20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues discussing the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in Russia's political and ideological space. This series of articles began with an essay by IMR expert Dr. Alexander Yanov, "The Russian Orthodox Church and the Curse of the Mongol Yoke: A Primer on Collaboration with Despotism." His essay provided compelling historical examples over the past six centuries showing the dominant current within the ROC has been cynical and servile, characterized by collaboration with the powers-that-be. In today's article, Maria Snegovaya, a graduate student in political science at Columbia University (formerly a visiting fellow at Harvard University's Davis Center), puts forward another interesting thesis: collaboration with the authorities is an inherent characteristic of Orthodox Christianity.



Recent reminders of the Russian Orthodox Church's (ROC) archaic nature compels an analysis of its history. Alas, the ROC is not alone in rejecting the principles of democracy and human rights, nor in its irrepressible tendency to merge in a kind of a “symphonic unity” with authorities: none of the Eastern European Orthodox churches have ever played any significant democratizing or civic role in their countries.

This feature is not specific to Russian Orthodoxy alone, but is descriptive of the Orthodox tradition in general. Politics of the Eastern European Orthodox Churches substantially differed (and still differ) from those of the Catholic and Protestant Churches. In the Baltic countries where they were not fully destroyed by the Soviets, the latter Churches strongly influenced democratization. Outside Eastern Europe, Catholic and Protestant churches have generally played an equally visible role. Thus, Roman Catholicism’s participation in the democratic changes from 1974 through the 1990s (in the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, Guatemala, Malawi, and Spain) was so significant that political scientist Samuel Huntington called this movement “a predominantly Catholic Democratic wave."1

The Roman Catholic Church has not always been the flagship of democracy. Before the World War II, it coexisted quite happily with authoritarian regimes. However, in the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council introduced major changes to its social doctrine, stressing the need for an active church role in Catholic countries’ democratization and socio-political development. The Catholic clergy played a significant role in the ensuing wave of Latin American and Eastern European democratization, along with the ideological and political doctrine of liberation theology.

One of the best examples is obviously Poland, where the Catholic Church became a real symbol of freedom, revolution, and democratization. Throughout the country’s tragic history, replete with hostile occupations, the Catholic Church supported the Polish resistance and was a guardian of everything "truly Polish," culture, authentic traditions, patriotism and language.  In a sense, the Polish nation formed itself around the church. After seizing power, the Communists faced Church resistance, which had further solidified under German occupation. Later, in the 1980's, the Church played a huge role in promoting solidarity across social strata by appealing to people's everyday experience through the language of symbols such as the Black Madonna and the suffering Christ2. Attendance of Catholic churches in Poland immediately turned into a forbidden form of protest against the Communist government, and both church-going and non-church-going activists and intellectuals gathered in churches across the country. Having become a symbol of freedom, the Polish Church established itself as the only legitimate institution of power in the country.

In Lithuania, a country with a predominantly Catholic population, the Catholic Church also played a huge role in resisting Communists. As in Poland, it provided active support to various dissident movements. One of the symbols of the Lithuanian resistance was the Hill of Crosses (near Šiauliai) where about fifty thousand Lithuanian crosses were erected. Four times, Communist authorities demolished the crosses with bulldozers, but the crosses kept reappearing. During his visit to Lithuania, Pope John Paul II specifically visited the Hill of Crosses to express his support for the people’s resistance to the Communist authorities. Interestingly, the Hill of Crosses was a symbol of Lithuanian resistance in the imperial period as well – the establishment of crosses by the opposition was forbidden by Russian Orthodox tsars in the 19th century (which indirectly indicates centuries of continuous Russian imperialism).


The Hill of Crosses, one of the symbols of the Lithuanian resistance.


These examples are in sharp contrast with the pro-government position of the Romanian Orthodox Church, which brings to mind similar behavior of its Russian counterpart. Historically, the Romanian Orthodox Church was strongly affiliated with the government, which greatly facilitated the efforts of Communist authorities to take it under their control. The alliance with the Communist government strengthened the social position of the church and allowed it to defeat rival religious groups. For example, in 1948 the Romanian Church was able to completely absorb the Greek Catholics, appropriating all their possessions and parishes. For services rendered, the Romanian Church remained loyal to the Communists, although it suffered from the religious persecution carried out by the Communist authorities. Romania has historically lacked Poland and Lithuania’s civil disobedience traditions. Small dissident (primarilly evangelical) religious groups started to appear near the end of the Soviet Union, only after the democratic movement had finally spread throughout Eastern Europe. However, the Romanian church persisted in its fidelity to the Ceausescu regime. The Romanian Patriarch Teoctist supported Ceauşescu literally until the very end, even congratulating the ruler on Timișoara "victory", where hundreds of protesters were killed. Only one day before the execution of Ceausescu, on December 24 1989, following the advent of a new government, did the Patriarch denounce him as a "Herod the child killer."3

Similarly, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church collaborated with the Communist regime until the collapse of the Soviet Union, while Bulgarian Catholics and Protestants who resisted the Communist rule were persecuted and deprived of legal rights (including church closures and confiscation of church property4). According to recent data of the Bulgarian State Committee5, 11 out of 15 Bulgarian metropolitans collaborated with the state security apparatus in the Communist period. Only one Bulgarian Patriarch and three of the 15 metropolitans were not found to have been linked to the KGB.

