Kuressaare, November 17 – The deepening financial crisis in Russia is not only posing serious ideological and practical problems for the leaderships of Russia’s Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews but also affecting their relations with each other and possibly with the Russian political establishment.
The most immediate challenge for the religious leaders, of course, was to provide an explanation to the faithful about what the financial crisis in fact is about and how their beliefs should inform their response to it. Not surprisingly given their histories, the leaders of the three adopted three different approaches.
During the first weeks of the crisis, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church portrayed it as the product of a disconnect between finance and “the real economy” and urged that the two be brought back together lest, in the words of Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin the “entire financial system sooner or later be converted into one large [pyramid scheme].”
That view was reinforced by Chaplin’s superior, Metropolitan Kirill, who heads the Moscow Patriarchate’s External Relations Department, who argued that “today’s economy has little in common with the real economy and ignores the interests of society and the principles of justice” (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1055948).
Only when the Kremlin indicated in early November that the crisis reflected deeper problems than just unjust behavior by stock traders and financiers did the Russian Orthodox Church adopt a more nuanced position and suggest that Christians must work together with the authorities and with members of other religions to help overcome it.
Meanwhile and almost a month earlier, Jewish and Muslim leaders on their own took a more active approach. On Yom Kippur, rabbis in all the synagogues of Russia offered a special prayer for the well-being of the citizens of Russia whose lives, some of its leaders said, have been shaken by the financial crisis and its consequences.
And the prayer offered by the Jews, this week’s “Kommersant-Vlast’” reported, led the Muslims to do the same. Umar-khazrat Idrisov, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) in Nizhny Novgorod, said that he had been inspired by Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt’s prayer and was calling on Muslims to offer a similar one in their mosques.
The impact of the crisis on the operation of the three faiths also varied both in terms of the income they receive and the activities both corporate and charitable they are engaged in. None of them has been entirely open about the amounts of money involved or about the choices they will make about how to spend what are in all three cases diminished resources.
Jewish communities, supported largely by contributions from their own members and by supporters abroad, appear to have suffered the least, although any reduction in income because of the deteriorating financial situation of those who provide funds will have an impact on the operation of Russia’s synagogues.
Muslims have appeared to have suffered far more. Most of the income of individual parishes and the MSDs comes from individual believers and especially from major donors, who have cut back. One indication: This year, donors will pay for only 14 percent as many hajis as they did a year ago, even though such contributions are considered especially ennobling.
But it is the Russian Orthodox Church that has been hit the hardest and has complained the most, although its leaders as is their custom have provided very few specific details on just where most of their income originates, how much of it there is, and just how they spent it – and on how they will adjust to diminished circumstances.
The Moscow Patriarchate is a major corporation in its own right. According to the classic study of church finances, Nikolai Mitrokhin’s “The Economics of the ROC,” “Otechestvennyye zapiski,” no. 1(2001) (www.strana-oz.ru/?numid=1&article=104), the church had an income in 2000 of approximately 500 million dollars.
But now, according to Portal-Credo.ru’s Roman Lunkin, the figure is at least ten times that as a result of rising state aide during the Putin and Medvedev administrations, profits from church-owned firms and investments, and rents from church-owned buildings and land (www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=comment&id=1490).
According to Lunkin, the Church’s primary income streams are from state assistance for the restoration and maintenance of churches and monasteries, assistance from commercial enterprises whose leaders have been encouraged by the government to give, profits from various church enterprises, and the contributions of parishioners.
Given the lack of a strong tradition of giving by the faithful, Lunkin argues, this last source is far and away the smallest, an indication that for the Russian Orthodox Church, it is the state and state-arranged economic activities that provide it with most of its money.
In normal times, that gives the government a whip hand over the Church and gives the Church a strong incentive to go along with whatever the Kremlin wants. But at a time of economic crisis, when the government has other more pressing demands for funds, this may mean that the Church will get less and thus be less beholden to the authorities.
If that happens, then the Church will be forced to reexamine not only its support for charitable work but its willingness to slavishly follow the Kremlin. In short, to use the words of the Portal-Credo.ru commentator, this “crisis is a sobering phenomenon which shows the real value of things and real actions.”