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.