06:03 GMT +3 hours30 May 2016

Due West: In Russia, Is it the Church vs. Society or the Church vs. Itself?

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A few years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested in an interview that “elements” of shari’a law could “possibly” be incorporated into the juridical practice of the UK, with its substantial Muslim population.

A few years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested in an interview that “elements” of shari’a law could “possibly” be incorporated into the juridical practice of the UK, with its substantial Muslim population. Despite being uttered while the politically correct Labour party was in power, Williams’ words created a furore that for a brief moment united conservative Anglicans, Catholics, Jews, atheists and even some Muslims in opposition. Introducing religious dogma into what is essentially neutral civic law can have far-reaching consequences – and tear society apart.

Now the Russian Orthodox Church seems to have landed in a situation similar to the one the Archbishop of Canterbury found himself in – but in a much more difficult context. It is already embroiled in a controversy surrounding the arrest of three young female rock musicians who tried to perform what they termed a punk prayer entitled “Holy Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

As if that was not enough, a new scandal has now erupted. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who is chairman of the Synodal Department for Relations Between the Church and Society, said in an interview that he supports introduction in Russia of shari’a law and of laws drawn from other faiths. He said that in fifty years’ time this will be the norm in Russia and the EU.

Chaplin was reacting to incendiary statements made on a TV talk show by Dagir Khasavov, a Chechen Muslim lawyer, who happens to work as a legal advisor for the Russia’s upper house of parliament. “If shari’a is not introduced, we’ll make the streets of the cities run with blood,” Khasavov shouted during a heated exchange in the studio.


For a Christian cleric to support shari’a is a bizarre thing to do at the very least. It flies in the face of Christian practices and ideas (acceptance of polygamy in Islam is but one major difference). Many Russians are generally suspicious of Islam and Muslims, despite having lived side by side with them for hundreds of years. The church’s official stance is that Islam is its natural ally in a fight against “godless liberalism.”

However, it is one thing for the patriarch and the bishops to state that all of Russia’s “traditional” religions share their views on abortion, pre-marital sex and euthanasia. It is something else entirely for a leading church representative to call for a radical overhaul of Russia’s legal system.

In a twist of irony, one of Russia’s best-known imams criticised Chaplin’s suggestions. He said that religiously neutral law ensures everyone’s equality before the law. Chaplin’s musings on the usefulness of shari’a follow a previous proposal to introduce an “Orthodox dress code” for Russia and assertions that Mozart was a mediocre composer.

This could have been written off as one eccentric’s views. However, he is one of the most famous priests in Russia (if ‘fame’ is an appropriate word here) and in the eyes of the public he speaks for the whole church.

His remarks provoked a firestorm. Intellectuals accuse the church of intending to turn Russia into an Orthodox version of Saudi Arabia. Gay activists, who have been repeatedly refused the right to stage gay pride parades in Moscow, compare the situation to Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Atheists claim that in some Russian regions being “outed” as a non-believer could result in ostracism at work.

The church, in its turn, says it is under attack from aggressive secularists who want to marginalize Christianity and make it just another lifestyle choice. When it comes to religion, the atmosphere in the educated segments of Russian society borders on the hysterical and accusations on both sides of the invisible barricade verge on the grotesque.

And yet public opinion surveys show the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill enjoy popularity ratings between 60 and 70 percent – something most European churches could only dream of. At the same time although up to 80 percent of Russian citizens describe themselves as Orthodox, only 65 percent say they believe in God, and fewer than 10 percent partake in communion and go to church at least once a month. In the absence of distinct post-imperial identity Orthodox Christianity turns out to be the only spiritual tradition and cultural phenomenon that defines the elusive quality of  “Russianness” – without necessarily making people closer to Christian ideals of love, humility, charity and spiritual freedom.

Polls conducted by Public Opinion Foundation for the sociological research group Sreda (Habitat) show a slow but steady growth of indifference toward the church in Russia. And this trend is most visible among educated and well off urbanites and young people.

“This is a dangerous symptom which usually serves as a precursor of future crisis”, says Alina Bagrina, who heads Sreda. These people are not anti-Christian, she said, but rather do not see the Russian Orthodox Church as responsive to their spiritual needs.

While the church leaders are content with high popularity figures, they see no need to engage in a conversation with the critically minded intelligentsia. They largely prefer to stay within the confines of their comfort zone and adopt the “Pay, pray and obey” attitude towards laity. This may prove to be a costly mistake.

Russia is an urbanized society. Seventy-five percent of the population lives in the cities, and at least half of that in cities with a population of over one million people. Urban intellectuals and business people, although a minority, form public opinion, attitudes, and lifestyle trends. For the church not to engage with these truly “new Russians" means nothing less than remaining on the sidelines as this monumental process shapes Russia’s new identity.

But it is still not too late. Just as the Roman Catholic Church used Dan Brown’s anti-Catholic “Da Vinci Code” to tell the world about itself, the Russian Orthodox Church could use this recent wave of mostly adverse public interest to its benefit – by opening up to society and starting a conversation with it, rather than sticking with the monologue it has preferred until now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.


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