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Faith in Russia


Faith in Russia
UMaine political scientist studies the symbiosis of religion and politics under the Putin administration

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has found religion, and religion has found Vladimir Putin. So far, their marriage of accommodation, though sometimes strained, appears to be serving them both reasonably well.

The Putin administration and the religious establishment the Russian Orthodox Church have reached out to each other to further their mutual interests, according to University of Maine political scientist James Warhola. Those who might have expected the church to object to what Warhola calls the "creeping authoritarianism of the Russian state" have been disappointed.

"Scholars disagree on many things about what is going on in Russia, but there is general agreement that not only has the church done nothing to obstruct this authoritarianism but, if anything, has encouraged it," says Warhola, an expert on Russian political philosophy.

The church enjoys far more respect and privilege now than it did under communism, and doesn't want to jeopardize its influence and independence. For Putin, the church's support legitimizes his authority and use of power. He also recognizes the church's traditional role as a stabilizing influence in Russian society.

Contrary to its powerful image, the Russian government is actually quite weak in some respects, Warhola says. For example, it has been unable to control rampant crime and, therefore, needs the support of institutions that people respect, such as the church.

About 80 percent of the population of the Russian Federation is ethnic Russian, and three-quarters of them profess Russian Orthodoxy. Although public expressions of faith are the exception perhaps 3 percent of Orthodox Russians attend church the church remains an important symbolic force in Russian culture.

"For more than a thousand years, being Russian and being Orthodox have been inextricably intertwined," Warhola says.

In the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin encouraged the Russian Orthodox Church to become active in public affairs. Putin has invited the church to play an even greater role. But both men have wanted the church's involvement to be on their terms, Warhola says.

That means that the administration listens to church leaders and even solicits their advice on issues in such areas as education and foreign policy. But the administration doesn't do anything it doesn't want to do. For example, it hasn't yielded to the church's call for chaplains in the armed forces.

Church leaders publicly supported Putin in his opposition to the United States' invasion of Iraq. The church also has given at least tacit support to some of the president's authoritarian policies that worry civil libertarians and many Western leaders.

"The church has viewed some of these policies as having a salutary effect on Russian society," Warhola says. "That was the case, for example, when the church strongly pushed the administration to restrict the ability of foreign missionaries to come into the country."

A law passed in 1990 officially separated church and state, and expanded religious freedoms. But seven years later, a new law strictly limited the activities of religious groups that were not among the country's well-established faiths, primarily Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. The law was largely in response to the flood of foreign missionaries who began pouring into Russia after the fall of communism.

Warhola has published extensively on the role of religion in Russia. Last year, he was among the prominent scholars of Russian politics and religion invited to take part in a conference at Columbia University on "Orthodoxy and Identity in Post-Atheist Russia." He presented a paper, "Religion and Politics Under the Putin Administration," in which he concluded that, despite the low level of public religiosity displayed by Russians, the Orthodox Church will continue to play a significant role in defining Russian society and shaping the political landscape.

"It might even become an important force in restraining the state from descending into a full-scale reversion to a form of governance that is simply not accountable to the public nor to any social group, movement or force," he wrote.

Warhola also spoke last spring at an international conference on "Religion, Culture and Conflict in the Former Soviet Union and Beyond," hosted by the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

Most recently in March, he was one of the scholars at the international conference, "Islam and Orthodoxy: Confrontation, Co-habitation, and Comparison" in Vienna. In July, Warhola is headed to England where he has been asked to speak on Russia under Putin as part of a prestigious Oxford Round Table session on "Separation of Church and State: Rise and Fall?"

Warhola says Putin and other government officials meet regularly with leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as with Moslem leaders. Moslems, most of whom are not ethnic Russians, make up about 15 percent of the Russian population. They are concentrated mainly in the Volga River region and the mountainous Caucasus region in the southwestern part of the country.

The latter includes Chechnya, where separatists have been at war with the Russian army off and on for more than a decade. Putin sees this insurrection and its accompanying acts of violence, which he labels terrorism, as being spawned and inflamed by Islamic extremism. For the most part, though, Moslems in Russia are not religious radicals, Warhola says.

"The overwhelming majority of Moslems pursue a very moderate form of Islam and prefer an accommodationist stance toward the Russian state," Warhola says.

Largely, Moslems and ethnic Orthodox Russians have lived together peacefully for centuries. However, in the last few years, the Putin administration's antiterrorism campaign, which some see as anti-Islamic, has elevated tensions between the two ethnic-religious populations in some parts of the country.

The result is a troubling rise in a domestic form of "racist xenophobia," a fear and distrust of foreigners of other races. But in Russia today, racist xenophobic violence and discrimination are most likely to be committed, not against foreigners, but by ethnic Russians against nonethnic Russians.

The victims are sometimes Moslems, sometimes Tatars or members of other minority ethnic or religious groups. The small Jewish population in Russia often bears the brunt.

Putin has publicly called "ethnic hatred" one of the most serious threats to Russian society, and the Russian Orthodox Church has joined in condemning religious and ethnic intolerance.

Warhola says the state needs the church to exert all of its moral authority and social influence to help tamp down the hatred and curb the violence. Much is at stake, he says, perhaps even the country's political framework.

by Dick Broom
May-June, 2007

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