Russia's Orthodox church regains lost ground

As its influence grows, the church seeks to retake Bolshevik-seized property. More than 6,000 sites have been returned, but hundreds more are in dispute.

Ryazan's dazzling kremlin, the ancient town fortress considered a gem of Russian architecture, seems like an unlikely venue for a bitter social conflict.

But for the past three years a subterranean battle has raged here over the 26-hectare complex seized by the Bolsheviks last century. The increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church is pressuring political leaders in Moscow to return the property to church stewardship, and public passions are running high.

"Society is split over this issue," says Sergei Isakov, a deputy of the regional legislature. "We need more time to listen to the people about this."

It's a struggle taking place across Russia. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, about 6,000 sites nationalized by the communists have been returned to the church, but hundreds more remain under dispute. Critics say the church's appetite exceeds its ability to restore old buildings, or fill them with worshipers, and its aims are increasingly politicized.

"Lately the church's ambitions have grown, and clericalism is creeping into state institutions and public organizations," says Anatoly Pchelintsev, editor of Religion and Law, a journal published by the independent Slavic Center for Law and Justice in Moscow. "We have elections coming, and the state finds it convenient to actively court the Church's embrace and seek its support."

Church's campaign for influence

The Orthodox Church has been – and remains – closely linked to the Russian state. Even before the Bolsheviks nationalized all its property and took full control over the priesthood, the church acted as the main ideological support for Russian czars. And since the fall of communism, Russian leaders have sometimes turned to the church, which has baptized some 60 percent of Russians, to boost their legitimacy.

"The Russian state is undergoing a crisis of values," says Alexander Dugin, who heads the International Eurasian Movement, a nationalist group that favours stronger church influence. "Soviet ideas have been destroyed, while the democratic values of the West have been completely discredited in post-Soviet Russia. The only real source of [spiritual] support for the new Russian state is the Orthodox Church."

In addition to seeking the return of its property and assets, the church has mounted an active campaign to raise its profile, lobbying for – among other things – mandatory "Orthodox culture" classes in schools. In addition, a newly formed wing of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi has held several rallies recently to "propagate religious values" among young people.

"The greatest achievements of Russian history were made in the name of Orthodoxy," says Boris Yakimenko, head of Nashi's Orthodox section. "Society needs a clear spiritual orientation, and this is our calling."

Though President Vladimir Putin has frequently stressed that Russia remains a secular state, he and other state leaders prominently take part in Orthodox festivals and he is often seen in company with the patriarch, the head of the Orthodox Church. In a press conference on the reunification earlier this year of the US-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad with the mother church in Moscow, Putin equated Russia's "traditional faiths" with its nuclear missile shield as "components that strengthen Russian statehood and create necessary preconditions for internal and external security of the country."

Roots of the battle

Ryazan's hilltop kremlin, a favorite local spot for promenades and picnics, has been a national park for decades. The workers at its five museums, backed by a community group that's gathered 26,000 signatures opposing the church's takeover bid, say the struggle is not just over who gets the real estate. The church already has use of two cathedrals, but few worshipers come, they say. They argue that the real goal is to evict the museums and turn the palace into a residence for its regional head, Archbishop Pavel.

"The kremlin is the heart of Ryazan, the place our city sprang from, and it has great historical meaning for all citizens," says Alexander Nikitin, spokesperson for the Public Committee in Defense of Ryazan Kremlin, which lobbies against the transfer. "If you hand it to the church, the character of the place will change from a historical monument that belongs to everyone into a functioning center for a particular religion."

In a telephone interview, Archbishop Pavel didn't deny that the palace is earmarked for his residence, but said the public would be welcome to continue visiting the kremlin. "We are going to open it and restore the cathedrals," he said. "People are the foundation of our Church, so regardless of nationality or religious persuasion, people may all come."

Vladimir Vigilansky, head of the press service of the Church's headquarters in Moscow, says that returning property to the church will address a "moral dimension" as well. "Over the years many things were stolen or confiscated from the Church, so many museums are really just storage places for stolen items."

A struggle for Russia's soul?

The museum workers insist they are willing to cooperate with the church, whose records indicate about 60 percent of Russians are Orthodox, but oppose granting it full ownership. Some say they see themselves on the firing line in a wider struggle for Russia's post-Soviet soul.

"We definitely perceive a threat to the secular state, to civil society and democracy," says Vladimir Sokolovsky, deputy director of the museum. "The church wants these buildings because it seeks a return to its traditional place as the upholder of the state, with a monopoly on the meaning of patriotism and spirituality."

Giving the Church a bigger ideological role may not be a bad thing, say others.

"The church can bring positive influences," says Nikolai Bulicher, a deputy of Ryazan's city council. "Our country wasn't ready for the democracy we were dreaming about. Instead we got crime, corruption, and drug abuse. Only the revival of our spiritual traditions can reverse that, and this means we must put the church back at the heart of our lives."

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