The Russian Orthodox Church’s Expansion is Causing Popular Disaffection

Aleksey Makarkin & Maria Lipman
09 Jul 2019

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’ said in 2019: “Today we are building approximately three churches per day, per 24 hours.”

► The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is building more and more new churches—30,000 in the past ten years, according to Patriarch Kirill. It has also steadily claimed and received the property rights to historical church buildings that have for decades served as public museums. Among the donors to the ROC are some of Russia's largest corporations. The Kremlin has used the ROC as an important ideological resource, while the Russian people have listed the ROC among the most trusted institutions in Russia—behind the armed forces, the president, and the Federal Security Service.

But while the ROC enjoys trust as an institution, when it comes to moral or cultural issues such as abortion, school education, or art, the Church's interference is not especially appreciated, and its opinions remain largely unheeded. When asked in a public opinion survey which school subjects they deem most important, the Russian people ranked religious education at the very bottom of the list. The ROC’s attempt to extend religious instruction to students at all grade levels has failed quite spectacularly; it is currently taught only in fourth grade, and even then it is not an obligatory subject.

Episodes pointing to rising exasperation with the Church's expansionist mode have become more frequent. In the spring of this year, mass protests in Yekaterinburg against the construction of a church in a public park forced the Church to retreat and move the planned construction to a different site. In recent years, similar protests have been staged in other Russian cities, including Moscow. In a recent article devoted to Patriarch Kirill's tenth anniversary as head of the ROC, Aleksey Makarkin spoke about the “rise of anticlericalism” in Russia. Maria Lipman interviewed Makarkin about the causes, nature, and scope of popular disaffection with the Church.


Maria Lipman: What do you mean by anticlericalism and where do you see the evidence of this sentiment?

Aleksey Makarkin: It is a rather small-scale phenomenon in today's Russia, but it has grown less marginal today than it was in the 1990s or 2000s. In the 1990s, it was not just uncommon to express concern about the Church's growing role in society; it was inappropriate. At that time, the Church was seen as the target of persecutions by the Communist regime, so when it was exonerated, this inspired great enthusiasm among people of very diverse ideological views. The Church was beyond criticism—at least, beyond public criticism. Paying respect to the Church became the norm.

The ROC seeks to dislodge the Andrei Rublev Museum of Early Russian Art from the historical building that currently houses it, which used to be the medieval Andronikov Monastery.

"In the 1990s, it was not just uncommon to express concern about the Church's growing role in society; it was inappropriate."

If we look at the recent protest in Yekaterinburg, 18 percent of the city’s residents were flat-out opposed to building the church that had caused the public dispute anywhere [74 percent were against constructing the church on the disputed site. –Lipman]. Among them, there are those who are simply against anything, but there are also a number of socially active individuals—it is hard to tell how many—who object to the rise of the public role of the Church. And this constituency has a growing number of thought leaders whose position is important for certain societal groups.

The old Soviet anticlericalism died together with Communist ideology. The new anticlericalism is of liberal nature. It is noteworthy that a similar process is being observed in Poland, where it is also more pronounced. A new, second anticlerical party has emerged there and even made it to the European parliament. In Poland, the church itself is more powerful, which is why their anticlericalism is stronger. Our Church is weaker and less active: in Poland, religious education is one of the main subjects, whereas in Russia it is limited to fourth grade, and even then it is disguised as the “Basics of Orthodox Culture.”

Lipman: What are the causes of liberal anticlericalism?

Makarkin: There are several reasons for this. Above all, it is caused by the ROC’s active expansion into different public realms—its interference in education and its claims to ownership of various buildings, which have repeatedly led to ROC disputes with the museum community, as well as with the owners of other buildings that are being returned to the Church as part of the restitution process.

"Anticlericalism is caused by the ROC’s active expansion into different public realms—its interference in education and its claims to ownership of various buildings."

Take the Moscow Institute of Ichtyology - in the Soviet days its building had just one wall left over from a former monastery, yet the Church still claims that the building should be returned to it. The information about such episodes is spread by members of the intelligentsia, who discuss them on the Internet and by word of mouth.

