Yesterday’s news of the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the breakaway Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) not only represents a major historical milestone in Russian society – the end of a 90-year-old feud dating back to the Bolshevik Revolution – but also sheds light on an oft-ignored feature of Vladimir Putin’s vision of the Russian Federation: the new relationship between church and state. The Russia Church Abroad, which is headquartered in an Upper East Side mansion in Manhattan, had long been powerfully opposed to reunification under a “godless” regime. It took a significant amount of official encouragement, diplomacy, and maybe even some arm twisting from the Kremlin to bring this about – an IHT article mentions the 2003 meetings between Vladimir Putin and ROCOR quotes him as saying “I want to assure all of you that this godless regime is no longer there. … You are sitting with a believing President.” Naturally there are a lot opinions circulating about the President’s interest in pushing for reunification. Time Magazine has gone so far as to describe the new, unified church as the “state’s main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument.” Here Stratfor speculates on Putin’s aim to extend influence via the reunification:
But Putin brought to the office a new perspective on the church. He knew the church could be useful in consolidating power within Russia — especially since approximately two-thirds of Russians consider themselves Orthodox, and large institutions outside Russia were looking to reconcile their historic issues with the ROC. It is not uncommon for states to use the church as a political and cultural tool, but this had not been done in Russia since the fall of the empire. Though Alexy II attempted to prevent the Kremlin from using the church in this way, he knew his job would be on the line unless he surrendered to the Kremlin’s agenda. Moreover, the Kremlin has lined up a successor, Archbishop Kalinin, in case Alexy II needs to “step down early.” Kalinin already has been promoting the Kremlin’s agenda abroad, especially with the Roman Catholic Church. During the past year, rumors of a reconciliation between the ROC and the Roman Catholic Church have surfaced, along with reports that Alexy II could soon hold a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. For his part, Putin has been pushing for closer ties with the Orthodox and Catholic churches, particularly in Italy, where the Roman Catholic Church is deeply embedded in politics and the prime minister is a devout Catholic. Putin clearly sees this as an opportunity to use the church to further his goal of a stronger Russia. The ROC represents the majority of Russians, so it is only natural for the Kremlin to maintain control over it after reunification. The Kremlin can also use the ROC to push for the development of Russian nationalism under the umbrella of the church. The ROC is politically tied to Orthodox churches inside the former Soviet Union, meaning it wields influence in Central Asia, Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus. However, the reunification of the ROC and ROCOR — if only under the rhetoric of unity — will allow the Kremlin to extend its influence to any of the 400 churches outside the former Soviet Union and push its agenda of a more powerful Russia abroad.