Understanding a More Religious and Assertive Russia

Understanding a More Religious and Assertive Russia April 2, 2014

A very important and informative article by my friend Mark Tooley. 


By Mark Tooley

In his widely analyzed March 18 speech to the Russian Parliament, Putin cited the baptism of Vladimir the Great over 1000 years ago in Crimea as the seminal event binding Ukraine and Russia. That baptism is considered the birth of Russian Orthodoxy. Orthodox faith has been key to Moscow’s historic self conceived role as defender of all Russians, of Slavs, and of Orthodox, wherever they are.

Putin has formed a close association with Russian Orthodoxy, as Russian rulers typically have across centuries. He is smart to do so, as Russia has experienced somewhat of a spiritual revival. Although regular church goers remain a small minority, strong majorities of Russians now identify as Orthodox. Orthodoxy is widely and understandably seen as the spiritual remedy to the cavernous spiritual vacuum left by over 70 disastrous, often murderous years of Bolshevism.

Resurgent religious traditionalism has fueled Russia’s new law against sexual orientation proselytism to minors and its new anti-abortion law. Both laws also respond to Russia’s demographic struggle with plunging birth rates and monstrously high abortion rates that date to Soviet rule. Some American religious conservatives have looked to Russian religious leaders as allies in international cooperation on pro-family causes.

It remains to be seen whether geopolitical tensions over Putin’s moves in Russia temper this alliance. A few liberal commentators have predictably denounced it as toxic. A few conservative commentators have cautioned against saber rattling against Russia, whose religious revival they hope might counter Western secularism. A realistic perspective should welcome Christian vitality in Russia while recognizing it won’t necessarily mitigate and may in fact reinforce Russia as a strategic competitor with the West. East-West rivalry predates Soviet Communism by a millennium.

Historically Moscow politically and religiously has understood itself as the “third Rome” and the natural successor to Constantinople as protector of Orthodox civilization. The formal schism between Eastern and Western churches a thousand years ago created an unhealed civilizational divide. Western powers have periodically sought Russian alliance against common foes. But just as often Western powers have warred with or at least sought to contain Russia.

The “great game” of which Rudyard Kipling wrote described Britain’s ongoing designs to keep Czarist Russia away from South Asia and warm water ports. Britain’s one major hot war with Russia was ironically in Crimea. In countering Russia, Britain sometimes sided with the Turks against Slavic people’s struggling against Ottoman rule. Gladstone the arch Anglican famously urged British help instead for East European Christians resisting oppressive Muslim rule, while the arch realist Disraeli shrewdly focused instead on British interests in containing Russia.

Britain and France of course, 100 years ago this year, aligned with Russia against Germany, Austria and the Ottomans.  World War I, among its other horrors, replaced Czarist Christian Russia with Bolshevik atheism, mass murder and gulags. Excepting World War II, Russia and the West were again adversaries for 70 years. The Yeltsin era after the Soviet collapse briefly, perhaps superficially brought Russia into political commonality with the West. Putin’s more assertive and authoritarian understanding of Russian nationhood, which he sometimes frosts with religious rhetoric, which might even be sincere, has once again returned Russia into a strategic adversary for the West.

Among Putin’s political emoluments are renewed claims of Moscow as protector for Russian, Slavic and Orthodox people wherever. Hence, Putin sided with the Serbs over Kosovo, putatively with Syria’s Christians and their purported Alawite protectors, with dissident regions in Georgia and Ukraine. His self-identity as counterweight to the West also has aligned him with Iran’s Shiite regime.

In his adopted role as Great Russian Nationalist Putin is not a Stalin or a Hitler but a modern czar resuming old understandings and habits. The “great game” of the 19th century has resumed, with no fewer chess pieces on the board. This game seems archaic, and Secretary Kerry has mocked Putin as a 19th Century figure retro in our own time.

The other once great imperial game players have long since dissolved their empires and exchanged territorial acquisition for democratic market economics. They have also subsumed themselves under the American economic and military umbrella, a subordinate role that does not interest Putin.

Putin’s church, in keeping with its history, is largely supportive of his version of a revived Russia. The Patriarch in Moscow, unlike many pseudo pacifist Western church prelates, does not recoil from blessing even Russia’s nuclear arsenal as instrumental to his nation’s security. Such nationalist loyalties by a bishop seem retrograde and even scary to many Western elites, who dream of a post nation state world.

