Most people assume that Russia is a Christian Orthodox country and that the Russian Orthodox Church is the spiritual leader of the Russian people.  This is a very superficial view and, I would even say, a fundamentally mistaken one.  To explain what I mean by this, I will have to explain something absolutely crucial and yet something most fundamentally misunderstood by the vast majority of people, including many Russians.  The Russian Orthodox Church as an institution and the Orthodox spirituality of the Russian people have been severely persecuted since at least 300+ years.  So crucial is this phenomenon that I will need to make a short historical digression into the history of Russia.

From the moment Russia was baptized into Christianity by Saint Vladimir in 988 to the 17th century rule of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, the Orthodox Church was the organic core of the Russian civilization.  In the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

In its past, Russia did know a time when the social ideal was not fame, or riches, or material success, but a pious way of life. Russia was then steeped in an Orthodox Christianity which remained true to the Church of the first centuries. The Orthodoxy of that time knew how to safeguard its people under the yoke of a foreign occupation that lasted more than two centuries, while at the same time fending off iniquitous blows from the swords of Western crusaders. During those centuries the Orthodox faith in our country became part of the very pattern of thought and the personality of our people, the forms of daily life, the work calendar, the priorities in every undertaking, the organization of the week and of the year. Faith was the shaping and unifying force of the nation.

The 17th century, however, saw an abrupt and violent change to this state of affairs.  Again, in the words of Solzhenitsyn:

But in the 17th century Russian Orthodoxy was gravely weakened by an internal schism. In the 18th, the country was shaken by Peter’s forcibly imposed transformations, which favored the economy, the state, and the military at the expense of the religious spirit and national life. And along with this lopsided Petrine enlightenment, Russia felt the first whiff of secularism; its subtle poisons permeated the educated classes in the course of the 19th century and opened the path to Marxism. By the time of the Revolution, faith had virtually disappeared in Russian educated circles; and amongst the uneducated, its health was threatened.

By the time Tsar Nicholas II inherited the throne in 1896 the Russian society was suffering from a deep spiritual crisis: most of the ruling class was highly secularized if not completely materialistic, almost every single aristocratic family had joined the Freemasonry, while the rest of the country, still mostly composed of peasants, was nominally Christian Orthodox, but not in the deep way the Russian nation had been before the 17th century.

Russian Tsars often ended up being real persecutors of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular those upon whom the Russian aristocracy and the West bestowed the title of “Great”.  Peter I, the so-called “Great” decapitated the Russian Orthodox Church by abolishing the title of Patriarch from the head of the Church and replacing him by “Synod” run by a laymen bureaucrat with the rank of “Chief Procurator” who did not even have to be Orthodox himself.  De-facto and de-jure in 1700 the Russian Orthodox Church became a state institution, like a ministry.  Under Catherine I, also called the “Great”, monastic were persecuted with such viciousness that it was actually illegal for them to possess even a single sheet of paper in their monastic cell, lest they write something against the regime.

Other Tsars (such as Alexander II, or Alexander III) were far more respectful of the Church and Tsar Nicholas II, who was a deeply religious and pious man, even restored the autonomy of the Church by allowing it to elect a new Patriarch.

And yet, by and large, the Russian Orthodox Church underwent a process of quasi-continuous weakening under the combined effects of overt persecutions and more subtle secularization from the 17th to the 20th century.

