Orthodoxy and Russian Foreign Policy: A Story of Rise and Fall

April 12, 2021

Once an effective ideology of geopolitical expansion, Orthodoxy today has been degraded to the level of trading in indulgences and can no longer influence Russia’s geopolitical course.
Putin has the upper hand over the Orthodox Church Illustrated by Onur Askin for Politics Today

Throughout the two centuries of the existence of the Russian Empire, Orthodoxy was the ideology and the main moral justification of the empire’s foreign policy expansion. This was especially the case in the “southern direction,” namely in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions, where the Ottoman Empire was traditionally the main and only military and political opponent of the Russian Empire.

Saint Petersburg and Istanbul fought each other eight times over the course of these two centuries. Both empires contained elements of theocracy in their state principles. The monarch was simultaneously the head of the official church, and in that sense, both rulers were the leaders of their respective community of believers, and shared both political and religious authority in their person. Therefore, the struggle between the Russian and Ottoman Empires traditionally not only bore military-political characteristics, but was also a religious confrontation.

Particularly indicative of this matter was the so-called Byzantine project of Catherine the Great, who in the last quarter of the 18th century intended to recapture Istanbul from the Ottomans and take the capital of the Orthodox world under the Russian protectorate. This idea was the dominant feature of Russian foreign policy for almost a century and a half. Russian troops were closest to capturing Istanbul during the Russian-Ottoman wars of 1828-1829 and 1877-1878, but these plans were not destined to materialize.

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The last attempt to revive and implement the “Byzantine project” took place during World War I, when the forces of the Russian Black Sea Fleet with army formations attached to them prepared to conduct a Bosphorus landing operation in 1916, following the example of the failed Dardanelles landing operation of Russia’s allies in the Entente. During World War I, the Ottomans managed to defend their capital, which automatically put an end to Russia’s “Byzantine project.” Russia’s failure to capture Istanbul exhausted the potential of the idea of uniting all the world’s Orthodox peoples under the auspices of Orthodox Russia.

Between 1920 and 1930, over 7,000 Orthodox churches in Russia were closed, and about 15,000 clergy and 200,000 ordinary people were arrested, shot, or sent to forced labor camps for following Orthodox Christianity.

After the end of the Russian Empire and the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1917, the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state in Russia fundamentally changed. The Bolsheviks saw in Orthodoxy not only an ideological opponent, but also their direct competitors in influencing the minds of the majority of the Russian population, and therefore subjected the Church to harsh political repression and even terror. This process was initiated by the decree of the Soviet government of February 2, 1918, entitled “On the Separation of Church from State and School from Church.”

Between 1920 and 1930, over 7,000 Orthodox churches in Russia were closed, and about 15,000 clergy and 200,000 ordinary people were arrested, shot, or sent to forced labor camps for following Orthodox Christianity. The apogee of the persecution of the Church in Russia came in 1932 with the opening in the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg of the State Museum of the History of Religion by the USSR Academy of Sciences. During the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, as part of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin stopped the repressive practice against the Russian Orthodox Church, since he decided to use Orthodoxy to mobilize the Russian ethnic majority of the country’s population to fight fascism, which he succeeded in doing in full.

After World War II, the Church in the USSR was under the strict and official supervision of a special state body known as the Council for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers, which was closely associated with the Committee for State Security (KGB). Beginning in 1943, the Church ceased to be persecuted, but continued to be perceived by the Soviet government as an ideological opponent. It is quite obvious that in such conditions there could be no question of Orthodoxy being a dominant force in the foreign policy of the Soviet state.

The collapse of communist ideology and the Soviet Union turned a new page in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian political leadership now recognized the Church as a partner, not an enemy. During the early 1990s when Boris Yeltsin was the country’s president, the renaissance of Orthodoxy was largely due to the struggle for power in Russia between pro-Western liberals and pro-Soviet statists.

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During Yeltsin’s presidency, the process of returning previously nationalized property and cultural artifacts to the Russian Orthodox Church began and the practice of financially supporting the Church from the state budget was initiated. The latter was perceived by the authorities and society as a certain compensation for the Church’s persecution during the years of the USSR.

The influence of Orthodoxy on Russia’s foreign policy in those years was minimal and manifested itself in a significant way only once – that is, in the first half of the 1990s, during the peacekeeping operation of the Russian military in former Yugoslavia.

However, to a greater extent, the peacekeeping mission was an allusion to the historical events of the 1870s in the Balkans, rather than a manifestation of geopolitical doctrine. Russian peacekeepers in Croatia, Kosovo, and Metohija protected not only the territory inhabited by the Orthodox Serb population during the interethnic conflict, but also physically defended the property of Orthodox monasteries and temples.

President Vladimir Putin, who was elected head of Russia in 2000, decided to turn Orthodoxy into a tool of soft power in the country’s foreign policy. During the third term of Putin’s presidency (2012-2018), an ambitious geopolitical project began to be implemented to revolutionize Russia’s influence in the Orthodox ecumene by transferring the seat of the ecumenical patriarch from Istanbul to Moscow.

