Press Releases

Religion and Society in Russia Today: Orthodoxy and Public Discussion

July 27, 2010
Roman Lunkin

For the first time since the 1990s, Russia is headed by a person of the new era. Dmitry Medvedev essentially belongs to the “Perestroika generation,” as he was only 20 years old in 1985. Medvedev's personality developed during an epoch characterized by a religious boom and a peak interest in terms of religion and, of course, in Orthodox Christianity. It is rare when representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) speak about politicians in the way they speak about Medvedev. They say, “He is a man of faith, an Orthodox believer.” However, the Orthodoxy of Putin, a rigid statesman and former KGB employee who is largely distanced from faith, and that of Medvedev are two entirely different things.

Dmitry Medvedev's policy has a certain pragmatism and aspires to see the ROC play the role of an active contributor in building civil society in Russia. Under Medvedev, the State directs all its energy towards supporting spiritual enlightenment; religious education under the ROC’s framework; and ROC-initiated social projects (formally in collaboration with local authorities) and cultural projects involving youth, movies, children's camps, orthodox grammar schools, etc.

Even if it is declaratory, Medvedev’s statement of support for democratic standards, the value of freedom, and commitment to strengthening civil society (though it is not always supported in real life) was reflected in religious policy as well. It was during Medvedev’s presidency that the state took a number of concrete decisions in support of the ideological, financial, social and cultural-educational initiatives of the ROC, which were actively proposed to the government by Patriarch Kirill, who was newly elected at the beginning of 2009 (after the death of Patriarch Alex II in December 2008).

At the same time, with the strengthening of Orthodox Christianity, the Church’s aspiration to receive privileges from the state in every sphere - from the army and education to property rights - and to place Orthodox symbols in all sorts of institutions has been a source of disputes and disagreements amongst the public. The Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Kirill, has swayed public opinion and forced civil society, including representatives of other faiths, to answer the call. Previously, skepticism regarding the role of Orthodoxy in Russia was a line of thought specific to certain parts of the intelligentsia. Nowadays, however, the disputes surrounding the transformation of the ROC into some kind of state symbol, with all its privileges, involve citizens who have never even given it a second thought before. Such disputes involve people who call themselves “Orthodox”, as well as those who consider themselves to be far from religion, including agnostics or atheists.

In July 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev expressed his consent to suggestions made by a number of "traditional" religious associations, the first and foremost being ROC, and therewith instructed the Ministry of Defense to restore the institution of the military clergy in Russia. It was declared that, during the first stage, priests were to appear in military divisions serving abroad. During the second stage (effective as of January 1, 2010), ROC priests were to be appointed to serve all armed forces units right down to the brigade level. As of December 1, 2009, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation introduced the position of Assistant Commander of a military unit, which is charged with working with the faithful among military servicemen. At the beginning of February 2010, the regulation on the duties of Assistant Commanders for work with the faithful among the military within the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation was approved. However, the normative and legal bases for this have not yet been prepared, the rights and duties of priests have not been outlined, nor has their area of responsibility and competences been defined. There has never been any public discussion held with respect to that issue. Moreover, the ideological campaign supporting the fulfillment of the Russian Federation President’s order has completely ignored Article 8 of the Federal Law on Status of Military Servicemen, which stipulates that the State “bears no responsibility to satisfy the needs of the military with regards to their religious beliefs and religious practices.” Moreover, the creation of religious associations within a military unit is not permitted. At the same time, it is already known that there has already been one instance of an approved position for a priest in a military unit, and representatives of other faiths will also be invited to fulfill such a role depending on whether 10% of the respective military unit are believers of a certain faith.

In February, the Institute on Religion and Law sent a written appeal to the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, A.E. Serdyukov, which pointed out the fact that “according to current statements made by representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Administration of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the introduction of the institution of military clergy actually contradicts the constitutional principle of equality of all religions before the law.”

In April 2010, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation declared that it will be establishing a department for working with the faithful among military servicemen, which is to be headed by a priest from the ROC. The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation pointed out that suggestion regarding the appointment of military priests had come from the Russian Orthodox Church only, and that the duties of Orthodox priests will include preaching to believers from other faiths.

At the same time, in the summer of 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev also supported the introduction of subjects on religious themes, first and foremost “The Fundamentals of Orthodox Christian Culture” in public schools. The pilot project in this regard involves the addition of a choice of three subjects (Secular Ethics, Basics of the World Religions and Basics of one of the "traditional" religions – Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism) to the school curriculum in 19 regions. This experiment has begun in a fast-track mode and has caused both tacit and open discontent, not only amongst representatives of the Ministry of Culture, but also among the majority of school teachers.

At the beginning of 2010, it also became obvious that the informal restitution of Orthodox religious buildings and valuables will soon enter a new stage. At the beginning of 2010, representatives of the ROC declared that new draft legislation on transfer of assets of religious nature to religious associations (99% of this project pertains to the ROC) is nearly ready for submission to the State Duma and for public discussion. The new law, if approved, will establish a uniform order and will oblige the State to transfer property rights to the Church at all levels – federal, regional and municipal.

Finally, the picture is made complete with a draft law that has long been in the works within the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation - the draft law on restricting missionary activity. The Ministry is suggesting amendments to the federal law “On the Freedom of Worship and on Religious Organizations” regarding the regulation of missionary activity, which has caused indignation on the part of both religious figures and human rights activists. The main point of objection to this bill is the fact that the new amendments contradict, first of all, international norms with respect to religious freedom. Secondly, they contradict the provisions of the Russian Federation Constitution and the Right on Freedom of Worship (about every person’s right to exercise and proliferate his faith). Thirdly, the bill put forward by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, apart from failing to provide an accurate definition of missionary work and introducing fines for preaching in public places that turn out to be heavier than those for creating a public disturbance, the proposed amendments are simply humiliating for the faithful and religious associations. Consequently, the adoption of a law on restricting of “non-traditional” missionary activity has once again been postponed.

Essentially, just a year after the installation of Patriarch Kirill as its head, the Church as a structure and the Orthodox Christian ideology have caused an acutely negative reaction on behalf of a portion of the citizens. The ROC was probably only regarded with such consolidated and open mistrust, suspicion and skepticism in the first years since the establishment of the Soviet state – in the late Soviet years, Orthodox Christianity was regarded with hope and as a resort for spiritual freedom. The activity on the part of the Church’s management and the politicization of Orthodoxy (i.e. the administrative imposition of symbols and holidays, the reference to Orthodox Christianity and its necessity, the need to suppress smaller non-conventional religions, and insults aimed at the critics of the ROC) have effectively split society and aggravated those contradictions that already existed.

Under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, Orthodox Christianity has come to assume an important place in the mass media and in political life, but this has not curtailed religious freedom at all. In practice, the public mentality is slower to accommodate religious freedom than is otherwise desirable. Unfortunately, ideological clichés (such as suspiciousness towards the West and towards believers of other faiths, as well as the promotion of imagery of them being criminal and destructive "sects") still hold some meaning for the bureaucracy and are often broadcast in the mass media. The growing number of problems and cases involving the direct discrimination of religious minorities on the part of the State is contradicted by a change in the social climate and the expansion of public discussion to include religion problems.

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