WASHINGTON – I’m not sure if it was out of personal preference or as a concession to his interviewer that Dmitry Sverdlov asked to meet me at a 1950s-style American diner in Moscow’s Kitay-gorod neighborhood. With the Beach Boys harmonizing on the jukebox and Marilyn Monroe and James Dean looking down from the walls, the small-town Orthodox priest-turned-tech entrepreneur tells me how he had been forced out of the church to which he had devoted his life.
“Prior to the election of 2012 and the Pussy Riot case, there was no huge pressure on alternative groups within the church. After the presidential election and that case, things changed,” he says.
Until last year, Sverdlov was a parish priest in Pavlovskoe, a Moscow suburb. But it wasn’t his activities with his congregation that got Sverdlov into trouble – it was his sideline as a journalist for online religious publications. While most of his articles were uncontroversial descriptions of church life, a few were more overtly political, including stories about fraud during Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections.
The breaking point came in 2012 after members of the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot carried out their infamous performance of “Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. While he didn’t condone its actions, Sverdlov wrote that church authorities should show “forgiveness” to the group. In January 2013 he was suspended from the priesthood for five years. Officially, the suspension was for traveling outside his diocese without permission, and church authorities denied that it had anything to do with his writing, but even Russia’s state-sponsored media didn’t seem to buy that flimsy reasoning.
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I ask Sverdlov, now running an e-commerce business, if he would return to the priesthood if the higher-ups allowed it. “Never,” he replies. “It is absolutely impossible. There is no sense in playing the role of what they say a priest should be.”
In many ways, it’s the best of times for the Russian Orthodox Church. The vast majority of Russians now identify as Orthodox – a stark change from the immediate post-Soviet period. Recent years have seen a flurry of church construction throughout the country. And perhaps most important of all, there’s a committed believer – Vladimir Putin – in the Kremlin, a man who surrounds himself with other influential people of faith and regularly invokes God in his public statements. Yet all is not as rosy for the Orthodox Church as it appears on the surface. The blurring of the line between church and state in Russia, what critics call an attempt to turn religion into a branch of the government, has alienated many former believers. The recent crisis in Ukraine has also exposed a potentially dangerous split in the millennium-old institution.
Like many Orthodox intellectuals, Sverdlov didn’t grow up in a religious family but came to his faith as a young man in the 1980s, a time when Christianity provided an alternative to the increasingly moribund official ideology of communism. In those days, making a choice to join the church meant in many ways rejecting the state. Under communism, treatment of the church ranged from brutal oppression (the imprisonment or execution of priests and the destruction of churches) to co-optation (many church leaders in the late Soviet period were KGB plants).
Even so, for Orthodox intellectuals, the church served as a safe haven. Alexey Malashenko, chairman of the Religion, Society, and Security Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that “in Soviet times, when I entered a church, I felt free. I didn’t see a portrait of Lenin or Brezhnev. It was my church, without communism.” Today, in Putin’s Russia, things are different. “Now, I feel like if I enter a church I’m becoming a member of Yedinaya Rossiya (the ruling United Russia party),” Malashenko says. “I don’t want to go to this church.”
Vsevolod Chaplin, the head of church-state relations in Russia, came to the church at the same time and with the same mindset as Sverdlov and Malashenko. “I was brought up in an atmosphere of young semi-dissident people in the 1980s,” he tells me in his office near his rebuilt 19th-century church. “The common mood was ‘Down with the Soviet Union.’ We were all on the side of the American ice hockey teams against the Soviet teams.”
Since then, Chaplin has obviously taken a different path. He is not just the Russian Orthodox Church’s chief spokesman. He is also its chief culture warrior, garnering headlines for his outspoken views on subjects ranging from gay marriage to abortion to the novels of Vladimir Nabokov and Gabriel García Márquez, which he argues justify pedophilia. Chaplin tells me, for instance, that gays are “free to express their opinions” and that Russia’s controversial recent laws are merely an effort to prevent the efforts of gay groups to “persuade this society by manipulation or dishonest political campaigning.”