The irritant that is the ROC’s expansion has been aggravated by the demonstrative alignment of the Church and state. In the 1990s, when the intelligentsia saw the government as a friendly force, this alignment was welcomed. For instance, when the newly elected Patriarch Alexy gave his blessing to the even more recently elected president, Boris Yeltsin, this was not seen as at all inappropriate. Today, as the liberal intelligentsia has come to regard the government as an alien force, liberal-leaning people feel disaffected by Patriarch Kirill’s emphasis on his close ties with the government.

Lipman: In your view, who qualifies as a member of the liberal intelligentsia?

Makarkin: I am talking about those who care about democratic rights and freedoms, as well as such values as pluralism and self-expression. It is a rather Westernized constituency: many of them have traveled to the West. Percentage-wise they are not too numerous, but they are active—on the Web, on Facebook. Some of them are opinion leaders, and others may be their active followers.

ROC expansion is not the only irritant. Another problem is that liberals have been pushed out of the church. This goes back to the 1990s, when liberals often joined the church only to realize that they were not welcome. The Church assumes the role of a mother and teacher—it teaches and laypeople have to learn. But a liberal intellectual does not feel like being a disciple.

"In order to protect itself against Renovationism, the Church withdrew into itself, clinging to formal rules and rituals and relying on medieval tradition."

Besides, during the Soviet period, the Church became more conservative than it had been in imperial Russia. This conservative shift was a means of survival, a reaction to Renovationism—a movement within the Church supported by the Bolsheviks. In order to protect itself against Renovationism, the Church withdrew into itself, clinging to formal rules and rituals and relying on medieval tradition.

The Church thus turned out to be more conservative than the liberals who joined it in the late 1980s. Even today, although Patriarch Kirill may have given his blessing for the publication of the collected works of Father Alexander Men, his books are rarely available for sale in parishes. [Father Men was a priest and theologian extremely popular among the intelligentsia in the late Soviet period. Because of his liberal views, Father Men was held under suspicion and was often under pressure from the Soviet state and church authorities alike. -Lipman]. Priests do not want to sell them because to them, his books are heretical. They may be unable to explain why this is, but they have a vague sense that they are something Jewish, something liberal and ecumenical—something that it is better to stay away from.

This is how, in the late 1980s, the Church reality turned out not to be in accord with the expectations of the liberal intelligentsia. There was also the problem of the diverse constituency that joined the Church. Many of those who chose to join had strongly negative feelings toward the liberal reforms launched by Boris Yeltsin—because they lost their jobs and social status as a result of those reforms, and because many regarded those reforms as a blow to their moral values. And of course, they had hurt feelings because of Russia's decline on the international stage. This is why not only the Church itself, but also some of those who joined it, rejected the new liberal converts to Orthodoxy.

"A newly converted liberal found himself in a stifling, conservative atmosphere rife with all kinds of phobias." 

For their part, liberals could not overcome their skepticism when they heard stories about popular miracle-making saints, and they resented the narratives about evil Masonic plots that frequently circulated in the Church. A newly converted liberal found himself in a stifling, conservative atmosphere rife with all kinds of phobias. This environment was closed and isolated, yet this time this was not because the Church sought to preserve its identity in the face of the oppressive Soviet regime. Instead, the Church was seen as a refuge by those scared of the globalized world, the market economy, etc.

A liberal intellectual who found himself in this environment faced a choice. One option was to evolve in this conservative direction. Indeed, some of those who were enthusiastic proponents of freedoms in the 1990s are today in favor of the Church’s dominance over society. Another option was to look for a liberal parish. In Moscow, there are a few such parishes, but most are located downtown. For those who live in bedroom communities, finding such a parish is more difficult. If we talk about other cities, St. Petersburg may also have a few, but in Yekaterinburg, I'm not sure. Most of the Yekaterinburg clergy are conservatives who worship the last Tsar and his family who were executed by the Bolsheviks; they consistently, if cautiously, emphasize that it was a “ritual assassination” (that is, that the Orthodox Tsar was killed by Jews). When a liberal intellectual comes to a church and sees a brochure blaming the Jews for all evil—the dethroning of the tsar in 1917, his assassination in 1918, Stalin's death in 1953, and the destruction of great Russia in 1991—he feels the urge to get as far away from this parish as possible.

