Religious radicalism in Russia: hell, heaven and the state; The emergence of hardline Orthodox activists highlights the links between church and government

Russian Orthodox Cathedral Moscow file photo

(Moscow News – – Kristen Blyth – February 4, 2013)

He’s young and slim, with a narrow face and dark beard. Deeply religious and intensely conservative, he supports all the precepts of traditional Christian values: church, family, God. He’s anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality, and opposes teaching evolution in schools.

“It’s crazy to think that the world is millions or billions of years old,” he told Moskovskiye Novosti in September. “This universe was created 7,521 years ago, on the 1st of March. It was a Sunday.”

Dmitry Tsorionov, who also goes by the surname Enteo, is part of a new and growing breed of Russian Orthodox activists who have gone from being a marginal and often ridiculed group to reaching major public prominence over the past year.

Political analysts explain this phenomenon mainly by the authorities’ attempts to regain legitimacy by appealing to conservative values in a country where 74 percent of people identify themselves as Russian Orthodox, according to a December 2012 poll by the Levada Center, Russia’s independent polling agency.

“The government and the Duma – or Russian political circles in general – are not so popular right now. If they show they are in alliance with the church, they hope they may get more popularity and respect,” said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

A fight for the light

Russia has been the stage for a slew of contentious political melees that have captivated international attention in the last year: the Pussy Riot trial, the ban on American adoptions, and now a legislative proposal that would criminalize distribution of “homosexual propaganda” to minors. At every step, Orthodox activists have leapt to the forefront to battle – sometimes physically – for their beliefs.

“There are anti-Christian forces coming from the West that don’t want to see our country strong,” Enteo told The Moscow News. “Foreign funds are at work in a strong geopolitical game between Russia and the Western world, which is attempting to destroy our spiritual strength and break the will of our people. We are fighting for the light.”

Igor Miroshnichenko, a deputy head of the “Orthodox banner-bearers” – an ultra-conservative group claiming to defend Orthodox values – agrees that there is a spiritual struggle taking place on the Russian battlefield.

“Our feeling is that of self-defense. We must fight against those non-Russian, non-traditional values that would seek to impose themselves on us,” Miroshnichenko told The Moscow News.

Most recently, the group’s mode of “self-defense” has included attacking gay rights activists with eggs, ketchup and fists in front of the State Duma. The LGBT group was staging a “kiss-in” to protest the anti-homosexuality propaganda bill, which passed its first reading on Jan. 25.

Eggs aren’t the least of it. In the last year, Orthodox activists have protested against Apple’s logo – complaining that the half-bitten apple promotes original sin – and demanded that Facebook be banned in Russia over the site’s use of male-male and female-female icons on the profiles of users who enter into same-sex marriages.

‘Fires of fascism’

The rise of ultra-conservative groups has led to a certain divide in the Russian Orthodox Church. While the leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate largely stay mum or nod approvingly, other priests lash out at the radicals.

When a few of the “banner-bearers” – the same activists who demonstrate in public wearing black T-shirts bearing skulls and the phrase “Orthodoxy or death” – publicly burned a picture of Madonna last year, Orthodox priest Alexei Uminsky condemned their “stupidity.”

“This [burning] is reminiscent of the fires of the Inquisition, of the fascists. It’s an act of pathological thinking, which they should take up with a psychologist,” Uminsky told journalists.

Despite the fact that many of their demonstrations seem to be publicity stunts, the Kremlin is increasingly aligning its policy with the demands of Orthodox activists.

Three members of the rock group Pussy Riot, who protested the close relationship between church and state with a “punk prayer” in a Moscow cathedral last year, were originally sentenced to two years of labor camp imprisonment for their “sacrilegious and blasphemous” actions that “offended the sensitivities of Orthodox believers,” according to sentencing judge Marina Syrova.

The newest anti-gay propaganda law, whose second reading will be held in the spring, also seems almost certain to pass – despite the repeated failure of similar laws proposed by Duma deputies over the last decade.

A mutually beneficial relationship

Since his re-election in March 2012, President Vladimir Putin’s ratings have dipped sharply. The Levada Center reported this month that his approval ratings are at a 12-year low, with 62 percent of Russians approving of his job performance. During previous terms, Putin steadily enjoyed ratings of over 70 percent – and sometimes even over 80 percent.

The Levada Center’s director, Lev Gudkov, blamed the trend on “the declining legitimacy of the authorities.”

According to Malashenko, the Carnegie analyst, Orthodox activists and the Kremlin have figured out that they can bolster each other’s popularity. For the activists, an alliance with the government lets them show “how powerful they can be.” As for the political elites, they believe that “cooperation with the church can give the establishment additional legitimacy,” Malashenko said.

Officially separate, but reality is different

According to its Constitution, Russia is a secular state. Russians, in theory, seem to want it that way: an August 2012 poll conducted by the state VTsIOM polling agency found that 74 percent of respondents wanted the church to stay out of politics.

This divide, though, is simply fantasy, Malashenko said. “It is Orthodox tradition to be involved in political affairs. I cannot imagine a separation.”

It seems there’s still a small gap – room for Jesus, as the expression goes – between church and state. Abortion, for example, a classic target for religious activists, remains legal in Russia.

But for better or worse, the two are linked for the long term.

“In goals, in tendencies, the connection between the church and government is always increasing,” said Miroshnichenko of the “banner-bearers”. “Thank God, thank God. In Europe, I hear, the church and government are separate. We hope for the opposite tendency.”