Blick über die Kreml-Mauer, im Hintergrund Kirchtürme

The Russian Orthodox Church has become a crucial player and supporter of the Kremlin.

The role of reli­gion in the Rus­sian “cul­ture war”

In recent years, the Russian Orthodox Church has tried to become an international influencer propagating conservative moral values. This is the research finding of Kristina Stoeckl, a sociologist of religion. Following Russia's attack on Ukraine, many religiously inspired right-wing groups distanced themselves from Moscow at least for the time being. It remains to be seen whether this rejection will be long term.

While major socio-political progress has been seen in recent decades, for example when it comes to the recognition of gender identities or same-sex partnerships and marriages, a bolstering of morally conservative, religiously inspired values has also been observed for many years. In some parts of the USA, for instance, the right to abortion can no longer be taken for granted, and in the EU member states of Poland or Hungary, hostile attacks are being mounted against liberal social developments.

In this widening network of backward world views that distance themselves from so-called Western values, Russia is an important player. In the past decade, a reactionary, anti-minority view of society has become established in this country which Vladimir Putin runs in an increasingly authoritarian manner. His regime wants to be seen as the antithesis to the liberal West and is trying to export its “traditional values” worldwide. In this context, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a crucial player and supporter of the Kremlin, acting in many respects as an international opinion-maker, for instance through NGOs and various lobbying activities.

“Conservative norm entrepreneur”

Supported by a START award from the Austrian Science Fund FWF, the sociologist of religion Kristina Stoeckl from the University of Innsbruck has studied the role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a “conservative norm entrepreneur” within a global, religiously motivated, morally conservative network over several years. The Church did not give up this claim even when Russia degraded into a dictatorship in the context of its attack on Ukraine. Quite the contrary: Patriarch Kirill I supports the narrative of Putin and in his sermons inter alia declared the war served to “protect against the Gay Pride parades”.

“The church leadership gives legitimacy to the war using the same arguments as Putin. Kirill I speaks of harmful influences from the West and of Nazis who are allegedly in power in Ukraine,” explains Stoeckl. “It is true that there are voices to the contrary within the church. A letter of protest against the war was published and signed by 300 priests. Some also protested in the streets and were imprisoned, but their bishops did nothing to defend them.”

A tussle for direction in the Russian Orthodox Church

Kirill I came to power in 2009. At that time, the Russian Orthodox Church was already well advanced in reorganising its institutional setup after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Around 2000, we first noticed the effort to influence the socio-political situation,” notes Stoeckl. She explains that three conflicting groups became noticeable in the following years: one wanted to make the church a liberal venue of civil society. A second, fundamentalist wing strove for complete isolation from the West and modern achievements. The third group also propagated a conservative set of values, but wanted to see Russia as a crucial player in world politics. Among these latter traditionalists one must count Kirill I who finally prevailed. “From 2012, when Putin became president again, the Russian Orthodox Church served as a laboratory from which the Kremlin obtained ideologies and moulded them into laws,” Stoeckl explains.

Orthodoxy has become part of a new, conservative cultural self-image in Russia. Nevertheless, the country remains a basically secular state and, similar to the West, the church has limited power to shape social values. “There is a good example to illustrate the limited influence: as a group with conservative morals, the Russian Orthodox Church rejects both homosexuality and abortion. A large part of the population agrees as far as homosexuality is concerned – this attitude was already found in Soviet times,” notes Stoeckl. “But abortion was commonly practised during the Soviet Union. In this respect, the church is not significantly successful in enforcing a ban. The legal situation is still similar to that in Western Europe – and not comparable to the bans in Poland or the USA.”

Schism of the Ukrainian Church

While the church does serve as a supplier of ideology for the powers-that-be, it does not enjoy any significant political influence in the Kremlin. At the same time, the Russian Patriarchate has been facing an enormous problem since the war in Ukraine: “After Kirill I turned against Ukraine after the war began, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke with the Russian church leaders,” explains Stoeckl. “This is quite relevant for the Patriarchate in Moscow. The Ukrainian church community is large and Patriarch Kirill I sees Ukraine as part of his canonical territory.” As yet there is no answer to what consequences this schism will have in the long term.

Another topical question concerns the consequences that the Russian Orthodox Church’s loyalty to Putin will have for its global standing as a morally conservative influencer. Roughly a decade ago, a “religious turnaround” was observed among a number of right-wing parties in Europe – from the Italian Lega Nord to the Austrian FPÖ. This was triggered on the one hand by immigration from Muslim-dominated countries, but on the other hand, as Stoeckl points out, it was about a narrowing of traditional values in order to set themselves off against the liberal world. “Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church play an important role in this context. Because unlike his two morally conservative predecessors the new Roman Catholic Pope Francis, who came into office in 2013, placed his pontifical focus on issues such as migration and the fight against poverty. The resulting morally conservative void was filled by orthodoxy.”

As a result of the attack on Ukraine and the subsequent ostracism of Russia, European and global right-wing groups distanced themselves from the “ideology centre” in Moscow. It is still unclear whether this situation will persist in the long run. “For Russia, at least, the war in Ukraine is also a 'culture war' involving value conflicts,” says Stoeckl.

Liberal values must be better communicated

What could the liberal Western states do to stem the tide of illiberal and often discriminatory tendencies of a globally networked moral-conservative scene? “It would be particularly important to communicate their own canon of values in a better way. A policy of non-discrimination is a value in itself that benefits everyone,” Stoeckl asserts. “This is the only way to rain on the parade of right-wing party rhetoric, which presents the issue in a simplified way and focuses, for example, on the LGBT community.” At the same time, one must avoid demonising conflicts over social issues. “Debates between conservative and liberal positions must remain possible. A democracy must rely on compromise. Unfortunately, the increasing polarisation of society leaves an ever-smaller terrain where different positions can meet.”

Personal details

Kristina Stoeckl is a professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Innsbruck. The sociologist of religion acquired her doctorate at the European University Institute in Florence. She was, inter alia, a Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and an APART Fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences at the University of Vienna. For her research project on post-secular conflicts, she received a START Award from the Austrian Science Fund FWF for young researchers in 2015, endowed with almost EUR 1.2 million, as well as the ERC Starting Grant of the European Research Council. In late 2022, Kristina Stoeckl and Dmitry Uzlaner will publish the book “The Moralist International. Russia in the Global Culture Wars”, which analyses Russia's role as an exporter of morally conservative values.



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