God and the State, Russian style

A sunshiny, blue and gold Sunday morning in St Petersburg, and the Spaso-Preobrazhensky church is packed.

There are young middle-class families; well-heeled business types; thin, old-fashioned, bespectacled intelligentsia; sternly headscarfed old ladies crowding in under the creamy domes. The heavy doors swing open, spilling bass chanting and sonorous harmonies up to the high blue sky; swing shut. Chink, chink, chink; the departing worshippers drop pennies into the cups held out by more sad old ladies in headscarves; those for whom neither God nor the State has provided.

I like the apparent casualness of Russian Orthodox services. They’re like an ongoing theatre performance, a semi-participatory spectacle. It’s hard to discern any beginning or end, and people wander in constantly, light candles, shuffle up to their favourite icon to offer a prayer, mutter in their neighbour’s ear, scratch, stare about, wander out again. The gold-robed priests are hidden behind the Heavenly Gates of the iconostasis anyway, busy about their own business; the invisible choir might as well be angels singing from some remote cloud.

I used to like it, anyway. Of course, post Pussy Riot, calling an Orthodox service casual is probably approaching a crime. The Russian Duma is considering a law that would punish, by up to three years in prison, anyone ‘insulting the religious feelings of Russian citizens’.

It’s, as yet, vague about who will decide what exactly constitutes an insult, or to precisely what religious feelings. The current RF Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Unions mentions four religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. There’s little doubt though that really the new law means Russian Orthodoxy, and any public criticism of the way it has twined itself around the country’s political life.

Somehow in today’s Russia, the separation of (Orthodox) Church and State has disappeared. Backed up by the law, the Church (those priests shut away behind the closed iconostasis gates) can tell you how to live, what kind of art to produce, who to vote for, how to express your political and moral convictions, educate your children, or run a country.

I know many Orthodox Russians who are outraged by the proposed law. It insults their religious and moral feelings. Some of those same Russians lived through years of being forbidden to believe in God. Churches were turned into warehouses; museums of Atheism or space exploration; morgues. They learned who Jesus was from reading samizdat copies of The Master and Margarita. God was like freedom to read, to write, to think and believe and say what you wanted, instead of what you were told.

And now Orthodox God turns out to be an autocrat after all. In Russia the sky is high, the Czar is far. But God in your fellow (wo)man is always looking over your shoulder, ready to lock you away.

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