Orthodox America

Russia's New Religion Law: What Is Its Aim?

In the climate of political and economic uncertainty that came with the apparent collapse of communism, the Church was positioned to provide badly-needed stability and social cohesion. The fact that it was unable to do so was attributed by church authorities to the intrusion of well-financed sectarian groups from abroad. "It is the aim of sects," declared Patriarch Alexis, "to divide us into creeds instead of enlightening Russia." With this rationale, the Moscow Patriarchate Church sponsored a new law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association, which took effect shortly after Yeltsin signed it on September 26, 1997.

If the new law purports to stem the proliferation of sects and cults, its true intent, according to several analysts, is to stifle opposition to the Patriarchal Church and to discourage defections. Commenting on the new law, Keston's Lawrence Uzzell says, "I think the real target is the Russian Orthodox priest who is unhappy with the [Patriarchal] church and is thinking about jumping ship and seeking out other jurisdictions." The following examination of the law yields a similar conclusion. -ed.

Justified as necessary in the battle against "doomsday cults" such as Aum Shin Rikyo or Scientology, a battle that in other countries is waged through the criminal code, this law administering religion in Russia will deny all churches, parishes and synagogues not registered with the Soviet government at least fifteen years ago (under Andropov) the right to own property, worship in public, publish or distribute religious literature, proselytize invite foreigners, exempt clergy from the military, or conduct charitable activities. They must nevertheless register annually with the government. The law provides that faiths violating the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association Act or contributing to dissension may be "liquidated" (Article 14). As the daily evening paper in St. Petersburg noted recently, the Russian government now recognizes only those churches that collaborated with the regime during 1917-1982. It is true, however, as the defenders of this law point out, that those not belonging to a church permitted to register by the Soviet government may still pray and worship in their own homes.

In the short time since President Yeltsin has signed this law, which went into effect upon publication on October 1, on the next day a small Lutheran congregation in the Russian region of Khakassia had its registration revoked, though Lutheranism has existed in Russian for over 420 years. Earlier, on September 29, before the law took effect, the largest pro-Kiev Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Russia, in Noginsk (near Moscow), was seized by the militia and turned over to representatives of the official Russian Orthodox Church. This swift and heavy--handed response belies the suggestion of its supporters that this retroactive legislation is largely a precaution and will be lightly applied.

In its language and vocabulary, as much as in substance, the law harks back to Stalin's 1929 Law on Cults, speaking of the "prohibition against cultic activity," the "satisfaction of religious demand," "liquidation" of unaccredited religious bodies, and so forth. The provision of this law that expressly prohibits any religious organization that did not exist legally fifty years ago, under Stalin, from using the terms "Russia" or "Russian" in its name suggests that the new State supervision of religion in Russia is directed as much at internal as external enemies of the patriarchal Russian Orthodox Church. These include the Russian Old Believers, who practice an Orthodox rite that predates Peter the Great; the Catacomb Church, which has its origin in the Russian Orthodox clergy that went underground when the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church declared loyalty to Stalin's regime (with the signing of the Declaration of 1927 by Metropolitan Sergius-ed.); and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which traces its lineage to those Russian Orthodox clergy who escaped abroad. The many hundred independent churches belonging to these traditional Russian Orthodox confessions that refused to endorse the communist State are now illegal and subject to expropriation by the police on instructions from the patriarchal authorities.

Here again, sadly, there is little that is new. For this law, enacted by communists and ultra-nationalists at the behest of the Russian Orthodox Church, which embarrassed Yeltsin into signing it by attacking the President for kowtowing to foreign pressure, retroactively legitimates the practice of the official church over the past several years, of destroying or confiscating independent Orthodox churches, at home and abroad. In July of this year, for example, the Moscow Patriarchate persuaded Yasir Arafat to send Palestinian security forces to Hebron to evict the monks and nuns by force and take over a monastery belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, turning the property over to officials of the Moscow Patriarchate who were present. Last month, on September 6, armed militia burst in during services at a chapel in a hospital in St. Petersburg established by clergy and believers associated with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and shut down the parish. One week later, Father Alexander Zharkov, the senior of the two priests, was found professionally murdered [see column at left-ed.]. Other cases of Russian Orthodox churches being liquidated by armed militia recently have been reported outside in Pavlovskoye, in Tobolsk, in Podolsk, in Michurinsk, and in Oboyan. In legal terms, this widespread de facto practice is now de jure ex post facto.

The new law bringing Orthodoxy under governmental control in Russia is also not new in a larger sense. ... It reflects unabashed étatism, the continued capitulation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Russian State. As one dissident writer has observed, "The Patriarchate is Russia's most Soviet major institution-the only one with the same leaders today as before the demise of the Soviet Union." It is a self-perpetuating, unrepentant offspring of the Soviet regime, which blew up churches, converted monasteries to concentration camps, martyred countless priests and monks, created a hierarchy strictly controlled by the secret police, and conducted the most devastating campaign of persecution against Christians since Diocletian in the first years of the fourth century. The communist-nationalists who maneuvered Yeltsin into signing this law are concerned not about the Russian Orthodox faith but about its function as a symbol and set of rituals for something distinctly Russian, an ideology that can carry enough national conviction to replace the bankrupt ideology of communism, which in its first stages was itself a materialist inversion of Orthodox asceticism and messianism. The Byzantine Orthodox ideal of a harmonious "symphonic" relation of Church and Emperor degenerated-under the influence, according to some students, of a characteristically Western conception of authority that estranged the Russian people from the Russian state-into the current platform of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Imperialism" advocated by these legislators. Such "nationalism" does not affirm national self-identity but only a collective egoism, avarice, envy, and hypocrisy.

Is it necessary to add that the communion of Orthodox believers in the Church (sobornost') presupposes voluntary participation in the corporate body of Christ? That central to Orthodoxy is the doctrine of freedom of the will and that faith cannot be sustained through coercion or ignorance, but only through a free and gladsome choice?

Gleb Glinka Cabot,