A stand-up comedian has fled Russia after making tasteless jokes about Christianity and funny ones about Putin. He correctly surmised that his act might cost him his liberty or possibly even his life.
Those new faux-Christians in the Kremlin take blasphemy against either God or his earthly envoy Putin seriously, mainly because they feel the two have merged into one. Hence they enforce the concept of the Russian state tersely worded in 1833 by Education Minister Uvarov: “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Folk”.
Since the three elements of the triad exist in organic unity, an attack on one is an attack on all. Thus a public expression of atheism, no matter how mild, constitutes sedition and therefore grounds for criminal prosecution.
Criminal courts are happy to oblige. “No one in his right mind would write anything against Orthodox Christianity,” declared a Russian judge in 2016, sentencing a man to punitive psychiatric care for writing “There is no God” online.
Allow me to clear up any possible linguistic confusion. The Russian term православие used therein does mean Orthodox Christianity, but it’s always used in a narrower sense to denote Eastern, especially Russian, Orthodoxy. Neither an anti-Vatican II Catholic nor a 1662 Anglican would be described as an Orthodox Christian in that sense.
I’m not sure I agree with the Russian judge that atheism really is a sign of mental instability. If it were, we’d have to regard as mad, rather than merely misguided, chaps like David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Francis Crick or the recently deceased Roger Scruton, and something in me balks at doing that.
Writing “anything against Orthodox Christianity” in Russia evidently betokens not so much madness as an understated self-preservation instinct. But here, in London, one can still find something wrong with the Russian church and expect to remain at large.
I’m not going to delve into the vital doctrinal differences between Western and Eastern Christianity. Suffice it to say they exist and, as I argue in one of my books, they produce distinctly different ecclesiastical and civilisational archetypes.
The Eastern archetype is embodied at its most extreme in Russia, where, since the time of Peter the Great (d. 1725), the church has acted as an adjunct to the state and, increasingly, its secret police.
Solzhenitsyn complained that the Bolsheviks forced priests to report secrets vouchsafed to them at confession. Yet this practice predated Bolshevism by some two centuries at least.
Alas, before the advent of universal equality and social justice, the church had attached itself to the wrong state and therefore had to share its demise. This was executed in the style traditionally associated with universal equality and social justice: mass murder.
Some 200,000 priests were killed in all sorts of imaginative ways during the first 25 years of Bolshevism, 40,000 of them when Lenin was still in charge.
Yet the church survived, thanks to Hitler. When the war started, Stalin found to his dismay that the people wouldn’t fight for the bright future of communism, underpinned as it was by its monstrous past and present.
Holy Russia had to be taken off the mothballs, in the hope that it would command more loyalty. It was then that the moribund church was restored to some subservient but extant status.
Its role was refined, compared to pre-revolutionary Russia. If then priests had to cooperate with the secret police, they now became its operatives. The church hierarchs were appointed by the Central Committee of the Party in partnership with the KGB.
Since Putin has created a state seeking legitimacy in a version of Uvarov’s formula, Orthodox hierarchs have become the state’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, but without the embellishments. When Vladimir Gundyaev was elected patriarch, not only he but also the other two candidates were career KGB operatives.
If under Stalin the church was seen as a necessary but marginal evil, under Putin it’s an almost equal partner in the ruling camarilla. As such, the church has acquired the same endearing traits, such as untrammelled greed and acquisitiveness.
Acting in their new mode, the hierarchs were granted the privilege of importing duty-free alcohol and cigarettes, which they parlayed into billions. His Holiness the Patriarch, for example, has amassed wealth estimated at $4 billion.
Yet that was only one money stream flowing into the church coffers. Others ranged from mighty rivers, such as an interest in oil-trading companies, to small but pleasant brooks.
Among the latter is the Sretensky Monastery in central Moscow that has been found to house a hard-working brothel, charging $35 a pop. One wonders whether the holy fathers confused missionary work with the position of the same name.
It’s good to see that the concept of monasticism continues to evolve in Russia, mostly in the direction of getting in touch with lay life, as it were. But then, as the Russian saying goes, “like priest, like parish”, with the state here acting in the capacity of the priest.
An interesting touch is added by the personalities involved. The vicar of Sretensky Monastery, Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), is Vladimir Putin’s confessor, while Patriarch Kirill is the monastery’s superior.
On balance, I don’t think I’m mad or, if I am, my feelings about the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox church aren’t among the symptoms. I’m only amazed that some honest Christians – and they do exist in Russia – can remain loyal to that affront to their faith. But then Russia is indeed a rather peculiar place.