Staunton, November 4 – Since the end of Soviet times, the Russian government has divided religions between what it calls “the traditional faiths of Russia,” which have included Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.” Now, Vladimir Putin has expanded that list to include “other Christian denominations.”
That matters because Moscow’s approach to religions has generally been to treat the “traditional” faiths as being under the protection of the state while all others are viewed and often treated as sectarians who represent more or less dangerous threats to the traditional values of the Russia.
As he has done since the Day of National Unity was established in 2005, the Kremlin leader met with, this time virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, the leaders of the four traditional faiths. But in speaking to them, Putin made a number of comments which point to a change in his approach to religious issues.
In a commentary for Nezavisimaya gazeta, Andrey Melnikov, the editor of NG-Religiii, says that Putin’s words, coming at a time when many have expressed concern that he was moving in the direction of an Orthodox-dominated, even clerical state “surprised by a certain innovative spirit” (ng.ru/faith/2020-11-04/100_putin04112020.html).
First of all, in contrast to his earlier remarks, Putin said not a word about secularism or a secular state nor about the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. “On the contrary, he repeated much that he has said before about the religious leaders having their own zone of responsibility,” particularly to ensure “inter-ethnic and inter-religious concord.”
That has long been the function of Russia’s traditional faiths, he suggested; but then, in the most significant innovation, he listed “all the traditional religions of Russia – Orthodoxy, other Christian confessions, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism.” The reference to “other Christian traditions” is something new.
On the one hand, it suggests that the Russian state will now view Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, at least in principle, as “traditional faiths” equally deserving of respect from the state. And on the other, it undermines the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim to be the only Christian group deserving that status.
But this is not the only innovation in Putin’s words. He stressed that in his view what makes religion valuable is its focus on humanity, a direct swipe at Patriarch Kirill who has long insisted that humanism is a threat and that it is the task of religion to prevent humanistic values from spreading into Russia.
What the practical consequences of these rhetorical shifts will be remains to be seen – they are certain to be the subject of intense debate and controversy behind the scenes. But one other “innovation” is also obvious and points in a direction fully consistent with the one Putin has been pursuing in recent years.
He displays in his remarks today as he has hinted at on other occasions that he is “taking on himself the mission of the spiritual leader of the nation,” not so much as the political head of a symphony with Orthodoxy as the Patriarchate would have it but more generally “beyond the limits of any specific faith.”
That simultaneously represents a diminishing of the status of the Moscow Patriarchate in Russian political life and a new fusion of state and church, albeit one that defines “church” to include many more faiths than before and makes the religious leaders responsible for carrying out government functions including maintaining domestic order and peace.