Thursday, October 4, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Patriarchate’s Pretensions Generating Anti-Clericalism in Russia, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 4 – The Russian Orthodox Church’s efforts to claim a pre-eminent role in that country’s political system is not only raising questions among many observers about whether Russia is on the way to becoming a clerical state but also generating anti-clerical attitudes among the broader population, a trend likely to affect Russian politics in the future.

            Indeed, Ekaterina Elbakyan, the editor of the Russian-language “Encyclopedia of Religions,” tells Lidiya Orlova, a writer for “NG-Religii,” “the more intensive the clericalization [of Russian institutions], the stronger is anti-clericalism among Russians (

            Elbakyan adds that “clericalism has passed the limits of the permissible, and clericalization has begun.” The former is something typical of all religious organizations. “But when the further combinatioin of religious institutions and society and the state take place, when religion goes beyond limits of its institutions, clericalizatioin begins.”

            Modernization in Russia as in other countries, she says, “historically presupposes a certain secularization,” that is a limit to the impact of religion on “non-religious parts of life of society,” Elbakyan continues.  In Russia today, the growth of religious influence, not in itself bad, “becomes abnormal when its niche is broadened” to include the entire society.

            And that is what is taking place. “The Church has moved beyond the framework which is guaranteed to it by the Constitution” and sought to impose itself on everyone.  That is breeding a response in many sectors: in education, for example, parents are chosing to have their children attend religiously-neutral courses rather than religiously-defined ones.

            That, Elbakyan stresses, is a clear response and not one the Church or its supporters within the state are looking for because “clericalization gives birth to anti-clericalism,” an attitude that in many countries has led to the rise of more radically secular parties and even to public hostility to religion as such.

            Another example of where the Patriarchate’s efforts are proving counterproductive concerns its claims that “the majority of the population of Russia consists of Orthodox believers. But in fact, the majority of the population has a secular consciousness, and they call themselves Orthodox only as a form of self-identification.”

            But the Moscow Patriarchate and its allies in the state show no sign of backing down, as the recent Pussy Riot case showed, the editor says. That was “a typical example of the clericalization of a state court, when even the terms used in court documents were purely theological” rather than legal.

            One need not be a support of Pussy Riot’s tactics – and Elbakyan makes clear she is not – to believe that such behavior should not be subject to criminal penalties imposed by state courts and carried out by the government.

             And Elbakyan concludes that “the real and positive influence of a religious organization on society can occur only if it is a model of morality” rather than an ambitious political institution. Not only does the latter approach undercut its religious message but it guarantees rising hostility to the church and to religion as such.

            Other experts with whom the “NG-Religii” journalist spoke are just as damning about what the Moscow Patriarchate is doing.  Aleksey Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center says that it is “obvious that the position of the Church and that of Patriarch Kirill today are promoting a split in society rather and not strengthening the authority of the Church.”

            Nikolay Shaburov, the head of the Center for the Study of Religions at the Russian State Humanitarian University, says that the Church’s actions and the willingness of politicians to go along with them is dangerous as the recent adoption of a new law imposing criminal penalties for offending religious feeling.

            “Why should one speak about offending religions and not about offending other highly valued things?” he asks rhetorically.  And he concludes that “when the powers that be demonstrate a special relationship to any religious organization, this is a sufficiently dangerous symptom” of a society and polity in trouble.

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