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Russia appears to be the only Christian country where artists face legal penalties for blasphemy. The curators of a recent exhibition featuring depictions of Jesus as Mickey Mouse and V.I. Lenin were convicted yesterday for “inciting religious hatred” at a 2007 exhibition. “The verdict in the highly publicized case appeared to satisfy no one, with the artistic community seeing it as an infringement on free speech, and Russian Orthodox believers, who had hoped for a prison sentence, saying the fines were too lenient,” the Moscow Times wrote July 13. The Russian website added:

The church appeared to share this sentiment. Tikhon Shevkunov, the secretary of the patriarch’s cultural council who is thought to be Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s personal priest, said he was disappointed with the “purely symbolical” fine.

But Russia’s chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, and ombudsman Vladimir Lukin spoke in support of the defendants. Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev also backed the curators last week, saying the exhibit merited public criticism but not criminal charges.

In other respects, Russia appears to be the most socially conservative country in Europe. Today’s New York Times complains about Russian prudishness, specifically about the hurdles facing the nascent sex industry. “Two decades after government-imposed prudishness ended with the Soviet collapse, Russians still shy away from embracing European-style sexual mores. Despite a burst of licentiousness in the early 1990s, when pornography and prostitution surged through the country, the sexual revolution has never really taken hold here,” the Times writes.

Under former Prime Minister (now President) Vladimir Putin, the Russian government revived the Kremlin’s traditional alliance with the Orthodox Church. The social consequences of three generations of Communist rule threaten to prove fatal: By 2000 Russia’s fertility had fallen to only 1.25 per female, one of the world’s lowest, and Russia’s population began declining. The United Nations Population Database estimates that fertility will have nudged up to 1.37 by 2010, still on track for rapid population decline. With constant fertility, Russia’s population will fall from a peak of 147 million in 2000 to only 105 million in 2050.

Westerners will view the Church-State revival in Russia with mixed feelings. One hears about supposed KGB influence in the Russian Church. But Russian leadership is the former KGB. The Communists killed everyone else. The state security services ran Russia for three generations, which means that anyone with leadership ability was working for the state security services. Everyone else was a toady who survived by cultivating mediocrity. As I wrote some years ago , “The only leadership left in Russia by the terrible adverse selection process of the communist system was the former secret guardians of the state, men whose unique position required them to live by their wits.”

Without a return to religion, it seems unlikely that Russia will reverse the social decay that has become an urgent existential threat to the country’s future, and it is hard to envision how Russia could accomplish such a return without reviving Christianity in its traditional form. The Russian Orthodox Church, though, employs its standing with the state to harass other Christian denominations in Russia. And as George Weigel reported on this site May 25, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is threatening the position of the Greek Catholic Church in communion with Rome.

Nonetheless, according to the respected Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister, Pope Benedict XVI envisions a ” holy alliance ” between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches for the re-evangelization of Europe. Writing about Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Rome late last May, Magister comments, “one great ally has already united with the pope from outside of the Catholic Church, in this enterprise of a new evangelization. This great ally is the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Should we want Russia to survive, or disappear? Latvia, Moldova, or even Italy might be expendable, but the decline and fall of Russia would have consequences that I wouldn’t wish on a Tiberius. If Russia succeeds, she will succeed on her own terms. It isn’t a comfortable situation for the West. But it is the hand we have been dealt. With the triumph of secularism in Western Europe, it is not inconceivable that Russia will become the continent’s most Christian country, and veer away from the demographic point of no return toward which the rest of Europe is headed.

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