March 2018 Print

The Progress of Orthodoxy in Russia

by André Julien

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Fideliter #214 in July 2013. Minor editorial adjustments for style have been made throughout.

In Russia, the era of Communist atheism has given way to a privileged relationship between the state and the Orthodox Church. Vladimir Putin is the kingpin of this new situation that is most advantageous for Orthodoxy though unfortunately not for Catholicism.

The Christianization of Russia began with the baptism of Prince St. Vladimir I of Kyiv in 988 under the Byzantine influence. In 991, the Metropolitan See of Kyiv was erected under the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Christianization continued to develop quickly under the long reign of Vladimir’s son and successor, Yaroslav the Wise, who died in 1054. Christianity took root during the following centuries, largely thanks to the development of an active monastic life. Orthodox Christianity became the official state religion and one of the major components of the Russian soul and Russian unity as the principality of Kyiv grew weak and gave way to fifteen different principalities. Among them, the principality of Moscow, created in 1276, would become the nucleus of Russia from the 14th century onward.

Orthodoxy, the Heart of Russia

The strength of Christianity that was like a spiritual anchor enabled Russia to resist the Tartar-Mongol yoke of the Golden Horde that subjugated the Russian principalities from the time of their defeat in 1226, until Moscow broke free after the battle of the Kulikov Field in 1380.1 This period did leave its mark with the Islamization of the population to the east of Moscow, along the Volga, around Kazan that remains today the capital of the republic of Tatarstan, which is mostly Muslim.

With the decline and disappearance of the Byzantine Empire, the Russian Church declared its autonomy from the Patriarchate of Constantinople that had been separated from Rome since 1064. This autonomy became an institution when in 1589 the regent Boris Godunov created the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Orthodox Church of Russia, thus becoming autocephalous.2

Peter the Great did away with the patriarchate in 1721, and replaced it with a Holy Synod under his control. Only in 1918 would the patriarchate be reestablished in the person of Patriarch Tikhon, but without replacing the Holy Synod.3

However, after the uncertain times of the Revolution and Civil War (1917-1919), the Bolshevik power developed its policy of antireligious persecution. Tikhon was accused of sabotage and imprisoned from April of 1922 to June of 1923, then deposed by a council summoned by the communist power. After his death in 1925, a successor, Sergius, was only elected in 1943. At this time, Stalin needed all of Russia’s strength to fight against the German invasion, and he had to offer pledges of good faith to the Russians, many of whom remained very attached to the Orthodox faith despite the persecutions.4

After 1945 and the Soviet victory, the persecutions and atheist propaganda began again in full force but did not succeed in eradicating the Orthodox religion from the souls of the Russians. The quiet or secret baptisms continued, the babouchkas (or grandmothers) had their children and grandchildren baptized regardless of the risks for themselves. Thus, Vladimir Putin, born in 1952, declared he was baptized “in secret” shortly after his birth, even though his father was a member of the Communist party.

The Orthodox religion, with its sumptuous liturgy and its mysticism, is an indelible part of the Russian soul, so much so that taking it away destroys the Russian soul itself.

The life of the Orthodox Church, that alas abandoned Catholic unity, is to be understood in an eschatological perspective, its mission being to lead the people of God until the return of Christ, a perspective that is strengthened in Russia by its claim to be the “Third Rome” after the disappearance of the Roman and Byzantine empires. Human events such as the 70 years of Soviet dictatorship, are seen as avatars of history that in no way affect the destiny of men and the singular destiny of Russia until the Parousia. Consequently, in this immense country with its shifting borders, no matter what events may come to shake it, Orthodoxy makes the unity of this Russian land, the rouskaïa ziemlia a reality, and a sacred reality; she remains united because she is Orthodox: pravoslavnaïa.

This Russian reality makes it impossible to consider governing Russia long term while disregarding or rejecting this dimension. Stalin himself knew how to make use of it during the “Great Patriotic War.”

In 1988, the Soviet regime was unable to bypass the celebration of the one-thousandth anniversary of the Christianization of Russia, and the vice began to loosen with the process of perestroïka.

This reality has to be taken into account if one wishes to study and understand the current religious evolution of Russia, with Vladimir Putin as its strong man since 2000.

The Progress of Orthodoxy After 1991

After the fall of the USSR in 1991, the persecution of the Orthodox Church ceased and the revival was almost immediate.

In 1991, after the death of Patriarch Pimen (1971-1990), who had had to submit to the Communist regime, a new patriarch of Moscow and all the Russians were elected free from political pressure in the person of Alexis II, whose father, a priest, had experienced the gulag.

