas, who kept their faith through the Soviet period.
December’s fraudulent parliamentary election has placed the Church leadership in a bind. They would like to preserve their privileged existence under Putin. But they cannot support a regime, which the majority of believers conclude is corrupt and evil, especially when their own parish priests are speaking against the corruption and injustice of the Putin regime. Many priests witnessed the vote rigging and fraud of the December elections, which they see as punishable violations of the Ten Commandments. Grassroots clergy use church websites and Facebook to preach that falsification of the choice of the people is a grievous sin.
The Russian Orthodox Church has no easy dismount from its tight wire. The Communists are the only real organized opposition. An unrigged election could perversely restore the atheist communists to power. Church leaders must fear the power that Putin could bring to bear against them if they cross him openly. Yet, if they ignore election fraud and corruption, they stand to lose their credibility among their clergy and followers.
The Church leadership is trying hard to position itself as a fair mediator between the Putin regime and the protesters. Church leaders have begun to warn Putin to take the legitimate protesters seriously, rather than dismissing them with vulgar language and accusations of foreign espionage. The Church’s reproach has become increasingly blunt, warning that the Putin regime would be “slowly eaten alive” if it ignores the protests. The editor of an influential church journal wrote that “we understand very well that elections have been falsified before, but now public consciousness has matured to the point of expressing its opinion or speaking out against it.” The editor of an influential Church website stated that: “A Christian has to protest against lies, especially lies to millions of people.”
These strong warnings by high Church officials raised hopes that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, would pressure Putin for real change in his Christmas Day address. Instead, he offered meaningless pabulum: Both the government and protesters “should, through dialogue and by listening to society, correct the course and then everything will be fine.”
Patriarch Kirill also warned protesters to avoid being used for political purposes: “We destroyed the country [in October of 1917], and why did this happen? Because in general the just protests of the people were cleverly used by political forces [the Bolsheviks] fighting for power.” Protests should lead to political change but not shake the foundations of the state.
In other words, the top leader of the Russian Orthodox Church is not prepared to place real pressure on Putin. We can only imagine what compromising material Putin has against him. He somehow wants negotiations between Putin who wants no democracy and protesters who do. Patriarch Kirill’s remark must have gone down well with Putin, who intends to survive by vague promises of reform and ignoring the demands of the protesters.
The fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is turning against the Putin regime despite its privileges is yet another chink in Putin’s armor. If the leadership of the Church gets out of step with its grassroots and believers, it stands to lose as much or more than Putin himself.
Putin regrets that he gave the ungrateful Church so much in resources and authority. Stalin would not have made this mistake.