Recommended Reading- Believing in Russia: Religious Policy after Communism by Geraldine Fagan

Believing in Russia: Religious Policy after Communism

by Geraldine Fagan
Routledge, 2013, 291 pp.
Reviewed by Fr. Stephen Headley

The altar of the tiny stone church of the parish
of St. Stephen and St. Germain in Vezelay,
France where Fr. Stephen serves as priest.

The following article is an expanded review, relevant to this issue’s theme, as we continue to also explore the Russian Church’s role in Russian society and politics.

The title of this new publication Believing in Russia captures the ambiguity the author is studying. On the one hand, there is the question of nationalism: How do politicians encourage belief in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union? On the other, the question of the plural expressions of religious belief as they have blossomed over the last twenty-five years: How does Russian society “share” common spaces in the Russian Federation? For general readers interested in the subject of religion in Russian public and political life, the book provides a “comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime,” written in an easily accessible, journalistic style. For someone like myself who has published a book on Orthodox parish life in Moscow, and other scholars, this book provides an indispensable complement to any detailed study of what Russians “believe in.” Fagan examines the pursuit of privilege of the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s relation to national culture, its courtship of the State, and its indis-putable place in Russian history juxta-posed against a pluralistic, “secularized” society mostly nominally religious, with a diverse cultural heritage. The docu-mentation provided by 82 pages of notes gathered over the author’s ten years reporting from all over the vast Russian Federation for the Forum 18 News Service is invaluable. She draws an arrow through history and tradition, all inclusive empire, Soviet homogeniza-tion, and a fractured modern State—not entirely lost but looking for its way—that points to a conclusion that “Russian society’s continuing failure to reach a consensus on the role of religion in public life is destabilizing the nation.”

While most human rights organizations take the moral high ground and blame the politicians for the unfortunate policies and lobbying that characterize contemporary Russia, Fagan does not bring to her analysis a preconceived opinion about who is a devil and who is an angel. She describes in detail different individual’s political posturing, time and again showing that the same person changes positions over the same issues, revealing that no neat classification into fundamentalist, conservative, and liberal works in describing the Russian reality. Fagan seeks out this broader understanding of the country Russians grew up in and live in; although one assumes she is Orthodox, she never makes the mistake of thinking she is a Russian Orthodox. She is always alert for elements of the puzzle she hasn’t yet grasped. All the authors of books written in English which I have previously read about contemporary Russia––some forty volumes worth––never seem to recover after discovering the appalling lack of legal culture in the Russia Federation. Non-Russian authors are invariably content to point out how the Russian government is violating its own constitution. In the United States, violations of constitutional law do not go unpunished, but in the Russian Federation one is pleasantly surprised if such a contradiction is even noticed. Fagan does not fall into these traps.

Fagan concedes that while many are trumpeting that Russia without Orthodoxy is not Russia, she subscribes to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s claim that the days of homogenous mono-religious nationhood are past and today pluralism is the best policy for the common good of all believers. Such freedom of conscience, the ability to practice one’s own beliefs, is foundational to any authentic practice of a belief, be it Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. In the past, Russian non-conformity (i.e. the Old Believers) has tended to take an eschatological turn, but in 2013 how does one deal with the Slavophile conviction that “their native land is protected by God”? If Russian Orthodox Christians are ready to admit that the millions who died under Stalin suffered so horribly because of the collective treason of their church, what is left of the notion of Holy Russia?

While “the Kremlin is growing ever more reliant upon cynical identification with national values in order to protect the elite,” Putin’s state functions more or less incoherently in terms of its own priorities legislating (half-heartedly) communality and obligation for the Russian Church in order to heighten its own sagging national prestige. It is away from the national stage where “the Kremlim’s fundamental indifference to religious freedom has allowed junior and regional state officials to pursue an Orthodox-centered religious policy in defiance of federal standards.” This fits uncomfortably with the lobbying of the Russian Orthodox Church as it tries to co-opt Russian public space where “the Russian Orthodox Church asserts itself as the definitive expression of Russian nationhood.” For Fagan any identification of Orthodoxy with so-called national values on the part of the elite, who are “oblivious to religious freedom concerns,” is a cynical maneuver to protect their own interests.

Fagan claims that individuality is a “central concern to Orthodoxy,” but only rarely does she point out how readily this same individualism is a potent tool of state secularism. She concedes that the Church is appalled by the practices of “laicite” in France, but if the Russian bishops were to give up on the collective salvation of the Rus, they believe they would be opening the door to a modern religious market for personal salvation rather than maintaining a vision of salvation as a sacrament. The Patriarchate is looking for a way to resist turning religion from a social to a private affair of individual persons each representing his own faith. As the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church entered the 1990’s, they had already decided that they were not prepared to indifferently share spaces with Catholics, or Lutherans, let alone Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. From outside this is viewed as sectarian! The last two patriarchs lobbied for historical pride of place in a hierarchy of traditional Russia religions. This has had legal repercussions restricting public space for Protestants, who, predictably, “protested.”

