Russian Orthodox Symphonia in the Time of Coronavirus

Mikhail Antonov is a Professor of Law associated with the Law Faculty at the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” (Saint Petersburg)


In “The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church,” adopted at the Sacred Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church (the ROC) on August 14, 2000, the Church referenced the medieval conception of Symphonia to describe the church’s ideal relationship with the Russian state in terms of “body” (state) and “soul” (church): “it is in their linkage and harmony that the well-being of a state lies.” According to the Social Concept, the ROC affirms the general principle of separation of church and state, which is that they shall be distinguished by their competences or spheres of authority, and that cooperation must be based on “mutual support and mutual responsibility without one side intruding into the exclusive domain of the other” (section III.4).

The “Soul” of Society and Its Privileges

The way Chapter III of the Social Concept describes these domains implicitly broadcasts the ROC’s ambitions for power. By including a shortlist of exclusive state competences in section III.3 and defining a lengthier list of joint competences of state and church in section III.8, the Social Concept’s authors leave the Church with a broad spectrum of implied exclusive powers previously unknown in the history of Orthodoxy in Byzantium or Russia.In practice, the ROC requires, in its capacity as the “soul” of society, the Russian state to protect religiously sanctioned values in family, education, religion, and many other spheres. (I do not discuss here real ROC-state relations, which are more ambiguous, of course.)

Both the ROC and the Russian state follow similar conservative agendas of “traditional values,”[1] and since the late Middle Ages, the state has implicitly agreed to take on the role of “protector of the true belief.” The Church thus finds itself in a position where it must assert its partnership with and impose its advice on the State while at the same time demanding non-interference of the State into religious issues. The 2020 Amendments to the Russian Constitution affirm this Symphonia; the mention of “the belief in God as this belief was transferred to us from our forefathers” as a guarantee of Russia’s state integrity in Art. 67.1 of the Constitution implicitly means that “the vertical of power” (the top-down command structure established by Vladimir Putin during his presidency) in Russia is legitimized by Russian Orthodoxy as the “religion of Russians.”

In the post-Soviet period, although there are some areas of contention between them, e.g., historical memory of the Soviet past, especially Stalin’s era; digital tax numbers imposed by the state but rejected by some believers; abortions, etc.: relations between the ROC and the Russian state have been mostly mutually profitable, following the centuries-old pattern of church-state entanglement in Russia. Nowadays the Church supports the legitimacy of the State and depends on it for protection against internal dissenters and external competitors. According to the Preamble of the 1997 Russian Religious Law, the Orthodoxy carries a “special role in the history of Russia in the establishment and development of Russia’s spirituality and culture.”

Along with this symbolic recognition, the Church enjoys several material privileges ranging from importing duty-free alcohol and tobacco in the 1990s to the restitution of properties nationalized by the Bolsheviks. The ROC has also been able to assist in decision-making processes at different levels of political power and to make its voice heard and respected, albeit not always. However, apart from bargaining ad hoc privileges, there seems to be no long-term strategy in the ROC’s relations with the Russian state. The body politics in the Social Concept, analogies comparing the church and state with consubstantiality, and other allegories have failed to accurately outline their mutual requirements and competences. Their relations instead have gradually turned into an implicit de facto alliance, with no clear rules of the game for either the Church or the State.

The ROC Milieu’s Critique of and Disobedience to Anti-Pandemic Measures

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in Russia in the spring of 2020, the church-state relationship has experienced several emblematic rifts that question the durability of Symphonia. Before shelter-in-place orders went into effect, ROC Patriarch Kirill tried to strike a reasonable compromise with state authorities by asking believers to stay at home, issuing a list of hygienic rules for in-person rituals, and suggesting new prayers against COVID-19.

But Symphonia turned sour when state authorities decided to prohibit attendance at churches and monasteries in some regions of Russia, requiring the ROC’s compliance. At the end of March when Saint Petersburg’s Governor Alexander Beglov issued a decree prohibiting citizens from attending religious ceremonies during the pandemic, the Moscow Patriarchate immediately published a rejoinder in which it held such restrictions as unconstitutional. An important number of clergy members interpreted this publication as an incitement to ignore the state interdiction and continued to attend mass ceremonies in churches. For the first time in Russia’s post-Soviet history, the Church explicitly encouraged believers to disobey state commands. It was a warning sign for the government: once allowed, disobedience can theoretically become acceptable in other areas where Orthodox fundamentalists disagree with state policies.

In different regions, local clergies issued diverse hygienic recommendations, but their common message was that despite the state prescriptions, the Church would not eject anyone who came to pray, kiss icons or relics, or take communion. Tensions escalated as similar decrees were issued by state authorities in other regions of Russia, and as the Federal Sanitary Epidemic Service started to close down churches. Quickly, the ROC yielded to state pressure. On April 13, 2020, the Patriarchate finally decided to close churches in Moscow and in the Moscow Region, where two-thirds of Russian COVID-19 infections were reported.

This decision was received differently among clergy and monks—many ultra-conservative Orthodox activists, who previously had partly or fully supported the tandem of the ROC and the Russian state, reacted to the ROC’s submission with hostility. The archbishop of the third largest Russian city, Ekaterinburg, in his Easter address indirectly rejected the hygienic state restrictions as provocations from the devil “to steal our churches and our communion from us.” Many city-dwellers from other large Russian cities deplored the anti-pandemic policies of state authorities, comparing them with Bolshevik atheist campaigns, and overtly displayed their dissatisfaction with the actual status of church-state relations in Russia.

