Once Again with the Church and the State: Russian Orthodox Faith in Characterizing Contemporary National Politics

russia 2487152 1280

Finalist, High School Essay Contest 2021

“The conversion of Prince Vladimir and the whole of Rus to Orthodoxy were of truly historic significance and played a fundamental part in shaping our state’s development. […] A desire for statehood based on a completely new spiritual foundation emerged […] changed not only the rules of social conduct and family life but transformed state life in its entirety.”1 

When these words were delivered by Dmitry Medvedev—Russian President as of 29th June 2008—in his seminal speech commencing the 1020th anniversary of Russia’s nationwide conversion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, they were resonant with a sense of contemporary political significance unanimously felt by the congregation present that day.2 Indeed, not so long ago, many believers who were treated as second-class citizens under the secularist Soviet rule probably could not have imagined themselves attending services at a newly reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, much less having their faith addressed with respect and recognition by a national leader.3 The lingering feelings of tension, laced with almost a century of mistrust and bitter sentiments, were remotely reminiscent of President Vladimir V. Putin’s meeting with leaders of the breakaway Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 2003, where he famously proclaimed “that this godless regime is no longer there…You are sitting with a believing president.”4 These prompt and conscientious attempts by post-Soviet leaders to mend fences with the church in the early years of the Federation were indicative not only of their clean break with communism, but also of a perceived need to recognize and perpetuate the Orthodoxy faith’s dominant influence on shaping political culture, promoting populist notions of citizenship, and furthering the effectiveness of the state of Russia. 

It could be said that these efforts have morphed into the present-day norm of Russian church-state relations, with the bond between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and federal leadership now arguably stronger than ever, blurring the distinction between faith, nationalism, and policy. In recent years, Russian Orthodox has remained the largest religious denomination in the country, accounting for more than 70 percent of all adherents, and the church has also been undergoing a tremendous revival across the motherland, with old churches being restored, hundreds new ones under construction, as well as support garnered on many fronts, whether civil, political, or scholarly.56 According to BBC, one Russian religious academic and theologian was reported to have said in an interview that, “the importance of the church in contemporary Russia is socio-cultural, it is an immensely important part of the sense of national and cultural identity.”7 

Orthodoxy’s close alliance with the Russian state dated back to the 10th century AD, when Prince Vladimir I’s military and spiritual conquests culminated in the unification of disparate Byzantine provinces and, ultimately, the creation of the first centrally governed Russian state. Following the event of the Baptism of Rus in 988 AD, in which the same Prince converted the whole of Russia to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox values have steadily become intertwined with Russia’s national mythology and political culture, with prominent sentiments of nationalism, conservatism, and Russian exceptionalism all having deep affiliations with the dominant religion. Indeed, Russian exceptionalism—the popular faith in Russia’s uniqueness, holiness, and divine providence as an empire—is advocated by Orthodox adherents who believe that Russia is the single state where traditional Orthodox beliefs have been preserved intact since the Byzantine Empire.8 The expression of Orthodox piety demonstrates a reverence towards Russian tradition and culture.9 Russia’s leaders, in turn, have taken an interest not only in furthering the national state’s development, but also in assuming the spiritual imperative to shape the moral life of the citizenry, as evidenced by the support of both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin for the Moscow Patriarchate.1011 

Russian nationalism is also a good case in point: it began to thrive alongside the expansion of ROC influence in society, for the restriction of religious freedom that came from alternative religious groups’ diminished visibility went hand-in-hand with a trend of increasing limitations imposed on citizenship rights. This development has been remarked time and time again as the beginning of the slow death of Russia’s fledgling democracy; however, when it comes to the realities of domestic church-state relations, the ROC’s privileged status, coupled with its shared sacralized vision of Russian national identity with the ruling government, has pushed for mutually beneficial political ties between the church and the state, which has grown increasingly deep under Putin.12 According to this vision, Russia is neither Western nor Asian, but is instead “a unique society representing a unique set of values which are believed to be divinely inspired”, leading domestic developments to be centered around the growing importance of the concept of “traditional moral values” for years.13 This ever-fueled conservatism is another case in point for the ideological convergences and entanglements between Russian Orthodoxy and politics, with these “traditional moral values” being vastly politicized insofar as “various parties seek to impose their understandings of proper persons and relationships on one another”.14 The most obvious case in point of the use of politics as an instrument in the moral sphere is the anti-gay movement prominently supported by Orthodox activists and certain clergymen, whose agenda regarding this issue was espoused and reproduced in the governmental stance and legislation of the Russian state.15 

