This publication is from the Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia project.

Gregory L. Freeze
Gregory L. Freeze is the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of History at Brandeis University.

Analysts have written much about the Orthodox Church in post-Soviet politics, generally emphasizing the resurgence not only of popular religiosity but of institutional power. The recent scholarship is substantial but generally tends to decontextualize and to conflate rhetoric and policy. It is important to recognize the peculiarities of the religiosity, diversity of Orthodox views, and limits of patriarchal power. This white paper seeks to historicize Russian Orthodoxy and to reassess its priorities, capacities, and roles. It suggests several main theses:

  • The Orthodox Church developed a “this-worldly” theology much earlier (indeed, in prerevolutionary times), hence its engagement in secular issues today is hardly something new.
  • The post-Soviet religious revival began earlier but outside the Church and to this day has remained rastserkovlennyi (unchurched).
  • The Orthodox clergy and laity hold a broad spectrum of belief (from a chauvinistic orthodox-alt to transconfessional liberalism).
  • Patriarch Aleksii II (1990–2008) focused mainly on brick-and-mortar rechurching, reacquiring and rebuilding physical churches, with minimal engagement in secular issues.
  • Patriarch Kirill (2009–present) has expanded the rechurching to emphasize the so-called inner mission through media and message.
  • The patriarch’s rhetoric seeks to exhort and mobilize in the name of raison d’église, not raison d’état.1

This-Worldly Orthodoxy

The Russian Orthodox Church, long before the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, emphasized the duty to engage this-worldly problems—that is, worry about this life, not just the afterlife. Although Soviet antireligious propaganda was wont to vilify the Church as an ally of the old regime and oppression, that characterization misrepresented the Church and completely ignored its development from the mid-nineteenth century. Like the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Western Europe (which prerevolutionary Orthodoxy closely followed and selectively emulated), the Russian Church embraced a new Christology that taught that the Church, like Christ, must come into this world to address its problems and needs.2 That vision gave rise to the social gospel that came to prevail by the early twentieth century and informed the renovationist movement.3 Although the main goal was to make modernity Orthodox (not Orthodoxy modern), it led to a realization that the Church itself must undergo reform, whether in the name of restoring pure (or prebureaucratic) Orthodoxy or coping with the new challenges unique to the modern world. To take the example of divorce (over which the Church did not institutionalize restrictions and control until the nineteenth century),4 some clergy and most believers came to concur that the Church must liberalize divorce or face mass defection. Many priests and most laity also agreed that the Church must democratize its governance, conferring more power on priests and parishioners. The parish question was deemed especially critical, as the Church sought ways to mobilize believers and construct a firewall of lay zealots against perceived secularization. By the early twentieth century, in short, the Church had engaged a broad set of issues, but, as in so many spheres of the old regime, the discourse was abundant but the reform negligible. The most urgent issue, parish reform, suffered the same fate: despite the prolix discourse on the parish question, the Church had failed to promulgate, let alone implement, reform by 1917.5

Ironically, the Bolsheviks, not bishops, carried out the parish reform of 1918. Not of course to promote Orthodoxy; rather, the goal was to neutralize the counterrevolutionary Church without antagonizing the believing masses (especially in villages). The result was the famous Decree on the Separation of Church from State (January 23, 1918), which disestablished the institutional Church (nationalizing assets and denying status as juridical entity) and transferred “all power to the parish,” giving lay believers the exclusive right to lease churches for “cultic purposes.” That strategy, however, backfired: it empowered lay activists and had the unintended effect of promoting religious revival, not the demise of “superstition.”6 This debacle in religious policy led directly to the Great Turn of the late 1920s, when the regime of Joseph Stalin—indifferent now to the mood of peasant believers—expanded its antireligious campaign to include not just the “Church” and clergy, but also the “church” and parishioners.7 By 1939 the result was a massive dechurching (with 99 percent of all churches closed) and presumed dechristianization (with a cessation of collective worship). Although Stalin allowed the reestablishment of the Russian Orthodox Church and reopening of many churches after 1943, the government resumed persecution under Nikita Khrushchev. His successors, while avoiding the fanfare of the Khrushchev’s campaign, kept the Church at minimal institutional strength, with fewer than 7,000 parishes—just 17 percent of the number in 1917.

In reality, the triumph of atheism was a figment of overactive imagination and wishful propaganda: religiosity had by no means disappeared. Most famously, the 1937 census, after two decades of antireligious campaigns and amidst the Great Terror, failed to discourage 56.7 percent of the adult population from professing a belief in God.8 And in the decades that followed, the regime continued to encounter perezhitki (remnants of the past), not to mention the catacomb church and underground sects. The gap between official atheism and unofficial piety varied considerably but even widened during the era of stagnation.9 The biographies of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill (Gundiaev) actually intersected in this nonexistent sphere. Putin himself was baptized (nominally kept secret from his father, a party member); the officiating priest was none other than Patriarch Kirill’s father. On the priestly side of the altar, things were far more difficult. Kirill’s grandfather and father, both priests, suffered repression and even incarceration; the family’s precarious existence meant an insecure childhood and hardship, yet both Kirill and his brother chose a career in the clergy.10

