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Responding to Religion in the Russian Sphere of Influence

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Since my administrative work in the Moscow Patriarchate, I have tried to comprehend the ethos of church-state relations in Russia and articulate it in a concise way. I think I can put it in a one-word formula: utilitarianism.

This utilitarianism has little to do with the homonymous moral doctrine produced in the nineteenth century by thinkers like Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill. For them, utility was human happiness, which is caused by morality. In our case, utility is when a person or institution uses other persons or institutions for their own ends. These ends can be morally justifiable, but the methods in utilitarian relationships are rarely morally acceptable.

How does utilitarianism work in church-state relations? Each partner pursues its own goal. The Russian state wants to become great again. Inside the country, it seeks to completely control society, in the Mussolinian sense of. Outside the country, it wants to restore a hierarchical order of nations, securing for itself the upper tier in this hierarchy. It also seeks restoration of the imperial order, similar to the one that existed in the nineteenth century. The Russian war against Ukraine and its persistent confrontation with the West are results and means of these strategies.

The Russian state juggles various ideologies to achieve these geopolitical goals. They can be incompatible with one another: radical left and radical right, nationalist and Marxist, promoting strong statehood and assaulting establishments. Nevertheless, they mobilize groups of opposite persuasions to collectively undermine the current democratic world order. That the Russian state propagates ideologies which are incompatible means it does not subscribe to any of them.

The Russian state adapts the same utilitarian approach to the church. Orthodox theology, for the regime, can be used in the same way as it uses conservatism, libertarianism, nationalism, etc. The political leadership do not believe in theology, just as they do not believe in any ideology they promote. Or, to be more precise, they accept Orthodox Christianity in their own way. I call this “Political Orthodoxy”—an Orthodoxy instrumentalized for political goals. They may personally sympathize with some religious ideas or spiritual experiences, such as visiting Mount Athos in Greece. However, they utilize religion and church for their own political goals. They use Mount Athos, for instance, to justify stolen fortunes. Mount Athos thus helps legitimize the kleptocracy that has been planted on much of the post-Soviet territory. For the same purpose, post-Soviet kleptocrats use the church to substitute communist ideology in the Russian society. The new quasi-Soviet ideology, expressed through Orthodox symbols and in theological terms, helps the Russian state keep society in check. The Russian regime also uses the church to justify its intervention in Ukraine and to destabilize Ukrainian society. In Western countries, the Russian political regime uses the church as soft power, lobbying against sanctions, for example.

Is the church a victim of the state’s utilitarian approach? I am afraid it is not—the church tries to use the state in the same way. The church needs all sorts of resources, which it can get only from the state, and it trades its own assets in exchange. The church can trade to the state its influence on people’s minds through teaching and blessing. That is why Orthodox priests bless new Russian missiles and prisons, and hierarchs openly support political leadership in speeches and sermons. The church also tries to manufacture and then sell ideologemes to the state. For instance, the church designed the notorious ideologeme of the “Russian world,” which became a device of the Russian intrusion to Ukraine.

However, just as the Russian state does not sincerely support the Russian church, so the church does not sincerely support the state—at least on the highest leadership level for both institutions. They have no illusions about the other’s true goals, and still they try to use one another. Both sides in the post-Soviet church-state symphony implement utilitarian approaches. Both employ the Machiavellian principle of ends that justify means.

The leadership of the church in Russia understands the sort of military crimes the establishment has committed in Ukraine, that the current regime is totally corrupt, that political elites stray far from the moral codes they try to sell to their own people and to the West. Nevertheless, the church turns a blind eye to all this and sees only an opportunity to achieve its own goals.

The followers of the utilitarian moral philosophy believed that moral behavior does not harm others and increases societal happiness. In contrast, the sort of utilitarianism practiced by churches in the twenty-first century harms both society and the church. The happiness it produces stems from propaganda: it is ephemeral, delusional, and fake. Sooner or later, people who consume this propaganda will become frustrated, and the churches that promote it will be discredited.

The Berkley Forum offers an online space for rigorous debate on critical issues of the day at the intersection of religion, law, ethics, and world affairs.

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