From Godless to Godly: How Religion is Reshaping Russia’s Relations With the West

The following post is written by Jekatyerina Dunajeva of the Political Capital Institute and Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary and Karrie Koesel of the University of Notre Dame.  It is based on observations from fieldwork in Russia during July-August 2015 for “Under Caesar’s Sword,”  a global research project supported by the Templeton Religion Trust. The authors visited three major cities in Russia and conducted interviews with lawyers, religious leaders and laypersons, social workers, academics, and politicians. To protect identities, all informants are anonymous.

At the height of the Cold War Russia was frequently depicted in the West as a country ruled by godless communists—a brutal regime that set out to eradicate religion and thus, one that also lacked a strong moral compass. These same charges are again resurfacing many years later, but this time Russia is directing the charges at the West. Over the past several years, Russian leaders have played up its moral superiority and defense of traditional values, while openly criticizing the West as amoral and devoid of spiritual values.

How does a country redefine itself from godless to godly in just over two decades?

This shift must first be understood within Russia’s distinct pathway from communism. From a Western perspective, the Russian transition to democracy in the 1990s is generally considered a disappointment. This disappointment has again been reaffirmed under the rule of Vladimir Putin. Putin’s Russia has become increasingly autocratic with the centralization of power, decline in competitive elections, greater control over civil society and the media, and growing international isolation. Russia, in other words, failed to embrace democracy and democratic values.

From a Russian perspective, however, it is democracy and the West that have failed Russia. Political transitions are rarely seamless, and many Russians maintain that the West abandoned Russia in its time of need. The 1990s were awash with crumbling stability, social chaos, Ponzi schemes, the privatization of lucrative national industries, and extreme corruption. It is hardly surprising then that this same “democratic decade” is commonly associated with lawlessness, instability, and the decline of international prestige; and the fact that 61 percent of Russians prefer order to democracy, even when order means the curtailing of rights and freedoms.

The failure of Russian democracy has seeped into popular culture. In one telling instance, the word “democracy” in Russian slang is “dermokratiya” [дермократия]—a portmanteau of the words “crap” and “democracy”—in other words, “demo-crap-ia.” Even Russian police violence is associated with democracy. The rubber batons carried by police are nicknamed “democratizers” [демократизаторы]—a term that came of age in the 1990s when police used them to repress popular protests. Democracy, quite simply, is often seen as a destructive and destabilizing force, an imposed foreign political system that the misguided West exported. Religious communities have expressed similar opposition toward democracy. Roman Lunkin, one of the leading scholars of religion and society in Russia explained, “Orthodoxy is associated with resistance to democracy and with the ideology of Putin’s majority.”

The failed export of democracy alone, however, cannot explain the striking shift from a godless to a godly Russia. We must also consider the revised role of religion. In contemporary Russia there is now not only greater religious freedom and expression than in the Soviet past, but also some religious groups are playing a decisive political role. The Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, has waded into political waters declaring Orthodox Christianity as a sine qua non marker of Russian identity—in other words, to be Russian in a post-Soviet context is also to be Orthodox. Alexander Agadjanian, a professor of Religious Studies at the Russian State University of the Humanities has written that in many ways the enlisting of the Church to shape “the ‘new nation’ seems natural in Russia… given its dominant position and clear links with a dominant ethnos.” One lawyer working on issues of religious freedom in Russia explained that “There is still a mentality that being Orthodox is the right thing, it’s patriotic.” Indeed, not only do we see that “Russians are perceived as Orthodox,” added another colleague, but even “abroad Russia is symbolized through its Orthodox churches and cupolas.” Thus, both at home and abroad there is the constant reminder that Russian statehood was founded on religious principles.

Given these sentiments, it may seem natural that the Orthodox Church has taken on the role of national defender. Church leaders have become outspoken critics of any and all perceived threats to Russia, including NATO expansion, Western sanctions, the crisis in Ukraine, and domestic opposition groups. The defense of the motherland has also meant that the Church has gone on the offensive against liberalism. Patriarch Kirill has equated liberalism with evil and declared it a pathway that eventually leads to hell. The official website of the Orthodox Church claims that liberalism is not only an anti-Christian value system, but is also an anti-Russian one. Some religious activists warn “The enemies of Holy Russia are everywhere…We must protect holy places from liberals and their satanic ideology.”

Here, it is interesting to note that other religious communities have also gone on the offensive against liberalism in defense of traditional Russian values and joined the circle of anti-Western defenders of Motherland. “I love Russia,” shared a Baptist pastor, “I voted for Putin myself…. Crimea is ours – now that we have it again, fairness has won, and this is a pure Russian position.” The deputy mufti of Tatarstan, Rustam Batro, declared “Russia is the defender of traditional values on the world stage.” Another Protestant pastor we interviewed speculated that Russia is probably the last country “sticking with traditional values in Europe.” Putin’s traditionalism makes him popular among other Christian communities in Russia, suggested yet another Russian expert on religion during our fieldwork. Western consumerism and individualism, many religious leaders suggested, is what most Russians show aversion to.

To be sure, the defense of traditional Russian values feeds conveniently into the larger anti-Western rhetoric of Kremlin. At a Federal Assembly meeting Putin stressed the growing immorality and destruction of traditional values outside of Russia. As tensions with the West have increased this summer, Putin declared: “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization…. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.” This moral superiority decline of Western values was also echoed among some religious communities. One expert of Evangelical Christianity explained that traditional values are “in the interest of a strong Russia…if we don’t have strong families, which are evidently weakened by same-sex marriage and similar horrific ideologies” it will prohibit the flourishing of the country.

As for the larger implications of the Russian shift from godless to godly, we observed at least two. One is that the Kremlin’s filtering of politics through a religious prism lends support to Russia’s increasingly illiberal and isolated position; it clearly distinguishes Russia from the West; it reinforces the idea that Russia is the only authentic alternative to Western ideology; and it positions Russia as pious and in contrast to an immoral West. This is a dangerous political project.

The other is that religious groups, for the most part, seem uncritically and openly participating in this latest political project. One Orthodox priest explained, “For the moment freedom is not a popular concept [in Russia], because we have to revive tradition and revive the Church. When we are reviving something from the past we have to take freedom away.” And yet, we cannot help wonder if this revival of the Church is also nurturing a precarious position for religious communities—one with hardened boundaries between themselves and their co-religionists abroad, one that props up an increasingly authoritarian regime, and one that encourages religious groups to be on the front lines of civilizational conflict.

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Daniel Philpott

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