The New Tsar: Putin, the Russian Church and the New Totalitarianism

by apatheticacademics




Russia is in the grips of a cleanse. During the Soviet era religion was officially banned, even stating that one of its main ideological principles was the eradication of religion.[1] Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the state has increasingly positioned itself in line with the Orthodox Church. This once peripheral element within the country, kept away by official atheism and the powerful hand of communism, has centred itself at the heart of political life within Russia and in doing so is restructuring the state itself. Atheism, once the official line, as well as any act that is perceived as coming at odds with the power of the church is punished harshly, with heavy prison sentences now normal practice. At the centre of this is Putin himself, an ex-KGB officer and as such an atheist, he now harnesses the power of the church and wields it with devastating effect. This has reinforced his reign within Russia, a reign which is continually developing a new type of totalitarian Russian state, one forged and legitimised with the help of faith.

On the 21st February 2012 the feminist punk band Pussy Riot descended on Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, there they performed the song “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” complete with balaclavas and false praying. This piece of activism was in direct retaliation to the re-election of Putin to the presidency and the Church’s role within this, complete with the hook “the lord is shit”. After being disbanded by Church officials, the band were eventually allowed to leave without any action being taken against them. They went on their way thinking they were safe to protest in their “free democracy” and made their experience into a video, this was the opening of the floodgates. [2] By the 3rd of March two of the members of the band: Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were arrested and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, this was followed on the 16th by the arrest of a third member: Yekaterina Samutsevich. [3] They were held without bail until their trial in July of that year and eventually were sentenced to two years in prison each, Samutsevich was released in October of that year on probation while the others would remain until an amnesty in 2014, as part of supposed PR stunt for the Sochi winter Olympics. Amongst all of the international outrage from musicians, politicians and human rights lawyers, we were beginning to see something: the formation of a new Russia.

This event, other than focusing worldwide attention on the developing Russian orthodoxy, paved the way for a new law which “prohibits anyone from offending the sentiments of orthodox believers”.[4] The new law, which was passed hastily in 2013, carries the sentence of one year in jail for anybody who is seen to have “intentionally” or “publically” caused “offense to religious sensibilities”, or up to three years in prison for anybody who is deemed to have desecrated religious sites or objects.[5] This law is deliberately vague as we see within the most public cases being prosecuted within the last couple of years. The most notable of these was the case of Viktor Krasnov, who wrote on (a Russian social media site) in 2014 that “If I say that the collection of Jewish fairytales entitled the Bible is complete bull—-, that is that. At least for me,” and ended the statement with the phrase “There is no God!”[6] The state saw this not as an expression of his “atheist” will, as his lawyer pointed out, but rather a dangerous attack on the state itself and everything they stood for. As such, Krasnov was arrested and placed in a medical ward to determine his sanity before standing trial and could face up to a year in prison when the verdict is handed down. Putin is making a statement with this case, as well as other cases such as the blogger who played Pokémon Go in church, he is in the process of completing the long and complicated procedure of stitching the state and the church back together. [7] These laws are the thread of this, creating a mutually exclusive sense of both faith and patriotism, with the church and the state becoming synonyms of the Russian’s patriotic will. One of Putin’s greatest successes as president, has been the restoration of the church both “physically and psychologically”[8] to the Russian identity, interweaving ideas of the homeland and the old Tsars with continual references to the “patriotic”[9] wars of the last three centuries.

The church’s scope however, has not just focused on the criticism it has received from atheist and other believers, it has taken up the mantel of a new puritan order, setting the basis for a new moral code throughout the Russian empire. In Putin’s own words the church has always “cemented the moral foundation of our society and national statehood. At the basis of all of Russia’s victories and achievements are patriotism, faith and a strong spirit”.[10] This new moral code is combining with the digital age and has seen the elements of faith and technology continually clash when it comes to the morality of the realm. In 2015 the Russian authorities “banned 11 popular pornography websites, saying many failed to protect children ‘from information harmful to their health’”.[11] This ban was extended recently, adding the world’s most popular porn sites “PornHub and YouPorn”[12] to the blacklist. This website clean-up comes under the purview of the regulatory body ROSKOMNADZOR (the federal service for the supervision in the sphere of telecom, information technologies and mass communication, catchy right?). ROSKOMNADZOR has been at the forefront of the war of morality, cleaning up the internet in Putin’s own image, banning not only adult websites but weed smoking websites, websites critical of Russian’s foreign policy, as well as news agencies such as Vice.[13] This is Putin’s war on anything that alludes to western decadence, in the puritan sense, he is constructing Russia as a “moral fortress against sexual licence and [western] decadence, porn and gay rights.”[14]

These changes can mostly be traced back to one man, Tikhon Shevkunov, or simply Bishop Tikhon to his followers, Putin’s personal confessor and confidante. He is the man who has the ear of Putin and the Kremlin, with even some suggesting it is Tikhon who converted Putin to the Orthodox faith in the first place when Putin appeared at the door of his monastery in the late 90s.[15] His influence is wide, even campaigning to make alcohol illegal a notion which was scoffed at, however he did manage to ban the sale of alcohol after 11pm, a victory of enormous scale at odds with his official position as the bishop to a small monastery. The story of Bishop Tikhon tells us a lot about how Russia is seeing both its past and its future, it is repositioning itself away from the Soviet Union and creating a new era of the Tsar. This is where Vladmir Putin comes in, he is the new remodelled Tsar, a man who is reshaping Russian society from a secular republic, enshrined in its constitution, to a beacon of puritan and orthodox values. This has helped Putin repeatedly: in his re-election in 2012, in the countries pursuit of homosexual persecution and most importantly in the wars in Ukraine and Syria. He has made it so that the church has become the state and there is only one person at the head of this: Putin himself. The blasphemy laws not only support the church’s ideals, they support the ideals of the government itself, allowing for persecution of debate, free speech and conscious and critical discussions. He has now adapted the orthodoxy religion as the “state ideology”[16] crafting within this an undeniable “surrogate for patriotism”, his message is clear: If you are against the church you are against Russia.

This has created a multitude of problems which will have noticeable effects worldwide. Putin has made himself the divine protector of the faith, modelling himself after the monarchs of old and running his government like a royal court, advisors on the left and the priests on the right. As such, he has given himself a legitimacy that elected members of a presidency rarely get, he is there because God wills it so and therefore this gives him powers beyond normal functioning democratic accountability. This will prove to be the uniting factor around which Russia will grow and continue to exhibit its power, evident in the fact that more and more rich people in its high offices are getting their own personal priests.[17] The result of this will be increasing Russian aggression, with the justification that a stronger Russian state will be one closer to God. This will manifest itself in more draconian measures of censorship, with no limit to where the puritan line will fall, the closing down of legitimate debate, the persecution of religions and atheists that fall foul of the orthodoxy and a foreign policy that is about the glory of mother Russia and the strengthening of an empire. Russia will become a totalitarian state and with this a very unpredictable and temperamental foreign player and this is a danger to us all. Putin, with the help of this religion, has emerged not as a president but as a Tsar, ready to lead a Russian empire at any cost. It is what he will do with his new found divinity which will shape Europe, and the world, in the next decade.