A century after Bolshevik revolution, Russia is seen as champion for belligerent nationalism across the globe.
Five years ago, a notoriously profane protest by a female punk band, Pussy Riot, in Moscow’s main cathedral sought to satirise the growing rapport between the Russian state and the Orthodox Church, most especially the close regard President Vladimir Putin and the church’s spiritual leader Patriarch Kirill have for each other.
At the time, this was a relatively fringe concern; most Russians had other things on their minds – such as the country’s economic problems, its deteriorating relationship with the West over Syria and the re-election of Putin to the top job after an interregnum as prime minister.
But now it’s back on the agenda because many of Putin’s opponents believe the glowing endorsements and mutual back-slaps the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church give each other these days are contributing to ever more tightly defined social and religious conservatism, intolerant nationalism and a growing personality cult around the president.
We had heard that the most obvious outward sign of this close relationship was the proliferation of religious zealotry filling the broadcast airwaves. So we set off for the offices of Tsargrad TV, close to Moscow’s Red Square, to meet Alexander Dugin, editor-in-chief of Russia’s most ultra-conservative Orthodox channel, which boasts the country’s fastest-growing audience.
“After the fall of communism, there was a great abyss …, a void, because everything began to fall down into the black hole. All the certainties, all the truths, all the things that were taken for granted in one moment disappeared,” Dugin says.
With Putin’s help, Dugin explained, the Russian Orthodox Church is filling this void. Indeed, the view as seen through Tsargrad TV eyes is of a Moscow skyline of countless domes and crosses, vying with hammers and sickles – a battlefield of symbols – and its clear which side is winning.
The channel’s owner, Kremlin-connected investment banker Konstantin Malofeev, was once dubbed God’s oligarch, a title he eschews, “I’m God’s servant, not God’s oligarch …” he insists perched behind a large portrait of Nicholas II.
“We live now in Russia … a delightful period, a period of triumph of Christianity.”
Malofeev is clear as to who is responsible. “President Putin is our leader … given to us by God.”
Others insist that by moving the Orthodox Church to centre-stage in Russian affairs Putin is merely ensuring the church’s support for his conservative and nationalist political agenda – a smart move given that between a half and two-thirds of all Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians.
Next morning, we are outside the Russian parliament, the Duma.
In recent years, a raft of socially regressive legislation has merged from this building, often underpinned with backing from the Russian Orthodox Church.
One of the most controversial of these laws (passed by 358 voted to two) effectively decriminalises domestic violence, which seems an odd thing for a Christian body to endorse.
According to this law, when you beat somebody, you can just pay a fee like a parking fine - the same sum even. It sounds crazy, but it's true.
Nevertheless, in a statement issued after the law was passed, the church insisted that physical punishment is “an essential right.”
Campaigner Alena Popova is waiting for us and wastes no time letting us know what she thinks about this law.
“According to this law, when you beat somebody, you can just pay a fee like a parking fine – the same sum even. It sounds crazy, but it’s true,” Popova says.
Last year, she tells us 14,000 women in Russia died from injuries inflicted by a relationship partner – equivalent to one woman every 40 minutes.
Popova has been lobbying Duma deputies to get the legislation changed but she knows it won’t be an easy task – given the amount of support the law had on its passage through parliament.
That evening, we go looking for some of those on the receiving end of another recent ruling, known as the Yarovaya Law – after one of its sponsors. In essence, a set of 2016 amendments to existing “anti-terror” and “extremist” legislation, the law is notable because of the inclusion of new restrictions on evangelism and religious missionary work.
According to its provisions, missionary work is defined as:
“The activity of a religious association, aimed at disseminating information about its beliefs among people who are not participants (members, followers) in that religious association, with the purpose of involving these people as participants (members, followers). It is carried out directly by religious associations or by citizens and/or legal entities authorised by them, publicly, with the help of the media, the internet or other lawful means.”
The target of these prescriptions, said the law’s detractors, are adherents of churches and faiths other than the Orthodox Church. And that’s who we are meeting tonight, a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their spokesman Mikail Panichev.
We run risks when we just talk to someone about the Bible … let alone about our teachings. Any conversation may raise suspicions - they will go and inform the police.
We rendezvous with our go-between at an ill-lit car park in a Moscow suburb and he leads us to nearby housing block. In the lift, our guide pretends not to know us when someone else gets in. We are ushered to a flat where a dozen or so people sit around a table reading the Bible. We are warned that at any moment the FSB (state security) could appear.
According to the those at the meeting, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group once persecuted by the Nazis for their strict adherence to pacifism, have now been labelled a threat to society here, too; driven underground last April when the Russian Supreme Court seized all their property, declaring the group “extremist”.
Since then, there have been numerous attacks against their homes and places of worship. Most of this small group have already spent time in detention, including a girl in her teens.
According to Panichev, “we run risks when we just talk to someone about the Bible … let alone about our teachings. Any conversation may raise suspicions – they will go and inform the police.”
As our filming continued over the days that followed, it seemed to us that the rise of Russian Orthodox Church was unstoppable. Since the fall of communism, 25,000 churches have been built or restored in Russia with state backing – if not always universal public support.
We went in search of one set of opponents who meet every week in a Moscow park. They told us that the land had been set aside for yet another church, which they objected to because it meant taking away a public amenity.
But it’s risky to openly challenge such developments as Yevegeny Lebedev discovered last November. He told us that his home and those of 11 others were stormed by masked police officers in midnight raids, “They bust in shouting, ‘Down on the floor!’ Somebody threw me to the floor. I was like that for 20 minutes, my kids crying.”
The officers were investigating a possible violation of yet another new law, which has the backing of the Orthodox Church. In this case, making it a criminal offence to “insult the feelings of religious believers”.
The raids were broadcast on national TV and Patriarch Kirill denounced Lebedev and his friends as “Pagans.”
This now routine use of law enforcement muscle to bolster the status and privileges of the Orthodox Church struck us as deeply ironic, given that only a few decades ago the communists used the same brutal measures to suppress organised religion.
In those days, this maxim from the founder of the Soviet state, VI Lenin, would have been at the heart of the state’s view of religion:
“Religion is the opium of the people … All modern religions and churches, all and every kind of religious organisations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.”
Presumably, back when the Soviet Union still existed and Vladimir Putin was still a loyal KGB officer, he would have wholeheartedly endorsed such thinking as a matter of political expediency, if not personal conviction.
But now he’s president, he clearly takes a different view – and the Russian Orthodox Church is the beneficiary.