Cracks in Russian Church-State Relations during the COVID-19 Pandemic?

By: Nikolas K. Gvosdev

August 19, 2021

Russian Orthodoxy and Nationhood in the Age of COVID-19

For the last two decades, relations between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state, as well as between the church and broader Russian civil society, have rested on a series of largely untested propositions: that the Russian Orthodox Church serves as the repository of national identity and values—even if most Russian citizens are not active churchgoers—and that one of the sources of political legitimacy for the post-Soviet Russian state comes from tacit and sometimes explicit church blessings. The church has sought a public role for itself, while the state has aimed to use the church “to engineer a national idea, lend itself legitimacy, and rebuild the power of the state that crumbled when the Soviet Union collapsed.”

Even prior to the pandemic, this relationship had tensions. The church wanted to avoid subordination to the state, while the Kremlin did not want to give the Moscow Patriarchate any sort of “veto” power over policy. In particular, how the church ought to respond to public protests against the government exposed issues with the “sacralization of power” by church leaders in both Russia and Belarus. Moreover, the pandemic raised the question of whether the church should be a witness for justice and ethics and speak truth to power, even though the church traditionally yields to state authority. In this bargain, as summarized in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the church supports the government, and in return, followers of the church are guaranteed the civic peace necessary to “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.”

The pandemic raised the question of whether the church should be a witness for justice and ethics and speak truth to power, even though the church traditionally yields to state authority.

But the arrival of COVID-19—and the imposition of public health measures meant to combat its spread—upset that bargain. For the first time since the Soviet era, the government enacted sweeping restrictions on social life that severely curtailed the public functions of the Orthodox Church. A series of decrees forbade or extremely limited everything from the liturgical cycle of services and the veneration of icons and relics to the ability to organize processions, pilgrimages, church schools, concerts, and fairs. It didn’t matter that non-church activities were similarly restricted. The concern here was that the government, which until now defended the faith, was now taking measures to restrict or prohibit church activities that believers felt were absolutely necessary to sustaining the faith—if not the public health—of the nation. As Metropolitan Theodore of Volgograd noted at the beginning of the pandemic, “We know numerous examples when infectious diseases were stopped by a procession carrying an icon of the Mother of God. That is why a procession of the Cross should be considered not just as a crowd of people gathered in one place, but as a cleansing.”

In spring 2020, as the state announced the first public health orders that would limit public gatherings, including those for religious reasons, many clergy and followers of the Orthodox Church compared the measures to Soviet-era restrictions on worship and pledged varying degrees of resistance to those dictates, some on the grounds that the threat posed by COVID-19 was exaggerated. Others feared that conceding to the state would create an unwelcome precedent for state control in the future. Even when senior hierarchs, including Patriarch Kirill, directed parishes and priests to implement those orders and threatened ecclesiastical sanctions against resisters, an undercurrent of resentment against the government has continued to manifest itself in the Orthodox Church. 

As the state announced the first public health orders that would limit public gatherings, including those for religious reasons, many clergy and followers of the Orthodox Church compared the measures to Soviet-era restrictions on worship.

While the case of Hegumen Sergii (Romanov) in Yekaterinburg may be the most extreme and sensational example, a clear erosion of trust has occurred among some in the church who otherwise would be strong supporters of the government. This development is contributing to a new spirit of defiance on the part of nationalist traditionalists who, prior to the pandemic, would have been considered core supporters of the government. For instance, in July 2021, despite the regional government’s clear bans on public assemblies, the Yekaterinburg diocese went ahead with a series of mass religious processions connected to the memorials for the executed family of the last Tsar.

Committed Orthodox believers are more inclined to be skeptical of the government as a result of the pandemic, but the state is also re-evaluating its assessment of the church by testing how powerful its witness and counsel really are. A particular concern for the state is the ongoing low vaccination rates among the Russian population. Polling data conducted by the Levada Center in June 2021 found that 62% of Russians do not want to be vaccinated, and that, by the middle of 2021, only 13% of Russians were fully vaccinated. As Russia faces a new wave of infections, particularly from the more contagious Delta variant, the country’s economic recovery is imperiled and a new set of lockdowns may be imminent.

Committed Orthodox believers are more inclined to be skeptical of the government as a result of the pandemic, but the state is also re-evaluating its assessment of the church by testing how powerful its witness and counsel really are.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which claims to speak on behalf of 70% of the country’s population, has exhibited high rates of social trust in the past. But can that social trust be converted into practical applications? 

Within the last month, senior church prelates have stepped up to cajole Russians to get the vaccine, with the church’s senior spokesman Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk comparing those who receive vaccines to those who fought to defend the Motherland during World War II. The church has also changed its position from supporting voluntary vaccination to viewing it as a social duty—those who publicly oppose vaccination and try to prevent people from getting vaccinated are committing a sin against others by violating “the principle of people’s responsibility for the lives of other people.” But whether the church can successfully convince Russians to get vaccinated is not clear. It is a test of the church’s ability to mobilize its followers—and the state is watching closely. If vaccinations don’t significantly increase, the government will likely re-evaluate how much deference it extends to the church in the future.

If vaccinations don’t significantly increase, the government will likely re-evaluate how much deference it extends to the church in the future.

Russia is poised to undergo another political transition over the next decade as the Putin era enters its final stages. And as that takes place, the pandemic will also prompt a re-evaluation of the bargain that has defined the cohabitation of the church and state for generations. 

Editor’s Note: The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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