My thoughts on Paul Coyer’s Forbes essay on Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church

This is a fascinating article which all Russianists should read, even if they strongly disagree with it.

The author, Paul Coyer, a Forbes commentator and professional foreign policy analyst affiliated with several interventionist Washington think tanks, accurately notes the close collaboration between the Russian State under Putin and the Russian Church. He assumes it is a bad thing, and doesn’t provide any actual empirical evidence for his claims in this area, but simply regurgitates the usual “Russia should be a Western style democracy” Washington line, bemoaning the lost promise of the Yeltsin years when, likely unbeknownst to him, the suicide, abortion, and unemployment rates peaked following the Soviet collapse while wages and life expectancy plummeted.

Many of Dr Coyer’s observations about the close relationship between the Russian State and the Russian Orthodox Church are correct. Where I disagree with him is his view that this close relationship is either unnatural, evil, or both. Where Coyer sees disingenuous mafiosi looking to atone for their sins in the fact that so many Russian oligarchs are contributing funds to rebuild churches demolished under Soviet rule, I leave room for a less cynical possibility: that the move to rebuild Empire-period, ancient churches which the Soviets destroyed constitutes a society-wide impetus among Russians of all classes to reconnect with the best aspects of pre-revolutionary culture, which was inextricably bound up in, permeated by, and historically defined through the mission of the Church.

It is cultural imperialism of the worst kind, an extraordinary ignorance and arrogance, to assume that everyone in the world wants Western-style liberal democracy and total separation of Church and State, when, on the contrary, the tradition of Russian society for a thousand years has been ever-more centralized rule (Kiev to Novgorod to Vladimir to Moscow, and Grand Princes to Tsars to Emperors in the “gathering of the Russian lands”) and close collaboration (symphonia in Greek, cooperatio in Latin) in areas of common social witness and motives between the political rulers and the Church. The symbol which more than any other defines symphonia is the double-headed eagle (one head the Church, the other the State) which the Romanovs adopted as their own from the earlier Byzantine or East Roman empire (330-1453). You may despise Putin, as many Westerners do, but all Coyer’s article shows him to be is a masterful politician who has a powerful sense of history, religious revival, and Russia’s national identity and the soul of its people.

When Putin came to power he shrewdly noted the ROC’s useful role in boosting nationalism and the fact that it shared his view of Russia’s role in the world, and began to work toward strengthening the Church’s role in Russian society. Early in his presidency the Russian Duma passed a law returning all church property seized during the Soviet era (which act alone made the ROC one of the largest landholders in Russia). Over the past decade and a half, Putin has ordered state-owned energy firms to contribute billions to the rebuilding of thousands of churches destroyed under the Soviets, and many of those rich oligarchs surrounding him are dedicated supporters of the ROC who have contributed to the growing influence of the church in myriad ways. Around 25,000 ROC churches have been built or rebuilt since the early 1990′s, the vast majority of which have been built during Putin’s rule and largely due to his backing and that of those in his close circle of supporters. Additionally, the ROC has been given rights that have vastly increased its role in public life, including the right to teach religion in Russia’s public schools and the right to review any legislation before the Russian Duma.

The glue that holds together the alliance between Vladimir Putin and the ROC, and the one that more than any other explains their mutually-supporting actions, is their shared, sacralized vision of Russian national identity and exceptionalism. Russia, according to this vision, is neither Western nor Asian, but rather a unique society representing a unique set of values which are believed to be divinely inspired.

6 thoughts on “My thoughts on Paul Coyer’s Forbes essay on Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church

  1. I’ve read enough of these kinds of essays that I pretty much can predict what people like Coyne are going to say. I think your critique of that whole point of view is pretty accurate. The presumption is always that the American way of doing things is the right way of doing them, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary.

    • I quite agree, Andrew! There is this extraordinary degree of arrogance that, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary, the U.S. is always “above” the other country in terms of our conduct, values, etc. The sad reality is that while most American media have been going gaga over Bruce “Caitlyn” Jenner coming out as a woman, Russian media (admittedly largely state controlled, which I do see as a major problem) are focusing on the much more pressing issues of the ongoing, terrible war in Ukraine (for which I do not hold Russia blameless, but nor do I see it as the monstrous aggressor Western media portray it as).

      • Not just with Russia. A lot of the problems we’ve had in our Middle Eastern adventures is the belief that we can recreate the American system there and the belief that if one simply removes the dictator that society will naturally form a nice orderly constitutional democracy. I once interviewed 8 Iraqi PhD students I(this was in New Jersey in 2012) and asked them what type of government they would choose for their country. 7 said a brutal dictatorship and one said (and I like this answer best) that the smartest thing to do would be to restore the monarchy.

  2. Regardless of my ecclesiological differences with the ROC, I inevitably find these sort of critiques idiotic. “They mistreat Jehovah’s Witness and Protestant and Catholic missionaries!” Give me a break. The government of the US does not want religious diversity in the US, Russia, or anywhere else. It wants everyone to act like liberal Protestants. Sure, you can keep your ancestral labels and practices (well, some of them, at least) but everyone has to be the same. The persecution–or asserted persecution–of missionaries is not a concern because these people actually care about the missionaries, but because it demonstrates that Russia is not in line with their agenda. If the ROC & Putin have a problem, it is that it ought to submit to the universal and primatial authority of the Pope of Rome, not that it doesn’t submit to some silly ideological agenda.
    I personally know a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic hieromonk (now an abbot) who talks about how the JW missionaries managed to convert people whose Christian parents were unable to really teach them their ancestral Catholic/Orthodox faith under the Soviet Communist regime. He is not a fan of the JWs.
    My long-winded rant ends here.

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