With Russians celebrating Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7, RD sheds light on the role that the Orthodox Church is playing in extending Moscow's reach in the global arena.


Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia during a Christmas service at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Photo: RIA Novosti / Sergei Pyatakov

It was an emotional moment a little more than a month ago in Warsaw’s St. John the Baptist Cathedral when Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeev, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, assumed the seat of honor at the side of Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Warsaw. The Vespers service concluded a three-day Catholic-Orthodox conference dedicated to one of the most politically charged issues in modern-day international relations: Russian-Polish reconciliation.

Centuries of hostility between Russia and Poland – which have been historical national rivals as well as competing empires at different times in history – have centered on their distinct Christian identities. Poland had a Roman Catholic king, while Russia had an Orthodox Christian Tsar - at least until Communism intervened in the 20th century. All of this has generated layers upon layers of victims, trauma and mutually exclusive myths.

“The task of our generation is to live and work in hope for a genuine and profound Polish-Russian reconciliation,” recited Metropolitan Hilarion from the conference’s final document (in Russian) from the pulpit of the gothic cathedral. "Remembering the pain of our fathers, let us build for our children and grandchildren the joy on the foundation of mutual trust,” continued (in Polish) Bishop Wojciech Polak, the general secretary of the Polish Roman Catholic Episcopal Conference. Cooperation between Christians of Russia and Poland is especially needed today to present a joint vision in relation to the secular world, the document said.

The Russian-Polish meeting in the last days of November 2013 was held under the patronage of Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and included dozens of historians, diplomats, academics, journalists and religious figures from the two countries. The two sides decided to organize youth and parish exchanges, as well as joint pilgrimages – efforts unprecedented at such level in Orthodox-Catholic or Russian-Polish relations.

The November conference was meant to continue the dialogue that began several years ago and peaked in August 2012, when Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and Archbishop Jozef Michalik, president of the Polish Roman Catholic Episcopal Conference, signed in Warsaw’s Royal Palace the landmark Message to the Peoples of Russia and Poland, which called for mutual forgiveness, reconciliation and joint work to defend the Christian values such as traditional family and the Church’s role in public life against what it called “misunderstood secularism that assumes a fundamentalist form and appears in reality as a type of atheism.”

Russian Orthodoxy’s global reach

The leading role that the Moscow Patriarchate has taken in recent years in the Russian-Polish reconciliation dialogue is perhaps the best – and so far the most successful – example of its growing international activity representing a significant component of Russia’s “soft power” in today’s world.

The August 2012 Message on Russian-Polish reconciliation can be read as a concise program. In brief, the Moscow Patriarchate’s global outreach can be described as follows:

 1. The Church acts an authoritative institution of Russian society, which is autonomous from the government yet functions in coordination with it;

 2. It represents the entire continuity of Russian history and, as a victim of Communist atheism in the Soviet period, is mostly free from responsibility for the Soviet policies at home and abroad (the complicated problem of Orthodox-Catholic relations in Western Ukraine, where the Greek Catholic Church was forced by the Soviet authorities into a merger with the Moscow Patriarchate in 1946, being a notable exception);

 3. It relies on a wide network of hundreds of Russian Orthodox parishes around the world which, particularly since the unification in 2007 of the Moscow Patriarchate and the émigré staunchly anti-Soviet and conservative Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, serves as the main consolidation force for all generations and “waves” of the millions-strong global Russian diaspora.


Christmas service at the Cathedral of the Apostles Peter and Paul in Kazan. Photo: RIA Novosti / Maksim Bogodvid

It includes not only ethnic Russians, but also many Orthodox Ukrainians, Moldovans, in some places Georgians and people of other ethnic backgrounds maintaining religious and cultural ties with their multiethnic homeland. In fact, many of the Moscow Patriarchate parishes abroad serve as the microcosms of the multi-ethnic Russian Church, where prayers are read in different languages, a variety of local traditions are observed and sometimes even different calendars are followed;

4. In the former Soviet states it serves, with various degrees of success, as the main axis of cultural unity, whose sustainability can go beyond the memory of Soviet-educated generations;

5. It is involved in a complicated multilateral religious and secular diplomacy, developing relations and maintaining ties with other Orthodox as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, with foreign governments and international organizations and unions such as the UN, EU and the Council of Europe, as well as with a variety of Muslim and Jewish groups. Suffice it to say that for some time the dialogue between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Shiite leadership of Iran was the only form of dialogue between Moscow and Tehran;

6. Last but not least, it appeals to traditional and traditionalist forces in Western societies which are unhappy with the spread of secular humanist and liberal ideology of unlimited individual rights, promoting the establishment of gay marriages, recognition of abortion, euthanasia and other measures which de facto divide the modern world into “right” and “left.” In this agenda, the Russian Orthodox Church finds common language not only with conservative Christians, but also with Muslims and Jews.

7. On the other hand, it condemns Islamist movements, which not only present a serious challenge to Russia’s integrity, but also have caused the persecution and exodus of Christians from the Middle East, namely in Iraq, Syria and Palestine. It is the need to present a common front in defense of the Middle East Christians that, according to the recent statements by Metropolitan Hilarion, has expedited the need for a possible meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis.

Russian Orthodoxy as an ambassador of Russian culture

Of course, the Russian Orthodox Church appeared on the international arena long before the concept of “soft power” came into use. Look at Vienna’s St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The Russian Empire bought the palace on Reisnerstrasse for its embassy in 1891 and just two years later, Ambassador Count Pyotr Kapnist began the construction of the imposing cathedral in the Russian-Byzantine style on the embassy grounds.