With Russian Orthodoxy’s—and the church itself’s—vast influence on promoting the existing national political culture, values, and sentiments, which helps shape governmental policies in an array of areas, comes the Kremlin’s reasonable incentive to use its ties with the dominant religious institution as a tool of influence. The ROC’s hostility towards of other religious groups’ activities in Russia have dovetailed with that of Putin’s own distaste for dissent, thus providing the ideological justification for his crackdown on domestic deviant groups.16 Internationally, as the importance of a strong central state is elevated in its mission to expand Russia’s influence and authority until it dominates and controls the vast Eurasian landmass, the Orthodox church is also given a key role as the arm of the nation exercising its cultural influence.17 This demonstration of Russian exceptionalism has been broadly echoed by the population, which goes a long way to explaining Putin’s sky-high approval ratings.18 Putin has, in turn, successfully been able both to transfer to his government the social trust placed by most Russians in the ROC and the Orthodox faith, and to wrap himself in the trappings of almost a patron saint of Russia, forecasting a long-lasting maintenance of this unique religious-political partnership in years to come. 


1 President of Russia, “Speech at 1020th Anniversary,” par. 4.

2 Lokshin, Turzan, and Vollum, “Patriot Games,” 1-2. 

3 Walters, “Russian Orthodox Church”, 135. 

4 Kishkovsky, “2 Russian Churches.” 

5 Damon, “Reporting Religion.” 

6 Lokshin, Turzan, and Vollum, “Patriot Games,” 2. 

7 Damon, “Reporting Religion.” 

8 Lokshin, Turzan, and Vollum, “Patriot Games,” 3.

9 Knox, Russian Society, 146. 

10Lokshin, Turzan, and Vollum, “Patriot Games,” 3. 

11Knox, Russian Society, 146. 

12Atúnez, “The Role of Religion.” 

13Köllner, “Conservatism in Russian Orthodoxy.” 

14Rogers, The Old Faith, 13. 

15 Köllner, “Conservatism in Russian Orthodoxy.” 

16Coyer, “(Un)Holly Alliance”.


18 Ibid.

Works Cited

Atúnez, Juan Carlos. “The Role of Religion and Values in Russian Policies: The Case of
Hybrid Warfare.” Global Strategy, November 11, 2017.

Coyer, Paul. “(Un)Holy Alliance: Vladimir Putin, The Russian Orthodox Church And Russian Exceptionalism.” Forbes, May 21, 2015.

Damon, Dan. “Reporting Religion.” BBC News, November 12, 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/check/worldservice/meta/dps/2008/02/080222_reporting_religionsize=au&bgc=003399&lang=enws&nbram=1&nbwm=1&bbram=1&bbwm=1

Kishkovsky, Sophia. “2 Russian Churches, Split by War, Reuniting.” New York Times, May 17, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/17/world/europe/17russia.html

Knox, Zoe. Russian Society and the Orthodox Church: Religion in Russia after Communism. London, New York: Routledge, 2004.

Köllner, Tobias. “Conservatism in Russian Orthodoxy and its Relation to Politics on the Local Level.” European Consortium for Political Research, n.d.

Lokshin, Jacob, Alexis Turzan, and Jensen Vollum. “Patriot Games: The Russian State,
Kosovo and the Resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church.” USC Dornsife, n.d.

President of Russia. “Speech at Christ the Saviour Cathedral marking the start of
Celebrations of the 1020th Anniversary of the Baptism of Rus.” Accessed April 1, 2021.

Rogers, Douglas. The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Urals. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Walters, Philip. “The Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet State.” The Annals of the
American Academy of Political and Social Science 483 (1986): 135-45. Accessed April 6, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1045546.