(Getty/Mikhail Svetlov)

The image of the Russian Orthodox Church as the “handmaiden” of the state long prevailed in Tsarist Russia. After decades of Soviet persecution, this perception of the church has reemerged in post-communist and, especially, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Western media routinely describe the church as a “staunch Kremlin ally,” as The Washington Post did. The New York Times called the church “a reliable pillar of support for the government of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin,” and the BBC casually referred to the church’s “close links to the Kremlin.” Some in Russia have leveled similar criticism, as in a public declaration by three provincial Orthodox priests: “We urgently ask you to cease the shameful practice of blind collaboration with the authorities and every kind of dalliance with the wealthy in our country.” Such descriptions appear to find confirmation in the many photographs of Putin crossing himself at Orthodox services or standing alongside Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The two leaders demonstrate mutual respect, emphasize pride in Russian culture and history, and invoke patriotism and cultural tradition as enduring values. Collaboration has rewards: The state has been generous (such as a law in November 2010 on the restitution of church property) and accommodating (such as a law of June 2013 criminalizing sacrilegious acts) to the church.

Nevertheless, the church and the state have important areas of disagreement, as both Kirill and Putin bluntly admit. In a 2016 documentary to commemorate the patriarch’s 70th birthday, Putin thanked the patriarch for his advice but volunteered that the two did not always agree. The patriarch noted their disagreements in a face-to-face public meeting in February 2012, when he praised Putin for his role in ending the disastrous 1990s—which brought economic collapse to the country—but added that “this does not at all mean that we agree with all of your actions, with all that is going on in this country. We have our own critical views, and I say this publicly, without any inhibitions whatsoever.” In September 2012, in a BBC interview, the patriarch emphasized that “the church defends its autonomy. The church thinks that only a free church in the state has the capacity to have spiritual influence on people.” Incensed by allegations of a “merger of church and state,” in February 2013 the patriarch retorted: “Yet again I emphasize that the church does not intervene in the affairs of state administration, and the government does not intervene in church affairs, but both sides collaborate for the good of the people.”

While church and state do collaborate in many areas—from promoting patriotism to organizing charity—they do have diverging perspectives and interests. The relationship is complex and evolving. The church’s adamant defense of autonomy stems from the calamitous Soviet experience. Although Putin ridicules the fantasy of restoring the Soviet Union, his regime does valorize the Soviet achievements, not only the great victory in World War II but also the phenomenal economic growth under Joseph Stalin. The church, however, holds a very different view: By 1941, this same regime perpetrated mass repression, including the incarceration or execution of several hundred thousand clergy and believers. The state closed all monasteries and nearly every parish church. The experience for Patriarch Kirill is personal: The repressed included his grandfather-priest, who served nearly 30 years in labor camps, and his father-priest, whose three years of incarceration and persecution thereafter Kirill also had to endure. Since 1991 the church has done much to commemorate all those victims, including 1,770 canonizations—and counting.

The church also fiercely opposes attempts to rehabilitate Stalin’s memory. Kirill’s close aide, Metropolitan Ilarion, has offered this assessment of Stalin:

I think that Stalin was a monster, a spiritual freak, who created a horrendous, anti-human system for governing the country, based on lies, violence, and terror. He unleashed genocide against the people of his own country and bears personal responsibility for the deaths of millions of innocent people. In these terms, Stalin is completely comparable to Hitler.

Although the wartime crisis caused Stalin to allow the reopening of some parishes and monasteries, in the postwar years the regime renewed its anti-religious campaign, closing about half of these parishes and subjecting the church to strict control. By the time the church celebrated the millennium of the Christianization of Russia in 1988, it was but a shadow of its prerevolutionary presence. In the post-Soviet era, the church has managed to grow: In 1988, 76 dioceses remained; in 2016, that number jumped to 293. In 1988, there were 6,674 priests, but now there are more than 35,000.  The church has rebuilt much, but memory of the Soviet era continues to be a driving force for institutional self-assertion and autonomy.

The church also has staked out positions at variance with the state on several sensitive issues. One is abortion: condemned traditionally and in post-Soviet declarations (such as the Foundations of the Social Conceptions of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted in 2000), abortion is a major issue because the country has a high abortion rate (officially 1.3 million abortions occur per year, but perhaps more than 3 million according to unofficial estimates) and because of abortion’s perceived role in contributing to the country’s demographic decline. The patriarch has signed petitions to ban abortion but has offered pragmatic proposals that the government increase family assistance and thereby reduce the economic motive that, according to polls, accounts for more than 50 percent of all abortions. The Putin regime also worries about the demographic decline but, given its financial constraints (thanks to the on-going 2008 global recession and more recent sanctions), is reluctant to assume a greater burden.

Another issue is Ukraine. The Moscow Patriarchate, with 36 percent of its parishes located in Ukraine, fears a massive defection to an autonomous Ukrainian Orthodoxy and has therefore distanced itself from the “Crimean question” (the patriarch being conspicuously absent when Putin announced annexation of Crimea in March 2014).

