Russia’s Unfinished Symphony of Church and State

Global Horizon

As the Orthodox Church resumes its central role in Russian life, Russia’s political and religious leaders engage in theological and pragmatic deliberations about the relationship between church and state.

In December 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech at the Episcopal Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the reinstatement of the Russian patriarchate.  Putin was photographed next to the current Russian Patriarch, Kirill, in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the two men framed by an arch that places them in the center of larger-than-life depictions of the twelve apostles.

In his speech, Putin praised the Orthodox Church for its contributions to Russia. At the end of the twentieth century, which he called “a time of spiritual rebirth and a huge growth of the Church’s authority in society,” it “supported people, gave hope and helped us to acquire a moral and spiritual direction in life.” Putin expressed hope for the continued collaboration between the Church and the Russian government, and honored the church for its understanding of “Christian civilization.”

Patriarch Kirill, in turn, expressed his gratitude to Putin for participating in dialogue with the church and “the atmosphere of openness in which our society lives today” which he said would lead to the “certain success of our Fatherland in the near and distant future.” He wished Putin  “long years of life, good health, and God’s aid in the lofty mission the Lord has entrusted to you through the will of the people.”

Here we find the highest representative of the Russian Church, with a capital C – in Russia other Christian churches exist, but Russian Orthodoxy holds a unique and privileged position –  engaged in political theology alongside the highest representative of the Russian state.  Though both church and state actors in many countries discuss the foundation and mission of their nations in theological terms, in Russia, these conversations are often more open and explicit than those that occur in the West.

Historically, many Russian Orthodox clergy and laity have supported the idea of what is called symphonia, a harmony between church and state.  But Russian Orthodox leaders, political theologians, and laity are struggling to determine what this concept might mean in the twenty-first century.  In particular, Russian Orthodox thinkers must consider the role of the ROC under various forms of government, whether autocratic or democratic, secular or explicitly religious.

Orthodox debates about the church-state relationship date back to Eusebius and his analysis of the role of the emperor Constantine.  His work in the third and fourth centuries laid the foundations for symphonia, which was developed by another emperor, Justinian I, two centuries later.   While both Eastern and Western Christians, following Romans 13, argue that political authority comes from God, Justinian specifies that within the imperiumthe emperor guides human affairs, and in the sacerdotum, the clergy are in charge of spiritual matters. The harmony that results, according to Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff, “is not a harmony between two powers or between two distinct societies, the Church and the State; rather, it is meant to represent the internal cohesion of one single human society, for whose orderly welfare on earth the emperor alone is responsible.”

Justinian’s model of symphoniawould go on to influence Russia, although Aristotle Papanikolaou argues that the influence was indirect.  In The Mystical As Political, he states, “The basic frame of the Russian Empire did resemble the Byzantine Empire: an Orthodox Christian emperor and an Orthodox patriarch attempting to work in harmony for the good of the Orthodoxy Christian society. How the church and the state were to relate to each other in the course of the history of the Russian Empire was not self-evident and always in flux.” This basic framework held through the 1917 Russian Revolution, with some form of symphoniain place that linked the Church and the government, as well as its military.

Implementing this concept of symphonia was particularly challenging during the Soviet era, when the state disestablished the Church. Though many Russians continued to express faith in God, by 1939, 99 percent of all churches were closed. The government allowed the Church to function during World War II, but persecution resumed afterwards.   In the post-Soviet era, Orthodoxy once again became the religion of many Russians.  The Pew Research Center notes that 72 percent of the Russian population described itself as Orthodox in 2008, though only 7 percent regularly attended church services.

With the end of the Soviet era, the ROC worked to redefine its relationship to the state.   As Gregory Freeze notes in his February 2017 report for the Carnegie Endowment,  “Russian Orthodoxy and Politics in the Putin Era,” the diversity of political positions among Orthodox clergy and laity – ranging from liberalism to nationalist fundamentalism –  led the ROC to try to articulate its fundamental principles.  From 1994-2000, Kirill, who was then chairman of the ROC’s Department of Foreign Relations, chaired a working group that culminated in a document called Foundations of the Social Conceptions of the Russian Orthodox Church  (2000).  The document is complex and nuanced; here I will focus on a few of the issues in sections II (Church and Nation) and III (Church and State) that are the most relevant for current debates on political theology.

The Foundations document, available in both English and Russian on the ROC’s web site, explores the concepts of both nation and state, from the Old Testament period to the present day. Referring to Israel, the document states that “the unity of the people of God was secured by their ethnic and linguistic community and their rootedness in a particular land, their fatherland” (II.1). Though the Church is universal and Christians all share a “spiritual homeland,” “Orthodox Christians, aware of being citizens of the heavenly homeland, should not forget about their earthly homeland”; even Jesus identified himself as part of the Jewish nation and was a “loyal subject of the Roman Empire.”  (II.2).  Christian patriotism is appropriate and “is manifested when [the Christian] defends his fatherland against an enemy, works for the good of the motherland, cares for the good order of people’s life…” (II.3).