Having a Russian Orthodox cathedral in the capital of the rival Roman Catholic-dominated Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had a vast Orthodox population under its crown, had, without a doubt, a significant importance for the European politics of the time. According to the memorial plaques on its porch, the cathedral was started under Emperor Alexander III, finished under Emperor Nicholas II and reconstructed under President Vladimir Putin.

Today, it is a center of a vivid community with hundreds of people from professors and diplomats to illegal immigrants regularly attending services celebrated by priests of Russian, Austrian, Serbian, Dutch and Kazakhstan origins, having a Sunday school, publishing a magazine, holding concerts, lectures and sporting a community bulletin board where job seekers offer seemingly any services from piano lessons to house cleaning and “any work at all.”

All in all, thousands of people of vastly diverse backgrounds consider the St. Nicholas Cathedral to be their house of worship and home away from home, while cars with Slovak and Hungarian license plates can often be spotted outside the cathedral as a result of Vienna’s geographic location. At the same time, the “Russische Kirche” is featured as a landmark on all tourist maps of Vienna and serves as an ambassador of Russian culture in what the Viennese claim to be the capital of European culture.

Orthodox Christian cultural heritage, along with classic 19th century Russian literature, would appear in any poll of positive images associated with Russia worldwide. Suffice it to name the intricate domes of the St. Basil Cathedral as an informal icon of Russia for any tourist or student, or the outline of the onion dome as such as a design element of so many Russia-related logos, or the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublyov, along with the Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninoff, as cultural icons for more educated ones.

Abdrei Rublev’s famous Trinity icon, 1411 or 1425-27. Photo: Press Photo

The interesting feature of the present period, however, is that both in its domestic and international policy, the Russian Orthodox Church attempts to go beyond the images of cultural heritage and into the modern-day battle of values and ideas. It is a difficult transition, with some gains, some losses and an open-ended result.

“Orthodox Christianity presents an internal cultural and moral compass for people,” said Vladimir Legoida, professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Information Department. “Although not fully conscious for many, it provides a frame of reference in the world of values and creates the only meaningful barrier to consumerism. As a real spring of civil society in Russia, it also offers one of the squares for public intellectual discussion and serves as a connection with the spiritual and intellectual world of historical Rus,” he added via an email interview for this article.

Strength or weakness?


A boy during a Christmas service at the St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Vladivostok. Photo: RIA Novosti / Vitaly Ankov

The weaknesses of Orthodox Christianity as an element of Russia’s global influence are, as it is often the case, closely related to its strengths.

A Brussels-based Russian diplomat with extended experience of work with European organizations said in an email interview that the prime force of the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia is its ability to consolidate the Russian diaspora. “No organizations of compatriots can do it as effectively as our parishes abroad,” he said. He also cited the Russian-Polish dialogue as a good example of cooperation with non-Orthodox Christians.

“On the other hand, this strength turns into a weakness when it comes to the need to find common ground with an increasingly de-Christianized and liberal Europe, which is best represented by European organizations such as the European Union and the Council of Europe,” the diplomat wrote. “In this, the Russian Orthodox Church’s consistent defense of its traditional views on moral issues, to say the least, does not find understanding among the vast majority of Euro bureaucrats. In this, it is important to understand that we are talking about a whole range of issues going far beyond the rights of the LGBT community. It includes the right to euthanasia, juvenile justice, genetic engineering and other topics.”

An independent journalist and prominent political commentator, Konstantin von Eggert, agrees that the ability of Russian Orthodox parishes to serve as centers for Russian diaspora and its connection with Russia are the main strengths of the Moscow Patriarchate’s “soft power” outreach.

“In the authoritarian Turkmenistan, for example, they are the only channel of connection with the Russian culture and language for almost 100,000 Russian-speaking citizens,” von Eggert said in an email interview. “At the same time, the rapprochement of the Church with the Kremlin’s politics and noticeable anti-Western and anti-democratic statements on the part of the church hierarchy often leads to a situation, when the church representatives are perceived in the world, particularly in the European Union, not as independent representatives of the civil society, but as the propagandists of the interests of the Russian ruling class.”

The Russian Orthodox Church has also found that it can play an increasingly vital role in the development of Russian society. Since the 2012 presidential electoral campaign and, especially since being re-elected for a third presidential term, President Vladimir Putin has increasingly fashioned himself as a defender of conservative values at home and abroad, employing many of the issues and approaches that Patriarch Kirill and his associates began developing in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Metropolitan Kirill led the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations.

The Moscow Patriarchate started to speak out against Western liberalism while the Kremlin still declared its adherence to “European values” and criticized gay marriages long before the adoption of the controversial Russian law against “promotion of homosexuality to minors.”

The Moscow street protests of 2011-2012 and the way the church hierarchy and the Kremlin handled them de facto imported to Russia the Western schism between social conservatives and social liberals. In this schism, the infamous Pussy Riot case served as a major dividing factor. In this new political outline, the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate hierarchy are seen by critics within and outside the country not just as allies, but as a near-indistinguishable union.

This Orthodox-inspired conservatism offers the Russian leadership an ideological underpinning to consolidate its support base at home and abroad. But it also limits, to a degree, the universal appeal of Orthodox Christianity and undermines the perception of the Moscow Patriarchate as an independent actor and thus a credible source of non-political influence on the international arena.