September 30, 2004


Church's Clout Ascends in Russia: A political player again, and independent for the first time, the institution seeks its proper role. An art exhibit prosecution illustrates its muscle. (Kim Murphy, September 30, 2004, LA TImes)

When the well-known Sakharov Museum broached the subject of religion in an art exhibit, no one was surprised that an outcry followed.

After all, one work featured an icon into which viewers could insert their heads. Another superimposed Christ on a Coca-Cola logo with the words, "This is My Blood."

Followers of a local priest vandalized the exhibit with spray paint. The Russian parliament voted to condemn the display and urged the authorities to "take necessary measures." President Vladimir V. Putin's spiritual advisor, Father Tikhon Shevkunov, called the artists "disease-carrying bacteria" against whom "society is using antigens."

Ultimately, the power of the state was brought to bear against a museum that has stood as a symbol of challenge to Soviet-era repression and religious persecution. Sakharov Museum director Yuri Samodurov is scheduled today to go on trial in a Moscow courtroom, accused with two other exhibit organizers of "inciting ethnic or religious hatred."

The case has attracted only a smattering of controversy in Russia, where an attack on the Orthodox Church is seen by many as a body blow to the Russian polity.

Stripped of its assets and persecuted for 70 years under atheist Soviet rule, the church of the Russian czars has once again become a key political player in Russia — one of the few civil institutions able to claim a following across the nation's far-flung landscape.

In a survey this year, 71% of Russians identified themselves as Orthodox, and more than half said they considered their religion important or very important. The church sponsors its own magazine, its own radio station and until recently had its own program on state television.

It indirectly controls at least 40 deputies in the parliament, who this week successfully carried a bill that will guarantee the church the free use of tens of millions of dollars worth of state property on which church buildings stand.

Perhaps most important, the church has a believer in Putin, though his motives have been questioned. Unlike his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, who was considered a poseur every time he clutched a candle and headed toward an altar for the TV cameras, Putin has his own Orthodox priest to whom he confesses.

If Putin is serious about strengthening countervailing institutions like the Church then his authoritarianism can be the basis for Russian revival.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 30, 2004 7:30 AM

Worked so good in the 1920s and '30s.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 30, 2004 4:13 PM

Orthodoxy has a different position vis-a-vis the State than do most other Christian denominations. It is best described by the phrase 'G-d is the Tsar's junior partner.'

It sees itself as a supporter of the existing power structure whatever that is, as its craven behavior in the Cold War amply demonstrated.

Posted by: Bart at September 30, 2004 7:10 PM

I'd be willing to sign on to Orrin's Christian crusade, even tho' remaining an unbeliever, if it were really true that Christianity could serve as a counterbalance to totalitarian state power.

However, we ran that experiment, several times, and it proved not to be the case.

I have started reading Robert Conquest's "Reflections on a Ravaged Century," and he completely misses this point (so far, at least, I haven't got to the last page yet)

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 1, 2004 2:44 PM


It can't. The State is more powerful, which is why the Church has to protected if we're to avoid statism. But whjere the Church was strong--as in Italy and Spain, fascism had a much different quality than where churches were weak, as in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Posted by: oj at October 1, 2004 2:58 PM

The churches were not weak in Germany or Russia.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 2, 2004 3:31 PM