The ROC Leadership Reaction

To bridle conservative opposition, at the end of April ROC Patriarch Kirill reprimanded the disobedient by defrocking and with other canonic punishments. Several canonic trials against priests who have refuted COVID-19 and resisted restrictions have already started. Still, newsfeeds of federal information agencies daily report new cases of disobedience among members of the clergy and monks who perform mass liturgies and otherwise violate hygienic rules, discourage laymen from being tested for the virus, or dissuade followers from obtaining QR codes for local travel (suspecting that Satan’s work is behind these technologies).

The ROC Patriarch now finds himself in a difficult situation. Some analysts point out that the same Orthodox conservatives, on whom Kirill and his circle depended for so long, now scold the Church for its concessions to the State, cast doubt on the alliance between the Patriarchate and the government, and directly challenge the established Symphonia. The “bless-ride” of the Patriarch on April 3, 2020, was likely symptomatic of this perplexing set of circumstances. Kirill, convoyed by traffic police with lights and sirens, was driven around the Moscow ring-road in a luxury Mercedes holding an icon to protect the Russian capital city from COVID-19. This act may have been seen as “medieval” or “too much” by even the most committed believers.

Challenges to Symphonia

The tensions between the ROC and the Russian state during the COVID-19 pandemic calls into question their Symphonia. Instead of being an additional source of legitimacy for state power, the ROC has created additional problems for a government already struggling to overcome the pandemic without losing electoral support. In his Easter address on April 19, 2020, President Putin routinely thanked the ROC for “maintaining the spiritual and ethical foundations of society,” but so far there have been no words of gratitude from either Putin or any other politically prominent Russian official toward the ROC in connection with COVID-19, which is perceived by the authorities as an existential threat for the country. Likewise, the ROC displays the same attitude toward the Russian state—at best, keeping hostile silence.

In contrast, communication between Muslim clericals and the state has continued. On May 18, 2020, in Dagestan (a Muslim-majority, Russian North-Caucasian region) Putin invited the Dagestani Mufti to a discussion of the COVID-19 situation with the heads of the executive and legislative authorities of the Republic. Several days later, the Mufti effusively thanked Putin, suggesting that the Russian President was sent by Allah to save the local population. All that remains now for the ROC under this new version of Symphonia is to request funding from the State.

These developments cast doubt on the ideal church-state relationship as set out in the ROC Social Concept. Under the circumstances of COVID-19, the ROC has struggled to meet the State’s expectations in its role as the “soul” in the Symphonia. Instead of producing persuasive messages that could mobilize the population, the ROC resorted to writing anti-COVID prayers, to riding in cars and planes with icons, and to similar practices that are unconvincing for most Orthodox believers. So far, believers have not received from ROC leadership coherent guidelines regarding ethical, political, legal, and other matters raised in connection with COVID-19. Further, the ROC has found itself split between conservative and ultra-conservative forces, and, in the absence of centralized guidelines, has prompted local clerics to provide conflicting interpretations and exhortations.

Cacophonizing Symphonia

What is even more problematic for Symphonia is the misunderstanding among local clerics, inspired by the theocratic formulations of the Social Concept, about the real position of the ROC in its de facto subordinate relationship with the State that has prompted many to challenge state commands and insist on more active resistance to state interference. In response, Orthodox clerics have referenced human rights and constitutional freedoms meant to protect the right to attend churches, which seems inconsistent with the generally conservative tone of ROC ideology claiming that “human rights protection is often used as a plea to realize ideas which in essence radically disagree with Christian teaching” (see Preamble of the ROC’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom, and Rights).

Following such references, some believers and religious outsiders can understandably come to reject the very idea of Symphonia. Interpretations of the ROC, including, for example, the state’s severe restriction of the religious market in favor of the ROC, plainly contradicts the Russian Constitution’s proclamation of both state secularity and ideological diversity and bans on attempts to impose any compulsory ideology. In recent months, this inconsistency has been illustrated through several scandals with a military cathedral built in early 2020 in Kubinka, the Moscow Oblast. This third biggest Orthodox cathedral in Russia initially housed mosaics of President Putin and other leaders of the Russian state, as well as Stalin and Soviet WWII generals, giving Orthodox believers reason to reenter discussions on the symphonic framework of church-state cooperation. Even after the political frescos were removed from the cathedral, some Orthodox clerics still consider it a Pagan temple and call for real separation of church and state in Russia.

All of this threatens to transform the Symphonia of church-state relations in Russia into cacophony. Obviously, disastrous for the Church’s economic interests and political ambitions, this cacophony may also be a serious challenge for the Russian state, which may have to seek another social institution capable of articulating the prevailing ideology or decide to strengthen the ROC’s subordination to state ideological needs and increase pressure on religious freedom, as has been the case in Russian history before.

[1]Alicja Curanović. “The Guardians of Traditional Values: Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church in the Quest for Status,” 2 Transatlantic Academy Paper Series (2014-2015), 8-10.