Chaplin sees nothing wrong with the church and state speaking together with one voice.
“The idea of an inevitable conflict between the church and the state is a peculiarity of Western civilization,” he says. “For the Orthodox civilization and way of life, as well as Islamic civilization, the very idea of the conflict between the religious community and power is something alien.”
I asked Chaplin if Orthodox civilization, as he conceives it, is compatible with democracy. “The Western type of democracy is not universal, it should be confronted, it should be argued, it should be replaced in most of the societies that don’t see it as something comfortable,” he replies. “The Western political system is just one of many systems that exist and will exist in the world.”
Though he’s technically the church’s spokesman, Chaplin’s views don’t represent all or even a majority of the clergy. Sverdlov, for one, says he wasn’t alone among his fellow priests in his relatively liberal views – he was just more outspoken about them. Even Chaplin’s boss, Patriarch Kirill, didn’t seem like much of an ideologue until fairly recently.
When Kirill took over in 2009, he had a reputation as a liberal. Things changed around the time that the Kremlin began dropping hints about Vladimir Putin returning to the presidency, picking up where he had left off after a four-year interregnum under the rule of Dmitry Medvedev.
Putin is a regular churchgoer, and his personal faith has long been an important part of his public persona – the real reason for his tendency to pose shirtless, a common joke explains, is to show off the cross he wears around his neck in addition to his formidable pecs. He’s also expressed admiration for Nicolas I, the Crimean War-era czar whose ideological doctrine has been summed up as “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” But it’s only in Putin’s second term that Russian politics has taken on a more overtly religious character.
In 2011, following the announcement that Putin would return to the presidency, Sverdlov remembers that “Vsevolod Chaplin’s reaction was full of admiration. … It was very loud and very public. Prior to that the church had tried to keep its distance from government affairs. No reaction like that had ever been seen.”
In late 2011 and early 2013, Moscow witnessed its largest anti-government demonstrations since the early post-Soviet period. During this period, the church avoided taking a firm stance, perhaps waiting to see whether the government or the protesters came out victorious. Kirill even urged the Kremlin to heed the demonstrators’ demands, saying, “If the government remains insensitive to the expressions of protest, it is a very bad sign.” But shortly afterward, stories began appearing in the state media about Kirill’s lavish Moscow apartment and expensive taste in wristwatches. He seems to have absorbed the message, and has been fairly loyal to the Kremlin since then.
Eventually the protests were quashed, and Putin’s power has continued to grow. Highly placed church officials began attacking critics of the government as enemies of “Holy Russia,” issues like “gay propaganda” and birth control became newly salient, and figures like Putin’s personal confessor Father Tikhon and ultra-religious oligarchs like Konstantin Malofeev became some of the country’s most influential figures.
Chaplin, who also serves as a member of Russia’s civic chamber, a government-appointed oversight committee, dismisses the idea that the church is now serving as Putin’s mouthpiece. “The church should not become an arm of the state,” he says. “I don’t think we always speak with the same voice. We argue a lot.”
Alexander Kravetsky, a professor of Church Slavonic and a commentator on religious affairs, agrees that the state isn’t necessarily pulling the strings, saying it’s more that “the church reflects what’s happening in society. So the church is dominated by conservative patriotic ideas at the moment.”
The recent conflict in Ukraine has put the church in a particularly awkward position. Though Kirill is theoretically the patriarch of all Orthodox Christians, in Russia and in other countries, Ukraine actually has three separate Orthodox churches, only one of which is subordinate to Moscow. Many members of that church support Ukraine’s Western-backed government against the pro-Russian separatists in the east, so the church risks causing a schism or losing its last remaining foothold in western Ukraine if it speaks out too forcefully. “The tragedy is that members of the same Orthodox Church fight on both sides,” says Chaplin. “That makes our situation especially difficult.”
