This weekend the Russian Orthodox Church held its Bishops Council at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.
In his speech to the assembly, president Putin said that, of course, Russia is not a theocracy but:
The social conservatism inherent in having the Church play a greater role in family life (with “fathers” notably absent from the equation), schooling and, somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, the war machine, is nothing new. But, while the Russian state has actively promoted the Church since the early Yeltsin years, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the statement was the legal element.
Putin’s statement confirmed that some of the most bizarre parts of the prosecution’s case against members of Pussy Riot — namely that their actions contravened medieval church law — may not have been the surreal aberration they seemed at the time.
In fact, the following day, Patriarch Kirill also spoke in favor of giving legal weight to religious doctrines.
Russian news sources reported that Kirill “backed the idea of criminal prosecution for blasphemy similar the Pussy Riot’s punk performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral”; he was quoted as saying that
The FT noted the paradox that, while “only a small minority of Russians attend church regularly” the ROC has become one of the country’s most trusted institutions. Geraldine Fegan, author of the book reviewed in the Economist, was quoted as saying that “Putin wants to capitalise on Orthodoxy’s image of permanence, even as his own legitimacy crumbles.”
Certainly, there is an intimate relationship between the church, the Kremlin and big money. After all, Yeltsin financed the church, in part by granting it the right to import and sell tax free cigarettes) while the most avid sponsors of new houses of worship over the past 20 years have been oligarchs. And many senior members of the church hierarchy have themselves become quasi-oligarchs, driving expensive supercars, wearing Swiss watches and living in multimillion dollar apartments. Today, it has become very fashionable among the megarich to have their own personal confessors — the latest badge of elite status.
However, while we know that the church, state and the army have refashioned the old tsarist three-legged stool, it is much harder to see which of them wields the most power in the equation.
In short, is Putin using the church, or is the church using Putin?
As the embrace between them becomes ever closer, the key power struggle to come may no longer be between the Kremlin and the liberals, but rather Putin and his Patriarchate.