In Yugoslavia, the situation was further complicated by a problematic relationship between the regions and the Church. Croatian, Bosnian and Slovenian Catholics actively supported the separation of their countries from Serbia, democratization, and the creation of a multiparty system this would necessitate. (In Bosnia and Herzegovina there was even a consensus achieved between Catholics and Muslims on this issue.) In contrast, the Serbian Orthodox Church, which actively cooperated with the Communist authorities during the socialist period and declared itself the only true defender of imperial Serbia, later supported the imperial ambitions of Milošević and strongly favored a military resolution to the conflict with the rebellious regions.

Differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in their relation to Communist regimes are primarily due to their institutional organization. The autocephaly of the Orthodox and the Byzantine tradition of subordination to a secular ruler (in contrast with the independent supranational status of Roman Catholicism) transformed the Eastern Christian churches into offices of the state. This prevented them from taking positions even minimally independent of the authorities. Churches in Orthodox countries gradually mutated from public into state institutions. "Had there been a clear separation between church and royal authority in Russia in the early 20th century,” wrote the historian Dmitry Pospelovsky, it is "unclear whether the revolution of 1917 would actually have taken place."6

Political scientist Alfred Stepan illustrates the dependence of the Orthodox autocephaly from authorities with the following prime example: In Greece, after the establishment of the military juntas in 1967 and 1973, each new government within months succeeded in replacing the head of the Greek Orthodox Church with a more loyal figure. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there is no evidence of resistance by the Greek Orthodox Church to dictatorships from 1967-1975.7

This "symphonic unity" of church and state in Orthodox countries has led to an ideological monopoly of Orthodoxy. In essence, these societies lacked traditions of equal rights of coexisting different religions, respect for alternative world views, skills of dialogue and tolerance. In this sense, Communism did not bring anything new to the Orthodox countries, it merely replaced one dogma with another (one reason why it was able to root so successfully in these countries). It is noteworthy that even today the Orthodox countries lead in the number of European Court of Human Rights complaints due to a disproportionately high number of cases of infringement on the rights of religious minorities.8

The traditional subordination of the Orthodox Church to secular authority helped Stalin take control of the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe At the end of World War II, he created an alliance of Orthodox churches led by the ROC with an ambitious goal: to lead the fight against global Christianity by attacking the Vatican and consequently expand his influence on humankind. To this end, starting in 1947, the USSR began directing substantial funds to and negotiating with the patriarchates, modifying church-state relations as it saw fit. However, in the case of Catholicism, similar efforts failed: most attempts to isolate local Catholics from the Vatican were unsuccessful, and the latter remained relatively independent of Communist regimes. The Orthodox Churches’ active cooperation with the regimes largely explains the fact that in none of these countries had a powerful anti-Soviet movement emerged before the end of the 1980s. In contrast, in the region’s Catholic and Protestant countries, large anti-Soviet protests occurred several times: in the GDR in 1953, in Poland and Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and again in Poland in 1980.9

Unfortunately, Eastern European countries’ experiences do not give much reason for optimism about the ROC taking an active and positive role in the future democratization of Russia. Judging from the recent Georgian experience (where that country’s Orthodox Church has become a significant opponent of progressive reforms10), if liberalization in Russia occurs, it will happen without any help from the ROC, and, more likely, against the ROC’s will. But only by restructuring without regard for the ROC’s wishes, perhaps, will it be possible to finally build in Russia "The Kingdom of God on earth."


Maria Snegovaya. Maria Snegovaya is a PhD student in Political Science at Columbia University. She was a visiting fellow at Harvard Davis Center in 2009-10. Maria has coauthored several projects on institutional obstacles to Russia's modernization with Dr.Yasin, former Russian Minister of the Economy. She has contributed articles to newspapers and magazines including Vedomosti, Slon.ru, Snob, Harvard Kennedy School Review etc. Her primary focus of interest is the analysis of evolution of the authoritarian systems, and interaction between economic developmentand democratization.


1 Huntington S.P., The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. - Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.- P 76.

2 Ediger, Ruth M. "History of an institution as a factor for predicting church institutional behavior: The cases of the Catholic Church in Poland, the Orthodox Church in Romania, and the Protestant churches in East Germany." - East European Quarterly 39.3 (2005)

3 Ediger, Ruth M. "History of an institution as a factor for predicting church institutional behavior: The cases of the Catholic Church in Poland, the Orthodox Church in Romania, and the Protestant churches in East Germany." - East European Quarterly 39.3, 2005

4 Religion in Eastern Europe." Department of State Bulletin 86 (1986)

5 The Committee on Disclosure of Documents and Announcing Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army, Bulgaria

6 М.В. Шкаровский. Православие при социализме. Государственно-церковные отношения в СССР в 1939-1964 гг. – С.22.

7 Stepan. A., Arguing Comparative Politics.-Oxford University Press, 2001.- P.249

8 Project On Pluralism and Religious Freedom in Orthodox Countries in Europe. - Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy

9 А.Красиков. Глобализация и православие. – Русский архипелаг

10 де Ваал Т. Выбор Грузии: какой курс избрать в период неопределенности? / Томас де Ваал ; пер. с англ. М. Коробочкина; Моск. Центр Карнеги. — М., 2011

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