The church's power

Yet the Church can undoubtedly be called an ally of the state. A vivid example is the story of how the Church interceded on behalf of Russia's main nuclear center in the city of Saratov, when there was talk of closing it down entirely and of the wholesale disappearance of the Russian atomic industry. It is not surprising that today government leaders and officials come to public prayers for atomic scientists held at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

But at the same time the Russian Church has refused on principle to impose its jurisdiction in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, recently recognized as independent states by Russia. The Church has made its position clear: that Russia has recognized these states as independent does not mean that they have ceased to be the canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The discrepancy between state borders and the borders of Church Councils was and remains a typical peculiarity of world Orthodoxy. That is why the Russian Orthodox Church covers not only Russia, but most of the post-Soviet states as well as Japan and China. The latter was confirmed yet again by the recent visit of Patriarch Kirill to Ukraine. His addresses were shown on Ukrainian television and watched by some 30 percent of the country's television audience, setting a record.

The Russian Church is also not shy about stating its position on many pressing questions today. Its expert council, Economics and Ethics, has already made two serious pronouncements on the economic crisis and on the government plan for Russia's development through 2020. Both called for the government to devote more attention to social problems. The Russian government not only did not express displeasure at this meddling in its affairs, but let it be known that it had taken the Church's view into account.

While Westerners believe that the church is closely tied to the Kremlin, the Church sees itself as remaining outside the country's political life on principle, staunchly adhering to the positions it occupied during perestroika. The clergy's decision at that time not to participate in elections helped the Church avoid the sorts of internal contradictions that fractured almost all social institutions during the first post-Soviet years. Today, thanks to this neutrality, Communists, dissidents and apolitical people worship side by side in Orthodox churches.

In Russia today the Church has proved fairly immune to internal dissent. Moreover, while social and political structures throughout post-Soviet territory have collapsed over the last 20 years, the Church has been one of the few structures that has gained, rather than lost. Two years ago, the Moscow Patriarchate was officially united with the Russian Church Abroad, created in response to Bolshevik views against religion.

The strengthening of Church positions is also a function of the change in the "average believer." Ten years ago the religious procession at Easter around any Moscow church automatically turned into a crush, something like Woodstock: huge masses of people of whom many were just curious while others were young and a bit drunk. Today there are fewer people, but when the regular parishioners begin singing The Symbol of Faith, almost everyone knows the words.

The initial interest in the Church, which arose when the taboo on religious subjects was removed in the U.S.S.R., has gradually waned. But at the same time, quantity has finally become quality and the image of the old woman as the principal guardian of Orthodox traditions is slowly receding into the past, having given way to the educated young person - a successful member of the middle class. It is no longer a surprise to find people from the arts, politics, science and business on the pages of Orthodox publications, as it was even five years ago.

Once a sort of decorative artifact, an incomprehensible symbol of a doomed freedom, the Church has become one of the most powerful social forces in Russia.

Alexey Sokolov is an observer at Rossiyskaya Gazeta in Moscow

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