Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Missionary’s Murder Points to Collapse of Post-Soviet Consensus on Religion in Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 25 – Even though those behind the murder of Father Daniil Sysoyev have not been identified and may not have been motivated by religious concerns, an increasing number of Moscow commentators -- Orthodox, Muslim, and secular -- argue that the death of the outspoken missionary marks the end of the post-Soviet consensus on religious affairs in Russia.
That consensus, in which both the Russian government and many religious leaders have shared, held that Russia is historically Orthodox in cultural terms, that its four “traditional” religions – Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – respect one another and will not seek to convert each other, and that other denominations represent a threat to the country’s well-being.
Such agreement has always been problematic. First, ever fewer non-Orthodox are prepared to agree that Russia should be defined as Orthodox not only because the Russian Constitution, history, and demography call that into question but also because of the uses to which the Moscow Patriarchate wants to put that definition.
Second, co-existence among the four “traditional” religions – a term which is nowhere defined by Russian law – has always reflected relations among the leaders of those faiths rather than among their followers, a large number of whom reject the idea that they must defer to others in the name of maintaining inter-confessional comity.
And third, the division between “traditional” faiths and all others – including Catholics and increasingly numerous Protestant groups – not only violates the Russian Constitution but simultaneously has led to witch hunts by “sect hunters” among the Orthodox, on the one hand, and to appeals by the “non-traditional” faiths to the human rights community, on the other.
Consequently and despite the universal condemnation of the murder of Father Daniil, some commentators welcome the demise of that consensus, viewing it as a threat to the essence of religion, while others worry that however problematic that accord has been, its collapse could presage both dangerous clashes among religious groups and more sweeping government control.
Orthodox commentator Aleksandr Mikhaylovsky today offered one of the more thoughtful discussions of the way in which the martyrdom of Father Daniil Sysoyev represents “an extraordinary fact from the point of view of the religious-political consensus of contemporary Russia” (
Sysoyev’s death, Mikhaylovsky writes, reveals “the abyss across which the [Russian] state with its religious policy has tried only to erect bridges” and thus attempted to provide “for various confessions the conditions of secure co-existence.” But, he continues, “now these bridges have collapsed.”
As ever more Russians are now being forced to recognize, religion is more than a “cultural additive,” that can be used “instrumentally as the basis for the elaboration of ‘an integral worldview’” or that can be reduced to “’a collection of moral norms’” and nothing more. Instead, religious faith is something transcendent and thus fundamentally anti-nomial.
“If we speak about the Christian understanding,” Mikhaylovsky argues, this is certainly the case. And it is in no way lessened by Biblical injunction to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Consequently, Orthodoxy like other faiths necessarily if it is true to its roots represents a fundamental challenge to the contemporary state.
“Today’s liberal secular consciousness believes in the all-powerful and all-embracing nature of norms and thus closes its eyes to the problem of their legitimation,” the Orthodox commentator writes, thus ceding that field to the faithful unless the latter betray their own faith by agreeing to the position of the liberal state.
“The testimony of Father Daniil,” Mikhaylovsky insists, “puts under question the liberal political-religious common sense [and here he uses the English term] of the Yeltsin-Putin epoch, when it was considered good form to agree with the principles of multiculturalism and religious tolerance.”
But as another Orthodox writer, Vladimir Bliznekov has pointed out, “it is becoming obvious that the political-religious consensus in Russia initiated by the state and supported by the traditional confessions has ceased to exist” ( And that in turn, both argue has reignited “the unresolved conflict” between the faithful and secular humanism.
Mikhaylovsky notes that “the goal of the state is the secure existence of its citizens, on the analogy with the concerns of a shepherd for his flock.” But “the martyrdom of the Orthodox priest,” he argues, “requires from politicians first of all to recognize the real (and not ‘the cultural-historical’) conflict and even antagonism among the traditional confessions of Russia.”
Second, it requires that the authorities, government and religious, review and revise “the existing, including the hidden, norms of religious policy, which would arise from an adequate understanding of the essence of religion” in place of the current approach which keeps religion at the level of a cultural marker much as the communists did.
And third, as another Orthodox commentator put it bluntly, “when” -- and he said he hoped that it would be “when” and not “if” -- Sysoyev’s murderer “is found, then let everything be called by its own names and not approached from the politically correct position of those who insist that the murders have no nationality or religion” (
But, of course, if that happens, there is a great danger that some Russians could see that shift as reflecting official permission for or at least unwillingness to bring charges against those involved in attacks against Muslims, an attitude that could trigger more anti-Muslim violence across Russia (
Moreover, it could lead the Moscow Patriarchate to expand its missionary activities among Muslims, on the assumption true or not that it has the blessing of the state to do so (, a “political” act in the minds of most Muslims and certain to trigger a response (
And perhaps most disturbing, it could, as another commentator has argued this week, lead Moscow to redefine the conflicts in the North Caucasus not as a struggle between the state and extremists but between Christians and Muslims, thus setting the stage for a far bloodier “clash of civilizations” (
If Moscow does so – and one very much hopes that cooler heads will prevail even in the wake of the tragic death of Father Daniil – such an approach would not only fail to calm the North Caucasus but lead to outbreaks of violence across Russia far greater than any that country has experienced since Soviet times.

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