20 years under Putin: a timeline

The initiative of Duma member Elena Mizulina to enshrine a role for Orthodox Christianity in the Russian Constitution and the proposal by Civic Platform party leader Mikhail Prokhorov to adopt a special religious code greatly differed in style—but, according to author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, both of them contradicted the principle of a secular state.



Swindlers and crooks can be very talented. I was once cleverly robbed in a Moscow café. My overcoat, with my wallet in the inside pocket, was hanging on a rack that was right by my side. We were having dinner when a well-dressed and, I would even say, imposing gentleman who was leaving the café suddenly began to sing something in a foreign language. Naturally, everyone in the café turned their head toward the singer—and at that moment, as I realized later, my wallet was taken from my overcoat. This is the signature move of a successful crook: to distract the victim’s attention with some spectacular sight.

I thought back to this incident after two new political initiatives were recently announced to the Russian public. The first initiative was proposed by Duma member Elena Mizulina, who has lost all self-control—she proposed to write in the Russian Constitution that Orthodox Christianity is “the basis of Russia’s national and cultural identity.” Mizulina was not deterred by the fact that her proposal contradicts Article 14 of the Constitution, which establishes a secular state and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. Imagine a relatively light car racing through the city without a steering wheel or brakes—that is Duma member Elena Mizulina.

The second initiative, with a longer history and, at first glance, greater sense, was announced around the same time. Mikhail Prokhorov, leader of the Civic Platform Party, proposed the adoption of a religious code that would regulate relations between the state and religious groups. This initiative was discussed at a meeting of Civic Platform’s federal committee.

Of course, everyone understands that if there is something lacking in our country, it is a new code! By writing down new rules and regulations, political illusionists kill two birds with one stone: they satisfy their own hunger for action with a toothless imitation of lawmaking, and they present society with a false picture of conflict between “bad” and “good” people in and around the government.

There are more than enough contenders for the “bad” roles. For instance, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who heads the Moscow Patriarchate’s department for overseeing relations between the Church and society, has said that “the Church cannot positively view a world order in which a human person, overburdened by sin, becomes the center of everything.” This is a clear and wholesome position, and it denotes a fundamental disagreement between the highest levels of the Russian Orthodox Church’s hierarchy and the ideals of democracy and liberalism. If the liberal idea of a world order is centered on the individual, the Church’s idea of a world order is centered on a sinless state or an ideology that can only be interpreted by its own or by those in whom they have vested the authority to do so.

The situation regarding relations between religious groups and the state does not require any new codes. Religious groups must enjoy the same rights and carry the same obligations as all other public organizations.

Of course, Prokhorov is not as primitive as Mizulina. In arguing with the illiterate, he is playing the liberal part. Prokhorov is proposing to establish in the law “the principle of religious neutrality of the state.” In fact, this principle is already established in the Constitution, and Prokhorov is only calling it by another name. It is a harmless and safe innovation, especially given that this constitutional principle is being constantly disregarded in practice. Prokhorov believes that state officials should not disseminate their religious views publicly. He stands for a secular state. But in his proposed code, he suggests that any religious organization that has reached a certain membership level should be considered by the state as its social partner. The state would be required to enter into cooperation agreements with these organizations and provide them with financial, material, and other support.

A puzzled reader could lose his mind trying to comprehend how the idea of a secular state corresponds with government support for select religious organizations. This riddle reminds one of the distraction technique used to rob an astounded observer.

In fact, the situation regarding relations between religious groups and the state is so straightforward that it requires not any new codes, but the repeal of some existing laws. Religious groups must enjoy the same rights and carry the same obligations as all other public organizations. Their activities must be regulated exclusively by the laws on public organizations because that is, in effect, what they are.

The endless legislative efforts to grant religious groups some other status constitute an attempt to place them in an exceptional position in society and raise claims for their special relationship with the state. From the standpoint of the Constitution and the principle of equality, there is no legal difference between a flower appreciation society, a sports club, and a religious community. Members of these voluntary public organizations may invest their efforts and money in them and the organizations themselves may differ in the number of members and in their influence on public, political, and spiritual life—but they must all be equal in the eyes of the law and of state institutions.

These conditions are not universally liked—certainly not by those who feel a lack of public support. They want to compensate for their falling popularity with various forms of state support, which would allow them to maintain their structures and their previous levels of activity. With time, however, these organizations would become not so much public as state institutions—which, as we can see, would not bother them too much. Incidentally, by no means does this tendency apply only to religious communities. Many public organizations—from Orthodox Church institutions to human rights groups—have already fallen for the sweet bait of government support.