This was the beginning of a long transition period. Alexis II succeeded in maintaining the unity of the patriarchate and warding off the risks of implosion due to the antagonistic tensions between opposite reformist or traditionalist tendencies. We should note here that the proclamation of the independence of Ukraine and Belorussia along with that of the Russian Federation, all of which were in reality a dismemberment of the Russian Empire as it had stood for a thousand years, did not put an end to Moscow’s jurisdiction over the archdioceses and dioceses of these new States, even the Orthodox diocese of the Baltic States and Kazakhstan.

After the death of Alexis II on December 5, 2008, his successor, the metropolitan of Smolensk, Cyril, was elected patriarch of Moscow on January 30, 2009. He presented a program for rebuilding that was identical to that of the council of 1917: pastoral renewal, political neutrality, social engagement. He also multiplied acts opening the Russian Church to the outside, and in particular to Rome, in view of pursuing the long path of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

Even in the early months of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency (1990-1999), Russians of all generations returned to the few churches left open by the Soviet regime to receive the sacrament of Baptism. For many of them, with absolutely no religious instruction, getting baptized was seen as an assimilation of the Russian civilization relieved of its Soviet curtain. In becoming Russians once again, they became Orthodox once again.

There were millions of baptisms and thousands of churches were reopened. After 70 years of Communism, some 700 monasteries and 27,000 parishes have been opened again in the past decades, but also 5,000 mosques and 80 synagogues. One of the most spectacular events of this revival was the reconstruction according to the original blueprints of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow from 1995 to 2000; it had been destroyed with dynamite by Stalin’s orders in 1931.

The Putin Era

Boris Yeltsin accomplished the reconciliation between the State and the Orthodox Church that had been timidly begun after 1988 under Gorbatchev, who did not however practice publicly. The situation would change radically under Vladimir Putin, who has been leading Russia since 2000, first as president (2000-2008), then as prime minister (2008-2012), before being reelected president in 2012. He presents himself as a fervent member of the Orthodox Church and assists at the offices, especially for the feasts of Christmas and Easter. He lost no time in growing close to the patriarchate, while maintaining the principle of the separation of the Orthodox Church and the State and the secular nature of the Russian State. This is a way to avoid transforming the Orthodox Church into a sort of transmission belt for the regime that could suffer from a possible disaffection of said regime.

The Orthodox Church has nonetheless recovered its traditional role that consists in being both a partner to the power and the cement of society.

In the 2010, 80% of the population of the Russian federation declare themselves Orthodox, but only 10% can be considered as practicing on a regular basis.

Religion does, however, occupy an increasingly large amount of space in the life of Russian society. No public manifestation takes place without a blessing from a priest, and the media covers all of the religious feasts and all of the patriarch of Moscow’s interventions.

The current organization of relations between the State and the Orthodox Church consists in the State giving the Church the means to develop in order for it to fulfill its role as a spiritual strength in the moral edification of society. Vladimir Putin thus declared on February 1, 2013, that the Orthodox Church should have more of a say in family life, education, and the armed forces in Russia. “At the heart of all Russia’s victories and achievements are patriotism, faith and strength of spirit,” he declared for Patriarch Cyril’s fourth anniversary as head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In return, the renewed influence of the Church is expected to help support the power, serve the Russian foreign politics and help develop the Russian influence in the world through the interventions of the sister Orthodox churches. Another element in this picture is the fact that Vladimir Putin does not hesitate to present Russia as the protectress of Orthodox Christians everywhere in the world, especially in the Middle East, a claim that has been long-forgotten by France under the Fifth Republic, although she does indeed have titles in this domain, not for schismatics, but for Catholics.

The State promotes the construction of new churches throughout Russia and has begun a policy of restoring confiscated goods to the Orthodox Church. On November 30, 2010, President Dmitri Medvedev signed the law on the restitution of the goods of the Orthodox Church that prescribes restoring to the Orthodox Church many monasteries and churches that had been transformed into museums, along with many objects for the cult. This transfer affected 6,584 religious sites5. Twelve thousand buildings are also to be returned to the Orthodox Church after they have been restored. In May of 2011, the mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, launched a program for building 200 new churches in Moscow, and the first of them was consecrated on September 25, 2012.

The state ensures that the Orthodox religion, like the Church, is respected, a normal, natural attitude, that scarcely exists any longer in the de-Christianized European West.

