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Published June 27, 2016 by Kyle Walter in Content, News & Analysis
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The fall of the Soviet Union, in addition to bringing substantial
political and economic changes to Russia and Eurasia, represented a
shift in how the newly-formed Russian Federation viewed religion. No
longer hampered by Communist philosophy, which eschewed religion,
the Russian Orthodox Church has resurged, influencing domestic
policy as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive tactics
in Ukraine and Syria.

When the Bolshevik Revolution ended in 1917, a long-standing

Tsarist tradition with its roots in the great Slavic faith of Eastern
Orthodoxy was sacrificed through an effective martyrdom by those
who had championed the Russian identity for centuries prior. This
destruction of organized faith, replaced by normative Soviet structures
depicting Lenin and Stalin as gods, represented a fundamental shift
from the Christian foundation of the Russian soul and created a large
rift where God and the Church once resided.
During the eight decades that Soviet-branded Marxism was the
governing theoretical framework for the USSR, this sense of belief
and divine relation was pushed far out of the daily conversation within
party lines, but it lived on in village practice, remaining a part of daily
life and culture for many Russians. Though the official stance on
religion was one of neglect and attempted death by exclusion, Russian
Orthodoxy survived in fledgling institutions and through oral
traditions, allowing it to rebuild from an emaciated skeleton once the
Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. Where the voice of the
clergy had been snuffed and property of the Church seized by over-
eager Communist party members in an attempt to serve the perceived
needs of their leadership, the Church was now released into the
steppe, free to expand and reoccupy areas that it had previously
proclaimed as holy.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, increasingly confident rhetoric from
the United States and its allies, as well as a general disenchantment
with the Communist regimes and philosophies of the 20th century,
drove the former USSR into the new millennia with a newfound
perspective on the ancient beliefs of Russian society. Beginning with
policies implemented by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late eighties, the
Orthodoxy returned to its place among the prominent institutions of
the “New Rome,” a title assumed by Kiev when the state of Kievan
Rus had only just adopted the faith as its consciously defined religious
identity in the year 988 by Prince Vladimir.
In modern times, a second Vladimir has played a similarly crucial a
role in defining Russia’s Christian identity. Citing perceived threats
and violent vandalism of church paraphernalia, Putin has increased
security around churches and hinted at a rejuvenated post-communism
Russian Orthodoxy in the Federation, setting the stage for further
growth and deliberation within the Christian communities of Russia.
In the years following, these beliefs would only become more
ingrained in Russian policy, and with purposeful widespread media
coverage of cases involving homosexual rights, the government’s
stance vis-à-vis the Church is rarely in question.
In addition to the powerful role played by the revived Russian
Orthodox Church in crafting policy at the national level within the
Russian Federation, the Church has also had a profound impact on
Russian foreign policy, specifically in regard to Syria and Ukraine.
Though much effort has been devoted to analyzing the diplomatic
relationship between Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as
well as the Middle Eastern country’s significance to Russian
geopolitics, Russia’s actions are also influenced by a desire to remain
active in the struggle for the future of a country that has seen its
Christian population drop from 30 percent to 10 percent in the last
hundred years, mostly due to state violence and persecution. Any
effort by the Russian government to assist Syrian Orthodox
Christians—people likely viewed as part of Russia’s national
responsibility—should be understood as a necessity in the eyes of the
recently reformulated, Orthodox-driven Kremlin.
In the case of the Russian invasion of Crimea, which resulted in the
seizure of former Soviet territory, the notion that Russia was primarily
interested in protecting their ethnic population within Ukraine is
worthy of recognition, but the importance of Ukraine to Russian
history and identity is even more important. As the birthplace of the
Russian state—and home to the founding capital of the ancient state of
Kievan Rus—Ukraine holds immeasurable significance to Russia, a
country which once held as much allegiance to Kiev as it currently
does to Moscow.

As more troops and military hardware make their way into Syria and,
less conspicuously, into eastern Ukraine, it is important to recognize
the resurging role played by the Russian Orthodoxy in the creation of
Russian foreign policy. The Church survived for nearly a century
while religion was violently suppressed and now has the freedom
necessary to infiltrate all levels of politics and decision-making.
Vladimir Putin appears to be one of the most eager to fly the banner of
the Orthodox Church when charging into battle on behalf of the soul
of Russia.

Image: Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow. (Edward Mahabir)