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Transcript for Rear Vision 21 October 2012

Elizabeth Jackson, Correspondents Report (archival): More than a week after their sentence there are still few firm answers as to where the jailed members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot will be serving their sentences.

Tim Palmer, AM (archival): Since three members of the band were sentenced to prison for a performance at an Orthodox cathedral, the debate over the church’s political ties to the Kremlin has spilled into the open.

Journalist (archival): Sergei Baranov pulls no punches: the church, he says, is filled with hypocrites and liars and the Pussy Riot verdict proves the church leadership and the Kremlin are now one and the same.

Annabelle Quince: In February this year, five members of the Pussy Riot punk group staged an illegal performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, one of the most significant Russian Orthodox churches in Moscow. The performance lasted only 40 seconds before it was stopped by church security, and the whole incident might have been forgotten but for the fact that three of the group were later arrested and charged with hooliganism. The arrest and the court case that followed caught the attention of the international media and questions started to be asked about the close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state.

Hello, I’m Annabelle Quince and this is Rear Vision on RN and via the web. In today’s program, we take a look at the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and its relationship with the Russian state.

Orthodox Christianity is not home-grown in Russia and it didn’t arrive via missionaries, as Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and Eastern European politics at the University of Kent, explains.

Richard Sakwa: In the tenth century the Russian—well, the Kievan—prince put forward what is effectively a tender. And so four major religions put in a bid to become the national religion of what was the Kievan principality. First of all the Moslems turned up and made their pitch, but then when they towards the end said that you’re not allowed to drink alcohol in Islam, then clearly they said, ‘That’s no good for us.’ And the next one was Jewish and that also made a very strong pitch and that wasn’t accepted because of pork eating and other issues. And in the end a representative from Constantinople made their pitch and that seemed to suit everything. So Russia effectively became a Christian country because of the decision of the Kievan principality and officially the date is 988.

Annabelle Quince: It’s an interesting way for a religion to come to a country, because often it comes through missionaries or through… literally from the bottom up. And in Russia it was really from the top down. And I’m wondering what impact that had on the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church as it developed.

Richard Sakwa: It’s a complicated question, because on the one side you’re absolutely right: it was from the top down, it was from the monarch, and that has remained an issue to this day, that orthodoxy—in other words, the form of Christianity practised in Byzantium, the eastern version or the Orthodox version—has a different vision of the temporal and secular. I’m not simply going to say it’s more dominated by kings and monarchs because it’s more complicated than that; however, it doesn’t have that separation which was typical of the west, which took the form of conflict between popes and monarchs, which in Britain led to the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

Russia and the eastern world have a different model. Now, the usual word to describe it is ‘symphonia’, the symphonia of political and religious power. And this is still a powerful idea; however, too often it has led to the dominance of the kings of the temporal powers, and this certainly was the case under the Peter the Great, who abolished the Russian patriarch, established a synod, established almost, effectively, a Ministry for Religion. The church then becomes much more of a subordinate body.

Irina Papkova: Since about 1725 the Russian Orthodox Church functioned as a department of state, of the Russian state.

Annabelle Quince: Irina Papkova is a fellow at Georgetown University and the author of The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics.

Irina Papkova: So essentially it was run by a collegial body known as the Holy Synod, which was supposed to be made up of… just of bishops, but it also reported to a lay minister of state called the procurator, who was a layman; he was appointed directly by the emperor. So for about 200 years or so the Russian Orthodox Church was run by the Russian state.

Annabelle Quince: This, however, began to change at the beginning of the twentieth century, as Dr Michael Bourdeaux, canon and founder of the Keston College in England explains.

Michael Bourdeaux: Some cracks began to appear in 1905, which was the year of what’s called ‘the first revolution’, because there were some priests in the Orthodox Church who began to see that the situation of the close relationship between church and state was corrupt, and they began to object and indeed took part in demonstrations in that first revolution. So by the time of 1917, the big revolution, the Orthodox Church was playing a role, actually, for social reform—not universally, but there were individual members of the Orthodox Church who were quite openly calling for a change.