Thus it was that the provocation and blasphemy committed by the “Pussy Riot”6 group, led to three protagonists being condemned to prison. A law punishing blasphematory acts is in the making with the support of a large part of the population,7 but there are diverging opinions on the details, for all prefer to avoid putting the Orthodox Church and its beliefs at a disadvantage through too much severity, as was the case with the law on sacrilege in France during the Restoration.

The Orthodox Church is attentive to any deviation that could affect it. Thus, for apologizing without authorization in the name of the Orthodox Church for the condemnation of the Pussy Riot, the priest Dmitri Sverdlov was banned from all liturgical service for five years, while another, Yohann Privalov, incurred an identical penalty for trying to popularize Mass in Russian instead of Slavonic, which remains the liturgical language.

Russia, the Exclusive Domain of Orthodoxy?

Russian Orthodoxy goes beyond the limits of Russia and its immediate neighbors. The government also openly supported Patriarch Alexis II’s efforts to reassemble the Russian communities separated from Moscow since the revolution of October 1917. It was Vladimir Putin himself who launched the reconciliation with the Russian Church Outside Russia founded by the white emigrants after the October Revolution, that led to the Act of Canonical Reunification signed on May 17, 2007, by Metropolitan Laurus of New York and Patriarch Alexis II after 80 years of division, a symbolic reconciliation of the Russian people.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also actively supports the patriarchate of Moscow’s attempts to gain control over the Russian churches and monasteries belonging to other jurisdictions, both in the Holy Land and in Europe.

However, there remains an important division: that of the Old Believers or raskol that dates back to the 1650’s when Patriarch Nikon reformed the Russian Orthodox liturgy to harmonize it with the Greek liturgy from which it had drifted away. Before 1917, there were about 15 million Old Believers in Russia and in 2000, there are close to 1 million. In 1971, the Patriarchate of Moscow revoked the anathema on the old rites and books and declared that they are an equivalent means of salvation. However, this did not lead to the disappearance of the rupture, since for the Old Believers, this equivalence is unacceptable. In the Orthodox Church, the attitude towards the Old Believers is ambivalent: there are those who appreciate them and those who reproach them for their refusal to submit to the decisions of the ecclesiastical hierarchy over a “minor” difference of opinion. Since the 2000’s, there have nonetheless been ongoing discussions between the two sides.

There remain the relations with Catholicism and Protestantism: they are marked by much mistrust.

The Russian Orthodox Church is traditionally hostile to the development of Catholicism in Russia in general, and particularly to Catholicism of the Byzantine Rite, which it sees as an aggression and a provocation. This “problem” is currently preventing the Roman Catholic Church’s full recognition and support for the Russian Greek Catholic Church, as the former wishes to maintain and develop good relations with the Patriarchate of Moscow. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, on the other hand, collaborates closely with the Latin ordinaries of the Russian Federation, where certain parishes are bi-ritualist like the St. John Chrysostom parish in Novokuznetsk.

In the late 1980’s there were only two legally functioning Catholic churches in Russia: St. Louis Church in Moscow and the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in St. Petersburg. The Russian Catholic Church follows the Byzantine Rite and the Julian Calendar; the Filioque is not added to the Nicaean Constantinople Creed that is recited in its original version.

Ever since the disappearance of the USSR, the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite in Russia (present since the year 250 with the parish of Astrakan) has been growing and now has about 500,000 faithful and it has obviously adopted the Mass of Paul VI. In April of 1991, two apostolic administrations were erected in Russia, then in February of 2002, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia was created, with four dioceses.8

As for Protestantism, it has only 400,000 faithful in Russia. The Orthodox need for theological rigor—a rigor that, alas, does not respect dogma—has a hard time accepting its liberalism.9

Muslim Presence

A complete panorama of the religious situation in Russia obliges us to mention the strength of Islam, that is currently the second religion in Russia, with some forecasts saying it will be the first around 2050, since by that time the Muslims could represent half of the country’s population.

According to various estimates, Russia has between 11 and 20 million Muslims, which is 8 to 15% of the country’s population, but only 7 to 9 million are practicing; the rest are Muslim by ethnic affiliation only.

The Muslim communities are concentrated in the minority nationalities residing between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, especially in Caucasia. There are also Tartars and the Bashkir, many of whom are Muslim, living in the Lower Volga Region around Kazan. It is no coincidence that in August of 2003, Vladimir Putin began a policy of rapprochement with the Organization of the Islamic Conference. It has the status of observer since the summer of 2005.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian empire had about 12,000 mosques. In the USSR in the mid 1980’s, there were only 343 left, mostly in Central Asia. The process of restoring former places of worship and building new mosques began in 1985. In 2010, on a smaller territory than that of pre-1917 Russia, there were 4750 officially registered mosques, but at least 7000 in reality.

