The Integration of Church and State in Russian Policy

By William Houstoun
posted on November 19, 2013 in Grand Strategy, Politics and Society
The Russian Orthodox Church serves two distinct functions: first and arguably foremost, the Church is a community for the faithful. Second, the Church has become one of Russia’s largest social and political institutions: between 10 and 14 million Russians consider themselves members of the Church, according to Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College Nikolas Gvosdev. The size of this civil institution has made the Orthodox Church one of the Kremlin’s key vehicles for projecting Russian soft-power, and for influencing domestic and international policies in both Russia and neighboring countries. To discuss how the Church engages in policy debates, the  Woodrow Wilson Center invited Gvosdev to provide his expert analysis of recent Russian policy moves.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, he explained, the Orthodox Church has been one of the few remaining pillars unifying former Soviet states. The Church has leveraged its position to voice its priorities with regard to Russian foreign policy, and to exert influence over public perception of domestic issues, particularly when policymakers are in gridlock and fail to shape public discourse themselves. He argued that, though it doesn’t completely drive policy in the Kremlin, the Orthodox Church plays an important role in tacitly voicing Russian foreign policy and also exerts influence in shaping public perception of domestic issues. 
In 2011, for example, policymakers in the Kremlin were unsure how to respond to the developing crisis in Syria, and there was no unanimous opinion that Assad was essential to protecting Russian interests in the country. Gvosdev made the claim that during this time of competing policy approaches, Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Damascus was used to push the Church’s own priorities in the region and to tacitly signal support for Assad as the defender of Syria’s Christian minority. Gvosdev believes that, as extremist groups have become prominent in Syria, the Church and state priorities have become more intertwined, in that the fighting in Syria allows the Church to bolster its image as protector of the region’s Christians, while the state combats extremists it fears are influencing the Muslim population in the Northern Caucus. 
It is not only in foreign policy, however, that the Orthodox Church exercises influence; the Church’s ideology has also helped shape recent domestic policies. Take, for example, the case of the recent law banning advertisement of “alternative life styles,” a law that the Western world has criticized as an attack on homosexuality and universal rights. Gvosdev considers the Church to have been instrumental in bolstering public support of the law by denying the Western idea of “universal human rights” and accusing the West of attempting to dictate Russian society. 
The Church exercised similar public influence when members of the band Pussy Riot were put on trial for “hooliganism” after its members staged a protest at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. When the country’s public was divided, the Church exerted its influence by rallying its members, lobbying politicians, and using state media to condemn what it sees as anti-Church and anti-state activities. 
Gvosdev believes that with the ability to interact directly with both the Kremlin and the Russian public, the Church’s influence will not wane in the near future. In the post-Soviet era, it is clear that the interests of the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church are increasingly mutual: as former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe become more and more attached to the EU, a unified, transnational Orthodox Church will become ever important to a Russia looking to maintain influence and promote its status as a global superpower.