In the 20th century during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II,  Russian Orthodoxy saw a short but amazing rebirth immediately followed by a mass persecution under the Bolshevik rule whose viciousness and scale was previously unheard of in the history of the Church.  Again, in the worlds of Solzhenitsyn:

The world had never before known a godlessness as organized, militarized, and tenaciously malevolent as that practiced by Marxism. Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot.  The 1920’s in the USSR witnessed an uninterrupted procession of victims and martyrs amongst the Orthodox clergy. Two metropolitans were shot, one of whom, Veniamin of Petrograd, had been elected by the popular vote of his diocese. Patriarch Tikhon himself passed through the hands of the Cheka-GPU and then died under suspicious circumstances. Scores of archbishops and bishops perished. Tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns, pressured by the Chekists to renounce the Word of God, were tortured, shot in cellars, sent to camps, exiled to the desolate tundra of the far North, or turned out into the streets in their old age without food or shelter. All these Christian martyrs went unswervingly to their deaths for the faith; instances of apostasy were few and far between. For tens of millions of laymen access to the Church was blocked, and they were forbidden to bring up their children in the Faith: religious parents were wrenched from their children and thrown into prison, while the children were turned from the faith by threats and lies…
This is a complex and tragic history which I cannot discuss in any details here so I will insist on only one important consequence of these events: the Russian Orthodox Church eventually split into at least 4 distinct groups:
a) The “official” or “state” Orthodox Church, which eventually became the Moscow Patriarchate.  Largely composed of modernist clergymen, this “official” Soviet Church not only denied the reality of the persecution of Christians in Russia, it often actively collaborated with these persecutions (by denouncing “subversive” clergymen, for example).

b) The “Josephites” composed of the followers of Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd, they openly refused to submit the Church to Bolshevik regime and were eventually martyred for their stance.  Some joined the following group:

c) The “Catacomb Church”.  This was an illegal, underground, organization, lead by secret bishops, which rejected the right of the Bolsheviks to take over the Church and which went into deep hiding, practically disappearing from public view.

d) The “Russian Orthodox Church Abroad”: composed of exiles, this was organization created by Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev who, with the blessing of Patriarch Tikhon, united around itself most of the Orthodox Russian who had fled the Soviet Union.

It is important to stress here that even though the Josephites, the Catacomb Church and the Church Abroad did have very few practical means to communicate with each other, they were all in communion with each other and recognized each other as legitimate branches of the One Russian Orthodox Church, although each one in unique and specific circumstances.  Not so with the first entity, the official “Soviet” Church which was denounced by all three groups as at the very least illegal and possibly even as the satanic tool of the Bolsheviks.

Why is all this so important?

Because the current official “Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate” is a direct descendant of this first group, which was unanimously rejected by literally tens of thousands of saints who were martyred for their faith by the Bolshevik regime.  In patristic theological terms, the Moscow Patriarchate and its members are “lapsed“, i.e., those who did not have the courage to resist the persecutors of the Church and who therefore severed their communion to the Church.  The fact that they created an ecclesiastical entity in conditions prohibited by canon law makes them “schismatics“.  The fact that they developed a specific teaching (“Sergianism“: the idea that the Church can be “saved” by way of comprimise with evil) to justify such actions makes them “heretics” (please note that in a theological discourse terms like “heretic” are not insults, but simply indicators of a specifc spiriual condition/status).

The above is an extremely superficial and even simplistic mini-overview of a long an extremely complex topic and I ask for the understanding of those who know about this and who might be appalled at how much I have not discussed here.  I am aware of that, but this is simply not the time and place to write a halfway decent history of Russian Orthodoxy in the 20th century.  The only other historical detail I will add here is that during WWII, Stalin did very substantially ease some of the worst persecutions against the Church and that these persecutions did, in part, resume under Krushchev.  Again, I apologize for the extreme “shorthand” of the outline above, and I ask that you take only the following two important concepts with you:

a) Russian Orthodoxy has been continuously weakened for the past 300+ years
b) The organization currently officially representing Russian Orthodoxy has major legitimacy issues and is often viewed with deep suspicion, even by very religious people.

I now need to say a few words about the modern “Moscow Patriarchate” as it is today, over two decades since the end of any anti-religious persecutions.

