Reflections on Orthodoxy and the Construction of Civil Society and Democracy in Russia

By
Erin Trouth Hofmann

"Issues of Orthodoxy and democracy are very central to the broader question of where Russia is heading," according to James Billington, Librarian of Congress and former Director, Woodrow Wilson Center. At a 25 March 2004 lecture, Billington spoke about the Russian Orthodox Church and the role that it can play in the development of democracy in Russia. He noted that whether or not Russia is able to develop democracy and civil society "depends a great deal on the role that the Orthodox Church will play."

Billington argued that many scholars and policymakers in the United States and the West in general fail to understand the important role that religion plays in political life. He maintained that democracy in the United States developed out of the rationalist ideas of the Enlightenment, but it was also strongly influenced by the teachings of Protestant groups that rejected top-down, hierarchical authority. Religion remains an important aspect of social and political life in the modern era. According to Billington, the two most important political changes of the late 20th century—the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and the rise of radical Islam—were both "fundamentally precipitated by religion."

The central problem that Russia faces today, in Billington's view, is the need for legitimacy. He argued that in spite of the legal legitimacy embodied by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and in spite of the popularity of the current president, the Russian people do not feel that their state has legitimate authority. "Ultimate legitimacy is either going to be found in some form of extremely autocratic neonationalism…or in some variant of the United States or Canada—a continent-wide federal democracy," he said. The influence of the Orthodox Church could push Russia in either direction.

At first glance, it might seem that the legacy of Orthodoxy would be most likely to push Russia in the direction of autocracy. As Billington noted, "there is not a great history of compatibility between Orthodox Christianity and democracy." Orthodoxy developed primarily within the Byzantine Empire and has a long history of close association with the ruling state. He argued that a number of historical factors in the development of the Orthodox Church in Russia separate it further from democracy. For example, because the Church in Russia did not inherit geographic administrative structures from the Roman Empire, it did not develop "the local counters to central authority and the sense of local autonomy that are very important in building a democracy," according to Billington.

The Russian Orthodox Church was subject to 70 years of persecution by the Soviet state, which Billington described as "the first political system in human history whose very identity was based on the destruction of all religion." Although Soviet rule by no means destroyed the Church, he argued that Soviet persecution marginalized believers and severely limited the social, cultural, and educational role of Orthodoxy. Billington noted that the Communist Party succeeded in co-opting the Church's leadership, and argued that one of the great errors of the post-Soviet Church has been its failure to initiate a truth and reconciliation process to examine this cooptation. "The worst thing of all that has happened has been that people who were partly co-opted into the Soviet regime now claim moral authority on the basis of the martyrdom of other people who weren't co-opted but went to their death," he said. This apparent hypocrisy has cost the Church legitimacy in the eyes of many Russians.

In spite of all of these problems and limitations, Billington believes that the Orthodox Church can serve as a force for democratization in Russia. He explained that the Church today consists of four groups of people: a small number of ultranationalists who support authoritarian government, an equally small number of liberals who support democracy and ecumenism, a much larger group who have focused on restoring churches and rebuilding the Church as an institution, and a smaller but significant group of local clergy who are focused on meeting the spiritual and physical needs of their parishioners.

Billington argued that the fourth group, which he calls "pastoralists," is one of the best hopes for the development of democracy in Russia. In a country where reform has always come from the top down, he believes that building civil society at the grassroots is the best means of achieving democracy in Russia. He noted that pastoralists—by organizing parishes as social, educational, and cultural centers—are "beginning the general process of building democracy from the bottom up," using the same methods that Protestant churches used in 19th century America. At present, the pastoralists represent a fairly small group, but there are indications that they have influence in the larger Church. Billington therefore remains hopeful that by promoting civil society and "the democracy of ordinary life," the Orthodox Church can help Russia in its "struggle to create some kind of a viable democracy in the large, continent-wide civilization that doesn't have that tradition."

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