And of course that change came about in 1917, first of all with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March ‘17 and then the proper revolution in October of that year, the arrival of Lenin, the overthrow of all the past, and the revolutionary mode, with the Bolsheviks playing a huge role and trying to root out everything connected with the past. That included not only the relics of loyalty to the tsar but loyalty to the Orthodox Church as well.

Annabelle Quince: And explain that; explain what happens to the church, its properties and its influence post-1917.

Michael Bourdeaux: Yes, it didn’t take Lenin long to get to grips with the Orthodox Church. He was brought up as an atheist and hated everything to do with religion. And it’s really significant that the… one of the very first decrees that he passed after he was ensconced as the Bolshevik leader was to pass a law calling for the separation of church and state.

Well, in theory that sounds fine. What actually happened in practice was that the state confiscated all church goods. It took over all church property and abolished church schools. The power of the church was broken at one stroke by that new law as early as January 1918, just a couple of months after the revolution. And that inaugurated the first great purge against the church, and by halfway through 1918 the church was rocking back on its heels, with the Bolsheviks not only taking over church property but destroying it, setting up the first prison camp in the island monastery of Solovki in the north of Russia—it was a time of devastation for the church.

After that Stalin came into power and he carried on the persecution in the late 1920s. And in 1927 the church was trying to make some sort of compromise with the regime, which was a very important moment in the history we’re talking about.


Journalist (archival): This wooded area of Butovo, barely an hour’s drive from the centre of Moscow, conceals a part of Russia’s history many would rather forget. Around me are overgrown mass graves, holding the remains of perhaps 70,000 people who died in the Stalin era. Among them are bishops, priests, ordinary church workers, who were killed for their faith.

Richard Sakwa: I think the figure is that under the Bolsheviks over 200,000 priests, bishops and others were killed—not just taken to camps, of course the figure would be higher—but at least 200,000 killed, the church ultimately completely subordinated to the state.

Annabelle Quince: So you mentioned there was some kind of approach by the church in 1927 to find some sort of accommodation with the communist state. Can you explain what that was?

Michael Bourdeaux: Yes. The acting head of the church after the death of Patriarch Tikhon was Metropolitan Sergius. And he was dragged in by the secret police, interrogated, almost certainly tortured in prison. And on the 29th of June 1927 he signed a declaration—he may or may not have written it himself—but it was published in his name. I’ll read you an extract from it, because it’s very revealing.

He said, or is purported to have said:

Let us publicly express our gratitude to the Soviet government for the interest it’s showing in all the religious needs of the Orthodox people. We want to be Orthodox believers and at the same time to recognise the Soviet Union as our fatherland, whose joys and successes are our joys and successes, and whose setbacks are our setbacks. Every attack directed against the Soviet Union is resented by us as being directed against ourselves.

That statement became the paradigm, the model, for church-state relations from 1927. And you could honestly say, bringing it forward to 2012, that it’s the model even for this very day.

Annabelle Quince: Despite the agreement in 1927, the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church continued throughout the Soviet period. Yet the church did survive. But according to Julie Fedor, historian and the author of Russia and the Cult of State Security, the church paid a high price for that survival.

Julie Fedor: The Orthodox Church really was crippled by the kind of compromises that it made in order to win the right to survive. The Moscow patriarchate in its current form is actually really very much a creation of Stalin, who re-established this office in 1943. After Hitler had invaded in 1941, Stalin famously moved towards a position of greater tolerance towards the church in an effort to use it as a means of boosting sort of patriotic moods and the Soviet war effort.

And he famously met with church hierarchs in 1943 and offered them various concessions, and one of which was the right to re-establish the office of the patriarch, which had been abolished in the 1920s. And in the later Soviet period you have a situation in which the Orthodox Church was very heavily infiltrated by the KGB—and this is especially the case when it comes to the upper levels of the church—to the point where by 1991 one sort of non-conformist priest said that it was no longer possible actually to say where the church began and where the KGB ended. This is one aspect of its history that the church has not really managed to come to terms with in the post-Soviet period—if you like, one of the ongoing blank spots in the Soviet history of church-state relations.

