Authority as a Political Resource of the Russian Orthodox Church
The most important political resource is authority that relies on tradition, ethnicity, and cultural and religious affiliation. The Russian Orthodox Church has this type of authority as guardian of Russia’s national, cultural, and spiritual heritage. Political elites of all sorts try to tap Orthodoxy’s reservoir of authority and influence, managing various demonstrations of their close ties with the church, especially during elections. Politicians attend services, light candles, take the Patriarch or other church ministers into their arms, proclaim their faith, and talk about God and Orthodoxy. Naturally, all of this is done before TV cameras and floodlights that have the intended effect—people start to recognize and approve of these political elites. What happens is pure manipulation.
By these means a politician communicates the following message to voters: “I share the same values and traditions that you, my citizens, share. I go to the same church you go to, pray to the same God you pray to, speak the same language and keep the same traditions as you. That is why you can recognize me and show me your favor. That is why you must respect me, listen to me, and vote for me.” But this cultural identification may be a facade that conceals immorality devoid of any spirituality or culture. In fact, such misrepresentations by politicians are less and less convincing due to the continuous modernization of Russian society, the growth of civil society, and increased political and economic stability.
After political authority, one should take into account the spiritual authority that is said to reside in Orthodoxy, “the only true faith.” But its political importance is insignificant because it has an effect only on Orthodox believers, who constitute only five to eight percent of the population. Furthermore, even among these people, Russian Orthodox spiritual authority cannot be used as an instrument of pure political influence because the Church officially prohibits its priests from engaging in politics.
In the first years of political transformation in Russia, the political elite craved another type of authority that the Church possessed—its moral authority. Indeed, the Church was once considered the guardian of true morals. This was the highest form of authority the Church possessed. It is in the heart of the Church that absolute morals were born and passed on to future generations. That is why the political elite consider the Church capable of passing on to various government bodies its moral authority. As a result, a new tradition has been born: the Church bestows blessings on favored politicians and consecrates new plants, public buildings, commercial centers, even ships and submarines. The transmission of moral authority can even take place through television coverage of public officials conversing with Orthodox hierarchs.
Under Soviet rule it was dangerous to hold to any morality other than Communist, whereas now holding such morals is considered economically unprofitable. For new Russian businessmen the remnants of Communist moral values have been discarded in favor of the principle of prosperity at any cost.
One means of judging the Church’s political authority is to estimate the number of people who consider the Church to be the guardian of national, cultural, and spiritual wealth. Based on the results of recent polls, 80 percent of Russians express such sentiments towards the Russian Orthodox Church. A relatively new method the Russian Orthodox Church has employed to enhance its authority has been to organize protests against those outside its ranks who are perceived to be a threat, namely Catholics, Protestants, and atheists. The Church, with help from the State, is trying to preserve its authority through Orthodox educational programs that target the new generation of Russians.
Alexander Zaichenko holds a candidate degree in economics and is vice-chair of the board of trustees of the Russian-American Christian University, Moscow.
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report