Morality instead of peace. The social and ethical discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church between theological sovereignty and political adaptation

Project coordination: Dr. Regina Elsner

First the church, then the housing: in Pargolovo in St. Petersburg, a new Orthodox church was built in 2017. © Denis Sinyakov / n-ost.

This project investigates the dynamics of Russian Orthodox social ethics since the demise of the Soviet Union. Theologian Regina Elsner is analysing the interaction between the changing positions and priorities of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), on the one hand, and socio-political developments in Russia, on the other.

The project’s starting point is the observation that Russian Orthodox social ethics – in other words, the theological discourse about social welfare – has changed dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This applies, firstly, to its thematic priorities: until the 1980s, peace – partly dictated by the state – was the dominant motif, giving way in the 1990s to a focus on freedom of religion and conscience. However, since the 2000s, its social and ethical positions have been increasingly influenced by the discourse around traditional moral values.

Secondly, the dynamics of the ROC’s social and ethical discourse also impact on socio-political processes. From a social ethics perspective, an orientation towards the society in which the ROC is embedded is constitutive, but at the same time, the Church seeks to bring influence to bear on this society with its Christian message. The opportunities and limits of this interaction are mutable and depend on how the Church positions itself in the nexus between state, (civil) society and the private sphere. This position has changed considerably since the fall of the Soviet Union, accompanied by shifts in the ROC’s stance on social and ethical issues.

The purpose of the research project is to conduct a systematic analysis of the dynamics of the ROC’s social and ethical discourse since perestroika, focusing on both content and chronological development. Regina Elsner focuses, firstly, on the theological foundations of the ROC’s current socio-political orientation, the development of its social and ethical positions, and alternative theological social and ethical concepts. Secondly, she aims to investigate and determine what parallels and ruptures may exist between the Church’s social and ethical positions and socio-political developments, and what convergences and divergences there are between state and Church interests. With this approach, her intention is to draw more definitive conclusions concerning the question whether there is any evidence of the Russian Orthodox Church’s social and ethical positions influencing socio-political dynamics with regard to internal and external conflicts.

Patriarch Kirill leads prayers in support of the Orthodox Church after protest punk band Pussy Riot - which is critical of the Russian government and the Church - staged a »guerrilla« performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. © Denis Sinyakov / n-ost.