And this in fact is something that is one of the things that the Pussy Riot performance was really trying to draw attention to, and arguably one of the reasons why the response to it has been so harsh on the part of both the Orthodox Church and the Russian government, because they were trying to really highlight the extent to which the church had been compromised by the fact that lots… so many priests were actually forced to collaborate with the KGB, and also by virtue of its alliance with Putin, who is of course a former KGB officer.

Richard Sakwa: On the one side, the leading hierarchy was penetrated deeply by the secret police; on the other, the church did actually then work with the Soviet authorities on their own public campaigns, what nowadays would be called ‘soft power’—the interdenominational church councils, for example, would always have a Russian bishop—and they were pursuing the state tasks for peace and in these various Soviet councils abroad. So you’d have the church and state, the official hierarchy, work together.

However, there were some priests who then led what you could call a revivalist movement from below. This is an attempt to—while not challenging the political system openly, because it certainly wouldn’t work that way—to establish a certain type of independent spirituality and a different view of society. They were enormously attacked, so it’s an awful legacy.

Annabelle Quince: You’re with Rear Vision on RN and downloadable via the internet. I’m Annabelle Quince and today we’re tracing the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state.

By the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union was beginning to crumble, and by the beginning of 1992 it was gone.

Journalist (archival): With the passing of 1991 the Soviet Union has officially ceased to exist.


Journalist (archival): There they are the first chimes of 1992 in what was the Soviet Union and is now, as we all know, the new commonwealth of independent states.

Annabelle Quince: So what happens when the Soviet Union collapses?

Michael Bourdeaux: Ah, now that’s a very, very interesting story. The churches began reviving in the 1970s and the ‘80s, not only the Orthodox Church but the Protestant Churches, the Baptist Church, the Catholic Church. Opposition against communism began emerging within church circles, in some other circles as well—democratic circles outside the church. But the church, shall we say believers in general, of different denominations, hugely contributed to the moral collapse followed by the physical collapse of the Soviet Union.

And Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged this. He didn’t encourage the collapse of the Soviet Union of course; he wanted to strengthen it by making it more democratic, which was impossible. What Gorbachev did was to encourage the church institutions to play a positive role in the wellbeing of Soviet society. He allowed them to start welfare work and so on, and the churches to reopen again, and prisoners to be released. It was a time of great turbulence, as we all know, the last few years leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and eventually the Soviet regime collapsed in a heap of ignominy and that was more or less the end of Gorbachev.

But from that moment, about 1988, while Gorbachev was still in full power, he said that the church, the Orthodox Church, could do more or less what it liked. And in that year, 1988, it celebrated 1000 years since the baptism of Prince Vladimir, which led to the conversion of Russia to Christianity. The celebration was huge. And from 1988 onwards the Orthodox Church was in the ascendancy again and it’s never looked backwards from that day to this.

Annabelle Quince: The new Russian constitution, which came into effect in 1993, established Russia as a secular state.

Richard Sakwa: The Russian constitution of December 1993 makes it absolutely clear about the separation of church and state. So Russia is a secular state, and this is very important and this is what a lot of the battles go on about today, because Russia is a classical liberal… I mean, we’re not talking about how it works in practice, but in formal, constitutional terms there is this separation of church and state. At the same time, in the 1990s, huge rebirth of… rebuilding of churches, a lot of activities, even semi-state supported in Moscow. For example, Mayor Lushkov in the 1990s got contributions from business leaders to rebuild the Church of Christ the Saviour; this is that great church just opposite the Kremlin, which was built to celebrate the victory of another invader, of Napoleon in 1812.


Journalist (archival): One thing you notice when you go into just about any church today is the amount of restoration work that’s going on. There are few that don’t have scaffolding up somewhere. Icons are being rehung and again revered, gilded panels and doors restored, golden domes rebuilt. Babushkas and bankers once again share in the resplendent, unhasty rituals of Orthodox worship.