Section III discusses the evolution of the state from the era of the judges and the institution of the monarchy at the time of Samuel, and then various models of the church-state relationship throughout history (III.4).  It describes symphoniaand its manifestations and distortions during different periods of Russian history.    It then goes on to describe the areas of church-state cooperation in the present day (III.8) – peacemaking, preservation of morality, charitable works, support for the family, and numerous other items – as well as what the church cannot support, in particular “election agitation” and “waging civil war or aggressive external war.”

In his 2017 book Holy Rus: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia , John P. Burgess notes that the document “does not reject the possibility that Russia could someday restore an Orthodox monarchy and hence a Church-state symphonia,” but at the same time it does affirm the idea that the ROC can work with a secular government (41).

In the post-Soviet era, both those within the ROC and outside observers have noted the potentially problematic nature of symphonia.  Commenting on Patriarch Kirill’s 2017 statement about Putin, George Weigel writes,  “The extraordinary spiritual riches of Russian Orthodoxy are squandered when its leaders engage in this sort of propagandistic rubbish. The Russian Church suffered terribly under Lenin, Stalin, and their heirs. Its martyrs, who number in the millions, are dishonored when the bishops of a putatively free Church play the role of chaplain to the omnipotent and infallible czar, rather than speaking truth to power.”   Timothy Snyder, in The Road To Unfreedom, notes Putin’s attachment to the 20th century philosopher Ivan Ilyin’s unorthodox Christian fascism.   Ilyin writes, “The nation is not God, but the strength of its soul is from God” (23), and expresses an admiration for “the sort of Christianity that demanded the blood sacrifice of God’s enemies” (19).

The dangers of a symphonia-informed approach to Russian political theology are especially evident when the issue of war is brought into the mix.  The Christian study of war is in many respects a subdiscipline of political theology, because Christians who seek to make decisions about war must first determine the appropriate attitude for them to take towards their own state, and then consider their views of other political entities.  

During the last major war of the pre-revolutionary period, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, the Orthodox Church motivated and honored the military within its liturgy, iconography, and hagiography. The Church praised those who “laid down their life in battle for the Faith and the Fatherland.” 

 The tsar was seen as a holy authority who could declare war on behalf of a Christian state; and this in turn meant that Russian soldiers were obliged to fight as part of what was called “the Christ-loving military,” a force characterized by both justice and holiness.

Post-Soviet thinkers have begun to study and reinvigorate the concept of the Christ-loving military.In 1997, a Russian military institute published an anthology of historical Russian-language works on this topic.  The concluding essay advocates a renaissance of the Christ-loving military in Russia and discusses the conditions that will facilitate this transformation.

Asserting that “the defense of the Fatherland is considered a holy duty,” A.E. Savinkin cites a prayer book for Orthodox warriors published 1915 that states, “the one who kills an enemy in war does not sin, because through war we protect our faith, Sovereign and Fatherland.”[i]  He adds that the Christ-loving military is perfect, its members united by their religious worldview and their love of their homeland.

In 2016, Patriarch Kirill expressed a somewhat less nationalistic form of support for this concept during a speech given on May 6, 2016—a religious holiday honoring St. George the Victor that fell shortly before the seventy-first anniversary of victory in World War II.

Praising St. George for his brave defense of the Christian faith and his spiritual strength, Kirill notes that he is the patron saint of the Christ-loving military. This Christ-loving military, Kirill states, “never performs evil and unjust acts” but “always fights for justice against evil.”  (Quotations are my translation of the official text.) He adds that “even if the members of the military do not fully acknowledge themselves to be Christians,” the nature of the Christ-loving military does not change as a result.

Kirill applies this analysis to the Russian army in World War II, which was a defensive war against a peaceful population. This is, he says, why World War II “from the very beginning…was called a holy war (sviashennia voina), that is a war for justice. And this is why one may boldly call our military Christ-loving, even if there were no priests in it, and even if no communal prayers were performed (although almost every soldier performed individual, private prayers). We fought for justice, for Homeland, for our land, and for the people against a treacherous and cruel enemy.”   There is something about the Russian army that is innately Christ-loving, despite the absence of institutional Orthodoxy.

Kirill states that this ideal of the Christ-loving military persists to this day, and that the war on terrorism is also a holy war, because terrorists harm or kill innocent people He prays that the armed forces will remain faithful to their spiritual lineage as they battle against evil and for justice.

As representatives of the ROC and the Russian state,  Patriarch Kirill and President Putin are both players in a centuries-long symphony of church-state relations.

As the Russian Orthodox Church resumes its central role in Russian life, its leaders and members continue their deliberations – both theological and pragmatic – on how to relate to the state, and, at the same time, the government’s leaders work to utilize the population’s religious feelings and affiliation to serve their own interests or those of the Russian people.

[i]A. E. Savinkin, “Vozrozhdenie khristoliubivogo voinstva,” in Khristoliubivoe voinstvo: pravoslavnaia traditsiia Russkoi Armii(Moscow: Otechestvo i Voin, 1997), 439.   Translations are my own.

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