First, it is by far the most “Soviet” institution of the Russian polity.  Or, to put it in other words, it is by far the least reformed “leftover” of the Soviet era.  To make things worse, it is also currently run by a notoriously corrupt individual, “Patriarch” Kirill I, a sly and utterly dishonest individual, known for his shady business dealing and for his rabid adherence to the so-called “Ecumenical Movement” (a heresy from the Orthodox point of view).  To top it all off, there is some pretty good evidence that Kirill I might be a secret Papist Cardinal, something called a “cardinale in pectore” which, if true,  is probably used against him by the Russian security services to make sure that he does whatever the Kremlin says.

For all its faults, the Moscow Patriarchate fulfills and extremely important role for the Russian state: that of ideological substitute for the now officially abandoned Marxist ideology.

One often can hear the statement that about 70% of Russians are Orthodox Christians.  This is wrong and highly misleading.  According to data published in Wikipedia, about 40% of Russians are Orthodox Christians.  Better.  But what does that really mean?  Mostly that these Russians identify with the Russian Orthodox traditions, that they try to live by Christians ethics and that they refer to themselves as “Orthodox”.  But if we take the figures published annually by the Moscow city authorities on the attendance of the single most important religious service in the Orthodox tradition – Easter (called “Paskha” in Russian) we see that only about 1% of Moscovites actually attended it.  What about the remaining 39%?!

It is impossible to come by one “true” figure, but I would estimate that no more than 5% of the Russian population could be considered as “deeply/consciously, religious“.  And yet, the Moscow Patriarchate plays a crucial role in the Kremlin’s power structure: not only does it provide a substitute for the now defunct Marxist ideology, it serve as a “patriotic education” organization, it offers a series of well-recognized symbols (beautiful churches, religious singing, icons, crosses, etc.) which can all be used a national symbols (rather than spiritual symbols).  Those national symbols are recognized, if not necessarily fully endorsed, by far more than the 40+ percent of Russians which are nominally Orthodox.  To paraphrase the American expression “to rally around the flag”, Russians are nowadays encouraged to “rally around the cross” even if on a deep internal level they don’t really understand, or care, what the symbol of the Cross really means in Orthodox Christianity.

Let me give you an example of what all this ends up looking like.  Read the transcript of the speech which Vladimir Putin made at the Council of Bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate (click here).  It is all about patriotism, patriotism and more patriotism.  Not a single word in all this is devoted to spiritual topics.  Not one.  This speech could have been made to an assembly of officials of an ideological department of the CPSU.

For the Moscow Patriarchate, this tight collaboration with the Kremlin also has an immense advantage: it grants it a legitimacy which history so unambiguously denies it.  While there are still remnants of the Catacomb Church in Russia, and while outside Russia there still is an Orthodox Church Abroad, these organizations are tiny compared to the huge Moscow Patriarchate, with its 100+ bishops, 26’000+ parishes and 100’000’000+ official members.  And when any of these small groups succeeds in gathering the funds to open a small parish somewhere in Russia, the Moscow Patriarchate can always count on the local riot police to expel them and “return” the building to the Moscow Patriarchate.

I apologize once again for the extreme degree of over-simplification I had to settle for to write this (already too long!) overview.  What I have done is mention what I believe are essential background factors which must be kept in mind when looking into the topic of Russia and Islam. 
In particular, it has to be clearly understood that the official Orthodox Church, the Moscow Patriarchate, is not an important factor at all in the dialectical relationship between the Russian society and Islam, if only because inside the Russian society the status of the Orthodox faith is an extremely weakened one.  In other words, the topic of “Russia and Islam” should not be confused with the topic “Orthodox Christianity and Islam”.  In many ways, modern Russia is neo-Orthodox, para-Orthodox or even post-Orthodox but most definitely not truly Orthodox.

This, however, begs the obvious question: if the dominant ethos of the Russian society is not Marxist any more, and if it is not really Orthodox Christian either, than what is it?  Other than being predominantly anti-Western or anti-capitalist, what does the Russian society today stand for (as opposed to against) and how does Russian society react to the values offered by Islam.  This will be the topic of the next installment of this series.
The Saker
The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world