Annabelle Quince: Explain why the post-Soviet Yeltsin government supported the return of properties back to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Irina Papkova: Well, there’s two versions of this, one of which is that it was kind of a utilitarian move and that Yeltsin saw in the church a potential supporter of the ongoing reforms, which of course were causing lots of social problems for the people of the Russian Federation, because of course the reforms were such that, let’s say, in the… by 1993 or ‘94 about half of the Russian population had been plunged into a state of poverty compared to where they had been before the reforms started. So one explanation was that Yeltsin wanted to use the church as a kind of institution that would help mitigate the problems between the state and the population that arose because of these reform problems.

But the other reason, which I actually think has some credibility to it, is that Yeltsin did actually envision the new Russia as being one that totally rejected the old Soviet regime and that sort of looked back more to the pre-Soviet Russian state as a model. And for him part of rejecting the Soviet model meant rejecting the atheist policies and embracing the church as a serious part of Russian identity. There was some speculation that he actually chose to strengthen the church because he probably felt bad about the fact that the Soviet regime had done everything it could to destroy it. And so in a form of… I wouldn’t go as far as to say its repentance, but something like it, Yeltsin was interested in supporting the church in the post-Soviet period.

Journalist (archival): When the communists fell, religions of every kind mushroomed—but not for long. Though Russia adopted a policy of religious freedom, all denominations have bowed to the Orthodox Church backed by the power of the state.

Irina Papkova: The Religious Freedom Law of 1990 had not just given full freedom to the Russian Orthodox Church; it also gave religious freedom to every other religious organisation on Russian territory in a way that was unprecedented not just in Russia but I would say almost worldwide. So for a period of seven years, Russia was the freest possible space in terms of religious freedom pretty much anywhere on the planet. And this meant that there was a huge influx of missionaries coming from both the west and from the east.

Julie Fedor: Under the 1993 constitution the Russian state is a secular state, there is full freedom of religious belief and freedom of conscience and all religions have equal rights under the law. But this is somewhat in contradiction with a law on religion that was passed in 1997, whereby a special recognition was made under this law for the fact that Orthodoxy has made a special contribution to Russian history and culture. Whereas technically all religious organisations still enjoy equal rights in Russia, this law also effectively sets up a hierarchy of religions offering Orthodoxy certain privileges.

And this is something that was done partly as a result of very active lobbying on the part of the Moscow patriarchate in response to the waves of foreign missionaries that were coming into Russia after Russia opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So it’s an attempt to sort of protect the Orthodox Church’s privileged position.

Irina Papkova: By 1997 the Russian media was full of stories of new missionary groups coming in and behaving in ways that was sort of perceived as anti-social. So on the one hand there was a social basis for the Russian government to look and say, ‘Hey, this is becoming a little bit too much. We should curb it.’ And on the other hand, the Russian church itself obviously felt the competition, so they lobbied the Russian state for a law that would limit missionary activity.

And in 1997 Yeltsin had just come off a very contentious election where he almost lost to the communists. And one of the things he did during the election was that he asked the Russian Orthodox Church to support him and to call on Russians to vote for Yeltsin and parties that supported him. And the church did that. The patriarch came out and said that if you’re a Russian voter you should vote against the communists because if you vote for the communists obviously they’ll come back in with the same policies that they had for 70 years, so you should vote for Yeltsin. And the 1997 law was a sort of thank you present from Yeltsin.

Annabelle Quince: Vladimir Putin gained the presidency in 1999 and I’m wondering how we should understand his relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church and whether that has changed over the last 13-odd years.

Michael Bourdeaux: It’s changed in so far as it’s become stronger. But from the very beginning, President Putin described himself as being a baptised believer. And what Putin wants to see is a strong Russia. Many Russians—most Russians—bewail the fact that when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia lost its status as a world power. Well, Putin is well on the way to re-establishing that status. One of the tools that he has used for the re-establishment of that status is the Orthodox Church—strong church in a strong Russia. The Orthodox Church contributes to the image of the Russian state.

