With Russia all over U.S. news map right now, how fares its huge Orthodox Church?

Most news calendars list Russia’s presidential vote on Sunday, March 18. That’s the very date the nation officially confiscated Ukraine's Crimea with its 2 million people and 10,000 square miles of territory.

Journalists can relax and write up incumbent Vladimir Putin's victory in advance, then simply toss in ballot numbers. As in the grim Soviet past, another term is foreordained by manipulation of the process and consequent lack of competition. No need for the April runoff.

Russia over-all is of keen interest  for Americans and the American media with those allegations of campaign “collusion,”  revelations about efforts to manipulate U.S. voters in 2016 and 2018, debate over sanctions, and the ongoing mystery of why autocrat Putin is a rare politician President Donald Trump does not insult.

In addition to politics, there’s a historic religious turnabout in Russia that stateside reporters could  well develop through interviews with the experts. The dominant Orthodox Church, which managed to survive Communist terror and regained freedom, has latterly emerged as a strategic prop for Putin’s Kremlin. 

If that election day peg doesn't work for your outlet, another signal event comes July 17. That's the Orthodox feast day of the doomed final czar, Nicholas II, and his family, shot to death by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918 and canonized by the national church in 2000 as saints and "passion-bearers."  

The Economist published a solid Russian Orthodox situationer February 3 that’s behind a pay wall, so The Guy will summarize key points for any writer interested in this. (Side comment: It’s hard to make do without this British newsweekly despite the $152 subscription price. It echoes the happy heyday when Time and Newsweek had substantive foreign news sections competing each week, drawing upon ample field reporting and research, all neatly distilled by a knowledgeable writer into a readable page.)

The magazine found a great lede. Each January 18, masses of Russians cut cross-shaped holes into lake ice and plunge into the sub-zero waters to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ. This year, campaigner Putin joined the throng at Lake Seliger, crossed himself, and leaped in.

That's an apt ritualistic metaphor for The Economist’s clear-eyed reportage on church and state. Let me summarize some of what this article has to say, as follows.

Hierarchs have been functioning as implicit Putin partners during this  campaign. In many locations, portraits of Lenin have been supplanted by Orthodox icons. Instead of celebrating the anniversary of the Communist Revolution, Russians now mark the expulsion of Catholic Poles from the Orthodox motherland as “National Unity Day.” Prosecutors regularly target bloggers and artists who offend the church. One bishop even sent his monastery choir to celebrate the centennial of the state security service -- despite past Christian persecution!   

Since Soviet Communism collapsed, the church’s on-paper membership has doubled to 71 percent of the population, and local churches have increased six-fold. Yet Pew Research figures only 6 percent of Russians visit church each week. And one poll showed two-thirds of Russians do not want the church to influence the state. The church’s close links with the Kremlin stir unhappy memories of Communists forcing the clergy to be informers and lackeys, which eroded the church’s moral authority.

There are dissenting voices. Stalin’s atrocities are often played down in the interest of national pride. But Metropolitan Hilarion, Orthodoxy’s external relations leader (a position once held by the reigning Patriarch Kirill), boldly insists that  Stalin was “a monster” who governed “based on lies, violence and terror” as surely as Hitler did. “No military or political successes can redeem their guilt before humanity.” Just so. Those who speak fluent Orthodoxy can cite other examples of the church jabbing the current state powers, especially on issues like abortion.

The Economist reports that especially since Kirill became patriarch in 2009, the clergy are “chaplains of the empire and principal suppliers of ideological tenets” such as “traditional values” and nationalism. Of course, supporting "traditional values" can also be seen as advocating 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on moral and social issues.

Loyalty to the post-Communist regime is strengthened not only by shared cultural roots but such practical concessions as the church’s right to import alcohol and tobacco duty-free. An ousted aide to Kirill protests that “money turned out to be more important to the church than its reputation.”

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