Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

At the height of the Cold War, political scientists questioned whether the Orthodox Church had become incompatible with the modern state. Although history textbooks highlight how patriarch and emperor were integral offices to the Byzantine Empire, the West has always had a far more tangible division between pope and prince. In Russia in particular, church and state have been in elaborate entanglement for centuries, the result of which has paradoxically been widespread abandonment of the practice of the faith. And contrary to those inclined to see a triumphant tale of Christianity emerging from communism, today’s Church remains plagued by the same ills it has borne for centuries.

Today, the Cold War is history and the Russian Orthodox Church again enjoys religious freedom, yet it has little influence on public discourse, especially when compared with the impact of the Catholic Church, which weighs in on arguments even in countries where Catholics do not even comprise a majority (consider, for example, the recent successes prelates have had in setting the terms of the American contraception mandate and British gay marriage debates). Some Russians (and a fair number of Westerners) imagine this is simply the impact of Soviet atheism on the Russian people, but the reality is more complicated.

The role of the Orthodox Church in the Russian Empire diverged significantly from that of any Western Christian denomination after 1648. The Tsar’s authority over them was derived from the Tsar’s authority over the Church.

In the 1650s, Patriarch Nikon sought to reform Russian Orthodox services and rituals by making them more true to historical Byzantine ceremonies in line with Moscow’s claim to be the “Third Rome.” And in the early 1700s Peter the Great further consolidated control over the Russian Orthodox Church by replacing the Patriarch of Moscow with the Holy Synod, a council of bishops overseen by a civil servant. The church effectively became a government ministry under the Tsar’s personal authority. Though this restored the Tsar’s legitimacy through the Church, the core ecclesiastical hierarchy fell into disrepute: by the nineteenth century, Orthodox priests were generally illiterate, sons of previous priests (they were required to marry), and unemployed. Forced to scrounge their subsistence from fees for Church services, Orthodox priests were regarded as social parasites by Russian intellectuals.

As a direct consequence of this muddling of spiritual and temporal power, nineteenth-century Russians turned to Orthodox ascetics, rather than the priests and bishops of the Orthodox Church for spiritual guidance. They became, to use a contemporary phrase, “spiritual but not religious.” And as the century wore on, Orthodox believers seemed to find confirmation of this view in the arts. They became enraptured, in particular, by Leo Tolstoy’s vision of Christian anarchism: the only true sovereign was God and God alone, expressed through the story of Christ. In 1894, Tolstoy published The Kingdom of God is Within You , framing the spiritual foundation of the modern Russian soul: the Orthodox institution is key to Russia, but theology and spiritual understanding is profoundly personal. The Tsar unwittingly reinforced this dichotomy by suppressing Tolstoy’s religious writings, an act which only boosted Tolstoy’s popularity further.

True, the crucible of the communist years saw much state repression of the Orthodox religion, but in many ways it also restored it as an institution. In 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, Joseph Stalin restored authority to the Patriarch from the Synod, making the Orthodox Church as at least a nominally autocephalous body.

Nevertheless, today’s Orthodox Church faces a unique problem. Post-Soviet Russia retains a large number of atheists. 50% of Russians confess themselves Orthodox, but only 7% attend church services once a month; a mere 3% do so every week. These numbers are markedly lower than even the most thoroughly secularized Western European countries, like France (with an 8% rate of weekly Mass attendance among self-proclaimed Catholics) or the Netherlands (12%).

Among the tiny minority of Russians who actively practice their faith, devotion is extremely stringent, to a degree many Westerners might find inconceivable. Whereas tourists visiting a Spanish cathedral, for example, might be politely asked to wear sleeves and some form of footwear, a female who enters a Russian cathedral, especially outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, should prepare for (at a minimum) a hail of loud verbal abuse from the congregation if her head is uncovered. The Church’s current Patriarch (Kirill I) was forced to recant his ecumenism by the faithful due to their fears of reconciliation with the Catholic Church.

Whereas the body of thought and practice in most of the world’s religions today runs the ideological gamut from multicultural reformers to staunch conservatives, the Russian Orthodox Church is polarized in a dualism of non-observant believers-in-name-only and religious reactionaries who have survived the crucible of the Communist era and seem to resent everyone else, classing them as ‘outsiders.’

The Russian Orthodox Church survived the Communist era and indeed doubled its confessed membership to 60 million in the years since, but the centuries-old divide between earthly authority and spiritual transcendence remains deeply ingrained in the Russian mindset. In February 2012, for example, a Russian feminist punk rock group stormed into the largest Orthodox cathedral in Moscow, performing a vulgar song beseeching, among other things, for “the Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin,” to “chase Putin out.” When the Church’s Patriarch denounced the group, they responded via blog, “You cannot believe in an earthly tsar if his deeds contradict those values for which the Heavenly Tsar was crucified.”

The Church today has completely vacated the Russian political arena, and its impact on ordinary Russian lives is negligible. The Christian spirit has not departed Russia, but the influence of an established church is long gone. St. Paul’s hope of making “both one” (Eph.2:16) seems harder than ever, for only reactionaries remain within the institution.

Nicholas Myers is a research fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a 2011 graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service .


International Rates of Mass Attendance , Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University

Ria Novosti coverage of the punk band incident

The Cambridge History of Russia: To 1689 edited by Maureen Perrie, Vol. 1, Cambridge UP, 2006.

Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: The Nineteenth Century in Europe: The Protestant and Eastern Churches
Vol. 2 by Kenneth Scott LaTourette. Harper & Brothers, 1959.

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
by Orlando Figes. Macmillan, 2003 (U.S.; 2002, U.K.)

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles