East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 12, No. 3, Summer 2004, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Orthodoxy, Civil Society, and Democracy in Russia: A Meeting Report

James Billington

“Issues of Orthodoxy and democracy are very central to the broader question of where Russia is heading,” according to James Billington, Librarian of Congress and former director, Woodrow Wilson Center. At a 25 March 2004 lecture, Billington spoke about the Russian Orthodox Church and the role it can play in the development of democracy in Russia. He noted that whether or not Russia is able to develop democracy and civil society “depends a great deal on the role that the Orthodox Church will play.”

Religion’s Pivotal Role in Late 20th-Century Politics
Billington suggested that many scholars and policymakers in the United States, and the West in general, fail to understand the important role that religion plays in political life and that democracy in the United States itself developed out of both the rationalist ideas of the Enlightenment and the Christian, primarily Protestant, teachings that rejected top-down, hierarchical authority. Religion remains an important aspect of social and political life in the modern era. According to Billington, the two most important political changes of the late 20th century were both “fundamentally precipitated by religion”: the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Empire that began with Solidarity in Poland and the rise of radical Islam that began with the Iranian revolution.

The central problem that Russia faces today, in Billington’s view, is the need for legitimacy. He argued that in spite of the legal legitimacy embodied by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and in spite of the popularity of the current president, the Russian people do not yet feel that they have found either a shared identity for their nation or moral legitimacy for its governance. “Ultimate legitimacy is either going to be found in some form of extremely autocratic neonationalism or in some Russian variant of a continent-wide federal democracy,” he said. The influence of the Orthodox Church could push Russia in either direction.

Orthodoxy Co-Opted by the State
At first glance, it might seem that the legacy of Orthodoxy would be most likely to push Russia in the direction of autocracy. As Billington noted, “There is not a great history of compatibility between Orthodox Christianity and democracy.” Orthodoxy developed primarily within the Byzantine Empire and has a long history of close association with the ruling state. The Russian Orthodox Church also was subject to 70 years of persecution by the Soviet state, which Billington described as “the first political system in human history whose very identity was based on the destruction of all religion.” Although Soviet rule by no means destroyed the Church, he argued that Soviet persecution marginalized believers and severely limited the social, cultural, and educational role of Orthodoxy. Billington noted that the Communist Party succeeded in co-opting the Church’s leadership, and argued that one of the great errors of the post-Soviet Church has been its failure to initiate a truth and reconciliation process to examine this cooptation. “The worst thing of all that has happened has been that people who were partly co-opted into the Soviet regime now claim moral authority on the basis of the martyrdom of other people who weren’t co-opted but went to their death,” he said. This apparent hypocrisy has cost the Church legitimacy in the eyes of many Russians.

Orthodoxy’s Potential as a Force for Democracy
In spite of all of these problems and limitations, Billington believes that the Orthodox Church can serve as a force for democratization in Russia. He explained that the Church today consists of four groups of people: a small number of ultranationalists who support authoritarian government, an equally small number of liberals who support democracy and ecumenism, a much larger group who have focused on restoring churches and rebuilding the Church as an institution, and a smaller but significant group of local clergy who are focused on meeting the spiritual and physical needs of their parishioners.

Billington argued that the fourth group, which he calls “pastoralists,” is one of the best hopes for the development of democracy in Russia. In a country where reform has always come from the top down, he believes that building civil society at the grassroots is the best means of achieving democracy in Russia. He noted that “pastoralists”—by organizing parishes as social, educational, and cultural centers—are “beginning the general process of building democracy from the bottom up,” using the same methods that Protestant churches used in 19th•century America. At present, the “pastoralists” represent a fairly small group, but there are indications that they have influence in the larger Church. Billington therefore remains hopeful that by promoting civil society and “the democracy of ordinary life,” the Orthodox Church can help Russia in its “struggle to create some kind of a viable democracy in the large, continent-wide civilization that doesn’t have that tradition.”

James Billington is the Librarian of Congress, Washington, DC, and former director of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

Excerpt, edited by the author, is reprinted with permission from Kennan Institute Meeting Report 21 (No. 15, 2004).

James Billington, "Orthodoxy, Civil Society, and Democracy in Russia: A Meeting Report," East-West Church & Ministry Report 12 (Summer 2004), 13-14.

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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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