Extreme religious or anti-religious engagement of the ruling political forces in modern times would have serious negative consequences for the society as whole and the state apparatus. The Russian experience shows this very clearly. The communist phase of Russia was completely anti-religion. Now Putin’s Russia is deeply associated with the Orthodox Church that suffered a lot during the communist regime.
Vladimir Putin’s relationship to the Russian Orthodox church and the present global crisis bear testimony to this. From the early 20th century onwards the Russian society and state have gone through very extreme positions on the question of religion.
After the Bolshevik revolution in Russia the anti-religion campaign was so rigorous that church symbols and church buildings were pulled down. The communists thought that all people must practice atheism, though at the ground level the people were still religious. Now Putin pushed the people to believe and practice religion as a matter of state policy. The Russian Orthodox Christian church, headed by a classical kind of patriarch, which is different from Roman Catholicism, is not only fully supporting the authoritarian regime of Putin but fully supporting and mobilizing forces to fight the Ukraine war. Putin has become a regular visitor to the church, and has become a part of orthodox activities. He has been financing construction of new churches and organizing orthodox congregations.
The Church’s interpretation of Russian history and nationhood is exactly on the lines any other theocratic religion would interpret. When religion becomes the key source of defining a nation, fundamentalism creeps into every aspect of the society and the state. The Russian orthodox patriarchs believe that Ukraine is part of Russia, because the Orthodox church was first born in the present Ukraine region in the 10th century. St Andrews was said to have established the first church at Kievan Rus around, perhaps, the present capital of Ukraine. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were said to be the Orthodox Akhand Russia. This is like what many RSS leaders earlier were talking about Akhanda Bharat that consisted of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Putin bought this theory from the Orthodox patriarchs who seem to think that the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union should not be accepted and at least these classical Orthodox church centred Russia should be re-united whatever could be the cost. Though there are dissenters within the orthodox church, who oppose the war but most orthodox church leaders are with Putin. The whole world is talking about Putin but the problem is not just one Putin. The religious nationhood of whole orthodox patriarchs is the problem.
Once he used the starving Orthodox Church for his consolidation, he could easily undercut the democratic process and he slowly emerged as a new model dictator. The Russian election system is not at all democratic. It is totally stage managed.
There are some fundamental issues on which the Orthodox Russian Church differs with the Roman Catholic Church and much more with the Protestant Church of the West. After Putin became the unchallengeable leader of Russia on some of those issues, with the support of the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholics within Russia were persecuted and attacked. Since the Roman Church is taking a liberal view of abortions and homosexual marriages, liberal dress codes and so on the Orthodox Church thinks that these are all spiritual immoralities that crept into Church in the post-modern phase of the Western world. All such things should be opposed.
The Orthodox Russians see the Western liberals as the enemies. Though one cannot say that Russians as people are opposed to democracy. The very idea of proletariat dictatorship during communist phase has a negative impact on their psyche. Their experience during the communist regime, particularly the religious orthodox people feel more assured in an orthodox dictatorial political regime. Though Russia cannot be called a theocratic state yet, Putin kind of ambitious rulers easily can turn such a convenient orthodox environment into a theocratic dictatorship. If he wins the Ukraine war the chances of Russia becoming a more dangerous theocratic regime with so much nuclear power at its command poses a major threat to the world’s democratic order.
The Orthodox Church is not only opposed to communism and socialism in any form but they also oppose liberal democracy which would bring in anti-Orthodox values into Russian society. Such religious nationalist schools think that conservative authoritarianism of the Putin type is very useful. They see the Ukrainian democracy in the neighborhood is going to have a corrupting impact on their conservative, nominal election based dictatorship. It is this politico-spiritual social base that made Putin what he is now.
The problem is not just Putin but it is the Orthodox Christian nationalism that is posing a threat to the Western liberal democracy and globalized capitalism. Russians also do not want a China type of market communism. Since the communist regimes crush the spiritual autonomy of people and the state must direct every aspect of life the Russian conservatives want authoritarianism which combines the state and religion into one whole. This post socialist Russian hunger for a religious state where there should not be any space for separation of the state and religion is fully backing Putin.
Most Muslim nations also operate in this kind of spiritual authoritarian states. They do not want to engage with secularism discourse at all. The Afghan Talibanism is only an extreme form of it.
Religion and state mixed authoritarianism look for wars with neighbours who want to practice different socio- political systems. The Russian-Ukrainian war is similar one. Once religious fundamentalism controls the ruling oligarchs’ mind the destruction of war does not appear to be a problem.
Once the socialist systems collapsed, the world has come to pre-socialist conflict stage again. In Russia spiritual nationalism, not democratic welfare nationalism, decides the nations’ actions. Though Russia is being described as a Rogue State by the West it does not seem to bother about that label. The mass psych could be more easily maneuvered with religious fundamentalism. Russia seems to show that direction within the Christian world. Since Ukraine is also a nation of similar Orthodox Christianity which accepted the democratic model with a weak separation of the state and church, we will have to wait and see what happens in this war.
The world is now encountering many forms of spiritual fundamentalisms like Afghan Talibanism, Russian Orthodoxism. In India though Hindutva forces repeatedly say we believe in democracy and as of now operating within the framework of the Indian constitution, we are not sure which direction religious fundamentalism drives those forces. If religion is thoroughly mixed with the state operation and once a ruler is convinced that he should become life time ruler and the religious forces militantly control the civil society and the election system could be manipulated or abandoned any system is likely to get into dictatorship. Every nation now needs to be cautious about deeply mixing religion with the state.
If Russia wins and dismantles the Ukrainian democracy the Christian world will enter into a new phase in their experimentation of nationalism, democracy and secularism.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. His book God As Political Philosopher–Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism, deals with spiritual democracy as new idea