Lipman: But if, for a variety of reasons, resentment of the Church is on the rise, does it make liberal parishes more attractive?

Makarkin: Liberal parishes are not too numerous. Also, a person from the “outside” who sets foot in a liberal parish will hardly see any difference at first sight. As in all Russian Orthodox churches, the service is in old Church Slavonic, which is incomprehensible to a contemporary Russian. In order to appreciate the difference, one has to become an insider by getting involved in the life of that parish. If one compares the anticlerical and liberal Christian perceptions, the former is probably stronger.

So on the one hand, the Church pushes liberals out, and on the other hand, the Church pursues an expansionist policy. When these two trends coincide—when a dominant Church, with strong state connections, marches (I'd say with a Komsomol-esque fervor) from one victory to the next, and at the same time, one feels alienated from the church—exasperation with the Church grows.

Lipman: The irritation over the ROC’s expansion is also aggravated by the perception that it is very rich…

Makarkin: This is sad because the Church is in fact much poorer than is generally believed. Here, the Church is actually better than it is reputed to be. This judgment—that the Church is very affluent—is based on a group of wealthy priests, or the fact that certain bishops drive Mercedes cars. An even more egregious phenomenon is those young protégés of bishops or metropolitans whose patrons give them expensive cars (for instance, there was an episode in which a hieromonk—later defrocked, tried, and convicted—drove a Mercedes Gelendwagen into road workers, killing two of them).

But these individuals account for a small share of the Russian clergy. A Russian Orthodox priest is generally not rich at all. As a rule, he has a large family—the ROC strictly bans abortions, and family planning is problematic. So, if we were to draw a picture of an average priest, it would include a large family, poverty, and fatigue. Many of them burn themselves out.

Lipman: When the Patriarch announces that the Russian Orthodox Church has erected 30,000 churches in ten years, he may be thinking that people will be pleased to hear that. Yet to many in Russia, this is barely evidence of spiritual growth. In many cases, the construction of new churches, which encroaches on territories that local residents think of as their public spaces, makes people angry and leads to tenacious protests, with the rally in Yekaterinburg being just the most recent example. Such protests are hardly confined to liberal-leaning Russians.

Makarkin: There is also a different kind of anticlericalism shared by those who are not necessarily liberal-leaning. They may see the Church as just one of many service-delivering agencies that did not exist before. To these people, the construction of many new churches may be cause for discontent, yet not because of church expansion—this is not how they look at things. They reason that they can barely make ends meet, their incomes are declining and prices are rising, and meanwhile a new church is being built. What for? People may see it just as something expensive and unnecessary. The Church authorities may explain that new churches are needed so more Muscovites have a church within walking distance, but members of this constituency probably think that they can easily go a few stops by bus when they go to church once a year for Easter.

"Private donations have decreased—at all levels. In part, this is because people are forced to be thriftier, and in part it is due to the anticlericalism."

Due to declining living standards, people have developed a more critical perception of what the church charges for its services, such as a baptism or a wedding, or simply for candles.

Priests observe that private donations have decreased—at all levels. In part, this is because people are forced to be thriftier, and in part it is due to the anticlericalism that we are talking about.

Lipman: But doesn't the ROC also rely on significant infusions of funds from the state and the largest corporations? This is what journalistic accounts published a few years ago alleged.

Makarkin: The government allocates funds for the maintenance of churches, especially architectural or historical landmarks under state protection. Structures connected to the ROC are also frequently awarded grants. But private donations have become more of a problem. Large sponsors have become fewer, and even small donations are not as numerous as they used to be. Some sponsors just turn down requests.

Smaller provincial church reconstruction projects often have to draw on enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is gradually dwindling. In the hierarchy of utilities, the church ranks low—as an optional expense that can be significantly cut down (for instance, by buying cheaper candles) or dumped altogether.