Another point of contention between the church and the state is the restitution of church property, mostly church buildings, confiscated during Soviet times. Although the 2010 law mandates restitution, implementation has been difficult, chiefly because some former churches currently serve as museums or other functions, and the state lacks the means to provide alternative space. Restitution has even provoked large-scale protests, like that involving St. Isaak’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, which the church has reclaimed but much to the displeasure of some Petersburg residents who fear that the former cathedral, which is a major architectural site, will inevitably lose some of its museum functions.

High culture is another source of tension, especially when conservative believers take exception to anti-religious art, music, and film. Of particular notoriety were the the obscenity-laced performance by the punk band Pussy Riot in the country’s main cathedral in 2012, and the “Forbidden Art” exhibition in 2007, which included, for example, Aleksandr Savko’s painting of “Mickey Mouse” giving the Sermon on the Mount. Both ended in court convictions, with fines or incarceration, at once eliciting secularist complaints of religious repression and traditionalist complaints of undue leniency. Currently the hot-button issue is a forthcoming feature film, Matilda, subsidized by the Ministry of Culture and devoted to the romantic affair between the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaia and the future emperor Nicholas II. Given that the church canonized Nicholas in 2000 as a martyr (having been executed, with his family, by local Bolsheviks in July 1918), this portrayal of Nicholas’s unsaintly escapades has offended believers and provoked petitions and demonstrations demanding a ban on its release this coming October.

The role of religion in schools and universities is a highly significant and sensitive issue between Putin’s regime and the Orthodox Church. From the church’s perspective, it is absolutely essential to “rechurch” the population: although 70 to 80 percent of the population self-identify as “Orthodox,” only a tiny proportion attend services, fast, receive communion, and demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of Christian doctrine. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that between 1991 and 2008, the self-identified “Orthodox” rose from 31 percent to 72 percent, but that regular churchgoers remained in single digits—just 2 percent to 7 percent. Priests play on the word for “parishioners” (prikhozhane) to label the nominal Orthodox as “drop-ins” (zakhozhane) and “passers-by” (mimozhane). Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of “believers” seldom—if ever—go to services, read the Gospels, receive communion, know the Ten Commandments, or understand basic doctrines like the Holy Trinity. To undo the effect of seven decades of Soviet “religious de-socialization,” the church has made religious education a top priority. As early as 1990, the church urged the state to restore prerevolutionary religion classes in public schools, but it was not until 2012—after much debate and vigorous secularist resistance—that the state finally adopted a limited variant. At a higher level, the academic establishment long refused to award candidate and doctoral degrees in theology, and not until October 2015 did the Ministry of Education and Science formally agree to grant degrees in this field. But the ministry just awarded the first, and so far only, candidate degree in theology in June 2017, and even that provoked a strong collective letter of protest from academics remonstrating that theology is not a subject worthy of an advanced degree.

As the conflict in all these areas suggest, Russian religious politics—even when Kirill and Putin seek to cooperate—is complicated and divisive. In large measure, that is due to the multivocality on both sides: Neither the state nor the church is a monolith—the president and patriarch both represent complex and conflicted constituencies. On the state’s side, the “non-religious”—the 10-to-25 percent who are self-professed “unreligious” and sometimes avowed “atheist”—oppose the church’s influence in secular affairs. That secularist sentiment is reflected in polls: Those who perceive an excessive church role rose from 6 percent in 1991 to 23 percent in 2017. Public opinion varies widely on church proposals, being sometimes highly favorable (88 percent support the 2013 law against promoting homosexuality) and sometimes highly negative (70 percent oppose the church’s proposal to eliminate state funding for abortion).

On the church’s side, opinion ranges from liberal modernists (seeking to rewrite canon law, use vernacular Russian in the liturgy, and promote ecumenical ties) to fundamentalists (nationalist, traditionalist, anti-ecumenical). The patriarch’s support of “internetization” has only enhanced this multivocality. For his part, Kirill encourages clergy and lay activists to go online and create dedicated websites, participate in social networks, and run independent blogs; the patriarch himself has an active Facebook page, sponsored an Orthodox social network Elitsy, and authorized an Orthodox channel on YouTube (“Kanal RPTs,” with 3,823 videos to date). While Kirill hopes that virtual Orthodoxy, with more than 3,000 Orthodox sites, will reach the “drop-ins” and “passers-by,” he has also created a vast domain over which he has absolutely no control. As a result, the patriarchate may articulate a perfectly clear position, but that of the “church” is muddied by alternative, contradictory pronouncements from left and right. Putin speaks of “managed democracy,” expressing his attempt to assert control, and the patriarch might aspire to an analogous “managed Orthodoxy,” but both “managed” scenarios are largely imaginary and elusive, at best episodic and marginal.

All this makes for complex, conflicted religious politics. Collaboration between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government is real but selective, sometimes intermittent, frequently impossible. In any case, one should be chary of the “handmaiden” stereotype that prevails in the media but has little to do with how things really work.

Gregory Freeze is Beinfield Professor of History at Brandeis University.