Beginning in 1990, new médersas were born in all the important centers of the Muslim population. The first Islamic University was founded in 1999 in Moscow, on the basis of the Spiritual Islamic College open since 1994 under the spiritual direction of Muslims from the European part of Russia. The rebirth of Orthodoxy in Russia has caused Muslims in Russia to be identified as a political force. New Muslim organizations and Muslim political parties continue to appear.

Two million Muslims live in Moscow, with only four mosques. But the Russian government remains deaf to requests to build new mosques. It is worried, in fact, about the development of Islam, that clearly threatens the future of Russia herself.

Vladimir Putin’s support of Orthodoxy is thus connected to his desire to restore Russian power and he knows that Russian awareness cannot survive without belief in Jesus Christ: the spiritual and moral principles without which no healthy society can exist or last. The spiritual and cultural roots are thus indispensable for the future development of Russia. Especially insofar as this tradition is the transmission of a moral legacy and reveals the architectural plan according to which a people built its history, as it lived, created, and evolved, faithful to the specific impulses of its soul. Without ever breaking its fundamental baselines, it remained consubstantial with its past, its fathers and its own proper genius.

The day Russia converts to Catholicism, the Russia of before Michael Cerularius that she should never have ceased to be, will transfigure and restore the plenitude of this genius. May Heaven hasten this day.


1 It is a general fact worth noting that the Orthodox Church, by its influence over the Christian populations, enabled the people who belonged to it to survive and last through the Muslim occupation and dominion, and resurface intact at the end, particularly after the Ottoman occupation.

2 An autocephalous church is a church that directs itself under the authority of a leader who is the sole authority and enjoys total independence both on the legal level and on the spiritual level. This term is applied to the churches belonging to Eastern Christianity, separated from the Roman Catholic Church, and whose theology consists in an adherence to two, three, or seven of the first ecumenical councils (from Nicaea in 325 to Constantinople IV in 869).

3 Composed of bishops, priests, and a high prosecutor (ober-prokuror) nominated by the emperor, it was intended to direct ecclesial affairs in a collegial fashion. In our days, it administers the Russian Church during the periods between the episcopal councils (every four years) and receives its delegation from them. Besides the patriarch, it includes seven permanent members (Metropolitans) and five temporary members chosen from among the episcopate. The Holy Synod is in charge of designating new bishops, nominating the rectors of seminaries and theology academies, and overseeing the nomination of monastic superiors. It is assisted by several synodal departments, including the Department for External Church Relations, the Department for Mission, the Publications Board, etc.

4 In 1940, the Russian Orthodox Church had only 200 priests and 6 bishops left, all under strict surveillance and secluded in their isolation. Since 1917, in twenty-three years, 75,000 places of worship had been destroyed and 600 bishops, 40,000 priests, and 120,000 monks had disappeared in the gulags.

5 The famous monastery of Novodevitchi, closed in 1922 and transformed into a museum, was entirely returned to the Orthodox Church in May of 2013, after the restoration of the buildings.

6 Five young female members of the punk group “Pussy Riot,” with masks, guitars, and a sound system, danced and sang a “punk prayer” or a parody prayer in February of 2012, in the cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, asking the Blessed Virgin to “dispel Putin.” Patriarch Kirill called their act a “sacrilege.”

7 In September of 2012, a survey by the Poll Institute revealed that 82% of Russians were in favor of heavier penalties for attacks on religious sentiments, 85% of them being Orthodox. Only 12% of the population categorically refused anti-blasphemy laws: mostly the faithful of non-Orthodox religions, young people, atheists, and the electors of minority parties.

8 These four dioceses are: the archdiocese of the Mother of God of Moscow, the diocese of St. Clement of Saratov, the diocese of St. Joseph of Irkutsk, and the diocese of the Transfiguration of Novosibirsk, whose bishop is also the bishop of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics of the Russian Federation. Bishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz was made archbishop and metropolitan by John Paul II. In January of 2005, Archbishop Joseph Werth succeeded him before being made Catholic metropolitan of Minsk and Moghilev in Ukraine in 2007 by Benedict XVI.

9 Thus, in 2009, the Patriarch Kiril, while still patriarch of Smolensk, complained during a UN meeting that “in many countries, freedom is used as a pretext to promote an amoral way of life and…to encourage the moral relativism of society,” to which the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe responded: “Human rights are rights given to all human beings, in conformity with the dignity willed by God for them.”