Russia: A Church-Building Nation Whose Traditionalism Is a Myth | Wilson Center

Russia: A Church-Building Nation Whose Traditionalism Is a Myth

Design of the Prospective New Church in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Source: Ministry of Construction and Development of the Sverdlovsk Oblast (https://minstroy.midural.ru/)

BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV

Russians are told constantly that their country stands as a bulwark against the West’s moral corruption. In fact, if there is anything resembling official ideology promoted by the Kremlin, it would be the Russians’ professed ability to hold on to the traditions of their forefathers.

One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorite tropes is that Euro-Atlantic countries reject their Christian roots, while Russia upholds them. While “they are denying moral principles and all traditional identities” we are keeping them intact, Putin reiterated at an international forum. He also suggested in 2016 that Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory meant that Americans “agree with our understanding of traditional values.”

Tradition is a notoriously broad concept. But the Russian authorities themselves developed a proxy for the kinds of values they consider “traditional.”

“Christian Orthodox values lie at the heart of our moral values,” Putin said in his address to the Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Indeed, 65 percent of those polled by the Public Opinion Foundation identify as Eastern Orthodox Christian. According to the Levada Center, an independent pollster, an overwhelming majority (76 percent) say they have a favorable opinion of Christianity as a faith, while about 19 percent say they value Islam.

To that end, construction of new Orthodox churches would seem to be a welcome project in most communities in Russia. And yet, the planning or building of new churches in Russia’s cities sometimes cause tensions, and the resulting conflicts often turn virulent or even violent.

The story of Yekaterinburg and the plan to build a cathedral in one of this Ural city’s central green spaces is a recent case in point. People have been coming by the thousands to the prospective construction site for five days now. When the authorities built a fence, protesters formed a human chain around it, clashed with riot police, and knocked the fence down, while chanting: “We want a park”). Up to one-hundred people were detained and about 20 were arrested. On Thursday, the authorities installed a stronger fence, but people kept coming in even larger numbers than before.

So far, the residents have managed to make themselves heard. Even Putin himself had to weigh in on the subject and suggested that the people’s opinion must be respected. The mayor’s office immediately suspended all work on the site and said it would organize a poll on the issue. The local Socium research agency said 52 percent of locals opposed the cathedral's construction, while 28 percent were in favor of it. The poll was small in scale and comprised of only 300 respondents in 1.5 million-strong Yekaterinburg.

This developing story has already become major national news, but Yekaterinburg’s protest is not the only one. At least five church construction projects in St. Petersburg have caused various conflicts. For five years now, St. Petersburg residents have been trying to prevent the construction of a church in Malinovka park. In one other case in the district around Prospekt Nauki (literally, the Prospect of Science), the local residents argued they needed a hospital rather than a house of prayer because there were already three churches in the vicinity.

Since 2016, the residents of the district adjacent to the Moscow park Torfyanka have been fighting a war of attrition against a plan to build a church in their area. The fight is not over, but construction work has been suspended. Some residents of Nizhni Novgorod recently responded to the Yekaterinburg protest by holding their own protest against a plan to build a chapel in one the city’s parks.

Of course, there are happier stories about new churches. A church on Khodynka field in Moscow, which once caused controversy and was built despite a prolonged battle with residents, has fostered a flourishing parish, according to its worshipers. A church in northern Moscow dedicated to Nicholas II, Russia’s last czar who was canonized into sainthood, was also built despite the residents’ objections and is now open.

Moscow is where most new churches are built. Moscow’s “200 Churches” program has allocated more than two hundred sites, and more than 60 church buildings have been erected since 2011. Moscow authorities boasted recently that their city was the world’s leader in church construction. The statement sparked both controversy and jokes about Russian people living and healing on prayer rather than on food and medicine, but the fact remains: Moscow, and Russia as a whole, are building a lot of churches.

And this is only natural for a country that went through a period in its history when priests were imprisoned and murdered and most houses of worship were destroyed. In 1988, the year of the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus, the Russian Orthodox Church had 8,500 parishes. According to recent official data, the ROC has upward of 38,500 parishes.

This very writer, in his Orthodox youth, was part of a group that petitioned for opening a church that was closed during the Soviet times. It was common in the nineties, but not today. Instead, most churches are built because the authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church want them. Openings and construction projects are, by and large, top-down affairs. Transneft, VTB, Gazprom, Sberbank and other large state-controlled corporations are funding them.

Very often churches are being built as part of commercial development projects, and the Yekaterinburg case is one of those examples: the prospective cathedral is part of a complex that includes office space and luxury apartments. And this is why stories of people getting together to file a petition to open a church are rare these days, as opposed to stories of people protesting against church construction projects.

Where does this leave us in terms of Russia being a country of traditional values? Russia is a country that builds a lot of churches—that is for sure. The reasons are both spiritual and political. There is a genuine demand for places of worship, but that demand is hard to measure because top-down initiatives run ahead of it: the state and the church need each other.

But in reality, Russian society is not a society of traditional values. How can it possibly be one? Russia went through 74 years of complete and utter annihilation of everything that had to do with traditional beliefs and practices. Russia has experienced almost 30 years of post-Soviet existence, but one simply cannot turn the social clock back. Studies show that, in terms of values, today’s Russians are essentially Europeans. “Among our ten indicators of values we did not identify a single one that would set Russian subjects apart from European ones,” writes Maxim Rudnev, a sociologist who has been studying values for years. This does not prevent the majority of Russians from identifying as Eastern Orthodox. It is part of a complex cultural identity, rather than a confessional belief.

The irony of today is that the conflict about those top-down “commercial” churches that infuriate some (and leave others indifferent) is helping to plant the seeds of government accountability and individual self-expression, rather than the vaguely “traditional values” that the Kremlin arbitrarily assigns to Russia’s citizens.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.
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