There has been a long history of conflict between church and state. In many countries they are still inextricably linked, for instance the presence of the Anglican Bishops in the United Kingdom's House of Lords. In other countries, such as the United States of America, the separation of church and state is enshrined in the constitution.
In this essay I want to use the history of the Russian Orthodox Church as a case study of the fluctuating relationship between church and state right up to the present day and the role of Russian President Vladimir Putin in its recent revival. The story comes right up-to-date with his justifications, both sacred and secular, for the recent Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula from the Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church was founded in 988 AD by Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev. The Eastern Orthodox Church split from the Western Roman Catholic Church in the Great Schism of 1054 AD. The headquarters of the church was moved from Kiev to Moscow in 1325 AD. The Moscow Patriarch is in full communion with, and fourth in line behind, the Orthodox patriarchs of Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey), Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Turkey and Jerusalem in Israel. During the reigns of the Russian Tsars, church and state were closely aligned.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Communist Bolsheviks tried to suppress the Russian Orthodox Church. They wanted a secular, atheist state. During the Russian civil war the church supported the losing white Russians against the winning red Russian forces.
During the 1930s many priests were sent to the gulag concentration camps by Marshal Stalin the Russian leader. However, during the Second World War, he found it useful to rehabilitate the church to gain their support for the war effort.
In 1945 George Orwell famously parodied the Russian Orthodox Church and its black-robed priests as Moses the raven in his satirical novel "Animal Farm".
In 1991 the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) saw the end of communism with its secular, left wing state replaced with a right-wing, nationalist state more amenable to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The present Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was born in Leningrad in 1952. He was baptised into the Orthodox Church by his mother. In 1975 he joined the Russian Secret service (the KGB). He was sent to Dresden in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in 1985 and was in the KGB headquarters in Berlin when the wall between East and West Berlin came down. At the time he was desperately destroying incriminating documents with the imminent fall of communism and the re-unification of Germany.
In 1991 he returned to Leningrad, soon to revert to its Tsarist name of St. Petersburg, where he entered politics. His faith was confirmed by his wife’s car accident in 1993 and a house fire in 1996. He became Prime Minister of the Russian Federation in 1999 and President in 2000. He was re-elected in 2004 but according to the constitution had to stand down in 2008. So he swapped roles with Prime Minister Medvedev until the constitution could be changed. In 2012 he was re-elected President for a third term.
He said in 2005 that “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”
This problem was apparent when the Russian speaking provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from the state of Georgia. In 2008 Putin authorised the Russian invasion of these two breakaway provinces to protect the ethnic Russians from Georgia's attempt to regain control. Interestingly these two new Russian republics are both south of the Caucasus mountains which provide the natural, physical barrier between Russia and Georgia, just as the German Sudetenland part of Czechoslovakia was on the 'wrong' side of the Ore Mountains of Bohemia (Erzgebirge) in the 1930s!
Putin's next invasion of a former part of the Soviet Union (USSR), to protect ethnic Russians, came in 2014 with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula of the Ukraine. This had been part of the imperial Russian empire since 1783. It was the scene of the great battles of the Crimean war in the 1850s including Balaklava, Inkerman, Alma and the year long siege of Sevastopol, the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet. As Putin might well say: Historic battlefields of Russian military glory & valour!
In 1954 Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, himself half Ukrainian, handed the peninsula over to the Ukraine. When both Russia and the Ukraine were part of the USSR then this transfer of sovereignty was of no consequence, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian speaking majority population of the Crimea found themselves outside the Russian Federation.
In November 2013 the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of an agreement with the European Union (EU) for closer co-operation. This prompted riots and the Ukraine's president fled the capital Kiev after three months of protests (the Euromaidan or Revolution of Dignity) and a new government took over on the 21th of February 2014. This was supported by the Kyivan Orthodox Church and led to the creation of the Order of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes. This revolution was dubbed a western inspired coup d'état by Putin and was his first casus belli for the invasion of the Crimean peninsula.
On the 18th of March 2014 Russia signed the Treaty of Accession of the Crimean peninsula into the Russian Federation. Putin said that "this is the day we celebrate the force of patriotism, when we realise what it means to be faithful to our homeland and how important it is to defend it and its interests."
Activists of the so-called Russian Orthodox Army barricaded the regional state administration in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on the 10th of April 2014. Together with the area around Luhansk, two new Russian republics were being carved out of Eastern Ukraine, just as Abhazia and South Ossetia had been carved out of Georgia. New Russia (Novorossiya) was re-asserting itself as a sacred cause in supporting ‘blood brothers’ (Laruelle 2016).
The US President Mr Obama described Europhile Mr Poroshenko in early June 2014 as a wise selection for new President of the Ukraine. On the 27th of June 2014 the Ukraine finally signed the Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) which had sparked the mass protests in Kiev which had forced the previous president to flee.
Putin has given several justifications for the annexation of the Crimea peninsula. His first is sacred, reminding us that the foundation of the Russian Orthodox Church took place in 988 AD at Chersonesus just outside Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. However given that it involved Vladimir the Grand Prince of Kiev, now the capital of the Ukraine, it could be argued in favour of Ukrainian rather than Russian primacy!
His second justification is that the superb harbour of Sevastopol is the headquarters (HQ) of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. We can draw an interesting parallel here with the status of the headquarters of the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrence submarines at Faslane on the river Clyde, if Scotland had voted to leave the United Kingdom in the recent referendum!
Putin organised a referendum in which 96% of the population of Crimea voted to re-join Russia. He has reminded us that Crimea was Russian until given to the Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. He has described the Ukraine’s western inspired (Paul, 2015) coup d'état, when the Russian leaning President was forced out of Kiev, as unlawful. He has drawn a comparison with the province of Kosovo in the Balkans which seceded from Serbia and could be considered a precedent.
However his main strategic concerns are the expansion of both the American led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU) into the former Warsaw Pact countries threatening Russia's own security.
Just as we won the Great War with Germany’s defeat, but set up World War II with the punitive Treaty of Versailles, have we won the Cold War with the collapse of the USSR, but set up Cold War II or, worse still, World War III in the process (Shirreff 2016)? Right wing Russian voices calling for war with the Ukraine and the West include Aleksandr Dugin (who belongs to the Old Believers Russian Orthodox sect) and fellow members of the Izborsky Club of Eurasianist intellectuals (Laruelle, 2015).
President Putin’s faith has been behind his stands against homosexuality and abortion. He has his own personal confessor, Archimandrite Tikhon, and also supports the Night Wolves Orthodox Bikers (Pomerantsev, 2012)! He has almost single handedly re-activated the Russian Orthodox Church after the long years of Soviet suppression. An ancient religion has replaced the ‘political religion’ of communism. His new ideas about the ‘sacred’ have undoubtedly motivated his political actions.
To conclude, Burgess (2014) says that “Many observers believe that Russia is returning to ancient Byzantine notions of a symphonia, an approach in which Church and state closely cooperate.”