Believing Without Belonging

With the demolition of the Soviet Union in 1991, the disabilities on believers vanished, enabling an exponential increase in the number of self-described believers. That growth is evident in a multitude of surveys over the years,11 with the percentage self-identifying as Orthodox rising to 73.6 percent in 2006.12 Significantly, that high level of religiosity has persisted; the surge of the 1990s was not a transient, celebratory response to the end of communism and antireligious repression.13 Compared to other European countries, moreover, the level of religiosity in Russia has been extraordinarily high,14 which has no doubt reinforced assumptions about the Orthodox Church’s influence in Russian state and society. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called the religious upsurge a veritable “miracle,”15 and observers in the West shared his amazement. The data from Russia also provided support for the post-secularist paradigm that now prevailed among sociologists of religion in lieu of the classic secularization model.16

Significantly, however, this religious revival in Russia has been unchurched: the high rates of self-described religiosity accompany abysmally low rates of church membership. In the famous phrase of sociologist Grace Davie, it represents “believing without belonging.”17 Churchlessness in Russia remains at an astonishing level: although 70 to 80 percent profess to be Orthodox, less than 15 percent attend services more than once a month, only 5 percent once a week, and a mere 1–2 percent belong to a parish. Summarizing poll data for 1991–2008, a recent study by the Pew Research Center reported that the self-described Orthodox represented 72 percent of the population in 2008, but that a mere 7 percent regularly attended church services, which inspired this apt title: “Russians Return to Religion, but Not to Church.”18 More recent polls confirm that religious churchlessness still prevails. Data compiled by the Levada Center in 2011 showed that only 2.0 percent of self-described Orthodox were active members of a church (compared to 34.5 percent in the United States), 4.1 percent were inactive members, and 93.2 percent were not in any sense a member. Nor did these Orthodox believers attend service: only 4.9 percent attended at least once a week, 59.8 percent attended occasionally (once a month or rarely), and 35.9 percent of the Orthodox had never been to service. Those figures were far below the attendance rates in some less religious countries, such as Germany.19 In-depth case studies confirm the poll data; a study of parishes in Vladimir, for example, showed that parish life was virtually nonexistent, that a mere 0.5 percent of the inhabitants attend services on a typical Sunday.20 Recent surveys by the Russia Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) report that in 2014, despite the high level of self-described Orthodox,21 only 3 percent strictly observed Lenten fast and 75 percent made no adjustments whatsoever to their diet.22 Not without reason do parish clergy describe attendees not as prikhozhane (parishioners), but as zakhozhane (drop-ins).

In the nearly two decades that Aleksii II served as patriarch, his primary goal was votserkovlenie (enchurchment) of the rapidly growing ranks of believers. Given the decades of repression and dechurching, in the first instance that literally meant reopening parish churches and staffing them with priests and deacons. It was a Herculean task, and Patriarch Aleksii significantly expanded the ecclesiastical bureaucracy (for example, increasing the number of dioceses and prelates), parishes and priests, monasteries, and ecclesiastical schools (see Table 1). All that required funding, little of which could come from the bankrupt regime of former president Boris Yeltsin or the Putin government seeking to rebuild the state and reignite economic growth. The Church had to rely largely on conscience-stricken oligarchs and dubious market machinations of its own (most notoriously, the tariff exemption on the import of alcohol and tobacco products). All that nonetheless fell far short of the enormous demand for resources, making the renovation slow, new construction intermittent, and even the maintenance of recovered assets problematic. The construction and reopening of the sumptuous Cathedral of Christ the Savior in downtown Moscow, with considerable state and city funding, was the great exception not the norm.

Table 1: Church-Building, 1988-2016
Year Dioceses Bishops Parishes Priests Monasteries
1988 76 74 6,893 6,674 22
2008 157 203 29,263 27,216 804
2016 293 282 34,764 35,171 926

Under the circumstances, the patriarchate proposed to tap what had traditionally been the main source of funding—the parish. But the Church charter in effect since 1961, conferring full authority on the laity, left the Church dependent on parishioners; amidst the depression of the 1990s, they were in no mood to divert scarce resources to diocesan coffers. Church authorities repeatedly attempted, in vain, to dismantle parish prerogative; not until shortly before Aleksii’s death did an episcopal council adopt a new parish charter, pending final approval by a full Church Council, with priests and parishioners not just prelates. Convocation of such a council was obligatory in the selection of a new patriarch, and Aleksii’s death at age seventy-nine on December 5, 2008, provided the long-awaited opportunity.

New Patriarch, New Mission

Immediately after Aleksii’s death, the Holy Synod elected Kirill—still metropolitan of Smolensk, but the prominent chair of the Church’s Department of External Relations since 1989—as locum tenens and inaugurated the process for choosing a new patriarch. It set a two-month deadline for the nomination of candidates, scheduled an episcopal council (arkhiereiskii sobor) to choose three finalists, and planned then to convene a full Church Council (Pomestnyi sobor) of bishops, parish clergy, and laity to elect the new patriarch. Despite attempts to preserve secrecy, the top two candidates were the locum tenens (Kirill) and the metropolitan of Kaluga, Kliment (Kapalin). Widely regarded as more liberal, Kirill prevailed at the Church Council, receiving 75 percent of the 677 votes eventually cast. Denying any desire to bear this heavy cross, Kirill recently admitted that it would have been a personal blow had he, having been chosen as locum tenens, been rejected by the full council.23