Protodeacon Andrey Kuraev, a theologian and active public figure known for his controversial statements and criticism of the ROC clergy, was stripped of his teaching and other positions in 2013.

Lipman: How does the ROC react to losing its attraction for some audiences? Do you see attempts to consolidate potentially diminishing respect?

Makarkin: Andrey Kuraev, who formerly served as a political consultant to the Patriarch, made an attempt to reinstate the prestige of the Church. In 2012, after the arrest of the Pussy Riot punk rock group, Kuraev tried to appeal to liberal audiences by saying that he would invite the Pussy Riot women for a cup of tea. The Patriarch turned down this overture in the toughest manner possible. Kuraev lost his teaching positions in the ecclesiastical academy as well as in the Moscow State University. He lost basically everything.

Lipman: What about the ROC’s recent announcement that it would cease the practice of consecrating weapons of mass destruction? Should this be seen as an attempt to restore public respect?

Makarkin: Some high-ranking clergymen may believe that encouraging militarism is a good thing. But there are also others who may want to bring the Church back to common sense and its own ecclesiastical principles. The announcement that you mentioned may be seen as a concession not only to the liberal intelligentsia, but also to those in the Church who care about strict observation of the rules.

"In Russia, to a greater extent than in contemporary Europe, the clergy often think of themselves as being involved in something super-sacred."

In Russia, to a greater extent than in contemporary Europe, the clergy often think of themselves as being involved in something super-sacred. This is one reason why they have a negative attitude toward Europe—“post-Christian” Europe, as some of them refer to it. This super-sacrality did not exist in imperial Russia. It has a Soviet origin—it is akin to the way in which losing one’s Communist Party or Komsomol membership ticket was seen as a kind of sacrilege. Former Komsomol members or even Communists have brought this zeal to the Church.

In this context, it is interesting to see what will happen to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. [The ROC claimed its right to St. Petersburg’s St. Isaac’s Cathedral, currently a museum, but a decision on the issue was suspended following mass public protest. -Lipman]. The priests said that even if St. Isaac’s was turned into a place of worship, it would still be open to tourists. But will tourist groups indeed be let inside, especially to the part of the cathedral that houses a Sunday school? Or will the clergy say, wait until classes are finished, then we will decide whether or not to let you in? In St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which also has an ecclesiastical school, I saw children sitting on mats right in the center of the cathedral with a priest talking to them. Meanwhile, tourists were wandering around and this did not seem to get in the way. This would be unrealistic in Russia, where the clergy’s natural reaction is to say, this is God’s house, you can’t walk or talk here. Nobody knows what kind of rules will regulate visits to St. Isaac’s in the future. And it may depend not even on the priest but on some doorkeeper.

Lipman: The state has relied on the Church as an important ideological resource. Should the government be concerned about the current anticlericalism trend? Do you think we may expect political consequences of any sort? Or is the scope not large enough yet?

Makarkin: The scope is not large. We do not have an anticlericalist party, as they do in Poland, because in Russia the Church is not effective enough. If the ROC had successfully lobbied to extend religious education to all grades, from primary school to high school, such a movement might have appeared. Paradoxically, the ROC’s relative weakness is also its strength. Public exasperation would be stronger had the Church gained as much as it wanted.

It should be pointed out that church constructions trigger protests mainly when a church is built in a public park, and especially when a park is small. People may be concerned that the church will be built very close to their apartment buildings and that the sound of bell chimes would disturb them. Construction on vacant lots is usually not a problem, and in fact, most conflicts that erupt around church constructions are not a matter of principle. Our Russian anticlericalism is not as radical as its Polish counterpart; for the most part, ours is of defensive nature.


Aleksey Makarkin is the First Vice-President of the Center of Political Technologies. He has cooperated with the Center since 1995 and been a staff member since 2001. In the 1990s, he worked for Segodnia Daily as a columnist (and more) and has contributed op-eds to a number of Russian media outlets, including RBCMoskovsky Komsomolets, and