One shrill liberal religion columnist has bewailed Russian religious and nationalist revival as commensurate with America’s Tea Party, which is the worst kind of insult for a leftist. Some religiously conservative Americans are tempted to minimize Russian authoritarianism and expansionism in homage to renewed Russian religiosity, in contrast with the West’s accelerating Kulturkampf against traditional Christianity.

The challenge is to view an increasingly religious Russia on several interlocking levels that range from ennobling to pernicious to banal. Americans of all ideological stripes more typically prefer clear villains and heroes. Churchill famously proposed that Russia is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Religious moralists, especially American, cringe from acknowledging the intrinsic, pervasive nature of self interest much less national interest. But they will need to try, as it relates to Russia, and to America.


Mark Tooley, President, Institute on Religion and Democracy.    

1023 15 St, NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005-2620

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  • frjohnmorris

    Mr. Tooley has made a very serious mistake by lumping all Eastern Orthodox Christians together. Eastern Orthodoxy is federation of independent national Churches. There is no central authority like the Pope. Not all Eastern Orthodox are Russian Orthodox. In the U.S. most Eastern Orthodox do not come from the Russian tradition. Therefore, you cannot taint the entire Eastern Orthodox Church by linking it to Vladimir Putin.
    However, American foreign policy has not been concerned about the religious rights of Eastern Orthodox Christians. The rebels that our government supports in Syria are heavily infiltrated by Islamic radicals whose goal is to turn Syria into an Islamic state. Some of the have already instituted Sharia Law in areas of Syria under their control which means that Christians are treated as an inferior subject people. They cannot build or repair their Churches or even ring their bells. They have to pay the poll tax (jizya) to their Muslim overlords and suffer under all sorts of humiliating restrictions. The Islamic radicals in Syria have destrored ancient Churches and monasteries, killed Christian clergy, kidnapped Bishops and nuns, and even tried to assassinate the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch by firing on his cathedral in Damascus while the clergy were distributing food to the needy. At least Putin has spoken out in defense of the Christians of Syria, while our President remains silent.

    Archpriest John W. Morris

    • There would be, at best, some small symbolic support for Christians if our President were to “speak out in defense of [them in] Syria”. But it would be problematic. And providing any practical, real help? I can’t see how…

      As your remark implies, rightly, it is not just them by any means who suffer from both “sides” of this horrendous war. What would be the point of mentioning them specifically, or any one or two of many groups in Syria? And does Putin deserve any commendation for such speaking out? How has it helped anything?

      However, he’s had opportunity to play an instrumental role in possibly (maybe against great odds) helping bring some kind of political/military improvement if not a real settlement in the situation. He’s not taken it! That seems to have been only nationalistically motivated and/or just to get at America and the West.

    • Tim Hoskins

      I don’t think Mr. Tooley was trying to lump all Eastern Orthodox Christians together with Vladimir Putin. When he talked about Putin as the uniter and defender of global Orthodoxy, he was speaking of Putin’s (and historically Russia’s) self-understand. I don’t think he meant to imply that all Orthodox would necessarily recognize Putin and Moscow in that self-appointed role.

  • Peter Bylen

    Putin’s “Orthodoxy” has nothing to do with Christianity; it
    is Russo-messianic theofascist civil religion and until Orthodox Christians and
    their leadership have the courage to stand up to Moscow’s dictates, it will
    become to Christianity what Islamists and Islamism is to Islam.

  • WillBell

    As Oscar Wilde once said: “nothing is impossible in Russia, except reform.” Seeing Russia turn back the clocks a century has utterly convinced me of that truth.

  • hazemyth

    “…Russia’s new law against sexual orientation proselytism to minors…”

    For the record: While Russian lawmakers have defended this law as necessary for protecting minors, it in fact bans any discussion of ‘non-traditional sexuality’, ranging from public advocacy to personal expression, in a way that would be blatantly (and thankfully) unconstitutional in the US.

  • Sterling Ericsson

    It seems to me that all that’s happening in Russia is religious extremism that is curtailing the rights of its people and lending itself to the flourishing of neo-Nazism and other fascist ideologies.

  • Thanks for this interesting, informative article. I admit to being among the vast majority of Americans who know far too little about Russia and its history. The role of Orthodoxy there, as well as elsewhere, is a fascinating subject… its interplay with politics, militarism, etc. Where I HAVE begun to read some, and others might benefit from, is about religion and empire-building, empire-preservation, such as “God and Empire” by Crossan and “Christ and Empire” by Rieger, and some other recent work on ancient Israel and Christian origins, such as by Horsely. This is a vital area that very, very few American Christians have any clue about, to our peril.