Only a small percentage of Russians go to church. Many who don’t may still be influenced by the Patriarch’s tirades.
*Translation of an editorial published on April 8, 2022, in the Italian daily newspaper “Il Mattino.”
There are two statistics from normally reliable sources that tell us something about the mood of the Russian population. One tells us that support for Putin, which had dropped to 69% before the war, has now risen to over 80% (although that respondents in Russian polls are able or willing to answer freely has been cast in doubt). Another that attendance at Orthodox church services in Russia has dropped to around one percent.
The second statistic must be interpreted, considering that there is no rule in the Orthodox Church similar to the Catholic precept to attend Mass. A Catholic, at least theoretically, should go to Mass every Sunday. For an Orthodox, this obligation does not exist and many go to church only on major holidays. However, scholars observing religion in Russia agree that the number of Russians in contact with the Orthodox Church is continually falling, and now indicates a secularization comparable to that of Western Europe.
It might seem that this belies another common thesis among those who study religion in Russia, that of the implicit but very firm pact between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state, that is, between Patriarch Kirill and Putin. Putin protects the Orthodox Church with laws that prohibit missions of other religions and proselytizing, and the “liquidation” of those who insist on converting the Orthodox to another faith, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Kirill reciprocates by organizing, through the capillary network of the Orthodox parishes, the consent for Putin and his party, a bit like the Italian Catholic bishops did in the 20th century with the Christian Democrats. Some would say it is precisely this identification between the Orthodox Church and political power that pushes many Russians, especially young people, away from the churches.
But how can Kirill organize consensus for Putin if only a small minority goes to church? In Russia, more than elsewhere, it is necessary to distinguish between different circles over which the majority Church exerts its influence. Something similar happens in Italy as well.
According to the most reliable statistics, active Catholics in Italy are between fifteen and twenty percent, but those who declare themselves Catholics in surveys exceed eighty percent. The Pope’s statements, including those on the war in Ukraine, regularly make headlines, and they certainly influence a larger circle than the comparatively narrow minority of active Catholics.
This process in Russia is amplified because, with the sudden demise of the Soviet identity, a Russian identity was hastily reconstructed based on an idea of the nation as a spiritual reality whose heart is the Orthodox tradition. Millions of Russians who go to church only at Easter (or never), however, recognize themselves as Orthodox and share the idea, which is also promoted by Putin, that Russia is great because its Orthodox religion is great. This is why Patriarch Kirill’s statements and his stances on national and international politics also influence those who are not “active” or “practicing” Orthodox.
There are two specific, interrelated myths that most Russians know and that explain these processes. The first is the imperial myth of the Third Rome. The first would be the Imperial Rome, the second Constantinople (now Istanbul), where the Roman Empire moved after the fall of the city of Rome, surviving until the Turkish conquest in 1453.
A few years later, Tsar Ivan III the Great coined the nationalist and propagandistic formula of the Third Rome, that is, of the Russian Empire as the sole legitimate heir of the Roman Empire, a slogan popularized a century later by his successor Ivan IV the Terrible, and now revamped by Kirill and Putin.
If this first myth is historical and political, the second is religious. It reinterprets the theme of the Third Rome in religious terms. With what Catholics call the Great Eastern Schism—and many Orthodox call the Great Western Schism—in 1054 the Eastern Church separated from the Church of Rome. The choice of the Eastern Church to call itself “Orthodox” precisely indicated that, in its view, it was guarding Orthodoxy while Rome had slipped into heresy.
From this moment, the truth according to the Orthodox was no longer in the First Rome, in Catholic Italy, but had moved to the Second Rome, Constantinople. Here, too, after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Russians argued that the local Patriarch was no longer fully able to guard the true faith. This task now fell to the Third Rome, Moscow, and the Russian Orthodox Church, which a few years earlier in 1448 had separated from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, although new reunions and new separations would later follow.
These days a controversy of a few years ago between two academic specialists in things Russian, Timothy Snyder of Yale and Marlene Laruelle of George Washington University, is back in fashion. Both agree that Aleksandr Dugin, the far-right Russian political scientist and theorist of Eurasianism, is an able propagandist of himself and has managed to convince many of his influence on Putin, which is actually modest.
According to Snyder, Putin’s real ideological inspiration is rather Ivan Ilyn, a philosopher expelled from the Soviet Union by Lenin for his monarchist and anti-communist positions and who died near Zurich in 1954. Laruelle urges not to overestimate Ilyn either, despite Putin’s public honors for him, and argues that the philosopher influenced Kirill more than he did the Russian president.
The topic is sensitive because Ilyn claimed to be a fascist and admired Mussolini. However, it is not Ilyn’s fascism that exerts influence on Kirill—and Putin himself. It is his vision of Russia as a nation persecuted by the West through its propaganda of democracy, its heresies and “cults,” and its homosexual lobbies, and at the same time as a nation with a mission similar to Jesus Christ: it is persecuted, dies, resurrects, and saves the world.
These ideas clearly inspire Kirill’s sermons but also seduce Putin, who asked for and obtained from Switzerland the remains of Ilyn and had them reburied in Moscow in a tomb in front of which he went to pay his respects and draw inspiration.