Russian Orthodox Icons via Flickr

Russian Orthodox Icons via Flickr

By Irina Papkova

In a seminal 2008 article for Sign and Sight, philosopher Jurgen Habermas described the present historical era as “post-secular.”  By doing so, he brought attention to a major change in the way prominent social thinkers have traditionally thought about the relationship between religion and modernity.

Since the Enlightenment, prominent social thinkers like Auguste Comte, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim have promoted the “secularization thesis.” In a nutshell, this theory proposes that as a society modernizes, the importance of religion will inevitably decline. While this may have been true in the twentieth century, our present age is one in which religion appears to be ever more prominent in the public sphere, belying the idea that as modernity progresses, religion inevitably retreats into the private sphere. Yet the secularization thesis held paradigmatic status not just in academia but among policymakers throughout much of the twentieth century, finding its most brutal application under Communist regimes.

The Communist project was self-consciously modern, embracing state-imposed atheism as a central idea.  Once in power, communists both in Russia and elsewhere brought this ideology to life by destroying countless churches and exterminating or otherwise repressing thousands of clergy and rank and file believers.   The Soviet regime implemented anti-religious policies so thoroughly that by 1939 only about four hundred churches remained open across the entire territory of the USSR.  After World War II, the restrictions on faith practices eased somewhat, but religion was still driven to the margins of society.  Unsurprisingly, most Western observers during the Cold War were convinced that the Soviets were successful in their quest for a completely secularized culture.

But real life has a disconcerting way of overturning established assumptions. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, religion (understood as both levels of faith and institutional structures) that religion resurfaced with such vigor that it challenged not only previous beliefs about the atheistic nature of the Soviet population, but also globally undermined the “secularization thesis.”  In 1991, there were 3,451 Orthodox parishes registered on the territory of the Russian Federation. By 2003, this number had risen to 11,299, a rate of expansion of about 300%.  Other konfessi (religious groups) across Russia developed at even faster rates. For example, registered Islamic communities grew by 400% during the same period, while the number of Pentecostal parishes increased from 72 parishes to around 1500.

Given the unprecedented scope of religious revival in the former Soviet space, it is not surprising that Western scholars have devoted considerable energy to studying it. The study of religion, state and society in Russia can now be considered a fully established academic field. Santa Clara University and the University of Texas have recently begun offering academic courses on the topic and the number of books on the subject has proliferated. Geraldine Fagan’s “Believing in Russia – Religious Policy After Communism (Routledge, 2013) is the latest addition to this literature.

Most publications on religion in post-communist Russia privilege church-state relations as the central problem of contemporary religious life in Russia. There are exceptions, of course, most notably Scott Kenworthy’s “The Heart of Russia: Trinity-Sergius, Monasticism and Society after 1825.”  Kenworthy masterfully examines the revival of monastic communities after 1991, and is more interested in what drives today’s Russians to join monasteries than in Russian politics. Generally speaking, however, authors focus on the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the post-communist state. This is not surprising, given the prominence of the state in molding the lives of post-Soviet citizens. In this respect, “Believing in Russia” follows the established pattern: Fagan’s book is explicitly about the development of religious policy, which inevitably places the church-state relationship at the center of analysis.

Without being iconoclastic, “Believing in Russia” is based on impeccable research, and brings a useful corrective to many widely held assumptions about religion in Russian society.  Journalists writing about Russian politics for major news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post usually present a cozy relationship between the ROCC and the Putin regime, suggesting that this relationship is detrimental to religious minorities and non-religious Russians. There is some truth to this view but, as Fagan’s work demonstrates, the marginalization of minority faiths has as much to do with bureaucratic incompetence and the weakness of the rule of law in Russia as with the ROC’s plan to obliterate competition from other religions. Fagan tells the story of how religious policy is created and applied across the Russian Federation.  In doing so, she brings to light the role of personalities and personal convictions of bureaucrats in creating guidelines for how the state should deal with religion, and the efficiency with which they are applied.

Author Geraldine Fagan. Image via

Author Geraldine Fagan. Image via

“Believing in Russia” challenges the widespread stereotype that Russian politicians and Orthodox clergy are locked in an inseparable embrace, wherein the state gives the ROC privileges in return for the church’s unyielding public support. In Fagan’s assessment – and in my opinion she is correct – both the Yeltsin and Putin administrations saw the ROC as a potential source of legitimation, a well from which to draw a new, post-Soviet national idea. Post-communist Russia was, and remains, an ethnically and religiously fragmented society; the threat of disintegration and civil war are never far off, most obviously in the volatile North Caucasus region.  Both Yeltsin and Putin instinctively understood that a national church with a thousand-year history could provide some sort of social glue.  So both administrations pursued policies to strengthen the ROC’s role as a source of patriotism and national solidarity, shoring up the existing regime in the process.