Kirill has walked a fine line in his public statements on the conflict. He has proclaimed both that “Ukraine is an Orthodox country, inherently connected with Holy Rus,” while also paying lip service to the “sovereignty of the modern Ukraine.” On a local level, however, there’s growing evidence that some churches have been aiding the pro-Russian rebels.
The church’s reluctance to get too deeply involved in the Ukraine fight, at least publicly, hasn’t stopped Putin from casting the conflict in near-religious terms, and borrowing from the church’s own rhetoric to do it. In discussing Russia’s obligation to protect ethnic or linguistic Russians separated from Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Putin has invoked the concept of Russkiy Mir – the Russian world – to refer to those “who sense that they are a part of the broad Russian world, not necessarily of Russian ethnicity, but everyone who feels to be a Russian person.”
The phrase was borrowed from a favorite talking point of Kirill’s, who has used it in his speeches since coming to power in 2009. But, says Roman Lunkin, a sociologist of religion at the Russian Academy of Sciences, “From the beginning, the understanding of that project was not the same in the administration and in Putin’s mind from what it was in the Orthodox Church. In several speeches, (Kirill) repeated the idea that this is not empire – that it is a spiritual cultural Christian concept. … For Putin, the Russian world is the Russians in all countries who need protection by him.”
“It’s become something very nationalist, very xenophobic,” says Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Russkiy Mir at the moment means nothing. Putin, because of his acts in Ukraine, he lost Russkiy Mir as a phenomenon. Now, it belongs to history.”
Chaplin confesses he was never a fan of the Russkiy Mir idea, feeling it too vague. Nonetheless, he argues that it is “not at all aggressive. It’s not a concept of empire or state. It’s a concept related to people who speak Russian, or feel some common history with the Russian people.”
Sverdlov suspects that the failure of the Russkiy Mir concept to gain adherents outside Russia, combined with the Orthodox Church’s general failure to take a strong stand on Ukraine, could lead to frustration among Russia’s political powers-that-be.
“The idea of the Russian World doesn’t work,” he says. “Ukraine demonstrated that the ideologists inside the church were unable to attract people from outside Russia, to unite them. The patriarch is not very useful in promoting the uniting of Russia and Ukraine. He has to be the patriarch for Ukrainians as well. So he’s useless for state propaganda.”
Another inconvenient fact for those claiming that Russia is a resurgent Orthodox empire is that while Russians are overwhelmingly Orthodox, they’re not all that religious. According to the independent Levada Center polling organization, 68 percent of Russians describe themselves as Orthodox, up from only 17 percent in 1989. But only 4 percent of those go to church every week. Thirty-five percent never go to church, and 62 percent have never received Communion.
“The church is among the most trusted institutions,” the Levada Center’s Denis Volkov tells me. “But it’s more about symbols, not about practice. People would not like it to interfere in day-to-day life.”
Nonsense, says Chaplin. “These polls are not at all true,” he says. “The real religious practice of Orthodox people in Russia is present among at least one-third of the population. Those people have icons in their homes, they pray, they read religious literature, they know quite a lot about the tradition of their religion.”
Russians are by and large religious compared with Western Europeans, though that’s not saying much these days. But Orthodox Christianity hasn’t become quite the resurgent cultural force that some within the church were anticipating, or the politically unifying force that some political leaders were hoping it would be. Being Orthodox is clearly fashionable among the elite in Putin’s Russia at the moment, but it’s not certain that will last.
“I see there is a huge drop in interest in issues related to the church,” Sverdlov, the ex-priest, tells me. Despite the current surge of interest in religion, he doesn’t see the church staying relevant for much longer. If the church no longer proves politically useful, he believes, Russia’s religious revival will be a brief one.
Keating recently traveled to Russia thanks to a religion reporting fellowship from the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins. He is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.