The new patriarch was very different from his predecessor. Whereas the latter had noble origins and had involuntarily cooperated with state authorities (for which he publicly apologized24), Kirill came from the “clerical estate” and bore deep personal grievances toward the Soviet regime. The talented Kirill caught the eye of the popular Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) of St. Petersburg and, with his support, rose quickly in the hierarchy. More impressively still, in 1971, he began serving as the Orthodox representative to the World Council of Churches in Geneva. That stint abroad polished his language skills but, as he later stressed, also made him acutely aware of the positives—and negatives—of European Christendom.25 However, those very connections fed rumors of ecumenical heresy and impelled him to support a resolution by the World Council of Churches condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That bold action eventually led to his demotion (to the minor post of archbishop of Smolensk, along with regime comments that he was now at the very bottom of the hierarchy), apparently putting an end to a meteoric career. But Kirill’s demotion came just as power in the party was devolving on Mikhail Gorbachev, who would soon initiate his famous and ill-fated perestroika. Gorbachev also changed policy toward the Church, culminating in the famous millennium celebration of Christianization in 1988. The very next year, Kirill became chairman of the Department of Foreign Relations in the Church, the position that he held until his intronization as patriarch on February 1, 2009. The star of a televised pastoral program (“Slovo pastyria”)that has appeared each week on Pervyi kanal, the main state television channel, since 1994, Kirill is an extraordinary, gifted speaker and he has made ample use of those skills in his new leadership role as patriarch.

As the new patriarch was well aware, Kirill inherited a clergy and mass of unchurchedbelievers with a kaleidoscopic spectrum of opinions on religious and secular issues.26 Although views fall along a broad spectrum, observers discern three main perspectives: modernist liberals, pragmatic traditionalists, and nationalist fundamentalists.27 The modernist liberals, a relatively small group, propose to “modernize Orthodoxy” by reforming religious practice (e.g., vernacularization of the liturgy), laicizing Church administration (e.g., at the parish level), and adopting universalist values (e.g., cultural and social questions). Gathering at the opposite pole are the nationalist fundamentalists, who defend traditional religious practice (e.g., Church Slavonic in the liturgy), episcopal authority (e.g., over the parish), and archconservative values (e.g., monarchism28). Maneuvering between these two antinomies are the pragmatic traditionalists, who value the traditional (Biblical precept and church canon) but are amenable to change if needed to achieve the overriding goal—ensuring salvation. As a general point of orientation, the liberals welcome globalization, the fundamentalists anathematize it, and the moderates perforce engage it but selectively and critically.

Kirill cites this diversity of views as a key reason for the Church’s decision in 1994 to adopt a statement of fundamental principles. To draft that text, the Church appointed a working group of twenty-six members (prelates, priests, and professors) with Kirill as chairman. It held thirty formal sessions over a three-year span and produced a draft text in early 2000. After two conferences had critiqued the original draft, the working group made some final revisions and submitted it to an episcopal council in August 2000. In presenting the text, Kirill summarized its main points and underscored its purpose and principles. This general statement, he emphasized, was essential given the Church’s transnational structure (with half of the parishes in the Moscow patriarchate outside the Russian Federation) and hence in need of general principles, not short-term policy statements. But the statement was also needed to bridge the enormous diversity in Orthodox views, ranging from extreme left to extreme right, which creates confusion among believers—not to mention secularists—about the Church’s core principles and views. The working group itself was highly heterogeneous, and deliberately so, since the goal was to formulate positions acceptable to all, even on controversial issues. Kirill emphasized that the group avoided extreme views, preferring to observe the precept embodied in the Biblical expression “tsarskii priëm”—the golden mean.

In its final form, the Foundations of the Social Conceptions of the Russian Orthodox Church was a lengthy document, with 33,817 words divided into sixteen chapters.29 The largest chapter was “Church and State” (nearly one-sixth of the document), but many other chapters also concerned the “state” (the Russian word, as noun or adjective, appearing 271 times throughout the document). As Table 2 shows, however, the text indeed covered a broad range of issues:

Table 2: Foundations of the Social Conceptions of the Russian Orthodox Church (2000)
Chapter Words %
Preamble 116 0.3
I. Basic Theological Principles 965 2.9
II. Church and Nation 1,357 4.0
III. Church and State 4,872 14.4
IV. Church and Politics 2,399 7.1
V. Church and Secular Law 2,265 6.7
VI. Labor and Its Fruits 1,046 3.1
VII. Property 1,133 3.4
VIII. War and Peace 2,165 6.4
IX. Crime, Punishment, Correction 1,458 4.3
X. Questions of Personal, Family, and Public Morality 3,991 11.8
XI. Health of the Individual and People 1,941 5.7
XII. Problems of Bioethics 3,894 11.5
XIII. Church and Problems of Ecology 1,087 3.2
XIV. Secular Science, Culture, Education 2,017 6.1
XV. Church and Secular Means of Mass Information 724 2.1
XVI. International Relations; Problems of Globalization and Secularism 2,387 7.1
Osnovy sotsial’noi kontseptsii Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi:

The Foundations articulates core principles, of which the following are particularly important:

  • The first chapter explicitly affirms the Church’s “this-worldly” mission: “[The] goal is not only to save people in this world, but also to save and resurrect the world itself” (I, 2).
  • The text reiterates the traditional mandate to recognize the existing government, but rejects the “absolutization” of power (III, 2). The Church and state should not violate each other’s respective domains, but they do share areas of common concern, such as ensuring the morality, proper “education and upbringing,” and charitable activities.
  • The Church must refrain from intervening in political campaigns or supporting a political party or social leader, but does have an obligation to express its views on secular issues.
  • Divine commandments take precedence over “human” law: if the state violates a Christian principle, the Church has the duty to engage in peaceful resistance (IV, 4).
  • The Church recognizes civil marriages (even while encouraging the church weddings) and must expand the grounds for divorce to include AIDS, medically certified alcoholism or drug addiction, and a wife’s abortion against her husband’s wishes.
  • While affirming women’s rights and demanding respect for the woman’s unique maternal role, the Foundations rejects abortion and prophylactics containing abortifacients.
  • The Foundations categorically condemns homosexuality.
  • The text not only recognizes climate change but specifically attributes it to human behavior, especially the mania for ever-increasing consumption.
  • Globalization carries a cultural dimension that can erode traditional cultures, and hence requires steps to minimize the harm.30

