For many Christians in Russia, the freedoms of the early 1990s are largely gone. The Russian Orthodox Church, once a victim of Communist oppression, is now cozy with the Kremlin, but at a price: It overlooks the growing authoritarianism of President Vladimir Putin and human rights violations reminiscent of Soviet times.
Putin trumpets the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) as the one true faith and source of Russian superiority. He blesses new churches, and the ROC’s Patriarch Kirill proclaims Putin’s rise as a “miracle from God.” The ROC persuaded the government to pass a law in 1997 restricting the religious freedom of “foreign faiths,” and Putin pushed state-owned energy companies to invest billions into the rebuilding of churches destroyed by the Soviets.
The ROC—now one of the largest landholders in the country—even has the right to teach religion in public schools and preview any bill sent to the Russian Duma. The ROC is largely silent about the Kremlin’s murdering of critical journalists, politicians, and lawyers; its attacks on Georgia and Ukraine; its aid to the murderous Assad regime in Syria; and its fostering of crony capitalism that rewards corrupt oligarchs and steals from the innocent.
Putin, a former KGB agent, remains popular as he begins his fourth term, but perhaps not as well-liked as polls claim, according to Pavel Stolyarov, who also works at a Christian apologetics ministry. “If people are asking, ‘Do you like Mr. Putin?’ the answer is, ‘Yes, of course. Goodbye.’ It can mean almost nothing.” Reports of wiretapping and the unexplained deaths of those who cross the Kremlin have shaken at least some Russian citizens.
The trends are still worth tracking: Putin’s popularity peaked after the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 but plunged when the Russian leader moved this year to increase the pension age—an attempt to help offset the skyrocketing costs of war in Syria, annexing Crimea, sanctions, and a budget-busting World Cup. Critics pointed out the irony in the legislation, which raised the retirement age for men from 60 to 65: Life expectancy for Russian men is less than 65 years of age.
Russians are proud of their iron will and ability to withstand hardship. But the independent pollster Levada Center recently concluded that a growing number of Russians are weary of hating the West and making financial sacrifices for Moscow’s ventures abroad while corrupt oligarchs and patriarchs line their pocketbooks. The credibility of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill plummeted when observant bloggers spotted a watch worth at least $30,000 on his wrist. Church credibility plummeted after a failed attempt to photoshop all traces of the watch from the patriarch’s website.
Some Orthodox are concerned about the ROC’s spiritual health and point to the words of novelist Nikolai Leskov: “Russia has been baptized but not educated.” Between 70 and 90 percent of the population identifies as Russian Orthodox, but around 30 percent do not believe in God, and half have never opened a Bible.
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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine, Jill Nelson