Russian Orthodox – a new, old national identity

Melissa Samarin challenges Professor John Burgess’ approach to the role and mission of the Russian Orthodox Church.


The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been growing exponentially in power, presence, and perceptions these past two decades. The numbers of ROC parishes has risen from its low point of 150 in the early 1930s to nearly 30,000 today. And this is what Professor John Burgess of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary addressed in a two-day seminar on “The Orthodox Church in the New Russia and National Identity” at Oxford University’s Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life. Burgess senses a renewed interest in the ROC in Russia and a resurgence, especially among young, urban professionals, toward Orthodox identity. Burgess took a very positive stance on the Church’s function in society, acknowledging that the entity does not always act transparently, but that its reemergence has helped Russia regain a sense of ethics, as well as reacquaint itself with its own heritage.

Drawing on his fieldwork and publications about religious resurgence, Professor Burgess‘ firsthand accounts revealed the Church’s positive role in social development and how in the past three years there has been a shift in the Patriarchy in favor of interactive community activity. The Church has set up community centers and worked at local levels to promote ethical standards and education amongst its population

Nonetheless, the rise of the ROC has had a more far-reaching impact than on just Russian society. Burgess interpreted the ROC’s activity amongst the population as potentially having positive effects on democracy building through greater ethical consensus and collaborative activity. Furthermore, the Church has provided a strong role model for Russian national identity. Burgess likened the situation in Russia to that of the Scandinavian countries, whereby a state religion (although the ROC is technically not in Russia) gives the population a sense of unity and attachment to their cultural heritage.

But what about the way in which the ROC is going about this community and national identity building? Burgess’s outlook, positive and uplifting (two words not typically associated with Russian history) as it is, still does not portray the entire picture. The Kremlin’s vociferous defence of Russia as a secular nation is doubtful when juxtaposed to the situation on the ground. The ROC is favoured by the government and plays an active role in society and politics (unlike its Scandinavian counterparts).

The Church’s close ties with government ministries, though, are a little unnerving. It has a strong presence in Parliament. It has lobbied for laws restricting foreign associations of all kinds, including the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, the Law on Extremism, and the Law on Public Associations. It has pushed through legislation allowing for religious education in schools. The course, “Basis of Orthodox Culture”, takes an ROC-centric view and does not adequately depict other religious or ethical beliefs. The ROC has also asked that an Orthodox parish be established in every penal colony, extending their already-notable presence in the realms of social work and the military.

The Church is not just a moral compass for the nation; it is infiltrating as many areas of life as it can. In this regard, it is the singular entity that the nation can identify with. The official answer to the question “Who is a Russian?” seems to be “A Russian is Orthodox and an Orthodox is Russian.


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