Reconsidering Symphonia: Russian Church-State Relations in Pandemic Times

By: Irina du Quenoy

August 19, 2021

Russian Orthodoxy and Nationhood in the Age of COVID-19

As with everything related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ways in which the virus has affected the evolution of church-state relations in Russia are far from clear cut: The great lesson of the pandemic seems to be that reality is in constantly changing flux. That being said, this essay offers a brief “snapshot” highlighting some trends that may be important as Russia-watchers continue to monitor its (post)Putin evolution and as scholars of religion and politics grapple with the complexity of their subject, with Russia as, if not exhibit A, at least high up on the list of important cases to keep an eye on.

To begin with, the pandemic provides an opportunity to seriously interrogate the wisdom of privileging symphonia, the Orthodox Byzantine model within which the church and state work together allegedly for the overall good, as the lens through which to interpret church-state relations in Russia. Despite external trappings (patriarchal blessings at presidential inaugurations, priests blessing nuclear submarines, ritual statements of mutual cooperation, etc.), the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) does not enjoy an untouchable position. The early response to COVID highlighted this: Despite vociferous protests on the part of leading hierarchs (most prominently the popular Metropolitan Longin of Simbirsk), the government in spring 2020 forced churches to greatly limit attendance, especially around the traditional Easter celebrations. And there was no obvious state help forthcoming when increasingly vocal critics of the church pegged the institution as a potential viral super-spreader due to such practices as communion from a common spoon. On the level of institutional analysis, at least, COVID highlighted clear cracks in the erstwhile partnership, demonstrating the limits of the church’s ability to rely on the state’s support for its positions on any and all social issues.

The pandemic provides an opportunity to seriously interrogate the wisdom of privileging symphonia as the lens through which to interpret church-state relations in Russia.

Furthermore, the symphonia model presupposes both the ability and willingness of both sides of the partnership to support each other in moments of crisis. In Russia (as in Byzantium historically), both state and church are run in authoritarian fashion, meaning that manifestations of mutual support must explicitly involve the two men in charge of their respective sides of the dyad. From this point of view, the church-state partnership in the Russian Federation is clearly malfunctioning, as COVID has signaled the utter collapse of Patriarch Kirill (Gundiaev) as a public figure. Immediately after possible exposure to the virus in October 2020, Kirill retreated to a residence in the suburbs of Moscow, remaining almost entirely out of public view ever since.

Kirill’s absence from the public sphere comes at a time when the Russian government is desperately trying to convince a recalcitrant population to take up the COVID vaccine. The Delta variant began ravaging the Russian Federation a month or so before hitting the United States, in a context where only about 10% of the population is vaccinated. In these circumstances, the “brainwashed Orthodox” (pravoslavnutye) emerged as an early scapegoat that was supposedly responsible for widespread anti-vaccine sentiments, a trope initially substantiated by a nationally covered scandal in which a fundamentalist, anti-vaccine monastic community in Ekaterinburg was forcibly shut down by local police authorities. The absence of active patriarchal agitation in favor of vaccines serves as a stark indictment of symphonia’s blanket applicability to Russian church-state relations.

The absence of active patriarchal agitation in favor of vaccines serves as a stark indictment of symphonia’s blanket applicability to Russian church-state relations.

At the same time, the specific problem of vaccines also highlights another aspect worth discussing here. In our tendency to see the United States and Russia as antagonistic opposites, it is useful to observe that Russia’s struggles with vaccine uptake suggest that perhaps the United States is not uniquely cursed with recalcitrant citizens and that, in either case, blaming one segment of the population for our failures in defeating COVID (whether Trumpist/evangelical Republicans in one case and fundamentalist Orthodox in the other) is misguided. 

On the one hand, the problem of vaccine hesitancy driven by religious belief certainly exists in Russia, just as it does in the United States: In both cases, visible segments of the (Orthodox and other Christian) population are troubled in particular by the alleged use of aborted fetuses in the production of vaccines. On the other hand, even in the absence of Patriarch Kirill, highly ranked Russian bishops have publicly come out in favor of vaccination, even on occasion threatening to sanction clergy who counsel parishioners not to be vaccinated and even equating the refusal to get vaccinated and then infecting others with grave sin. That these types of pronouncements have come from two of the allegedly leading contenders for the patriarchal throne, Metropolitans Tikhon (Shevkunov) of Pskov and Illarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk, as well as from other highly visible and popular leaders such as Metropolitan Ambrose of Tver, is striking, as is the fact that the abbot of the famous Solovetsky Monastery, Bishop Porfiri, was forced in a rather public way to retract statements he made regarding the evils of genetically engineered vaccines.

Even in the absence of Patriarch Kirill, highly ranked Russian bishops have publicly come out in favor of vaccination, even on occasion threatening to sanction clergy who counsel parishioners not to be vaccinated.

These developments point to two conclusions, one general and one more specific to the ROC and its relationship to the state. First, vaccine hesitancy in Russia as elsewhere seems to be the product of a generalized lack of trust in the state and in institutions closely associated with it—it is not a coincidence that the “COVID-dissident” segment of the Orthodox population is equally mistrustful both of the Putin government and of the established ROC leadership; in this they are in solidarity with a visible segment of Russia’s liberal opposition. It may be useful to further explore this phenomenon in light of anti-government/anti-CDC sentiments among both red state Republicans and the Black community in the United States. 

Second, the inability or unwillingness of Patriarch Kirill to take a public stance on vaccination—news of his own vaccination seeped out into the media several weeks after the fact—may be seen as an attempt to balance between various factions within the ROC, a problem exacerbated by the patriarch’s low levels of popularity among the Orthodox: It is unclear that a firm statement on his part in support of the government’s vaccination program would bring about widespread compliance. Bringing this back to the question of symphonia, at least in this case the model fails when it comes up against the Orthodox Church’s own internal politics.

comments powered by Disqus