Putin Appears To Distance Himself from Russian Church

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Two statements by Vladimir Putin suggest that the Kremlin leader is now distancing himself from the Russian Orthodox Church despite his reliance on the Moscow Patriarchate for backing of his traditionalist approach and the Russian church’s aspiration to be the successor to the ideological department of the CPSU Central Committee.

The first of these involved what Putin did not say. In contrast to last year’s speech to the Federal Assembly and to earlier ones as well, the Kremlin this year made absolutely no reference to Russian Orthodoxy. But the second, in which Putin said that all religions and not just Islam have extremists within them may prove to be even more significant.

In a commentary on Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly, Irina Tumakova of the Fontanka news agency said that this year, in contrast to last, “Putin did not say a single time the word ‘Orthodoxy.’ Last year, however, he made Orthodoxy a central part of the defense of Russia against foreign threats.

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Putin continued: “Society decisively rejects hubris, rudeness, hypocrisy and egoism … and ever more values such qualities as responsibility, high morality, concern about society’s interests, and a willingness to less to others and to respect their opinion.”

“Perhaps,” Tumakov says, “someone listening to the president will recall the pogroms of exhibitions and the visits of Orthodox activists with jars of urine to cultural objects, things that the last year was full of,” something that these Orthodox activists may have felt they had the implicit sanction and support of the powers that be.

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“Putin expressed the view that “radicals can be not only Islamists, something that has become a common place” in Russian political discourse but that radicals can arise from “the bowls of any religious tradition”

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The second of Putin’s statements, one that a lead article in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” says is “very important,” came at a meeting the day after his Federal Assembly speech at a joint session of the Presidential Councils on Culture and Art and on the Russian Language.

At that session, Putin expressed the view in the words of the Moscow newspaper that “radicals can be not only Islamists, something that has become a common place” in Russian political discourse but that radicals can arise from “the bowls of any religious tradition,” including presumably Russian Orthodoxy.

Specifically, the Kremlin leader that while Muslim extremists have indeed attracted the most attention for their attacks in Paris and elsewhere, “this doesn’t mean that there can’t be any outburst” from other faiths because “there are a sufficient number of radicals in all confessions.” And there is thus always the danger, he continued, that they will “cross the line” in their actions.

Putin himself did not speak directly about others, but “Nezavisimaya” said that “the truth” of his words is self-evident given the aggressive actions of Orthodox activists and even the intolerance shown by Russia’s Buddhists who are campaigning against the so-called “Buddha bars” they find offensive and whose coreligionists in Myanmar are conducting a genocide.

It is of course possible that Putin’s failure to mention Orthodoxy in his address and his decision to note that there can be extremists within it as well as within other faiths is part and parcel of his effort to present himself as more open and tolerant not only to Russians but to other governments as well.

But however that may be, Putin’s choices in these cases are certain to be seen as a tilt against Orthodoxy not only within the Russian church itself but perhaps even more important by those whom Orthodox activists have attacked. And that almost certainly will have three major consequences in the near term.

First, it will embolden those who oppose the Moscow Patriarchate’s efforts to build churches in parks and public places. Second, it will also embolden Muslims to demand that the state agree to open another mosque in Moscow, something the Russian Orthodox Church has consistently opposed.

And third, for many Orthodox Russians, Putin’s apparent shift will raise questions about just how committed he is to what they see as an essential feature of traditionalism and thus cost him support, even if he gains it from the far smaller but much more often attended to group of Russian liberals.

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Paul Goble – political scientist and diplomat. He is an analyst, writer and columnist with expertise on Russia.

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