The Foundations bears the stamp of Kirill’s experience and views and provides the program for his patriarchate.31 The 1990s deeply reinforced his earlier skepticism of the West, inspiring a characterization of the decade—“plundering of state and society, destruction of the economy and politics, and ruin of the country”—widely shared by his compatriots.32

Like his predecessor, Kirill believed that the immediate task was to rebuild the institutional Church. That included not only an expansion and restructuring of central ecclesiastical administration but also the opening of more parishes and training of more priests. In per annum averages, Kirill created an average of 17 new dioceses per year (compared to 4.5 under Aleksii), but was slower in adding new parishes (688 per annum compared to Aleksii’s 1,119) and priests (994 per annum compared to Aleksii’s 1,027). Although that may reflect Kirill’s emphasis on institutional Churching over parish churching, it is also due to the difficult financial constraints that commenced with the global recession of 2008, limiting the capacity of the state and believers to expand financial support. No doubt financial reality was a key impetus to the decision in 2008 to restore episcopal power over the parish, including the right to impose levies for diocesan and general Church needs.

Given the uneven distribution of parishes and low rates of attendance, Kirill embarked on a bold new strategy to reach his unchurched flock: he dramatically expanded and prioritized the development of online Orthodoxy. The Church established its first official site in February 1997 (reflecting Kirill’s influence as head of the Department of External Relations) and, since his enthronement as patriarch, he has not only increased the number of sites (from a handful in the late 1990s to an estimated 10,000 in 2015) but also upgraded the capacity to make full use of Web 2.0 technology. As recent studies emphasize, these sites now constitute “the most important source of information about religion for Russian Orthodox believers,” with the major sites recording tens of thousands of unique visitors per day—many times more than the audience for print media. On a typical day (December 9, 2016), the leading Orthodox sites were “Pravoslavie i mir” (, with 153,032 visitors), “Pravoslavie Ru” (, with 142,839 visitors), the educational “Azbuka very” (, with 105,270 visitors), the official church site “Patriarkhiia Ru” (, with 20,559 visitors), the charity site Miloserdie Ru (, with 18,145 visitors), and the extreme-right “Russkaia narodnaia liniia” (, with 17,345 visitors).33 Other sites include the portal for the Moscow Theological Academy ( as well as many small sites run by dioceses, parishes, monasteries, and individual clerics.34 The media provide official conduits to distribute draft documents (leading some to describe this as “online sobornost” [conciliarism]), but that can also have a democratizing multivocality (which in turn can undermine traditional hierarchies unable to control the dissemination of information and views).35 Indeed, some fundamentalist sites have proven to be major sources of opposition, inclined to castigate the luxury among members of the so-called metropolitburo,36 to preach “Orthodoxy, autocracy, and narodnost’” (with explicit messages of ethnic intolerance, such as antisemitism), and to accuse the patriarch of liberalism and ecumenism.37

Managed Sobornost’

Given this unchurched mass of believers, the cultural threats posed by globalization, and censure from the Orthodox right, Kirill can only seek to educate and exhort, not command, the faithful to follow. Indeed, in some public statements, he portrays himself as the leader of a small minority in a sea of unchurched believers, distrustful secularists, and hostile foreigners. Hence a patriarch has very limited power over pious but unchurched believers, and none at all over secular authorities and the antireligious. Thus, as a matter of Realpolitik and consistent with the Foundations,Kirill refuses to participate in the political process (whether in elections, parties, or parliamentary legislation) but does exercise his duty to articulate the Church’s views and interests.38 One should therefore not mistake abundant rhetoric for abundant power; his intent is to create a consensus, to win support, and to persuade believers and unbelievers in the historical and moral logic of the Church’s perspective.

In some cases, where opposition is minimal or nonsexist, that is an easy mission. For example, when the Church expands its charitable activities (by promoting activities at the central, diocesan, and parish level), none—least of all public officials—take offense at sharing the burden and cost. Nor has there been much opposition to the reestablishment of the military chaplaincy, which the patriarch claims to have reduced crime and raised morale.39 The appeal to patriotism likewise strikes a positive chord in most circles—so long as it does not broach territorial questions. And few have reason to oppose the Orthodox scholarship in higher education, including the recent recognition of advanced candidate and doctoral degrees in theology.40

Some issues, while popular or acceptable to the unchurched believers, have elicited censure from domestic secularists and especially foreign observers. One target of criticism has been the establishment of religious education in public schools (one hour per week in the fourth grade). Although designed to include non-Orthodox options, and recently more favorably received by the general public,41 religious instruction provoked sharp criticism from secularists for so-called clericalization and from foreign observers for bias toward the Orthodoxy.42 A similar response has accompanied the Church’s condemnation of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. While those statements reflect the Foundations and echo majority domestic opinion,43 they have elicited condemnation (especially from abroad) and even blame for the June 2013 legislation outlawing “propaganda” of homosexuality among minors.44 The Church’s hard line on prosecution and punishment for the notorious punk prayer service in February 2012 has also triggered censure.45 More generally, the intelligentsia is deeply fearful of artistic and cultural repression, especially in light of the patriarch’s denunciation of neoliberalism and globalization.46

