"To the Church, protest and revolution are a catastrophe"

1 August 2018

In her doctoral thesis, entitled "The Russian Orthodox Church and the Challenge of Modernity", theologian Regina Elsner investigates the tensions between Church and society in 21st-century Russia. In so doing, she also examines the historical attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROK) towards renewal and diversity.

Regina Elsner. © ZOiS

How much significance does the ROC have in today’s Russia?

It has very considerable significance in the sense that according to recent surveys, around 80 per cent of the population claims to be Russian Orthodox. It thus has major potential as a focus of identity – culturally, nationally and historically. When it comes to religious belief, it is similar to the situation in Germany. Of this 80 per cent, around 5 per cent attends church regularly, meaning twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. In other words, the Church has relatively little religious significance in people’s daily lives.

Viewed from a Western perspective, the impression is that the Church has close links with the political establishment in Russia. Is that the case?

That is certainly the case and there are historical reasons for this. The Church suffered severe repression during the Soviet era. Liberation came in the 1990s, when the persecution ended. At that moment, the Church had to make a decision: should it align itself with society, which was struggling both economically and in terms of its identity after the collapse of communism, or should it align itself with the state, which promised stability? As the Orthodox Church had traditionally maintained a close relationship with the state throughout its history, it made sense to resume this cooperation. What’s more, the public was completely disoriented, which enabled the government to substitute Orthodoxy as a new ideology. The Church went along with this to a large extent as it tied in with its traditional self-image and because it was glad to be back in its privileged position of being protected by the state.

There appears to be not only a strategic alliance but also policy overlaps between Church and state. What is the ROC’s response to political developments in the 21st century?

That’s correct; they are not that far apart on many issues. A good example from recent years is the debate about democracy, elections and protests. Political persecution and arrests have sparked an intense debate about these issues in Russia recently. In fact, persons of faith are calling on Church leaders to declare their position and to side with people, not politics, in keeping with their Christian faith. But the ROC’s position is that due to the separation of Church and state, it won’t involve itself in politics. Yet at the same time, it refers back to its traditional position, which it has maintained for centuries. Its argument goes like this: “A strong central power is good for the country. If there is a difference of opinion, that’s conflict; however, our values are stability, harmony and unanimity.” And that position extends to parties that compete with each other – the very definition of democracy, as we understand it. To the Church, protest and revolution are a catastrophe. It justifies this position by referring back to the revolutions of the early 20th century, which caused so much suffering. Diversity of opinion, individual rights and so forth: in the Church’s eyes, these are alien concepts which people need to be protected from. So the Church is highly critical of the action that people are taking – protesting, voicing their opinions, demanding their rights. But it never criticises the way in which the state deals with people. And naturally, that puts a big question mark over the Church’s understanding of society and the people within it.

How did the ROC deal with challenges like these in the past?

In practice, the ROC always spoke out against renewal, even when theological alternatives existed. That was undoubtedly due to the fact that it always maintained a close relationship with the state throughout its history and the monarchist, autocratic state had an interest in keeping modernisation and diversity to a minimum. These positions were mutually reinforcing. Only once, in the early 20th century, was there a great flourishing of new ideas – the dawn of a new era. The monarchy came to an end, but there was nothing new to replace it yet, so for the first time, the Church was able to re-evaluate its position and decide what it actually wanted. But then came 70 years of the Soviet Union, which made it impossible for the Church to continue its theological evolution. All the ideas and fresh starts that may have existed in the early 20th century vanished during this period of repression.

Can any radical changes be expected in the ROC’s position?

No, there will be no radical changes in the foreseeable future. A church is part of the society in which it exists; unless the political and social system evolves in a very different direction, we won’t see much change from the Orthodox Church. The ROC is not a church of revolution and opposition. Ultimately, it will argue that its task is to lead the person to salvation, not to engage on major social issues. As a result, people who have a different opinion will turn away from the Church or leave the country, which is what is happening across Russia as a whole. Those who agree with the Church’s position and who benefit from it will stay. Although the ROC is part of a world church, a great Christian community, it is in the process of isolating itself, much like Russia itself. At present, I am not particularly optimistic that this situation will change fundamentally in future.


Regina Elsner is a research associate at ZOiS. Her current research project deals with the socio-ethical discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church between theological sovereignty and political adaptation.

Elsner, Regina. 2018. Die Russische Orthodoxe Kirche vor der Herausforderung Moderne. Historische Wegmarken und theologische Optionen im Spannungsfeld von Einheit und Vielfalt, Würzburg: Echter Verlag.