Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

The priest at our parish in East Tennessee returned the other day from a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the Greek peninsula that for centuries has been the beating heart of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. 

As far as I know, Father J. Stephen Freeman did not have any secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin while he was trekking from monastery to monastery on the holy mountain. However, you never know. After all, Father Stephen has many online readers in Russia and, well, he is the priest of Oak Ridge (and you know what that means).

Journalists in the West have said some rather wild things, as of late, about Orthodox Christianity and its role in Russia. This then connects with the whole "The Russians Did It, the Russians Did It" atmosphere in American politics.

But are we ready to politicize the holy mountain? Check out this passage from The Spectator, drawn from a feature with this headline: "What is behind Vladimir Putin’s curious interest in Mount Athos?" Orthodox readers may want to sit down to read this.

A secretive body of Elders governs here and all citizens are bound to total obedience. They wear identical floor-length black gowns and are not permitted to shave -- the style of dress favoured by zealots everywhere. And guess what? This state is in western Europe.
Few people have heard of Mount Athos and fewer still have visited it, and that is the way they like it. A notable exception is Vladimir Putin. He has been at least twice, once in 2006 and again in May of this year. ...
Putin has formed an unholy alliance with the Orthodox church in order to ensure he receives its blessing. This fits with his self-image as a modern Tsar embodying church and state. For believers, the Holy Mountain is the centre of their faith, their Rome, the place where the flame of their faith connects to heaven.

I wasn't expecting the Z-word.

Now, I hang out a bit with Russians (at church) and I know their views of Putin are complex. They have few illusions about the man, but they also appreciate the degree to which he drives the West a bit nuts. They also know that some of the subtle touches in church-state relations in Russia don't make sense to outsiders.

So if you have any interest in Russia, please read the following Religion & Politics think piece by historian Gregory Freeze of Brandeis University. The headline: "The Russian Orthodox Church: Putin Ally or Independent Force?"

The key is that is summarizes some of the tension points between Putin and the Orthodox hierarchy, and there are quite a few. Here is the overture:

The image of the Russian Orthodox Church as the “handmaiden” of the state long prevailed in Tsarist Russia. After decades of Soviet persecution, this perception of the church has reemerged in post-communist and, especially, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Western media routinely describe the church as a “staunch Kremlin ally,” as The Washington Post did. The New York Times called the church “a reliable pillar of support for the government of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin,” and the BBC casually referred to the church’s “close links to the Kremlin.”
Some in Russia have leveled similar criticism, as in a public declaration by three provincial Orthodox priests: “We urgently ask you to cease the shameful practice of blind collaboration with the authorities and every kind of dalliance with the wealthy in our country.” Such descriptions appear to find confirmation in the many photographs of Putin crossing himself at Orthodox services or standing alongside Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The two leaders demonstrate mutual respect, emphasize pride in Russian culture and history, and invoke patriotism and cultural tradition as enduring values. Collaboration has rewards: The state has been generous (such as a law in November 2010 on the restitution of church property) and accommodating (such as a law of June 2013 criminalizing sacrilegious acts) to the church.
Nevertheless, the church and the state have important areas of disagreement, as both Kirill and Putin bluntly admit. In a 2016 documentary to commemorate the patriarch’s 70th birthday, Putin thanked the patriarch for his advice but volunteered that the two did not always agree. The patriarch noted their disagreements in a face-to-face public meeting in February 2012, when he praised Putin for his role in ending the disastrous 1990s -- which brought economic collapse to the country -- but added that “this does not at all mean that we agree with all of your actions, with all that is going on in this country. We have our own critical views, and I say this publicly, without any inhibitions whatsoever.”

A bit more?

While church and state do collaborate in many areas. ... The relationship is complex and evolving. The church’s adamant defense of autonomy stems from the calamitous Soviet experience. ... Although Putin ridicules the fantasy of restoring the Soviet Union, his regime does valorize the Soviet achievements, not only the great victory in World War II but also the phenomenal economic growth under Joseph Stalin. The church, however, holds a very different view: By 1941, this same regime perpetrated mass repression, including the incarceration or execution of several hundred thousand clergy and believers. The state closed all monasteries and nearly every parish church. The experience for Patriarch Kirill is personal: The repressed included his grandfather-priest, who served nearly 30 years in labor camps, and his father-priest, whose three years of incarceration and persecution thereafter Kirill also had to endure. Since 1991 the church has done much to commemorate all those victims, including 1,770 canonizations -- and counting.
The church also fiercely opposes attempts to rehabilitate Stalin’s memory. Kirill’s close aide, Metropolitan Ilarion, has offered this assessment of Stalin:
I think that Stalin was a monster, a spiritual freak, who created a horrendous, anti-human system for governing the country, based on lies, violence, and terror. He unleashed genocide against the people of his own country and bears personal responsibility for the deaths of millions of innocent people. In these terms, Stalin is completely comparable to Hitler.

Yes, you read that last quote right.

Read it all.

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