Russian Orthodoxy and Nationhood in the Age of COVID-19

August 19, 2021

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In July 2020, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) defrocked a monk who took control of a monastery after ignoring COVID-19 lockdown measures ordered by the government. Nine months later, a Russian Orthodox priest publicly defended Alexei Navalny, the prominent opposition leader. These two events highlight political discord within the church, as well as the complex dynamics between the Kremlin and the ROC. Reporting suggests the COVID-19 pandemic has strained the relationship between church and state in Russia, as some members of the Orthodox clergy have grown distrustful of Kremlin measures to control the pandemic. Vaccination—a critical issue as coronavirus cases surge in the country—is another area where church-state relations come into play. Some high-level clerics are supportive of Kremlin vaccination efforts, although the ROC has also emphasized freedom of choice to vaccinate.

While the relationship between religion and nation in Russia lays claim to a much longer history beyond the pandemic, the global health crisis has raised broader questions on the concept of symphonia, or church-state relations, in Eastern Orthodox theology. Considering the complex role of the Orthodox Church in post-Soviet society remains critical—especially as recent events, such as the protests in Belarus, highlight the rise of authoritarian politics in Eastern Europe. A Berkley Center project on the Politicization of Religion in Global Perspective, led by Senior Fellow Jocelyne Cesari, is exploring these and other issues by using Russia as a country case study in a forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press. As part of the project, the Berkley Forum invites scholars to reflect on Russian Orthodoxy and nationhood in the age of COVID-19.

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected relations between the Russian state and the Orthodox Church? In what ways does the history of religion and nationhood in Russia inform church and state approaches to the pandemic? How does Orthodox theology shape the political engagement of the ROC, as well as the ways in which Orthodox clerics approach the pandemic? In the long term, how might the pandemic impact the relationship between the ROC and the Kremlin? 

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