These efforts were planned to be made official at the Pan-Orthodox Council in the summer of 2016, but at the insistence of the Moscow Patriarchate the location was moved to a “neutral” site – the Greek island of Crete, where the semi-independent Church of Crete operates under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul.

In order to subordinate the entire Orthodox world to the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate and, consequently, the Kremlin, it was necessary to ensure the numerical majority of its representatives among the participants of the Pan-Orthodox Council, which is attended by patriarchs and archbishops from the fourteen autocephalous Orthodox Churches, with the exception of Rome. To this end, in 2011, an artificial increase in the number of dioceses and vicariates began in Russia by establishing 2-3 new dioceses and the mass appointment of vicars (bishops without dioceses) on the basis of the previously existing dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church.

As a result of such actions, the number of potential participants in the Pan-Orthodox Council on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church tripled, which from a technical point of view guaranteed the Russian Church a numerical majority in representation in comparison with the other 13 generally recognized Orthodox Churches. The Moscow Patriarchate’s actions were fully supported and financed by the Russian political leadership, since the patriarchate itself, without the assistance of the state, could not independently maintain a bureaucratic structure artificially inflated for the implementation of geopolitical ambitions.

The main question to be determined at the Cretan Pan-Orthodox Council was the following: which of the two patriarchates, Constantinople or Moscow, would lead the Orthodox ecumene? If we look at this issue more broadly, in the context of global geopolitics, the question then becomes which of the two countries, Turkey or Russia, will be the legal successor and heir to the ideological, cultural, and even political heritage of Byzantium as a world center.

Thus, the issue went far beyond the framework of purely intra-Church or intra-Orthodox discussions and trends, and acquired a global geopolitical context that inevitably affected the content and nature of Russian-Turkish relations at the time. Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople resorted to ultra-radical measures within the framework of Church canons in order to repel Moscow Patriarch Kirill’s claims to Byzantine heritage.

This included the recognition of the autocephaly (full independence) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate from the Moscow Patriarchate, which would have been completely impossible under other historical conditions. With this move, the number of firm supporters of the Moscow Patriarchate was reduced by a third, after which it was no longer necessary to talk about a Church revolution in its interests.

Realizing its complete canonical and political defeat in the dispute over supremacy in the Orthodox world, in May 2016, the Moscow Patriarchate refused to participate in the Pan-Orthodox Council. In order not to isolate itself, the Moscow Patriarchate pushed the Antiochian, Bulgarian, Georgian, and Serbian Churches to adopt the same step, but the latter, a few days before the beginning of the synod, announced their participation in the deliberations. As a result of Patriarch Bartholomew I’s decisive actions, which were not completely legitimate from a canonical point of view, he succeeded in retaining the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and, at the same time, the status of Turkey as the heir to the Byzantine Empire.

Today, the position of the Moscow Patriarchate is not much different from other state corporations such as Gazprom, Rosneft, Rostec, and others, with one difference: the patriarchate it is not a supplier, but a consumer of the state’s funds. Just as the city of Kogalym of Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, a federal subject of Russia, is the official “seat” of Vagit Alekperov, the president of the leading Russian oil company LUKOIL, so the city of Sergiev Posad is the official seat of Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. Just as the Vatican Bank (aka the Institute for the Works of Religion) is the financial center of the Roman Catholic Church, Peresvet Bank (Moscow) is the main financial institution of the Russian Orthodox Church. A close look at the list of its shareholders gives a very clear picture of the fact that, at present, the Moscow Patriarchate does not depend at all on the donations of believers, but has sources of funding that are very far from liturgical activities and missionary work.

In such conditions, it is naive and senseless to talk about Orthodoxy as the ideological basis of the current Russian foreign policy, which has not been given any moral principle. Currently, Orthodoxy is only utilized as a soft power tool. If we look at some events in recent decades in Eastern Europe, it is easy to see that the idea of Orthodox solidarity has not been able to prevent a single local conflict. In Transnistria, Orthodox Moldovans from different sides of the Dniester, without any moral or religious restrictions, fired at each other in 1992. Orthodox Ukrainians and Orthodox Russians actively and even happily killed each other in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, while the Kyiv and Moscow Patriarchates not only did not advocate a reconciliation on a common religious platform, but even encouraged the armed participants and instigated further violence.

This trend is inherent not only in the post-Soviet space, but also in other countries of the Orthodox ecumene. For example, the presence of a common religious basis did not prevent the Eritrean Orthodox Church from separating from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It appears that Orthodoxy, which was once an effective ideology of geopolitical expansion, has been degraded to the level of trading in indulgences and can no longer significantly influence Russia’s geopolitical course.

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Oleg Kuznetsov is a professor at the Azerbaijan University of Languages. Since 2012, he provides consulting services to foreign legal entities in Russia on labor, migration, customs legislation, and deals with private legal practice. He is the author of more than 170 scientific and educational works and publications.

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