“Orthodox” journalism in Russia?

oursaviormoscowLet’s reach a few weeks back into tmatt’s infamous “folder of guilt” to look at an interesting New York Times piece about the growth of “religious media” in modern Russia.

Now, what precisely, are “religious media”? That’s the question, isn’t it? I say this as the leader of a journalism program here inside the Washington Beltway that spends quite a bit of time caught between warring camps of people who have clashing definitions of a related term, which is “Christian journalism.”

So, as you would expect, I was immediately interested in that New York Times feature late last month that ran under the headline, “With Orthodoxy’s Revival in Russia, Religious Media Also Rise.” I mean, I am a journalist, I am Orthodox and there’s a chance I may be visiting greater Russian in a few months. You know I am going to read this story. Here’s the lede:

By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, there were nearly 600 newspapers and magazines throughout Russia devoted to Orthodox subjects. They were all shut down by the Soviet regime by 1918.

Today, in a country that was officially atheist about two decades ago, there are again hundreds of newspapers, magazines and newsletters covering the world’s largest Orthodox church. There are about 3,500 Russian Orthodox Web sites, and some priests are even blogging.

The Russian Orthodox media, like the church itself, have not always fallen into step with the Kremlin line. The Moscow Patriarchate, its official newspaper and most Orthodox media have addressed the war with Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia as a tragic misunderstanding between two countries that share an Orthodox Christian heritage.

That’s interesting. But I have a question. What are “Orthodox media”? I mean, I understand that there are official newspapers and websites. That’s normal.

However, the trend covered in this article seems broader than that. For example:

When Sergei Chapnin, editor of the Moscow Patriarchate’s official newspaper, Tserkovny Vesnik, organized the first Russian Orthodox media festival in 2004, a government bureaucrat called to inquire about the event.

“I could tell he thought we would have 50 people or so attending,” Mr. Chapnin said about the first festival, which brought together 400 journalists. “I said there are about 500 publications with up to 10,000 journalists connected to them. There was silence at the end of the line.”

Once again, here is my question: Are these official “Orthodox publications,” or are they journalistic publications about Orthodoxy and religion, produced by real journalists who happen to be Orthodox? Might these publications feature the work of journalists, as opposed to church officials or public-relations professionals?

That’s what I want to know and, after reading this interesting article, I cannot figure out the answers to these basic questions.

There are clergy involved in some of these publications, but there are also professionals with mainstream backgrounds. Some of the publications focus on church affairs. Others are controversial because they focus on how faith affects the style of public life, including the lives of celebrities. What is going on here? Who are these scribes? I, for one, would like to know.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • MichaelV

    Forgive me for a slight topical branching-off?

    I’ve seen newspapers cite L’Osservatore Romano as the “semi-official Vatican newspaper” and puzzled over what the heck that means. I don’t mean to be dense, but as a reader, how much clarification should I expect? I’ve learned to be utterly suspicious any time a newspaper headline contains the words “Vatican Says” – but maybe it’s legitimate in such cases. Citations like “semi-offical” just leave me guessing. I imagine it’s similar with some of these Orthodox newspapers. How official is official when reporting on these things?

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  • Jerry

    What does “Greater Russia” mean?

  • Roberto

    What does “Greater Russia” mean?

    I wondered the same thing: is it another way of saying “Ukraine” or “Belarus?”

  • Dale

    I don’t think that tmatt’s use of “greater Russia” was meant to invoke these distinctions, but here from Wikipedia is a description of “all the Russias”:

    Great Russia (Russian: ????????????, Velikorossiya) is an obsolete name formerly applied to the territories of “Russia proper”, the land that formed the core of Muscovy and, later, Russia. The name is said to have come from the Greek Makra Rosia (????? ?????) used by Byzantines for the northern part of the lands of Rus’.

    Later, Russian Tsars adopted the word – their official title included the wording (literal translation): “The Sovereign of all Rus’: the Great, the Little, and the White”.

    “Little Russia” is Ukraine and “White Russia” is Belarus.

  • FW Ken

    But even a magazine editor in Russia could not escape Orthodoxy, he said, because it had been embraced by the elite.

    “The church has become part of public ritual,” he said. “Glamorous people must believe, go to church, have icons and go on pilgrimages

    I would think that to understand religious journalism in Russia, particularly Orthodox journalism, you would need to know what the civil religion of that culture looks like and I’m a little skeptical that the article is telling the whole of it. Have they really reverted to a de facto, if not a de jure state religion? What is the place of Orthodoxy in the minds of the Russian people beyond the elite? Beyond the urban centers? Given that the “state religion” was atheism for several decades, I would expect tremendous ambivalence about Orthodox and Christianity, and I don’t see that reflected in the article, beyond acknowledgment that the new popularity of Orthodoxy is somewhat shallow.

    I suspect that to understand Orthodox journalism in Russia, you need to look at the intersections of effective faith and raw unbelief, civic rituals as perceived (variously) by the authorities of the Church, by her believing members, by her nominal members, and by the rest of the people. The article touches on all of that, but I was left wondering if the larger picture might not contradict the picture they drew.