East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 1995, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


The Russian Orthodox Church and the Political Elite

Sergei B. Filatov

One of the most interesting phenomena of our religious-political life is the considerable difference in attitude toward religion between the popular masses and the political elite.

In our survey of public opinion, the respondents had to express their attitude to two alternative statements:  (1) "There are national, traditional religions (Orthodoxy and Islam) in our country.  They should have more rights than representatives of religions that are new to our country (Catholicism, Baptists, etc.)"; and (2) "All religions should have absolutely equal rights."  Only nine percent agreed with the first statement, while the vast majority (72 percent)  agreed with the second.  Even among the Orthodox, adherents of the Moscow Patriarchy, only 13 percent were supporters of special patronage by the state for the traditional religions, while those who advocated an equality of religion made up 69 percent.  The percentage of persons who approved of the church's participation in political life decreased from 74 percent to 48 percent from 1990 to 1991.

It is much more difficult for non-Orthodox groups and Orthodox groups from jurisdictions other than the Moscow Patriarchy to obtain a building in which to worship.  What has brought about this tendency of the new democratic authorities to provide state protection to the Russian Orthodox Church, contradicting both democratic principles of freedom of conscience and, what is especially important, the sentiments of the masses who support these authorities?

In 1988, at the beginning of perestroika, the response of the hierarchy to the appeals of former religious dissidents to condemn Stalinism officially and desist from eulogizing it, was silence.  This was a manifestation not of servility but, on the contrary, of an intellectual honesty, a reluctance to follow the authorities and their new course this time.  The silence of the hierarchy, which hitherto had accepted all declarations demanded by the state--for example, to approve of sending troops to Czechoslovakia--reveals its true ideological foundations.

In 1988-91, one could observe a paradoxical picture:  the state removed the restrictions that had been placed on the church, and society triumphantly returned to the church; but at this very time, the clergy was openly expressing sentiments of panic.  If one recalls statements by church personages during this period, one gets the impression that it was not in 1937 but in 1990-91 that society reached the limit of moral decay and that the advent of the Antichrist was near.  It is clear that this panic was caused not by a threat to religion and to faith (during this time, the threat was diminishing steadily), but by a threat to the ideology of "patriotic service" and the peculiar position of the hierarchy inseparably linked to it (the privileged position of the hierarchy of the Christian church in an anti-Christian society).

The objectives of the church hierarchy are in fact reducible to three fundamental ones: recognition of the Russian Orthodox Church as the only lawful heir to all the property of the prerevolutionary church; the adoption of legislation on freedom of conscience that would enable the church to preserve "democratic centralism" [preferential status]; and state assistance in the struggle against its rivals.

Our past and our traditions run counter to the principles of freedom of conscience, just as they in large measure also run counter to democratic principles.  This past continues to live with us and exhibits resistance to the new democratic tendencies, sometimes from the most unexpected quarters.  Hence, despite the formal victory of democracy and freedom of conscience, the way to real democracy and real freedom of conscience is still a difficult and long one. 

Sergei B. Filatov, an Orthodox layman who holds a doctorate (candidate degree) in history, works for Moscow's Institute of the United States and Canada.

Source:  Russian Studies in Philosophy 33 (Summer 1994), 77-82.  Edited excerpt reprinted with permission of M.E. Sharpe, Inc., Publisher, Armonk, NY 10504; tel:  914-273-1800; fax:  914-273-2106.  A one-year subscription to Russian Studies in Philosophy is $99 individual/$381 institution.


Sergei B. Filatov, "The Russian Orthodox Church and the Political Elite," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 3 (Summer 1995), 5.

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1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664


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