In fact most people are agnostics or atheists. The fact that one is Kalmyk, for instance, does not make one more Buddhist any more than the fact that one is Russian makes one Orthodox. Seen from the perspective of the Patriarchate however, religious freedom contributes to a much sought after blurring of theological borders in just the way the secular European Union has tried to foster pluralism through secularization elsewhere in Eastern Europe. So how does one undo, deny, or go beyond Russia’s Orthodox past? Should all the churches in the Kremlin be re-made into museums, and liturgical services be banned there? Forced arrangements for salvation have always proved catastrophic, but so have forced efforts to secularize. Finally Fagan fears that the future of Christianity in Russia will be compromised by the Orthodox inability in the last twenty-five years to adapt a genuinely pluralistic attitude faced with what was an aggressive Protestant proselytism. Does the one excuse the other?

But who is this Orthodox church that is lobbying for primacy in the Russian Federation? The Russian Orthodox Church is not monolithic. It is in doctrinal unity with all the other synods of Orthodox bishops who define doctrine conciliarly. What is more, there has always been a decentralizing, “strong lateral authority” arising from the prominent roles of spiritual fathers (startsy) in the practice of the Orthodox faith in Russia, which was reinforced by the Soviet oppression of the official church hierarchy. Fagan states: “Therefore, the current Church state accommodation is once again the outcome of a balance of very modern interests.” In politics this also means that the Holy Synod can only support the Kremlin up to a point in the current atmosphere where the faithful have little good to say about their government.

If for the government an artificial homogeneity of religions facilitates administration, for the Patriarchate genuine freedom of conscience is a purely religious matter. Fagan insists that from within a political science point of view, because the state regards some of its citizens as second class because of their religion, these citizens will at some point revolt. This point is considered notably true of Muslims. Recognizing Muslims as full-fledged members of society means, as Fagan puts it, recognizing a real Islam “not shaped to fit someone’s ‘common human values.’” As can be expected from someone working for Forum 18 News Service, Fagan considers such abuse a legal problem for the State to address: “the post-Soviet deterioration of religious freedom for all, across Russian territory, is contributing to perilous fragmentation of the nation’s single constitution space.”

In section 5, titled “Fight Thine Enemy,” Fagan presents an interesting analysis of extra-legal tools invented to close down Protestant churches and sects. A new terminology was popularized with neologisms such as “totalitarian sects,” “spiritual security,” “canonical territory,” and “traditional religions.” These were used to generate animosity towards non-established religious groups. What lies behind the possibility of creating prejudice against expressions of Christian faith other than Orthodoxy? While Fagan does not deal with the answer, it lies in the space between two realities: the average Orthodox of Russia has an undeniably limited understanding of his/her faith, yet he/she may well have a basic intuition that whatever truth is revealed about God in the New testament, it is not subject to constant reinterpretation the likes of which they imagine the Protestants and Catholics are introducing––theologoumena that relativize the basic truths of the Orthodox faith reducing them to the status of just one more opinion.

When one combines this suspicion of non-Orthodox with the complete lack of pluralism that characterized the twentieth-century secularized Soviet Union, one can grasp the reasons for Orthodox intolerance. Inversely, one could hardly have expected the Protestant missionary to understand, to take into consideration, the Orthodox mindset which they were trying to displace or even subvert, for Western Christianity is separated at the grass roots by some five hundred years of separate “European” histories, and that is despite the first secularization of Russia under Peter the Great. What is lacking is a culture of dialogue that is based on an understanding of where the other party is coming from. A better educated Russian might try to explain to a Jehovah’s Witness or a Pentecostal why he cannot accept their expression of Christianity, but that is the privilege of those whose faith has been deepened by a real familiarity with the Bible and Church history.

Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill

The secular mentality which many missionaries bring with them to the Russian Federation, even when they are fundamentalists, leads them to suppose that this highly secularized Russia is like where they came from, a place where one can occupy a “religiously neutral zone open to value-neutral inquiry and deliberation.” But in Russia there is no continuity between a Christian understanding of the good and a modern Western liberal comprehension of the good. The good belongs to Christ as He loves and to mankind, making a commonwealth of faith called the Church; and in Russia for the last thousand years, this has meant the Russian Orthodox Church, which has often failed its faithful but has also accompanied them through all their trials. The fundamentalists’ materialization of the revealed truths of scripture cannot be expected to capture the Russian sense of what sharing spaces means, for the recent and less recent arrivals have a mobility across continents and oceans that the Russian Orthodox do not possess. Raimundo Panikar writing of Indian converts to Christianity some thirty years ago notes that “the problem of pluralism arises only when we feel––we suffer––the incompatibility of differing world views and are at the same time forced by the praxis of our factual co-existence to seek survival.” The issue for some Russian converts from agnosticism to Catholicism or Protestantism, especially those in the northwest of the Russian Federation, the heartland of Orthodoxy, is that their “new” religion means they must separate themselves from a virtual historical cultural matrix to which they in some sense still belong and the incoherence this usually creates in their worldviews.

Fagan diligently, methodically, and with careful analysis chronicles on the one hand how Russia’s long tradition of religious freedom is being eroded despite official policy and because of government neglect; and on the other how the current nationalist project to consolidate an exclusive Orthodox Russia is in the face of Russia’s “remarkable” ethnic and religious diversity and is doomed to fail. Whatever one believes ought to be the role of the Church in Russian society and politics or interprets the current drama on the Russian national stage to mean, Fagan’s book makes a powerful and long overdue contribution to the understanding of those outside Russia of what is real inside Russia.  IC

Fr. Stephen is an anthropologist, and the author of Christ After Communism, a book about lived Orthodoxy in Moscow at the parish level, published by the Orthodox Research Institute. 

In Communion / Winter 2013