As I said earlier on, from 1927 up to the present day, even during the worst years of the persecution in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when the persecution was bad, the church even then could not stand out and say, ‘We as believers oppose the prosecution of an atheist state.’ That was the situation under communism and under state capitalism, or whatever you call the present Russian system: the church is there holding the hand of the Russian state; quite often the Russian state gets justification for its actions from moral support of the Orthodox Church.

Julie Fedor: This is something that we could see especially clearly over the past year, when you have also had this wave of protests that have followed the announcement in September last year of the so-called castling move that Putin and Medvedev made, whereby Putin announced that they were simply going to swap roles and he would become president again in 2012. The church has very much been lending its support to Putin throughout these protests.

In February, just before the presidential elections, the patriarch came out and publicly supported Putin’s re-election campaign. The patriarch has also come out with various statements asserting that true Orthodox believers do not take part in street protests, basically, that this is a non-Orthodox and thus a non-Russian thing to do. So you can see ways in which religion is very much being used for the purposes of demonising and delegitimising the idea of political opposition in Russia.

Annabelle Quince: So how many people within Russia would identify themselves as being part of the Russian Orthodox Church?

Julie Fedor: I guess one of the most important things to note about Russian Orthodoxy is the really strong linkage that exists between Russian Orthodoxy and cultural and national identification, such that nowadays, for example, I think it’s roughly 75 per cent of Russians identify as Orthodox, but this is very much, as I say, largely a cultural identification. So if you look at the figures for the number of Russians who attend church, then it’s famously much, much lower than that.


Journalist (archival): On the day three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced, the band showed its defiance by releasing its new single, ‘Putin Lights Up the Fires’. One of the lines in the chorus says, ‘Seven years isn’t enough.’ Another goes, ‘Putin is going to say goodbye like a sheep.’

Michael Bourdeaux: The Pussy Riot group in Moscow were protesting against the very thing that we’ve been talking about during the whole of this program: the too cosy relationship between the church and the state, the fact that Patriarch Kirill called for Christians to support Putin in the recent election as president. They considered that illegitimate; a lot of other people consider it illegitimate. That is why the Orthodox Church politically has been divided over this issue. The church at the top level—and Putin—have shown huge vulnerability in their quite absurd overreaction to what was actually quite a minor event.

First of all the event itself, it lasted only 40 seconds. And for the patriarch to call for a sentence, a maximum sentence, which probably would have been seven years of imprisonment for these women, for a 40-second demonstration, was completely over the top. Without this overreaction the whole event would have been long since forgotten. As it is, they’ve become a model, a paradigm for rebellious youth around the world. I turned on YouTube a week or two after they’d been arrested and I came up with 700 entries about them; it’s probably now 7000, maybe 7 million. It’s gone viral on the internet. It’s absolutely absurd. But they’ve gained far more than they ever believed they possibly could have done. The whole issue that they wanted to publicise has now been publicised I’m sure beyond their wildest expectations.

Annabelle Quince: Dr Michael Bourdeaux, canon and founder of the Keston College. Our other guests today, Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and Eastern European Politics at the University of Kent, historian Julie Feder, and fellow at Georgetown University, Irina Papkova.

The original two-year sentences given to the three members of the Pussy Riot group were appealed. One member of the group was freed on probation and the sentences of the other two women upheld.

Remember you can get a transcript of this program from the website—


The sound engineer is Jennifer Parsonage. I’m Annabelle Quince and this is Rear Vision on RN.

Irina Papkov
Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations and European Studies, Central European University.
Canon Michael Bourdeaux
Founder of the Keston College in England
Richard Sakwa
Professor of Russian and European Politics, Head of School University of Kent
Julie Fedor
Historian and Post Doctoral Fellow at Cambridge University
TitleThe Orthodox Church and Russian PoliticsAuthorIrina PapkovPublisherWoodrow Wilson CenterReleased15 Apr 2011TitleRussia and the Cult of State Security: The Chekist Tradition, From Lenin to PutinAuthorJulie FedorPublisherRoutledgeReleased18 Oct 2011TitleThe Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism and the Medvedev SuccessionAuthorRichard SakwaPublisherCambridge, Cambridge University PresReleased18 Oct 2011