Staunton, May 17 – Many are ignoring the importance of the protests in Yekaterinburg, believing them to reflect the “not-in-my-back-yard” attitudes found in many places or anti-clericalism. Both are present, but there is something else far more important: Most Russians view the church as part of the state and see protests against the one as protests against the other.
The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is a tempting target for those angry about other things that it is more risky to demonstrate against. On the one hand, the church has been mired in scandals over the last decade and has lost much of the support it had earlier because of its slavish following the Kremlin line.
And on the other, the nominally secular state is less troubled by attacks on itself than it is by most attacks on the church, quite willing to sacrifice in small ways the interests of its obedient servant although not prepared to do away without the rituals if not the faith that the Kremlin has declared a central element that binds Russians together.
As a result, protests against the church invariably contain elements of protest against the state – and these elements can easily become predominant especially if the powers that be as is typically the case come down on the side of the church hierarchy and radical elements of the Orthodox community.
That is exactly what is happening in Yekaterinburg and other cities of Russia now.
Znak journalist Ivan Slobodenyuk argues in his latest article on the Znak portal about the events in Yekaterinburg that the Russian Orthodox Church has only itself to blame by becoming mired in scandal and relying almost exclusively on the state to defend it (znak.com/2019-05-17/kak_postoyannye_skandaly_vokrug_rpc_priveli_obchestvo_k_protestam_protiv_novyh_hramov).
He cites Konstantin Mikhaylov, a specialist on religious affairs, as saying that “the protest against church construction at one and the same time expresses a secular political agenda – the dissatisfaction of people with ‘the spiritual bindings’ being pushed by the government, and the ROC in this situation is viewed as a promoter of state policy.”
In the first two decades after the end of Soviet times, the church was involved in far fewer scandals than it has been in the last ten years; but as early as 2012, it was clear, Mikhaylov says that anti-clericalism was spreading, all the more so because the church and state were ever more publicly linked together not only by the regime but by the population as well.
Indeed, the religious affairs specialist continues, anti-clericalism has become a central part of the agenda of the Russian opposition: “If in the 2000s, it was possible for an individual with politically opposition views to relate to the ROC with sympathy and respect, then now you will rarely encounter anyone like that.”
That of course means that the political opposition, which earlier largely ignored church issues, is now far more ready to take part in protests against church plans, yet another reason that demonstrations against the church quickly become protests against state support for the church and then protests against the state itself.
Secularism and anti-clericalism have been growing about the world including in Russia, Mikhaylov says, but the church has not figured out how to respond. Instead, “up to now it tries to base itself on government power in order to strengthen its position.” But that, as “our pre-revolutionary experience and the experience of other countries shows” is a bad bet.
The more the church relies on the state and counts on it to back it up, “the more serious will be the reaction” against both the one and the other.
Slobodenyuk does not address the likelihood that both the church and the state are thinking about what they need to do to survive this crisis. The state always has the option to pull back on its support for the church, although that would undermine a major prop of the Putin neo-conservative regime.
But the church is in a worse position. If it continues to rely on the state, it may become hostage to the state’s declining approval rating among the population and lose even more of the few active parishioners it has. But if it tries to move in another direction, its hierarchs at least will be lost – and that may threaten them and the church even more.