Communists for Jesus

Russia: Orthodox Church regains recognition as state religion after decades of virulent atheism.

January 14, 2000

DOCUMENTED Russian history really got its start with the conversion of pagan tribes to Christianity about A.D. 987. After the Romanov dynasty was established six centuries later, czars became not only titular heads of the Orthodox Church, but, in many cases, were elevated to sainthood.

After the atheistic Bolsheviks grabbed power in 1917, they did their best to stamp out religion, often ruthlessly. But the Soviet Union is gone, and the Orthodox Church is reacquiring its position as the state religion.

Nothing illustrates this more poignantly than the Christmas Mass at Moscow's new Christ the Savior Cathedral. Russia's top leaders, including communists, attended -- without their families. As choirs sang and priests carried treasured icons, many politicians stood stone-faced. Acting President Vladimir Putin, though, crossed himself (somewhat clumsily).

Asked by a television reporter what he thought of the Christian holiday, Mr. Putin gave an answer that showed his skills as a politician. "It is not only celebrated by Christians," he said. "It should be observed by all as a holiday of Russia's rebirth."

At several recent ceremonies, Mr. Putin has made sure that if the Russian Orthodox patriarch is present, leading Jewish and Muslim clergy are, too. The pre-eminence of Alexy II, the Orthodox primate, is unquestioned, however. He was summoned to witness the transfer of power from Boris N. Yeltsin to Mr. Putin.

The Russian Orthodox Church carries a heavy burden of history. Under the czars, it was a mighty reactionary force, promoting xenophobia and fighting enlightened ideas. The communists persecuted believers until Stalin co-opted the church to fight Hitler. Later, the church actively supported the Kremlin's Cold War initiatives.

With communism gone, Russia's leaders see the church as an instrument of validation. In most cases, faith has little to do with it. In the absence of many other viable institutions or deeply held beliefs, ceremonial Russian Orthodoxy lends legitimacy to the government of the day.

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