In some cases, however, the patriarch has also gone against the will of the unchurched believers. In purely church issues, above all, Kirill has not been willing to restore power to the parishioners. That may be partly a pastoral decision: the unchurched—and unschooled—believers are sometimes wont to make bizarre demands, such as the canonization of Rasputin, Stalin, Ivan the Terrible, or even Red Army commander Vasily Chapaev. Parish policy, however, is also an economic issue: the parish levies—enabled by the new parish statute—provide funding for rechurching, which has been especially critical since 2008. But the new parish statute has only deepened skepticism, if not alienation, among the unchurched believers.47 As the most popular blogger, Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev, observes: “As communities, our parishes in Russia are in general a fiction: they have virtually no rights, other than the obligation to allocate funds to the diocese.”48 The Church is sensitive to the parish question but, for now, cannot forego parish financial support. 49 Likewise controversial is the patriarch’s efforts to ban abortion (from requiring anti-abortion oaths at weddings to signing an anti-abortion petition in September 201650); that position runs directly counter to the overwhelming majority view.51

Nor does the patriarch accede to the state’s preferences. The most obvious example is the Ukrainian conflict, where the patriarchate has little to gain and much to lose (given the number of parishes and tenuous hold on believers in the region). It was hardly an accident that Kirill, who regularly attends state events, was missing when Putin announced the annexation of Crimea on March 18, 2014.52 Nor does the state—given its budget deficits—welcome the patriarch’s proposal to combat abortions by increasing outlays for large families and orphanages. The LGBT rhetoric is also problematic: it may be popular at home but accrues unmistakable soft-power costs abroad. The patriarchate has also rejected attempts to glorify the Soviet past, especially Stalin’s role. At most, the patriarch refers vaguely to great achievements of the 1920s and 1930s (not specifically to Stalin),53 while his chief aide—and likely successor—Ilarion (Alfeev) garners headlines with blanket condemnations of Stalinist repression: “I think that Stalin was a monster, a spiritual freak, who created a horrendous, anti-human system for governing the country, based on lies, violence, and terror. He unleashed genocide against the people of his own country and bears personal responsibility for the deaths of millions of innocent people. In this terms, Stalin is completely comparable to Hitler.”54 Public opinion on Stalin may have softened since 2001,55 but that has certainly not been the case of the Church, which has turned the Butovo killing fields into an Orthodox shrine.

The Patriarch and the President

Superficially, the patriarch and the president appear to be on very good terms. Apart from differences on specific issues (such as abortion or Ukraine), the two leaders have a close but not invariably harmonious relationship. That was clear, for example, in the famous meeting that the patriarch organized on February 8, 2012, between Putin and the leaders of all established religions. Putin was at pains to emphasize his government’s steps to accommodate the interests of religious groups (in particular, Orthodoxy), but emphasized that his was a sekuliarnoe gosudarstvo (secular state).The patriarch praised Putin for his accomplishments, but did not resist adding: “This does not at all mean that we all agree with each of your actions, with all that is going on in this country.”56 The president returned the favor in a recent documentary on Kirill’s birthday, praising the patriarch for his erudition and counsel but volunteering that the two do not always see eye to eye.57

Given his family background, role in foreign relations, and links to progressive clergy (and promotion of youthful cosmopolitans like Metropolitan Ilarion), Kirill is first and foremost a tserkovnik (“churchman”),absolutely committed to putting the interests of the Church before those of the state or either wing of the self-described Orthodox. Russian historians have long emphasized the emerge of the gosudarstvennik, or“statesman,” in the first half of the nineteenth century; these officials—regardless of social origin, even aristocratic—were unswervingly committed to state interests, with their ethos driven by raison d’état, irrespective of personal class interests or hoary genealogy. Patriarch Kirill, similar to a towering hierarch like Filaret (Drozdov), the metropolitan of Moscow canonized in 1994,58 displays a single-minded devotion to Church interests—hence the well-deserved accolade tserkovnik. In person and in policy, the patriarch is devoted to the Church and its interests—he is willing to collaborate with the Putin government, but only where state policy serves raison d’église,not just raison d’état.

So far, the patriarch has played that role with extraordinary success—if not in rechurching believers (a difficult task, at best) then at least in maintaining a high level of popularity for himself and the Church. According to a ROMIR survey in 2013, for example, the Church’s approval rating (66 percent) was even higher than Putin’s (63 percent), 59 and subsequent surveys have repeatedly shown strong support for the limited, but effective, rhetorical role that the patriarch has assumed. A survey by the Levada Center in February 2016 showed that a majority (56 percent) judge the Church’s role in politics as precisely what it should be—up from 22 percent in 1991.60 The approval rating for the patriarch himself has been consistently high, even Putinesque, rising from 69 percent in 2012 to 71 percent in 2016.61 From the Russian perspective, especially among the unchurched believers, the patriarch has successfully advanced the Church’s key interests and views. While many would prefer more churching and less Churching, most find Kirill a charismatic leader and stalwart defender of Orthodoxy.

In short, the traditional handmaiden thesis—portraying the Church as the obeisant servant of the state—is no more applicable to post-Soviet Russia than it was to imperial Russia.62 Rhetorically, the patriarch and the president share some common ideas and values, most notably an emphatic patriotism, but each side serves the core interests of their respective institutions, thereby constricting the support (rhetorical and real) that they provide one another. On the one hand, Putin’s own maneuvering room is limited. He must appear supraconfessional in this multiconfessional state; he therefore expresses support not only for the Orthodox Church but for the other traditional (or recognized) faiths as well. And the state’s material support has limits, given its priorities (from national defense to economic development) and frail finances (especially after the Great Recession of 2008). On the other hand, the patriarch formally recognizes the existing state order (as the Foundations of the Social Conceptions of 2000 explicitly stipulates), but prioritizes the task of rebuilding Orthodoxy after seven decades of repression and persecution. That is indeed an awesome challenge that includes reestablishing Church governance, recruiting and educating clergy, and restoring the network of parishes—a precondition for transforming the zakhozhane into prikhozhane.And as the president’s “near abroad” is only half of the patriarch’s transnational domain, the patriarch must be didactic, not dictatorial; he must find ways to finesse interstate tensions and preserve unity with the non-Russian branches of the Moscow patriarchate.

Hence Church and state in Russia are deferential but different. Symbolically and significantly, on January 6, 2017, Pervyi kanal, the main state television, transmitted two celebrations of Russian Christmas—the patriarch at the monumental Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and the president at the renowned Iur’ev Monastery in Novgorod. The two sides share much in common and they exhibit and express mutual respect—but at unmistakable remove.

Gregory L. Freeze is the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of History at Brandeis University.


1 This research was supported by grant N 15-18-00119 from the Russian Science Foundation.

2 See Gregory L. Freeze, “Globalization and Orthodoxy in Tsarist Russia,” Vestnik S.-Peterburgskogo Universiteta,2017, vyp. 1.

3 For an overview of modern scholarship, see: Scott M. Kenworthy, “An Orthodox Social Gospel in Late Imperial Russia,” Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe 1 (May 2006): 1–29.

4 Gregory L. Freeze, “Bringing Order to the Russian Family: Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia, 1760–1860,” Journal of Modern History 62 (1990): 709–48.

5 See Gregory L. Freeze, “All Power to the Parish? The Problem and Politics of Church Reform in Late Imperial Russia,” in Social Identities in Revolutionary Russia, ed. Madhavan K. Palat (London: Macmillian, 2001), 174–208.

6 Gregory L. Freeze, “Vsia vlast’ prikhodam: vozrozhdenie pravoslaviia v 1920-e gody,” Gosudarstvo i tserkov’,no. 3–4 (2012): 86–105.

7 See Gregory L. Freeze, “The Stalinist Assault on the Parish, 1929–1941,” in Stalinismus vor dem Zweiten Weltkrieg: Neue Wege der Forschung,ed. Manfred Hildermeier (Munich: Oldenburg Verlag, 1998), 209–32.

8 V.B. Zhiromskaia, “Religioznost’ naroda v 1937 godu (po materialam Vsesoiuznoi perepiski naseleniia),” Istoricheskii vestnik 5, no. 1 (2000).

9 For an instructive case study based on local sources, see: S.V. Riazanova and E.A. Zubareva, “Pravoslavnye veruiushchie prikam’ia: XX-XXI vv.,” Nauchnyi rezul’tat 1, no. 1(2014).

10 In a documentary on Rossiia-1 (broadcast November 20, 2016, to mark Kirill’s seventieth birthday), the patriarch foregrounds the persecution and privation: “Patriarkh (dokumental’nyi fil’m),” YouTube video, posted by “russianchurch,” November 23, 2016,

11 S.B. Filatov and R.N. Lunkin, “Statistika Rossiiskoi religioznosti,” Sotsiologicheskie issledovaniia 6(2005): 35–45; Boris Dubin, “Massovaia religioznaia kul'tura v Rossii (tendentsii i itogi 1990-kh godov),” Vestnik Obschestvennogo Mneniya 71, no. 3 (2004): 34–44,; D. Furman, K. Kääriäinen, and V. Karpov. “Religioznost' v Rossii v 90-e gg. XX – nachale XXI vv.,” in Novye tserkvi, starye veruiushchie; starye tserkvi, novye veruiushchie, eds. K. Kääriänen and D. Furman (St. Petersburg: Letnii sad, 2007), 6–87.

12 “WVS Wave 6 (2010–2014),” World Values Survey,

13 See, in particular, the seven-wave sample survey analyzed in Geoffrey Evans and Ksenia Northmore-Ball, “The Limits of Secularization? The Resurgence of Orthodoxy in Post-Soviet Russia,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51, no. 4 (2012): 795–808

14 The World Values Survey, for example, has data on the percent who “believe in God,” which in Russia rose from 35.2 percent in 1990 to 73.3 percent in 2011 (compared, in the latter year, to 62.9 percent in Germany, 47.7 percent in the Netherlands, 40.9 percent in Sweden): see “WVS Wave 6,” See also: José Pereira Coutinho, “Religiosity in Europe: An Index, Factors, and Clusters of Religiosity,” Sociologia, problemas e práticas 81 (2016): 163–188.

15 Dmitry Medvedev, ‘To, chto sluchilos' za eti 20 let – prosto chudo,’”,

16 See Peter Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999).

17 Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging (Oxford: Institute of Contemporary British History, 1994).

