Monday, June 13, 2016

Russian Orthodox Church Income Rises Dramatically Despite Economic Crisis

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 13 – It is a rare trend indeed in which there are not exceptions, when some individuals and institutions suffer while most are benefitting or when others benefit at a time when the overwhelming majority are suffering. Such is the case of the Russian Orthodox Church whose income has risen 27 percent at a time when most Russians are seeing their incomes fall.

            Its income has risen because the faithful are paying more for services and goods the Church supplies such as weddings and funerals or religious literature even though they have cut back slightly – about three percent -- on their contributions to its work (

            According to Russia’s Federal Tax Service, the Russian Church saw its income from services and rites and the sale of religious literature and other goods rise last year by 27 percent to 1.79 billion rubles (30 million US dollars) while contributions to it fell to 4.03 billion rubles (130 million US dollars).

            These statistics suffer from one problem: they include all religious groups in Russia; but because most of the other larger faiths and Islam in particular do not charge for services, almost all of these changes are accounted for by the Russian Orthodox, according to Roman Silantyev, who heads the council of advisors on religious affairs to the justice ministry.

            Some of the rise in the Russian Orthodox Church’s income last year came from its “daughter” companies such as the Sofrino enterprise which produces books, candles, vestments and icons, the Danilovsky Hotel, and the publishing house of the Moscow Patriarchate itself, the figures show.

            Vitaly Milonov, a deputy of St. Petersburg’s legislative assembly and a sexton in the church, says that he believes these figures reflect reality, one in which more people are going to church to pray because of difficult economic times and offering to pay for services for themselves and their loved ones who are in difficulty.

            The Moscow Patriarchate, however, has not commented on the new figures. In the past, it has insisted that it doesn’t have any of them itself as every congregation and bishopric is a separate legal person and keeps track of its income.  (That is somewhat disingenuous as local churches and bishoprics are required to send money up the chain of the church command.)

            But one of the reasons that the Patriarchate takes that view at least in public is that it insists its income is not earnings which should be taxed. That was the subject of a 2012 court case in Moscow, and at that time, the Russian Orthodox Church successfully defended its position on its income.

            There are at least three reasons why these new figures on the earnings of the Russian Orthodox Church are important. First, they will reinforce the view of many Russians that the church is corrupt in some fundamental ways, enriching itself at a time when ordinary Russians are being impoverished.

            Second, the fact that other denominations and Islam in particular don’t behave as the Russian Orthodox Church does may make them more attractive to people who have been sitting on the fence. At the very least, this pattern will further restrict the willingness of Muslims to convert to Orthodoxy.

            And third, this pattern helps to explain why the Moscow Patriarchate continues to link its fate with the Russian state. It is not just a question of the church’s caesaro-papist traditions; it is a question of money – and that is a currency that both Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill clearly understand and calculate in.


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