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For many Christians in Russia, the freedoms of the early 1990s are largely gone. The Russian Orthodox Church, once a victim of Communist oppression, is now cozy with the Kremlin, but at a price: It overlooks the growing authoritarianism of President Vladimir Putin and human rights violations reminiscent of Soviet times.
Putin trumpets the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) as the one true faith and source of Russian superiority. He blesses new churches, and the ROC’s Patriarch Kirill proclaims Putin’s rise as a “miracle from God.” The ROC persuaded the government to pass a law in 1997 restricting the religious freedom of “foreign faiths,” and Putin pushed state-owned energy companies to invest billions into the rebuilding of churches destroyed by the Soviets.
The ROC—now one of the largest landholders in the country—even has the right to teach religion in public schools and preview any bill sent to the Russian Duma. The ROC is largely silent about the Kremlin’s murdering of critical journalists, politicians, and lawyers; its attacks on Georgia and Ukraine; its aid to the murderous Assad regime in Syria; and its fostering of crony capitalism that rewards corrupt oligarchs and steals from the innocent.
Putin, a former KGB agent, remains popular as he begins his fourth term, but perhaps not as well-liked as polls claim, according to Pavel Stolyarov, who also works at a Christian apologetics ministry. “If people are asking, ‘Do you like Mr. Putin?’ the answer is, ‘Yes, of course. Goodbye.’ It can mean almost nothing.” Reports of wiretapping and the unexplained deaths of those who cross the Kremlin have shaken at least some Russian citizens.
The trends are still worth tracking: Putin’s popularity peaked after the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 but plunged when the Russian leader moved this year to increase the pension age—an attempt to help offset the skyrocketing costs of war in Syria, annexing Crimea, sanctions, and a budget-busting World Cup. Critics pointed out the irony in the legislation, which raised the retirement age for men from 60 to 65: Life expectancy for Russian men is less than 65 years of age.
Russians are proud of their iron will and ability to withstand hardship. But the independent pollster Levada Center recently concluded that a growing number of Russians are weary of hating the West and making financial sacrifices for Moscow’s ventures abroad while corrupt oligarchs and patriarchs line their pocketbooks. The credibility of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill plummeted when observant bloggers spotted a watch worth at least $30,000 on his wrist. Church credibility plummeted after a failed attempt to photoshop all traces of the watch from the patriarch’s website.
Some Orthodox are concerned about the ROC’s spiritual health and point to the words of novelist Nikolai Leskov: “Russia has been baptized but not educated.” Between 70 and 90 percent of the population identifies as Russian Orthodox, but around 30 percent do not believe in God, and half have never opened a Bible.
While the Russian Orthodox Church has been busy building and blessing new churches (25,000 since 1991), non-Orthodox groups are often at loggerheads with the courts over worship space.
In Vyborg, a city of 80,000 people near the Finnish border, members of Vyborg Christian Church meet at a Seventh-day Adventist building each Sunday—a less than ideal situation. The facility lacks space for a nursery, so parents drop off their children at a separate location before worship.
Pastor Andre Furmanov said “local mafia” have blocked his church’s efforts to purchase a building, sending him outside city limits to search for adequate space. The challenge: Most church members don’t own vehicles and walk to church.
Protestant churches in large cities generally have fewer problems than those in small towns. After a series of difficult battles in Russian courts last year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Mary (ELCSM) in St. Petersburg regained full ownership of its historic building.
Other good news: Government restrictions meant to curb evangelism have spurred creativity. Two years ago, ELCSM began weekly pipe organ concerts. The result: Among the 33 new members confirmed this year, 12 first came to the church for an organ concert.
Furmanov reports similar opportunities through yearly theater productions—a tradition he began in 1989. The Soviets banned church activity, but Furmanov found unique opportunities while producing a play for a local school. Weekly rehearsals led to deeper conversations, and 24 people accepted Christ. Furmanov began secret church services in his parents’ apartment.
Today, the church produces original musicals that attract hundreds of residents to performances each year without violating the 2016 anti-proselytizing law.
Voices of courage
Crossing the Kremlin is risky business, but a few Orthodox Russians publicly criticize both state and church leaders. Among the courageous is scholar Andrey Zubov, who criticizes the Soviet regime in his History of Russia. Zubov lost his job as a university professor after comparing Moscow’s takeover of Ukraine to Hitler’s annexation of Austria. A month later, the university reinstated him but didn’t renew his contract when it expired.
Zubov told me he rarely turns down an interview with the Ukrainian press: “I want to convey to Ukrainians the idea that not everyone in Russia supports Putin’s aggressive policy toward Ukraine.” Cleric and theologian Andrey Kuraev has also spoken out: In 2013 the Moscow Theological Academy dismissed Kuraev from its board for criticizing state trampling of individual freedoms and for publicizing homosexual activity occurring among Orthodox clergy. —J.N.