In February 2000, in the Russian city of Yaroslavl, an exhibit poster modeled upon Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Old Testament Trinity caused an uproar. By artist Andrei Logvin, it depicted Christ, Mohammed, and Buddha seated around the table Russian-style, with vodka and pickles. "Rublev's icon has been defiled in such a base way," local parish priest Fr. Antoni Ilin told an Izvestiya newspaper reporter, "that I do not wish to comment on such elementary violations of theology as Mohammed drinking vodka." However, in response to the Russian state's attempts to construct confessional relations along the same lines as Logvin's work, no such criticism has emerged. On the contrary, religious leaders vie with one another for a place at the privileged table reserved for Russia's so-called traditional confessions--Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.
Alexander Nevsky Over Boris and Gleb
Such a place comes at a price. Like Mohammed in the painting, forging a common position sometimes entails skewing elements of individual doctrine in order to comply with state interests. Russian Orthodox tradition, for example, contains significant exponents of both pacifism--such as the martyr Princes Boris and Gleb, who refused to take up arms against their murderous brother Svyatopolk, as well as militarism--such as the warrior-hero Aleksandr Nevsky. The modern-day Moscow Patriarchate, however, appears to favor Nevsky over Boris and Gleb in its staunch support for the Russian state's preoccupation with military security. The introduction to the church's standard parish reregistration application states categorically that the Orthodox confession does not disavow military service. Church spokesmen have consistently expressed support for "the anti-terrorist aims that the Russian state authorities have set before the army and law enforcement agencies [in Chechnya]," while remaining all but silent on moral issues such as Russia's phenomenally high abortion rate (70 per 1,000 women of child-bearing age per year). Interviewed by state television news on the Feast of the Annunciation, spring 2001, Patriarch Aleksi II used the occasion to accuse the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of using double standards in upbraiding Russia for human rights violations in Chechnya.
State Concessions at a Price
An audience clapping enthusiastically to a monastery choir singing Second World War songs in the assembly hall beneath Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is not too disconcerting, given Russia's warrior-hero tradition. From the mouths of Buddhists, however, the obligatory pro-military stance sounds strange. Russia's head lama, Damba Ayusheyev, proudly told me that Russia's Buddhists were "Buddhists with nuclear weapons." He is on record as saying that Buddhists should embrace military service as a "provision of assistance to one's country."
The "Foreign" Threat
Members of Russia's religious elite also express their loyalty to the nation by rejecting foreign influence within their own confessions, even if those deemed to exert it are doctrinally far closer than the other so-called traditional religions. Orthodox criticism of western Christian activities in Russia is well documented. Less so is absolutely analogous criticism by other religious leaders of foreign elements within their own confessions. Recently the leader of one of Russia's two principal muftiates, Talgat Tadzhuddin, publicly criticized those Muslims "who have brought heresies in from abroad." He also has called upon the Russian state to set up "barriers to foreign intervention in the spiritual realm of our country."
In May 2001 at a Moscow conference on "The Missionary Threat," Berl Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia's main state-favored Jewish body, similarly condemned missionaries from U.S. and Finnish groups, Jews for Jesus and Shma Israel, even though Lazar himself is a foreigner. He claimed to have had the complete understanding of Orthodox and Muslims in his stance towards "sect members" who, he alleged, were using deception to woo the Jewish community. And even though the idea of sectarianism is alien to Buddhism, Damba Ayusheyev has branded the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Dzogchen--ancient but only recently popular in Russia--as "sectarian," while criticizing "open missionary activity" by Buddhists from the West.
A Fraternity of Faiths--Soviet Style
In this artificial communion of "traditional" faiths, religious leaders are expected to support one another, however unlikely this may seem. When I asked Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin how the church felt about the construction of a Buddhist temple in Moscow, he appeared unconcerned: "It is fine--as long as they are traditional Buddhists." At "Faith and Civilization," a recent conference organized by the Russian Orthodox Church with the participation of representatives of the Islamic, Jewish, and Buddhist faiths (but no others), writer Mikhail Chuvanov commented that if there had been a Latin Yoke, Holy Rus would have been destroyed, but "the Tatar Yoke didn't touch the Orthodox faith." In June, Talgat Tadzhuddin took it upon himself to criticize the "seizure of Orthodox churches by Greek Catholics in Ukraine" and "the deception of Russian believers" by Catholic priests. Using the proverb, "an uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar," he maintained that the Pope could not visit Russia until all disagreements between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican were resolved.
Russian journalist Yevgeny Komarov finds Tadzhuddin's statements unsurprising since "he was appointed in Soviet times and passed the muster of the Council for Religious Affairs and the KGB." He believes the entire blueprint for interreligious conferences led by the leaders of the nation's so-called traditional religions must have been "thought up in the bowels of the Stalinist state apparatus." His view appears quite probable in light of the words of another Soviet-era religious leader at "Faith and Civilization," the now rival chief rabbi Adolf Shayevich. "I hope that the Russian Orthodox Church will work together with the traditional Jewish community," he told delegates, "as in Soviet times."
State Favors--Given and Taken
Albeit for financial and political motives, President Putin has gone a little way towards upsetting this cozy relationship. Over the past few years, Berl Lazar and his Chabad Lubavich organization have been built up into the new "traditional" Jewish organization in Russia--once Shayevich turned out to be supported by Kremlin archenemy Vladimir Gusinsky. Theoretically, the same could happen to any of the other confessions. The Russian religion law's preamble, which affirms recognition for the special historical contribution of Orthodoxy and respect for Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, rather than stipulating individual religious institutions, could thus prove to be the perfect instrument of divide and rule.
In his address at "Faith and Civilization," Putin did not make a single reference to the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution and the Church appeared not to notice. Patriarch Aleksi subsequently praised as inspirational Putin's comment that "traditional" religions cooperated in Russia, even though the Russian president did not use that word at all. Even without a clear cue, Russia's Soviet-era religious leaders are thus happy to follow their previous scripts. The yearning for state approval and protection is such that, at the same conference, the Orthodox Church did not balk at playing the reinstated Soviet national anthem in the assembly hall of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the very same Cathedral so triumphantly destroyed by the Soviet regime.
Geraldine Fagan is Moscow correspondent for Keston News Service.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 2002 East-West Church and Ministry Report