18 “Russians Return to Religion, But Not to Church,” Pew Research Center, February 16, 2014,

19 “WVS Wave 6,”

20 Tobias Köllner, “Businessmen, Priests and Parishes: Religious Individualization and Privatization in Russia,” Archives de sciences sociales des religions 162, no. 2 (2013): 37–53

21 “Religiia v zhizni Rossiian,” VTsIOM, September 6, 2016,

22 K. Russ, “Velikii post v Rossii: statistika,”, April 2, 2015, See also the Levada data in “Velikii post i paskha,” Levada Center, April 29, 2016,

23 “Patriarkh (dokumental’nyi fil’m),”

24 Serge Schmemann, “Patriarch’s Church Revives, But Will It Spiritually?” New York Times, 9.11.1991.

25 “Patriarkh (dokumental’nyi fil’m),”

26 See Irina Papkova, The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

27 Kristina Stoeckl, The Russian Orthodox Church and Human Rights (London: Routledge, 2014).

28 Mikhail Suslov, “The Genealogy of the Idea of Monarchy in the Post-Soviet Political Discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church,” State, Religion and Church 3, no. 1 (2016): 27–62.

29 Jennifer Wasmuth, “Politisches und soziales Engagement der Orthodoxen Kirche in Russland,” OST-WEST Europäische Perskpetiven 1 (2010):

30 “Osnovy sotsial’noi kontseptsii Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi,”, June 9, 2008,

31 In 1999, as the working group concluded drafting the document, Kirill emphasized the need to seek a “maximum harmonization of the dramatically diverging imperatives of neoliberalism and traditionalism,” emphasizing the “harmonization” rather than absolutization of either. Kirill, “Obstoiatel’stva novogo vremeni: liberalizm, traditsionalizm i moral’nye tsennosti ob”edinaiushcheisia Evropy,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 26, 1999, It bears emphasizing that such views were hardly unique, but reflected the widespread skepticism of globalization, especially in the cultural sphere, which ultimately led to the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity (2005). See the text at “UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity,” UNESCO, 2002,

32 “Stenogramma vstrechi Vladimira Putina s predstaviteliami traditsionnykh konfessii,”, Feburary 8, 2012,

33 See “Religiya,” Rambler,

34 “Vystuplenie Sv. Patriarkha Kirilla na zakrytii V Mezdunarodnogo festivalia pravoslavnykh SMI ‘Vera i slovo,’” patriarchia,ru, October 31, 2012,

35 Mikhail Suslov, “The Medium for Demonic Energies: ‘Digital Anxiety’ in the Russian Orthodox Church,” Digital Icons 14 (2015): 1–25.

36 That includes the widespread publicity about Kirill’s alleged fondness for the good life, fleet of limousines, luxury apartments in Petersburg and Moscow, even a villa in Switzerland, not to mention the famous doctored photograph of a 30,000-euro wristwatch. As Metropolitan Ilarion said in the patriarch’s defense, he too had been given such a watch but had no idea of its enormous monetary value. For typical scandal-laden reports about Patriarch Kirill, see: “Portret,” Portal-Credo, December 3, 2008,; “Tabachnyi mitropolit,” Moskovskii komsomolets, February 18, 1997.

37 Although the patriarch has positioned himself as a centrist, he has protected liberals, such as the neo-renovationist Father Georgii Kochetkov, an acolyte of Alexander Men’ and exponent of parish power who aroused the enmity of the Orthodox right and even suffered a suspension from active service under Aleksii II. Although readmitted to active service, Kochetkov now serves as priest at Novodevichii Monastery and, as rector of the St. Filaret Orthodox Christian Institute, published an eight-volume Russian translation of liturgical works. Kochetkov is not bashful in his condemnation of Orthodox fundamentalists: “We love to condemn fundamentalism, such as Islamic or whatever, but for some reason we do not want to talk about Orthodox fundamentalism.” Pravoslavnoe bogosluzhenie,t. 1, 2nd ed., 8. Kochetkov evidently still enjoys the patriarch’s favor: he was invited to deliver a sermon on 22 August 2016 in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior: “Khozhdenie po vodam nel’zia postavit’ na potok,”, August 22, 2016,

38 Most famously, the patriarch remained silent during the oppositionist protests over the parliamentary elections in December 2011—in contrast to some clergy (as, for example, in the article by Father Feodor Liudogovskii, “Vybory po-fariseiskii,”, December 7, 2011, On the patriarch’s role, see Joachim Willems, “Die Russische Orthodoxe Kirche: Stütze der Macht und Spiegel der Gesellschaft,” Osteuropa 62 (2012): 185–88.

39 “Sostoialas’ vstrecha Sv. Patriarkha Kirilla s ministrom oborony RF S.K. Shoigu,”, August 24, 2016,

40 “V Rossii bogoslovie vpervye utverdili v kachestve nauchnoi spetsial’nosti,” Newsru, January 23, 2015,

41 Initial response was less than positive, but of late has evidently become more favorable. For example, a Levada poll in February 2016 showed that only 19 percent opposed religious instruction (compared to 17 percent in 2013), 61 percent would leave it to the discretion of pupils or parents, and 13 percent would make it obligatory. “Tserkov’ i gosudarstvo,” Levada Center, February 19, 2016,

42 See Natalya Yakovleva, “Teaching Orthodoxy in Russian Schools,” openDemocracy, December 4, 2014,; Eugene Clay, “Multiculturalism and Religious Education in the Russian Federation: The Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics,” State, Religion and Church 2, no. 1 (2015): 44–74.