The ROC has quite different aspirations: to make Russia’s Orthodox citizens more observant in their religious belief and practice; limit the rights of other faiths to proselytize; secure the return of property to the ROC, and to have an Orthodox presence in all possible spheres of life. This goes far beyond the state’s understanding of the ROC as a useful mouthpiece for the regime, and does not meet with the approval of many of Russia’s overwhelmingly secularized elites.   So many of the ROC’s demands on the government remain unfulfilled, and even when the state reacts positively to the church’s lobbying the resulting governmental decrees are often met with obstruction on the local level. I have long thought this to be the case, and Fagan’s research irrefutably confirms my suspicions.

Research on religion in Russia has proliferated over the past two decades, providing us with much data.  This is particularly true in regard to developments in religious policy and its effects at the federal level. But we still know little of what is happening in Russia’s eighty-six regions. Most existing research also does not take into account the personal views of key Russian policy makers on the ideal place of religion in society, although doing so would surely assist observers in making better predictions about future developments.

Fagan more than adequately addresses both concerns. The first, conducting research in the regions, she does particularly well. As Russia correspondent for Forum 18, a religious freedom watchdog, she spent 12 years traveling across Russia, conducting interviews in the remotest possible locations.   In her interviews, she focuses on the question of whether laws restricting the activities of religions “non-traditional” to Russia are uniformly applied across the country – and finds that they are not. This implies that laws restricting non-Orthodox religions are not as onerous as often assumed by outside observers. Moreover, Fagan writes extensively about the political pressures felt by Russia’s non-Orthodox believers, and about the strategies they use to cope with an increasingly restrictive environment. In doing so she provides both valuable data and an entirely original argument; other authors have concentrated on the Russian Orthodox Church as if it were the only interesting religious actor in Russia.

“Believing in Russia” also deals comprehensively with the personal ideologies of Russia’s policy makers.  The book is full of anecdotes about the views of Russia’s political elites on religion’s proper place in society, and provides numerous concrete examples of how these views affect the treatment of believers by regional authorities. For example, Fagan tells the story of an official in the Siberian republic of Khakassia attempting to crack down on local Lutherans based on his interpretation of the 1997 law.  Similarly, in a small town called Ertil, ‘a Pentecostal church was actually dissolved by a local court.’  In that case, however, the Russian Justice Ministry intervened on the side of the Pentecostal believers, reflecting a general lack of consensus about religious policy.

Fagan describes cases in which the local authorities purposefully do not enforce existing restrictions against minority faiths, and writes elsewhere of officials occasionally evincing negative attitudes towards the Orthodox church itself.  The picture that emerges is one of fluidity and contestation, in which believers and state authorities navigate existing legislation without arriving at a single approach to how, exactly, religious policy should be conducted in the post-Soviet period.  “Believing in Russia” provides a solid starting point for anyone interested in exploring the question of which personalities matter (and how) in defining Russia’s church-state relations.

In line with the book’s general theme that the situation of religious minorities in Russia is not as black as it might seem from the outside, Fagan includes a chapter on what she describes as a history of religious freedom in Russia. The problem is that historically there was no such thing. Between the founding of the first proto-Russian state in Kievan Rus in the 800s AD and the collapse of communism in 1991, secular authorities tightly controlled religion in Russia.

Fagan’s attempt to work around this problem is interesting. What she presents as a history of “Russia’s religious freedom tradition” is really a discussion of the theoretical writings of various Russian thinkers in the 19th century and of the aspirations of minority faiths under the Russian Empire, particularly the Old Believers and various Protestant groups. These groups certainly wanted to achieve religious freedom, and in the course of the Revolution of 1905 they managed to pressure the tsar to guarantee religious minorities freedom of worship. But the 1917 Revolution brought a regime to power that wanted to eliminate religion entirely.  Historically, there have always been people in Russia who sought religious freedom, but the achievement of this goal has proven elusive.

The pre-Revolutionary aspirations of the ROC are also missing from the discussion. The central issue of church-state relations in early 20th century Russia lay in the ROC’s desire to free itself from state control. Given that the imperial state regulated such things as canonizations and the production of theological books, freedom from administrative control would also mean greater freedom of practice. The restoration of the patriarchate in 1917, which gave the ROC an independent executive, was the result of this aspiration. Whatever the pre-Revolutionary ROC thought of other faiths, it certainly wanted both total freedom of practice and freedom from state control for itself, and by not mentioning this Fagan leaves out an important part of the story.

A final and minor criticism concerns Fagan’s use of language. The prose is stilted and cluttered with academic jargon, making it difficult at times to follow her argument, in contrast to the lucid writing of her articles for Forum 18. This is unfortunate, because Fagan’s story is important and had it been published in her usual writing style – and with a popular trade press – it would have reached a far broader audience and brought her the rewards that the quality of her research richly deserves.

Irina Papkova is a Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs. She received her Ph.D. from Georgetown University and has previously taught at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. Her book, “The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics,” was published by Oxford University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press in 2011.Irina’s current research includes religion and politics in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Lebanon. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

Featured image: “The Light of Faith. Easter”, Photo by Margarita Fedina. Cover detail from “Believing in Russia – Religious Policy After Communism”.