43 As the 2011 World Values Survey shows, the rates of disapproval in Russia (“never justified”) represent a majority (54.1 percent), with only a tiny minority (1.3 percent) voicing unqualified support (“always justified”), with the rest somewhere in between. That disapproval rate is, of course, far higher than in other Western countries; “WVS Wave 6,” The fundamentalists have been vituperative (sodomokratiia): Olga Chetverikova, “’Novyi mir’ izvrashchentsev kak vselenskaia sodomskaia antitserkov,”, May 30, 2013,

44 Hanna Stähle, “Between Homophobia and Gay Lobby: The Russian Orthodox Church and Its Relationship to Homosexuality in Online Discussions,” Digital Icons 14 (2015): 49–71; Konstantin Michaukov, “Propaganda der Sünde: Die ROK und die Rechte der sexuellen Minderheiten,” Osteuropa 63, no. 10 (2013): 87–97.

45 Nicholas Denysenko, “An Appeal to Mary: An Analysis of Pussy Riot’s Punk Performance in Moscow,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 81 (2013): 1,061–1,092; Brian Rourke and Andrew Wiget, “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment,” Cultural Studies 30, no. 2 (2016): 234–260.

46 In an incident in Novosibirsk, which attracted international attention and condemnation, a local metropolitan denounced Wagner’s Tannhäuser for blasphemous speculation about Jesus’ life between the ages of twelve and thirty; the minister of culture fired local theater administrators, but was later overruled by a government court. See the BBC report in “Novosibirk: direktor teatra uvolen iz-za ‘Tangeyzera,’”BBC, March 29, 2015,

47 The parish statute occupied a section of Kirill’s report in December 2009: “Doklad Sv. Patriarkha moskovskogo i vseia Rusi Kirilla na eparkhial’nom sobranii g. Moskvy,”, December 23, 2009,

48 A. Kuraev, “Prikhod mezhdu monarkhiei i aristokratiei,” LiveJournal, August 6, 2013, See also: P. Adel’geim, “Ustav prikhoda protiv dogmata o tserkvi,” Portal-Credo, April 23, 2015, On the parish as an impediment to “churching” believers, see: Kathy Rousselet, “Religious Authority in a Post-Soviet Context,” Archives de sciences sociales des religions 162, no. 2 (2013): 15–36.

49 A recent study of Russian Orthodox parishes (supported by grant 12-03-00565 from the Russian Scientific Fund) found that only 11 percent of the parishes engage in social work, compared to 87 percent in American parishes. D.A. Oreshina, “Partnërskii prikhod: sotrudnichestvo sviashchennosluzhitelei i mirian kak factor razvitiia sotsial’noi deiatel’nosti v sovremennykh prikhodakh Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi,” Seriia 1: bogoslovie, filosofiia, religiovedenie, Vestnik Pravoslavnogo Sviato-Tikhonovskogo Gumanitarnogo Universiteta 67, no. 5 (2016): 99-120.

50 See:; “Patriarkh Kirill podpisal obrashchenie za polnyi zapret abortov v Rossii,” RIA Novosti, September 27, 2016,

51 Public opinion here is roughly similar to Western countries. In 2001, for example, 23.6 percent declared abortion “never justifiable” (compared to 22.5 percent in Germany and 22.4 percent in the United States, but that right-to-life quotient had increased from over the past two decades (from 16.4 percent in 1995, for example). See “WVS Wave 6,” A survey in October 2016 confirmed that the majority favor the woman’s right to choose. A strong majority (70 percent) oppose abolishing abortion coverage under the state health system, which currently pays for 90 percent of all abortions. See

52 Vladimir Ryzhkov, “Russian Orthodox Church Facing Ukraine Split” Moscow Times, June 15, 2015,

53 “Voennyi Otdel Kudymkarskoi eparkhii provel konferentsiiu ‘Russkaia Golgofa: uroki stoletiia’,”, December 2016,

54 Ilarion (Alfeev, b. 1966), the youthful metropolitan of Volokalamsk, succeeded Kirill as head of the Department of External Relations, holds a DPhil from Oxford (1995), speaks six foreign languages, has served in multiple posts abroad, lists a plethora of scholarly publications (many of which have been translated), and offers a host of video and other materials on his personal website (; “Mitropolit Ilarion (Alfeev): Stalin byl chudovishchem, dukhovnym urodom,”, July 2, 2015,

55 “Figura Stalina v obshchestvennom mnenii Rossii,” Levada Center, March 25, 2016,

56 “Stenogramma vstrechi Vladimir Putina s predstaviteliami traditsionnykh konfessii,”

57 “Patriarkh (dokumental’nyi fil’m),”

58 Gregory L. Freeze, “Skeptical Reformer, Staunch Tserkovnik: Metropolitan Philaret and the Great Reforms,” in Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow 1782-1867, ed. Vladimir Tsurikov (Jordanville: Variable Press, 2003), 151–92.

59 “’Romir’: RAN i RPTs obognali prezidenta v reitinge doveriia rossiian,”, September 4, 2013,

60 “Tserkov’ i gosudarstvo” Levada Center, February 19, 2016,; V. Kozlov, “Odobrenie roli RPTs v gosudarstvo vyroslo do rekordnogo urovnia,” RBC, February 19, 2016, .

61 “Tserkov’ i gosudarstvo,”

62 For a critique of the traditional view, see Gregory L. Freeze, “Handmaiden of the State? The Orthodox Church in Imperial Russia Reconsidered,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 36 (1985): 82–102.